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Planning for a Bigger, Greener City

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Apr 30, 2007
 

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On April 22 - the 27th observance of Earth Day-Mayor Michael Bloomberg went to the Museum of Natural History to unveil what his administration has dubbed plaNYC. Predicting that the city could add 1 million more residents by 2030, the plan says such a boom, while a sign of economic health and vitality, could threaten the city's aging facilities, infrastructure and environment.

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With that in mind, the mayor and his staff set out 127 specific proposals on land use, water supply and quality, transportation, energy, air quality and reducing greenhouse gases. The ideas range from the specific - opening more city playgrounds after hours, for one - to grander schemes, such as using "creative financing" to boost use of solar power in the city. The proposal to charge an $8 fee for motorists driving into part of Manhattan on weekdays garnered the most attention and opposition, but the mayor's office said other proposals, particularly in the area of energy use, could have an even greater effect on the city.

This week we offer several commentaries on the process that created the plan and its overall vision. This series of reactions launches Sustainability Watch, a joint project of Gotham Gazette and the Hunter College Center for Community Planning & Development. Next week, another group of experts will weigh in on specific aspects of the proposal, including congestion pricing, development of brownfields, creation of more green space and various ideas to save energy.

Sustainability Watch will try to keep alive the debates about what's good and not, look at what's missing, discuss how the plan is working and monitor the gaps between plan and practice. This is an opportunity for open public discussion about a range of city policies, and a first concerted attempt to tackle thorny environmental problems. As part of this, we urge you to comment on these articles and the mayor's plan through our message boards (attached to every article) or by emailing us at info at GothamGazette.com.

Searching for Land - and Finding It
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
Director. Center for Rethinking Development
With New York at risk of being a victims of its own success, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has set out a plan that develops the city's land to its fullest, from the far West Side to Sunnyside.

Growing Equality
By Joan Byron, Alyssa Katz and Brad Lander
Pratt Center for Community Development
The mayor's plan needs to be expanded to ensure that growth and sustainability do not bring more segregation and inequality as well.

Making a Great Plan Even Better
By Ron Shiffman
Professor, Pratt Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment
PlaNYC is the most important initiative undertaken by any mayor in decades but it could be even better - and fairer.

Too Many Consultants, Not Enough Community
By Tom Angotti
Director, Hunter College Center for Community Planning & Development
Unless the administration truly engages neighborhoods, civic groups, community organizations, the plan could become just one more City Hall laundry list.

How to Build Support
By Eve Baron
As it sets about implementing plaNYC 2030, the mayor's office should pay attention to those who have already been planning for the future in areas across the city.

Searching for Land - and Finding It

By Julia Vitullo-Martin

Wealthy, beautiful and safe, New York is at the top of its game right now. In the 30 years since the fiscal crisis pushed it to the verge of bankruptcy, New York transformed itself from a dangerous, dirty city of decayed buildings, shuttered storefronts, filthy parks, abandoned real estate and forlorn neighborhoods into the dominant world city. But nothing in this life stays the same, and New York's competitors, themselves world players, are lapping at its heels.

London, for one, is intent on reclaiming the greatest-city-on-earth crown that it held for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. And while London and New York share many strengths, they also share fundamental problems deriving from aging infrastructure - transit, water, sewerage, power, parks, schools -- designed decades ago for a smaller and far less mobile population. Further, both share problems springing from their huge success. Not only does it often seem that everyone on earth wants to live in either New York or London, from their sidewalks and streets, both cities look like everyone is already there.

The tremendous demand for residential, commercial and retail space in New York has overturned the city's old problem of abandonment while handing it a whole new set of problems. Land costs, already excessive, are heading ever upward. Construction costs are the highest in the country by far. Every site in the five boroughs now seems to have development potential, though not every site should necessarily be developed to the full extent that its zoning allows. Many sites are being developed beyond the capacity of the local infrastructure, particularly transit, but also schools, parks and sewers.

Economy and Environment

Supervising New York's phenomenal success is Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a former investment banker, who over the last year appraised his city's virtues and faults with a cold banker's eye and concluded that now is the time to use today's wealth and resources to prepare for an indefinite but highly competitive future. His plan for 2030 is premised on green assumptions, which is great, but as Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff notes, every initiative in the plan is based on economics first, which is even better. After all, environmentalists have long known, it is easier to be green when you're rich than when you're poor.

The essence of good green policy-not to mention good development-is to use the resources you have as intensively as possible. New York is energy efficient because it is dense and its transportation infrastructure unites its otherwise sprawling territory. The mayor's plan pushes that density and intensity even further. If we have it, he wants to use it, and use it well. Some of his proposals make sense precisely because land in this city has become so expensive. "We've been on a search for new land, and we'll take it wherever we find it," Doctoroff says.

Land Over Rails

One interesting place they found it was in the city's many exposed railyards, rail lines and highways. Thus the plan commands: Deck 'em over. Most yards and highways remain undeveloped and exposed because costly platforms must be built first-adding immensely to the costs of construction. Only the most valuable real estate-Grand Central's lines under Park Avenue, for example-warrants the extra cost. Yet as the plan notes, exposed railyards and highways are "places where communities stop, where neighborhood is divided from neighborhood." After citing the redevelopment of Caemmerer Yards (Hudson Yards) on the Far West Side of Manhattan, the plan-as it often does-heads immediately across the East River to discuss neighborhoods outside Manhattan , like Sunnyside Yards in Long Island City, Queens (pictured below).

Spanning nearly 200 acres, the dramatically exposed (and rather beautiful but hazardous) Sunnyside Yards are close to existing excellent transit and should benefit from the East Side Access project planned to connect the Long Island Rail Road with Grand Central Terminal. Residents of a mixed-use development would be able to walk to shopping on Steinway Street in Astoria, which would be reconnected to the cut-off areas to the south. Charming, funky Dutch Kills would get an economic infusion. Long Island City's restaurants, clubs, and bars-many of which are now struggling without quite enough people-would boom.

Similarly, building over the former railroad space alongside the Staten Island Ferry would eliminate a homely blight and bring new residents and workers, while reconnecting the lovely but deteriorated St. George neighborhood to the waterfront. The economics may not yet work in Staten Island, but the straight commuting shot from St. George to Wall Street is promising.

Transit for New Neighborhoods

Which brings us back to London. In some ways, what London accomplished in developing an entirely new financial center in the Docklands would be like New York developing a new financial center in St. George, Staten Island, or Red Hook, Brooklyn-both neighborhoods that once looked as far away from Wall Street or Midtown as the Docklands looked from Fleet Street. But London provided light rail to get there, realizing that transit opens up formerly fallow areas to good, green, efficient development-while a lack of transit just means expensive, polluting, ugly sprawl.

New Yorkers will be debating for some time to come where that light rail-or extended transit-should go: up the West Side of Manhattan? Along the Brooklyn waterfront? The North Shore of Staten Island? The possibilities are many.

The mayor's plan has elegantly laid out the strategies and initiatives, backing up arguments with data and excellent graphics. This excellent document gives us all a level playing field for debate. So let the conversations begin!

Julia Vitullo-Martin, a former columnist for the Gotham Gazette, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and director of its Center for Rethinking Development.

Sharing the Benefits -- and the Burdens

By Joan Byron, Alyssa Katz and Brad Lander

PlaNYC reflects visionary thinking - by the city and the diverse group of involved and interested people and groups they included. There is a lot to celebrate. But for all its innovation on sustainability, we would like to see a plan that does more to shape the city's growth to generate more equality and opportunity as well.

Environmental Justice: Congestion Pricing and Beyond

For the first time, the city has identified environmental justice as a guiding principle. PlaNYC's initiatives promise great benefits for communities that have carried far more than their fair share of environmental burdens.

The city's plan to hold down the demand for new electricity as its population grows will limit the need for new power plants; meanwhile old, dirty plants that have polluted the air in communities in Queens and elsewhere will be cleaned up. A new initiative will measure street-level air quality in neighborhoods throughout the city.

Congestion pricing promises to be a boon to working class neighborhoods in upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs, as well as to other parts of Manhattan. In Red Hook and Sunset Park, for example, just 3 percent of commuters - 1 percent of all residents - drive into Manhattan to work. The other 99 percent in those communities will benefit from the revenues created by congestion fees, which will be reinvested into mass transit improvements, and from cleaner air resulting from fewer vehicles going through their neighborhoods on the way into Manhattan. The same patterns hold for other outer-borough neighborhoods, even those far from subways, like Sheepshead Bay and Marine Park in Brooklyn, Soundview in the Bronx, and Southeastern Queens.

PlaNYC also makes important strides toward the redevelopment of brownfields, which are concentrated in lower-income and environmentally burdened neighborhoods. The city will establish a new brownfields office, expedite cleanups, and involve communities more actively in decisions on how to improve and reuse these areas.

The Next Steps

Now, more needs to be done to make environmental justice a guiding framework for New York's future. Monitoring air pollution is an important start. The city should inventory a greater range of environmental burdens in each neighborhood, and set goals and timetables for their reduction.

Unfortunately, the mayor's plan does far too little to address the fastest growing part of the traffic problem: trucks. Truck traffic weighs heavily on communities, mostly low-income, near industrial areas and highways. But the mayor's plan leaves out the Cross Harbor Rail Tunnel, which would take millions of trucks off the city's highways, bridges and streets. With truck traffic expected to grow by 70 percent between now and 2030, and the most vulnerable New Yorkers already suffering the health effect of unacceptable levels of diesel emissions, we cannot ignore the project with the most potential to take trucks off our streets.

Housing: Preservation Needed

The plan seeks to double the amount of land available for housing development - through transit-oriented development, rezoning and decking over railyards and highways - to accommodate an additional one million New Yorkers. If done right, balancing the need for growth with community input and planning that strengthens neighborhoods, these are smart ideas.

But there's so much demand for housing that new market-rate development will trickle down to provide more housing for low or moderate-income renters or buyers. We need to include aggressive measures to make sure that "new" land spawns housing affordable at a range of income levels.

The plan mentions inclusionary zoning as one tool-using voluntary density bonuses to prod developers to set aside 20 percent of the units as affordable housing. While we support the program, evidence from around the country shows that mandatory programs - ones that require the inclusion of affordable units - work better. And on publicly owned sites, more than half of the new housing must be affordable to the average New Yorkers.

Unfortunately, even with all these ideas, we cannot just build our way out of the housing crisis. As long as the city keeps growing, rents will keep rising, putting more pressure of millions of New Yorkers. So we must do more to preserve existing affordable housing. PlaNYC is disappointing here. While it restates the administration's commitment to preserving the affordability of existing Mitchell-Lama and other subsidized apartments, it offers no new initiatives. If we want to make growth work for the millions of existing New Yorkers, we need to strengthen rent regulations-most importantly, by repealing vacancy decontrol. Protections against harassment and displacement will also be essential as improvements to open space and transit make now-affordable neighborhoods more desirable places to live.

Equality, Opportunity, and Livable Neighborhoods

PlaNYC connects the dots of sustainability. It recognizes the synergies among disparate strategies. Congestion charging will fight gridlock, clean up our air and generate revenue for transit improvements. Planting trees will improve microclimate, air quality and property values and divert stormwater that would throw into sewers, creating overflows and eventually the need to more costly solutions.

PlaNYC now needs to connect the dots one step further - because the city's current growth is creating more inequality and segregation. Will the New York of 2030 be even more segregated than the one we know today? Will low-wage service workers face a choice between extreme commutes to work in a city they can't hope to live in, crowding into basements or paying nearly all of their income for rent? It is a gloomy possibility in an otherwise hopeful plan-and one we must take measures now to avoid.

PlaNYC offers us a chance to do something about growing inequality. Right now, the plan offers jobs for lawyers and investment bankers (underwriting bonds for the new SMART transportation authority) and even mollusks (cleaning the harbor). It could commit to a bold living wage and workforce development initiative that makes sure working class New Yorkers get good jobs creating the green city of tomorrow - but it won't happen without the mayor's leadership and follow-up.

Finally, as we build new housing and neighborhoods, we can do more to involve residents in planning for what will make their neighborhoods great. Yes, in many instances the City will need to insist on growth targets that many people won't like. But that's all the more reason to involve them in planning for the parks, transportation, schools, child care, community and cultural centers that will make growth work.

PlaNYC is bold start toward a more sustainable city, and we intend to be there to help make it happen. With an even bolder commitment, the New York City of 2030 can be not just a greener place, but also one of more opportunity, vibrant communities, and more fully shared prosperity.

Joan Byron, Alyssa Katz and Brad Lander are with the Pratt Center for Community Development.

A Greener, Greater and Fairer New York

By Ron Shiffman

Earth Day 2007 was a beautiful day and provided the perfect setting for Mayor Michael Bloomberg to unveil PlaNYC2030. It is the most important initiative undertaken by any mayor in my memory and I have been a practicing planner in New York for five decades. But, while the plan deserve the support of every New Yorker, it does have some significant omissions that must be addressed.

The detail contained in PlaNYC2030 to make New York the Greenest City and the array of proposals to address global warming deserve our attention and support whether or not we agree with every detail. It offers a base upon which community-based planning advocates, the environmental justice community and other progressives can build an equitable and just response to global warming.

Looking At The Big Picture

For decades, a holistic approach to achieving sustainability has evaded public officials and advocates alike. But now, we have a mayoral administration that is not afraid to look at the intricately woven cloth of our complex ecosystem and to put forth solutions to problems, even if the outcomes and benefits will not manifest themselves until future generations.

Achieving the objectives put forth by the mayor will conflict with the priorities and profits of many local and global interests. It will require a level of courage, competence and capacity that had generally been absent in our local elected leadership and in administrative agencies.

The knee-jerk negative reaction of some of local elected leaders to the proposal provides an early indication of this. They are blindly rejecting a well-thought out and reasoned approach to addressing traffic congestion, air quality and the health and the welfare of our communities, particularly the low and moderate income communities that for far to long have been victims of environmental injustices.

Adding In Equity

But while the plan addresses environmental justice, it needs to more explicitly address the goals of social and economic equity. Without that, decisions about where to site various facilities and land use could engender even greater economic disparities. An effective means of "fair share" needs to be established, so that both burdensome and beneficial uses of land are distributed equitably throughout the city.

The plan also need a sustainable housing agenda that explicitly mandates that development include affordable housing and that sets out strategies to achieve diversity and economically integrated neighborhoods. Proposals for decking our rail yards need to be carefully reviewed and informed by the communities that surround them. The cost of that decking should not create housing that is unaffordable for the average New Yorker or lead to densities that are too high for the social, economic and environmental infrastructure needed to sustain them. Proposals to create housing need to ensure that we do not displace jobs, particularly manufacturing jobs. We need to provide space for the existing manufacturing enterprises and for those that will emerge. We need to encourage green forms of production and the manufacture of new green products that will be needed to make the City more environmentally sustainable.

Given the overarching goals of equity, social and environmental justice, we have to learn to listen carefully to community residents. We need to enhance our participatory planning and environmental assessment processes. We must give legitimacy and support to those residents and community-based developers who, oblivious to risk, rebuilt our communities instead of subsidizing those risk-adverse developers who follow in their wake.

Creating A Better Plan

Let us listen to the transportation advocates and citywide organizations that have advocated that New York State and New Jersey look at how New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Railroad could be merged. This would provide regional rail services and allow us to free up to 50 percent of the area of Sunnyside Yards for other forms of development -- without the need for decking. Instead of looking to rezone only manufacturing areas let us explore better ways to use the large swaths of land now consumed by "big box" stores, with their massive parking lots, and strip retailers so that we can build more efficiently and in more creative ways -- without displacing the existing retailers.

And let us work with the mayor to not only address global warming but also to adapt to the climate changes that are already taking place. We need to protect and upgrade our infrastructure so that we do not fall victim to catastrophic events, including those caused by climate change. Mayor Bloomberg and the mayors of the other financial capitals of the world could adopt a universal "Stock Transfer Tax" whose resources could be dedicated to protecting their own cities and addressing the needs of their poorest residents, as well as assisting other vulnerable cities and regions of the world that cannot afford to protect themselves from global warming created by the consumption of others. Such a global tax on the financial is both appropriate and just.

Most importantly let us challenge Mayor Bloomberg by helping him make his initiative a success and by working with his administration to make it better. Let's challenge him so that his administration practices the behavior sought and outlined by his plan, that, for example, it moves to preserve and adapt, rather than to demolish. Let us ensure that every planning and rezoning initiative is the result of a participatory planning process and is responsive to the goals outlined in PlaNYC rather than to the whims of powerful interests or to short term politically expedient goals.

Ron Shiffman is a professor at the Pratt Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment and a former New York City Planning commissioner.

A Need to Involve Communities

By Tom Angotti

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's 2030 plan is nothing if not grand. But can even a fraction of it be implemented? Unless the mayor's office and his agencies start to truly engage the hundreds of neighborhoods and thousands of civic groups and community organizations, the 2030 plan may go down in history as one more City Hall laundry list.

Over the last year, the mayor's plan was cooked up in City Hall with the help of outside consultants. Consultations with community and civic groups were more like managed focus groups -- marketing techniques were tested, but concerned individuals were not allowed into the decision-making process. Now that the plan has been unveiled, there is no systematic way the public can engage in its implementation. Instead, the 2030 plan promises to continue the administration's top-down approach and ignore the scores of local plans.

It does not have to be that way. Section 197-a of the New York City Charter establishes a mechanism for developing and approving community-based plans. It includes public hearings, discussions and votes by community boards, the borough presidents, the City Planning Commission and the City Council. The 2030 Plan involves none of these forums. As a result, many of the noble goals outlined in the 2030 Plan are likely to run into local opposition, while others get buried by recalcitrant agency functionaries.

The only apparent area in which the plan promises community involvement is in brownfields development. In most other areas, the city has missed an opportunity to mine the rich collection of local talent, experience and planning ideas, many of which are consistent with and even more developed than those coming out of City Hall. If it were to go through the process mandated by the charter, the mayor's plan would invariably emerge as a much richer piece of work with better prospects for implementation. It could also serve as a much-needed framework for community-based planning, which should not be divorced from citywide needs and policy considerations.

Skeptics will scoff at the idea of review by all 59 community boards, pointing to their shortcomings and instances in which the board membership fails to truly reflect community residents. But this would be a good opportunity to strengthen the boards as foundations of local democracy, provide them with the resources needed to fulfill their mission, and insist that they be inclusive and representative of their constituencies. If the boards become partners in formulating the city's long-term goals, the administration will have a much better chance of achieving its goals.

Growth Above All

Underneath the green coating of the 2030 Plan lies an even more powerful growth agenda. The projection of one million more residents functions as a Holy Grail.

The plan envisions new megaprojects built on hugely expensive platforms over rail yards. Even with significant private financing, these developments will soak up enormous public subsidies and justify exorbitant rents and house prices. Modest new investments in surface mass transit will go to serve these giant projects, but like the inadequate light rail project in London's Canary Wharf mega development, the general public will end up footing the bill for the long-postponed expansions of subway capacity that are bound to follow.

The 2030 plan promises to make all neighborhoods greener with local parks and plazas. It will be easy to find locations for these facilities in the newly created megaprojects, but how are these and other promised amenities going to be placed in existing neighborhoods?

Instead of calling for planning in partnership with communities, the city insists on using its zoning powers as a club to hold over local residents and businesses. The plan calls for massive upzonings - allowing neighborhoods to become more densely developed -- to create new market-rate housing. But it fails to tell us how much public subsidies will be needed to support such development, and continues to offer programs yielding only token amounts of new affordable housing and open space in established neighborhoods. When it comes to preservation, the plan does not go the extra mile; for growth, it promises the moon.

Tom Angotti is director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning & Development and writes the monthly Land Use column for Gotham Gazette.

Bringing the Plan to Communities

By Eve Baron

There is a lot to like in the mayor's plaNYC 2030. It reflects the thoughts and practices of planners who realize that whatever you do in one realm of planning impacts another realm. And so the loose network of civic organizations organized around good, progressive planning, which include the Municipal Art Society Planning Center, can help to build support for plaNYC 2030 proposals in Albany, where it really will count.

The plan is also very ambitious and comprehensive. It will keep city agencies -- and people like us who closely watch what those city agencies do -- busy for a long time as we all try to reconcile all the plan's various parts and provisions. For example, the plan refers to decking over rail yards and highways. That is a good way to increase space for building, but it is also an expensive process that increases the price of whatever goes on top of the deck and so may not contribute to the production of affordable housing.

The plan makes note of "opportunity areas" that would allow further, more intensive development. Although the impact of development in these areas will have profound local consequences, there has not yet been coordination with the communities that will absorb the impacts - and ostensibly some of the benefits. We look forward to hearing more about how the administration will work with communities to develop consensus around these sites and what gets built on them -- before requests for bids go out and developers chosen.

New York City residents have already identified "opportunity areas" in their community-developed 197-a plans and other consensus-based plans. (See Planning for All New Yorkers: The Briefing Book of Community-Based Plans, developed by the Campaign for Community-Based Planning.) The administration couldn't ask for a better opportunity - socially, economically, and politically - to implement the goals of PlaNYC 2030 than to take community-generated plans, understand them as the creative and balanced blueprints for growth that they are and implement them.

Bringing New Yorkers closer to the planning process is one way to build concrete support for the goals of plaNYC. Another way is to create a new planning process that brings New Yorkers the tools and resources needed for them to create their own neighborhood-level, sustainability plans.

Eve Baron is director of the Municipal Art Society Planning Center.

 
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