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Thinking Big Again

by Joshua Brustein, Mar 01, 2004
 

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A Year With Libeskind by Joshua Brustein

When the governor announced last Friday that the Deutsche Bank building, shrouded in an enormous black veil on the edge of Ground Zero, would be bought and then razed to make room for, among other things, a park, he also proclaimed it the last remaining piece of business having to do with the "clean-up" of Ground Zero after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. From here on in, it is all rebuilding.

Though the governor made no mention of it, his announcement was made a year to the day after architect Daniel Libeskind's "Memory Foundations" was selected from nine finalists as the plan to replace the World Trade Center.

Much has changed in the past year. Certainly the plans for Ground Zero have changed, though there is a debate as to whether the changes represent a natural evolution or a betrayal of the original design. (See "A Year With Libeskind" )

But those with ambitious ideas are not limiting themselves to Lower Manhattan. At least in part because of the excitement created by the redevelopment of the World Trade Center, there is now more long-term urban planning and large-scale development on the table that at any time since the Lindsay administration in the 1960s created a master plan for the city.

THE RETURN OF BIG PROJECTS

Before 9/11, Dick Netzer, a professor of public administration at New York University, lamented the lost ability of New York City to tackle large-scale projects. The sense of urgency that had propelled big projects in the past, he wrote, was gone.

The attacks of September 11 clearly created that urgency for one 16-acre site downtown; development at Ground Zero has moved forward rapidly. The major elements of that plan – the Freedom Tower, the memorial, and a transportation hub – have been designed in the year since Libeskind’s plan was chosen.

But that urgency seems to have spread throughout the city, where new projects are coming from a variety of sources. The City Planning Department, besides working to limit development in some areas, is promoting the development of three central business districts:

It has also developed an agency strategic plan, to examine its citywide goals.

Other public agencies have also come up with big plans, or have breathed new life into existing ideas. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Port Authority, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation are all eyeing large-scale transportation initiatives.

Private developers are also involved. Developer Bruce Ratner recently presented a plan for retail, commercial and residential development centered on an arena for the Nets in Brooklyn. The New York Jets have designed a stadium for the Far West Side.

The interest in planning and development projects, say planners, is coming largely from City Hall, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg seems determined to leave his legacy in physical form.

“We see the city out in front in promoting these projects,” said Robert Yaro, head of the Regional Plan Association. “Some of them are relatively modest…and some of them are really the biggest development projects in the history of the city.”

THE FAR WEST SIDE

While most of New York focused on using the development at Ground Zero to revive downtown as the model of a functional urban neighborhood, city planning officials were quietly planning a much larger project several miles uptown. Starting in late 2001, the department began laying out a comprehensive plan for the Hudson Yards, (also known as the Far West Side or Midtown West), one of the largest planning projects in New York in decades.

At 360 acres, the Hudson Yards – the area between 8th Avenue and the Hudson River, from 28th Street on the south to 43rd Street on the north – is more than 22 times the size of Ground Zero. The city hopes to encourage residential and commercial development in the area, turning it into a western expansion of Midtown. The plan’s proposed stadium on the Hudson River, an idea that has been put forth before in several forms, is also a major part of New York’s bid for the 2012 Olympics.

The city will not do much building itself on the Hudson Yards. Instead, it hopes to install the infrastructure, including a costly extension of the 7-train, and the zoning that will encourage private sector development in the decades ahead.

Two major buildings are central to the plan. The first is the Javits Convention Center, which is slated to be enlarged; the second is a proposed football stadium for the New York Jets that would connect to the convention center as a further extension. The stadium’s design has titillated architects, but like previous stadium plans for the site has run into opposition.

The Jets and the city would split the cost of paying for the stadium. For the area as a whole, Doctoroff has proposed a funding strategy where the city will pay for the development by issuing bonds against future revenue, a plan that skeptics do not think will work.

Of all the aspects of the enormous plan, the Jets Stadium and the Javits Center have drawn the most fire. Critics describe the Javits Center extension as unnecessary, the Jets stadium as too expensive, and the plan to connect the two as unlikely to attract conventioneers.

In the plan’s defense(in pdf format), supporters have said that while the stadium has become the public symbol of the West Side development plan, it is the infrastructure investment and the rezoning that will make the greatest difference to the city and the region.

BASKETBALL ARENA IN BROOKLYN

This January, the real estate developer Bruce Ratner presented a plan to develop the area near Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, centered on a basketball arena for the New Jersey Nets, a team which he now owns. The plan proposes 2.1 million square feet of commercial office space, 4.4 million square feet of mixed-income residences adding 4,500 homes to the area, and 300,000 square feet of retail for the 21-acre site on the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues.

Like the Ground Zero and Hudson Yards plans, Ratner’s plan uses architecture as a way to sell a larger development project. Frank Gehry, who designed the famous Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain – and who also envisioned a huge museum on the waterfront in downtown Manhattan that was never built – drew up preliminary plans for a wavy, glass-and-metal building that looks nothing like a conventional stadium.

Sports arenas have the reputation of sucking up public money, rarely producing the promised payoffs. This one, though, has won the support of many local politicians. Even some who regularly criticize such projects said that this one has promise because of access to public transportation – nine subways and several commuter trains meet at the site.

"The numbers work," Mark Rosentraub, a sports economist who regularly criticizes sports arenas, told the New York Times. "You'll have the best arena in the country to service a market of more than 6.3 million people."

Such arguments have not convinced those who will be directly affected, and local residents and businesses are opposing the plan intensely, skeptical of the plausibility of its financial promises, and reluctant to make the sacrifice that Ratner is asking them to make.

The major controversy surrounding the plan is Ratner’s intention to condemn four city blocks, displacing up to 1,000 people and businesses providing 200 jobs. Some have suggested that Ratner instead raze Atlantic Center, a shopping center across the street which he owns, to avoid using eminent domain.

While some worry about the plan because they may have to find new places to live, others are concerned that the public will have little to say as this plan – still in its preliminary stages – moves forward. If land is condemened and placed under the control of the state - as the plan calls for - the arena itself would avoid the city's land use review process, the major opportunity for public input.

TRANSPORTATION PROJECTS

After September 11th, the federal government gave New York $4.55 billion for transportation, about 60 percent of what state and city officials had asked for. Projects directly related to downtown Manhattan such as the new train station and the South Ferry subway station renovation have taken a large proportion of that money. Governor Pataki intends to spend about $900,000,000 more on burying a section of West Street, not leaving enough for another large initiative.

Other agencies have continued to make big plans as well, most looking for other sources of funding. It would take over $50 billion to complete all the transportation improvements currently being planned around the city.

The Second Avenue Subway

The Second Avenue Subway is not a new idea. It was first proposed in the 1920s. The plan was tabled because of the Great Depression, and was not acted upon until the 1970s, when several miles of track were actually laid. The project stalled again because of the fiscal crisis.

The plan has re-emerged, complete with $1 billion written into the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s capital budget. In its entirety, the idea envisions a subway running from 125th Street to Hanover Square, an undertaking that would cost $12.5 billion and take 17 years to build. A scaled-down version of the plan, estimated to cost about $4 billion and take about 7 years, is also being formulated.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority claims that it will begin construction on the project at the end of this year.

The 7 Train, Penn Station, and the Hudson Yards

The city planning department’s plan for the Hudson Yards depends on a one mile extension of the 7 Train to 34th Street and 11th Avenue, a move that would cost $2 billion. By connecting the Long Island Railroad and Metro North to that site as well, the planning department wants to create a major transportation hub to spur development in the area.

Construction on the 7-train extension is slated to begin in the spring of 2005, and to be completed in five years.

The Empire State Development Corporation and Amtrak are promoting another idea for a transportation hub in the area, a five-year project to bring Amtrak and Long Island Rail Road passengers into the Farley Post Office, across from Penn Station, that would cost another $1 billion.

East Side Access – Long Island Rail Road Link to Grand Central

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has already begun work in both Queens and Manhattan, constructing track to connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal through the existing 63rd Street tunnel. Besides creating better access to the East Side for commuters from Long Island, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority expects the plan to take stress off of commuter trains currently traveling between Long Island and Penn Station.

To fund the project, the agency is seeking $2.6 billion in “New Starts” funding from the federal government. In January, the Federal Transportation Authority has recommended that Congress allocate money for the project in the next fiscal year.

The project is slated to be completed in 2011, at an expected total cost of $6 billion.

Direct Rail Link from Lower Manhattan to JFK, Long Island

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chair Peter Kalikow also said that it would help pay for a direct rail link between lower Manhattan, Long Island, and JFK, a project which the authority is collaborating on with the Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. In February, the groups presented four ways to pull off their project.

The plans differed in how they would get under the East River. Three called for use of existing tunnels, something commuter groups say would be impossible without causing serious inconvenience to straphangers. The fourth would construct a new tunnel, much more expensive but possibly less disruptive. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation said that a decision would come in April.

While its presenters were deliberately vague in talking about funding options last month, the direct-rail line has another supporter in Senator Chuck Schumer. Schumer said that 9/11 rebuilding money should be directed towards this project, instead of using federal funds to bury West Street.

Competition for funds

While optimistic officials say that it is possible to build everything they have proposed, planners acknowledge that there are too many transportation projects vying for a limited amount of resources. Somehow, they say, the list will be narrowed down.

Several independent organizations are trying to assess which projects are the most deserving of funding, and have issued competing studies. The Partnership for New York City, a group made of business leaders, found that transportation hubs, like the one at Ground Zero and a new Penn Station, offer the best benefits as a percentage of costs (in pdf format), while concluding that the Second Avenue Subway was the least beneficial of the New York City projects on the table.

The Regional Plan Association released a study the following month which reached the absolute opposite conclusion – that the Second Avenue Subway must be the top priority (in pdf format).

But as Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, a subway riders advocacy group, points out, there is a long-term project that, while less exciting, is more important -- basic repair. Repairs to the city’s existing transportation systems will cost about $2 billion, and are generally paid for with the same federal money that some have eyed for the new projects.

“If we were force to chose, we would abandon all these projects,” Russianoff said. “Because the top priority has to be fixing the existing system we have.”

IMAGINING THE FUTURE

Last month, a large group of New Yorkers from all walks of life gathered in a room to talk about urban planning. The event was the inaugural meeting of New York 2050, a project encouraging people to envision the city’s future. Its organizers were many of the same people who established the public forums to discuss the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan.

The meeting looked like many of the meetings held to discuss Lower Manhattan, but the conversation sounded much different. It did not focus on specifics of a single project. Instead, the group encouraged regular New Yorkers to think about long term urban planning for the city, in the hopes of establishing a comprehensive vision for the region as a whole.

Expecting many people to participate in such a project would have seemed far-fetched before 9/11

”People are talking about planning now in ways that they haven’t before, in part because people are ready for it,” said Shiffman. “What Lower Manhattan did was unleash a torrent of imagination.”


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