Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Opinion

Opinion

A Time Of Crisis


It is an extraordinary time to be the Speaker of the City Council. Last year, we elected a new mayor, a new comptroller, and a new public advocate who have never served in public office. We elected four new borough presidents and 38 of the 51 City Council members are brand new. It may sound ridiculous, but I am the senior elected official in the city. I am the grizzled veteran.

The issue that I believe will define this era in city government is the budget. We are in the midst of the greatest fiscal crisis in the history of this city. It is much worse than anything we have dealt with before. I do not think the public has come to grips with that. And I do not think those of us in elected office have done as good a job as we should in preparing New Yorkers for this reality.

The governor and mayor made a decision that we needed to get a year under our belt before we dealt with our fiscal problems. I believe we need to honestly grapple with the fiscal crisis. That time, whether we like it or not, is coming very soon.

This year, the city faced a $5 billion budget gap. We borrowed $1.5 billion to ease the situation. We enacted some spending cuts, and we did some targeted tax increases like the cigarette tax and other fees. The mayor's way of dealing with the budget was to say that there should be across the board cuts and that there should be "no sacred cows." The council felt that there was a different and better approach -- to prioritize. I believe we were elected to office to help make those difficult decisions. For one, we believe that education and classroom funding should not be cut. And I am proud of the fact that we were able to do that in this year's budget.

Next year, we have another $5 billion budget gap; some say it could be worse. To put this number in perspective: if we were to cut 20,000 police officers, close every senior center, close every after-school program, and close every library, that would only save us $1.5 billion. That is how serious it is. We are not going to do those things and we can't do those things. If we did, we would stop being New York City.

In the last 10 years, we have gained more than 1 million new residents. New York City is still a place where people from around the world come to live, because they believe it is a good place. It is sometimes tough to be a New Yorker, but it's worth it because of the excitement, the creativity, and the uniqueness of our city. As we struggle to deal with our fiscal crisis, we have to preserve those essential elements of what it means to live in New York City. We can not cut education. We can not close down our cultural programs. If we do not preserve these things, than the city just becomes a tough place to live.

In order to do maintain services, we have to generate new revenues for the city.

This year, the council proposed a number of new revenue generating measures. We proposed an absentee landlord surcharge on property taxes. The city currently taxes multiple dwelling landlords at a much higher rate than it taxes single family homes that are used as investment properties. If we brought those two taxes to more equal level would raise as much as $130 million. We also proposed selling more taxi medallions and privatizing the Emergency Management Service collection and billing services. EMS currently bills for $165 million a year, and only collects about $40 million.

We also have to bring back to the commuter tax that would generate nearly $500 million a year for the city. Two weeks after I became speaker, I met with State Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver. He told me that he is prepared to reinstate the commuter tax if the mayor and City Council ask for it. So, we need to start with the mayor. It may take a while, but I think we are going to get the mayor to agree. We can't close a $5 billion budget by just cutting services and we can't raise $5 billion in taxes. We have to do some of both. Our problems are just too big.

Another major priority, of course, is rebuilding lower Manhattan and rest of the city.

The federal government has given the city $20 billion that can be used in a variety of ways. One of those ways is through incentives that can help keep and attract business to lower Manhattan. Lower Manhattan is the third largest business district in the country: midtown is first, Chicago is second, and downtown is third. Downtown drives the tax revenues of the city and if we don't have a strong, vibrant downtown business district, we will be in a worse situation than we now.

We must also make long-term improvements to the area that will attract people and business. Currently there are $1.6 billion in Liberty Bonds from the federal government, which are low interest rate bonds, to subsidize the creation of housing in lower Manhattan. The governor has $800 million in Liberty Bonds at his discretion and the mayor has $800 million. The governor's proposal calls for 95 percent to be used to build market-rate housing and 5 percent for affordable housing. The mayor has not yet said what he plans to do. I believe that we if are aggressive about it we can get as much as 55 percent of the Liberty Bond money for low to moderate income housing.

The council believes that we should allow for 25 percent of those bonds to be used outside of lower Manhattan, so that every part of the city can benefit from this federal money. Frankly, we are not going to get all $1.6 billion used in lower Manhattan. There just are not enough projects to get it done quickly, but there are projects around the city that can benefit from this kind of funding.

Gifford Miller is Speaker the New York City Council.
Adapted from a speech at the Women's City Club, September 27, 2002.

Fast, Not Fancy -- And In Midtown, Not Downtown


It is terribly important that whatever is to be done to rebuild Manhattan be done rapidly. The rebuilding must not be delayed--or stopped dead--by the usual New York acrimony about every aspect of every really large project. The city's economy has been hurt badly. The longer Manhattan is in a state of suspended animation waiting for the architects' perfect plan to be approved and actually implemented, the more unlikely complete economic recovery will be. More firms and jobs will be lost forever. The city and state fiscal difficulties will grow worse. And many of the economic opportunities that were suggested by the city's economic successes in the late 1990s will never come to pass.

If rebuilding is to be rapid, it cannot be an attempt to replicate exactly what existed in lower Manhattan at 8.00 AM on September 11. The rebuilding has to be consistent with what markets have shown over the past 50 years to be a powerful trend in the location of economic activity within Manhattan. We need to go with the flow, which is a shifting, rapidly at some times and more gradually at others, of economic activity from lower Manhattan to midtown. This reflects the fact that the only locational advantage that lower Manhattan has over midtown is that downtown is more convenient for subway commuters who live in Brooklyn. That was enormously important before 1930. It is a trivial edge now.

By 1960, the shift to midtown had become pronounced. A study for the Downtown Lower Manhattan project in 1961 documented how severe the shift in the 1950s had been, but-whistling in the dark-the study asserted that the trend could be stopped fairly easily (I as a consultant to the project was one of the whistlers).

There are winners and losers in such shifts, the biggest losers being the owners of land in the place that is the loser. A couple of men who shared the same family name-Rockefeller-were, respectively chairman of the Downtown Lower Manhattan and CEO of the Chase Bank, and governor of New York. They were persuaded that heroic efforts were needed to stop the trend. Lower Manhattan's office buildings were mostly obsolete and unattractive to high-end businesses not permanently tied to the securities markets, and one of its important transit links, the one that carried commuters from New Jersey and is now called PATH, seemed on its last legs, physically and financially.

So, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a creature of the governors of the two states, was instructed to intervene, to take over, rebuild and finance the permanent deficits of PATH (which benefited residents of New Jersey) and to provide millions of square feet of Class A office space by building the World Trade Center.

This intervention was timely, and it worked, in the prosperous 1980s and 1990s, when the two booms in the demand for the services of the financial services industries provide enough business activity to fill up the World Trade Center and other new office buildings, as well as a substantial amount of new office space in midtown Manhattan.

Rebuilding lower Manhattan to pre-9/11 standards will require the construction of millions of square feet of office space, mostly at the WTC site (there is no other open land in Lower Manhattan) or on a massive new land fill, and a huge investment in restoring the lower Manhattan infrastructure to its previous capacity. That cannot be done rapidly, even if we could avoid the controversy about just what to build that is already raging.

Much of the destroyed infrastructure would not need replacing, if we accept that the lower Manhattan economy will be a good deal smaller than it was before 9/11. With many fewer people working in lower Manhattan, New Jersey commuters could be accommodated by an expanded ferry system, and the PATH line need not be rebuilt at all (the signs suggest that there may not be any part of the under-river tunnel that is salvageable). The 1 and 9 subway line south of Chambers Street could be abandoned. The Con Edison steam system in lower Manhattan may not be salvageable, and abandoning it might justify closing down the entire steam system which is obsolete, to put it kindly. Similarly, the telecommunications capacity that would be needed if the economy were restored to ante-bellum conditions would be smaller, thus making it possible to avoid replacing the heavy Verizon losses.

On the other hand, the destroyed office space can be replaced quickly north of 14th Street, and the infrastructure is in place, or can be gradually expanded. The zoning is consistent with the construction of conventional office buildings, and 30-story buildings would not be a hard sell with respect to zoning. Developers know how to assemble land, design and build such buildings quickly. No doubt there would be scattered local opposition-after all, there are New Yorkers who believe that anything built before 1960, however hideous and dysfunctional, deserves landmark designation-and no doubt the product would be an ample plenty of plain vanilla buildings. But if the demand for midtown space is there, the 14 million plus square feet of space in the WTC could be met with dispatch. It would be building fast, not fancy.

Of course, there have been heavy economic losses and terrible human losses. The losers need to be made whole, to the extent possible, with one exception-landowners. But it would be grotesque public policy to restore lower Manhattan to its pre-9/11 condition in order to compensate landowners. Gamblers win sometimes, and lose other times.

Stick With Libeskind


As the first building scheduled to go up at Ground Zero, the Freedom Tower offers a glimpse into the future of the site as a whole, and whether it will work as an urban area. The tower is an impressive building, one that combines Daniel Libeskind's vision with David Childs' innovative use of structure. Childs' use of cables that enclose windmills over a thousand feet in the air, for example, will help create a building that can become a symbol of New York City. But Freedom Tower is not a complete success. It must be brought more closely in line with what Libeskind originally proposed.

Libeskind envisioned a tower that was thin and graceful, with a sloped roof and a spire that mirrored the arm of the Statue of Liberty. While Childs' earlier designs violated this vision by making a bulky, twisting tower much larger than Libeskind wanted, the recently released plan brings it more closely in line with Libeskind's concept, cutting the height of the building back down, for example, to 1,776 feet.

But Libeskind intended the spire to be something that soared like the arm of the Statue of Liberty, starting at the base of the building and running up all the way through it. It was an integral part of the building's form. To me, the spire that Childs has designed looks like a dunce cap, an appendage simply slapped onto the edge of the roof

It would not be too difficult to take the top third of the building, the 30-story skeletal form that includes the windmills, and shape it so that the spire really becomes part of the building architecturally.

Most importantly, for the World Trade Center site to be a successful urban design, all the buildings must work together to create a whole. That is why Rockefeller Center works so well. Its buildings are a family that relate to each other as part of a whole; there is a design consistency that creates the ensemble. You look at any building in the project and you say "That is Rockefeller Center."

If we want people to go to Ground Zero and say "That is the World Trade Center," we need to adhere to the design principles developed for the overall site. Such coherence is how great spaces are made. Without it, you risk chaos.

Yet Childs appears to be disregarding Libeskind's master concept for the site. I couldn't help but notice that in the model that accompanied the new design for Freedom Tower, the shorter buildings on the site have really been bulked up, apparently abandoning Libeskind's vision.

If true, this would be disappointing. Childs has done some impressive things with his design. But as admirable as some of these innovations are, unless they are molded into a bigger and grander concept -- Libeskind's concept -- they will fall flat.

Beverly Willis, an architect, is the co-chair of Rebuild Downtown Our Town. This article was adapted from an interview.

A Field of Schemes


fc.2004.01.19.inside

In This Series:
• Netting the Nets by Marty Markowitz
• Cheerleaders for Real Estate? by Tom Angotti

Recently New York developer Bruce Ratner announced plans to build a 20,000 seat basketball stadium and 17 skyscrapers in Brooklyn's Prospect Heights. This project depends on Ratner placing the winning bid for the New Jersey Nets. However, it also depends on the condemnation of over 1,000 homes and businesses in Prospect Heights and a risky financing system that is full of false hope.

While bringing the Nets to Brooklyn may sound like an intriguing idea, it has troubling fiscal, social, and economic implications for New York City as a whole.

THE MYTH OF JOBS, RECREATION, AND HOUSING

Typically, backers of a new stadium promise it will bring jobs, jobs and more, jobs.

Supporters of this stadium project have been hypnotized by similar claims. The reality is that Yankee stadium at 57,000 seats, which is double the size of the proposed stadium in Brooklyn, only offers 65 full-time positions. Any claim that this proposed stadium would provide for significant and permanent employment is a pipe dream.

Other supporters argue that local schools and other not-for-profit organizations will use the proposed stadium for their recreational events. I respond that there are a number of proposed capital projects to renovate armories and other buildings in Brooklyn into recreational facilities. These facilities, however, do not involve the condemnation of homes and or divert public dollars for private purposes.

The developer also claims that the 17 skyscrapers in his second phase will create 4,500 to 5,500 new apartments. That claim is the biggest joke of all.

Organizations involved with affordable housing do not build high-rise apartment buildings anymore. They realize that people want housing on a human scale where children can play in a yard and neighbors can look out for each other. Furthermore, the total cost for the purchase and construction of this project will in all likelihood make housing so costly, that most working families will not be in a position to afford to live there.

DISPLACING PEOPLE, CREATING TRAFFIC

The developer also plans to use eminent domain - the power to take private property for public use - to evict entire families and businesses for his project.

Approximately 1,000 men, women and children would be displaced if the stadium plans go through (we know the number because we counted - door to door). In addition to families being removed, blocks may be closed to accommodate the stadium separating Fort Greene and Clinton Hill from the Prospect Heights community.

The junction of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues is currently congested with traffic, and adding a stadium and 17 skyscrapers would only serve to worsen traffic conditions in a dense residential community. The massive influx of automobile traffic would tie up a main artery and create the biggest parking lot in the heart of downtown Brooklyn.

Imagine 23,000 more cars - that's nearly 1,000 more an hour - and many more children with asthma.

FINANCING THE FUTURE AWAY

The biggest gamble in all of this is the method of financing the stadium.

Recently, Ratner claimed that all he wanted in exchange for this project is for New York City to kick back some of the sales and income taxes to pay off loans that he had to borrow for the project. It was reported that the total bill for the stadium and surrounding commercial, office and residential development is being estimated at $2.5 billion (not including the $300 million that he would pay for the Nets).

This project will rely upon the use of Tax Increment Financing (TIF). Tax Increment Financing is one of the fastest growing development subsidies in the country, and it diverts future property, sales and income taxes in a designated district until a developer can pay off the costs of the project. It is just another name for corporate welfare.

Bruce Ratner's past is prologue to his future. His Atlantic Center Mall, which is directly across the street from the proposed stadium, is shrouded in a cloud of controversy. It has not resulted in any appreciable benefits to the community and has a 23-year property tax abatement with a disastrous private commercial rental history.

Not only will this be bad for Brooklyn, but for all of New York.

An Independent Budget Office report on the public financing of professional stadiums concluded that dedicating taxes for huge construction projects like this ties up a significant portion of the city's revenues, and often competes with funding for other city needs like schools, police, housing, playgrounds, and sanitation.

I was elected to protect and preserve working families, to create more affordable housing and employment opportunities, and to devise economic plans that involve and respect the character of local communities. I support development of this site, but development that make sense. We need projects that will generate revenue for the area and leave the Prospect Heights community intact.

We do not need to look like an imitation of Manhattan. We stand uniquely and proudly as Brooklynites.

Letitia James represents the district 35 neighborhoods of Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and North Crown Heights in the New York City Council.

#####

In This Series:

• Netting the Nets by Marty Markowitz
• Cheerleaders for Real Estate? by Tom Angotti

Netting The Nets


brooklyn nets

In This Series:
• Field of Schemes by Letitia James
• Cheerleaders for Real Estate? by Tom Angotti

Since the announcement of the proposed Nets arena plan there has been tremendous enthusiasm generated throughout Brooklyn. I continue to believe more than ever that bringing world-class professional sports and a world-class arena to Brooklyn would tremendously benefit our borough, by boosting our profile around the nation and the world, by enhancing pride in Brooklyn, and by creating desperately needed economic development, jobs and affordable and middle-income housing for the Brooklynites who need them.

I am well aware of negative comments by some who live in the immediate vicinity of the proposed project. I know there are real concerns that must be addressed - and they will be. Netting the Nets must be a win-win for all of us who call Brooklyn home, and any project of this scale must have real community involvement to be successful.

The plan as presented so far is not perfect nor is it final.

That's why if the Nets are purchased and their move to Brooklyn is approved, I will be working with the community on a variety of issues, such as parking, traffic, and city services that must be addressed for this project to work.

But in my opinion the benefits of this project for all of Brooklyn greatly outweigh the arguments against it.

MASS TRANSIT TO THE GAME

Unfortunately, some of these comments in opposition are misleading, and others are simply less than accurate.

For example, referring to "20,000 extra cars," as if each and every man, woman and child would drive their own car to the game! Come on now, the reason why an arena works at this location is precisely because cars are not needed to access it.

Common sense, good urban planning, and care for the environment would tell you that the arena must be located where visitors have the best access by mass transit, and this location is Brooklyn's best for public transportation, with nine subway lines, four bus lines and the Long Island Rail Road all meeting there.

The irony is that if land were available to put an arena in another area of Brooklyn, as some have suggested, it would definitely result in the use of cars almost exclusively!

ENHANCING THE NEIGHBORHOOD, CREATING JOBS

Of course nothing would make me happier than if this project didn't take a single home or business, and I have urged flexibility in the plan to limit such action if possible. However, much of this project would be constructed almost completely over empty land - yes, empty space - over the Long Island Rail Road Tracks tracks, which is not exactly one of the garden spots in Brooklyn.

The project will also create a real wealth of jobs: from construction on the project, to working in the offices and retail stores, and the boost to local businesses who will sell to both tourists and new residents, all on top of the jobs working in the arena and the ancillary businesses (sound and light technicians maintenance, catering, cleaning, etc) at the arena itself and for specific events held there.

In fact, Andrew Zimbalist, one of America's leading opponents to urban stadiums and ballparks is a consultant on this project, and he supports it fully. We have learned from the past mistakes of new facilities - there is a right way and a wrong way to build.

And with a design by the world's leading architect, Frank Gehry, I am confident this will be an attraction and a landmark that will make us all proud.

The public's investment in the proposed arena would be rather modest for a project of this magnitude. The benefits and amenities it would provide - social and economic, short- and long-term - would be the most significant project accomplished in Brooklyn in decades, especially when you factor in the overwhelming demand in Brooklyn for affordable housing and jobs.

WORLD CLASS PROJECT

It comes down to this. I believe very strongly that all of Brooklyn would benefit from the return of national sports to our borough; an arena for world-class attractions and high school and college athletics; the construction of affordable and middle income housing, which is the number one need in every survey of Brooklyn residents; the development of office space for more employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for residents; and the tremendous number of jobs and economic activity that would result on Atlantic Avenue, Flatbush Avenue, Vanderbilt Avenue, Washington Avenue, and beyond.

I am confident that a national basketball franchise in Brooklyn will immediately become one of the country's best-loved teams.

As a result, this would draw new visitors to our borough and be a huge boost to Brooklyn's growing tourism industry. Brooklyn's need for an arena is perhaps just as important. Currently, we lack a large multi-purpose indoor space.

So in addition to a home for the Nets, an arena would allow Brooklyn to host college and high-school athletic events, graduations, trade shows, concerts, the kennel show, Ice Capades, conventions and numerous other events that we currently miss out on and that Brooklynites are forced to go to New Jersey, Long Island or even Manhattan to attend.

For all of these reasons and many more, I am an enthusiastic supporter.

At the same time, I understand the concerns, and on issues such as traffic and parking, they are real and need to be reviewed by experts with the participation of our community. Sadly, thus far the cry from some has not been "let's make this work," but rather, "let's stop this project totally."

Fortunately we live in a democracy that celebrates different opinions and encourages public debate. I look forward to such a debate and am confident that a successful win-win will result for the immediate neighborhood and for all of Brooklyn and New York City. I believe we can have both: an arena and a better neighborhood.

We can elevate Brooklyn to the national stage while enhancing the neighborhoods we love.

Marty Markowitz is the Brooklyn Borough President

#####

In This Series:

• Field of Schemes by Letitia James
• Cheerleaders for Real Estate? by Tom Angotti

Thinking Big Again


In a fascinating new book, Tunneling to the Future, historian Peter Derrick tells the story of the creation of the New York City subway system between 1902 and 1920. The first line, little more than a trip from City Hall to Grand Central, took six years to build, between 1902 and 1908.

But the next stage, the 114 miles of the so-called Dual System (the IRT and the BMT systems), was more than 80 percent completed in just seven years, from 1914 to the end of 1920. The largest public works project built in this country at the time, it cost the equivalent of about $25 billion (in 1999 dollars), and gave New York City more miles of rail rapid transit than all the other cities of the world combined.

There was, to be sure, time spent before actual construction on bitter disputes over finances. But even taking that into account, the Dual System was created in about a decade.

Today, with luck, far smaller projects will take at least four times as long. The 63rd Street subway and Long Island Railroad tunnel are still not finished, 33 years after the plan to build it was published, and it is not clear that the LIRR part of the tunnel will ever be finished.

WHY THINGS ARE SLOWER NOWADAYS

In the best of circumstances, we today could not match the Dual System in speed of completion, because of environmental concerns, concerns about worker safety, and the demise of deferential politics (to put it mildly). But those factors do not fully explain our inability to move ahead with big projects.

The biggest difference is this: In the past, the big projects that went ahead seemed so urgently necessary that there was little real opposition to the idea of the project itself, only to specifics of management, design and who might win financially. The 1913 plan for the Dual System reflected a desperate need to reduce the hideous overcrowding in the city -- the worst in the world at that time -- by providing rapid transit services to the parts of the city then lightly populated.

Similarly, the completion of three great bridges across the East River in a very few years reflected the need to unify the city physically as well as politically after 1898.

The rapid building of limited access highways that began in the 1920s came about because, suddenly, there was mass ownership of motor vehicles, and no streets for them; there never had been any serious road building within cities in New York or anywhere else. For example, the late unlamented Miller Highway (the elevated West Side highway) was built to get auto traffic off the streets serving the North River piers, because the traffic had been strangling the port business. There was no real opposition to highway building in the city until after World War II when Robert Moses began building roads that caused massive displacement. (It should be noted that this was often done because it was the cheap way to go. Nearly all the Moses roads were built at low standards compared to the limited access roads then being built in Los Angeles and Chicago, the only other places to do so within cities on a large scale before 1960).

New Yorkers viewed any of today's projects with the same urgency, we would find a way to do them. For example, about 15 years ago, New Yorkers feared that the Williamsburg Bridge would have to be replaced completely because of its physical deterioration. If that had been necessary, the financing surely would have materialized. It would not have mattered that the estimated cost was put at more than $15 billion. The few opponents would have been dismissed as crackpots.

But there is likely to be much more effective opposition when only relatively few people see proposed large projects as necessary and urgent.

Take the case of the Third Avenue subway. Those who push for it say it will relieve overcrowding on the Upper East Side (when that can be done far more cheaply and quickly by more train service on the existing Lexington Avenue line). They say it will get rid of the "long walks" to the Lexington line stations (walks that are shorter than those done daily by 90 percent of Brooklyn and Queens subway riders). Why should we expect it to be quickly approved, financed and built?

Then there is the skepticism and opposition generated by the fact that ALL projects have enormous over-runs in cost and date of completion, especially transit projects.

WHAT CAN BE DONE

Are there no solutions, aside from abandoning all but a very few projects that almost everyone agrees are desperately needed?

Some possibilities:

1. Devise institutional arrangements that truly and convincingly contain money and time costs from the get-go. I can imagine some such arrangements, but like almost everything sensible with regard to transportation policy, there are extraordinary political difficulties in the way.

2. The seemingly impossible political obstacles logically suggest private financing and management as the standard mode of operation in urban transportation, something that is increasingly the conclusion of transportation economists, such as Clifford Winstonof The Brookings Institution.

That is not going to happen soon in the People's Republic of New York (which socialized the Long Island Lighting Company just as the rest of the country had finished deregulating most utility and intercity transportation services almost overnight).

But why not think seriously about projects that are independent of overall networks, at least at the outset (as the elevated lines in Manhattan and Brooklyn were before 1900)?

The most cogent examples are the serious proposals for light-rail lines in Manhattan:

  • 42nd Street (there will be no 42nd Street light-rail for at least 20 more years, if it remains a public-sector project);
  • Second Avenue (or a First and Second Avenue pairing), as a substitute for the pie-in-the-sky Second Avenue subway;
  • The Village Crosstown light-rail proposal.

In each of these cases, all that government need do is to grant the franchises, along the lines of the public utilities laws (but without price and service regulation) and agree to closing part or all of the street to motor vehicle traffic.

This obviously should have been done for the JFK to Manhattan rail link ages ago. (Instead we are to get an expensive rail link of very limited utility). BAA Ltd, the private owner and operator of the London airports built and operates a splendid rail connection (Heathrow to Paddington) -- high speed and frequent service, built with its own funds over a very short period. Of course, they used existing rail lines in part. But surprise, surprise, we have existing rail lines that could have been used, but alas owned but not used by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, for low-level political reasons.

3.To the extent that funds generated by government are necessary (and there are sensible projects for which this is the case), we can go back to an old idea, one never considered in recent years, but propounded from the mid-19th century. Indeed, it actually was the main source of finance for the New York City subway system.

That is the land value tax. While no one stated explicitly that the land value tax was the main financing for the New York City subways, it really was: the New York City bonds that were issued were general obligations of the city at a time when the city used only one tax, the property tax, and a very large part of the huge increase in the property tax base from 1900 or so until the Great Depression really was the increase in the value of the underlying land. This should be obvious for the outer boroughs, where the great majority of the structures built in those years were of inexpensive light construction, but this applies to a lot of northern Manhattan as well. Major transportation improvements serving already built-up areas (New York City is not empty like the High Desert in southern California) must increase land values, not building values.

Surprise, surprise, owners of interests in land are hostile to this notion. So they are likely to be generous supporters of what we try to do in financing transportation improvements: tax those who gain little or nothing economically from the projects, like ordinary consumers and workers. To be sure, their lives are made better. But the taxes we use are really akin to taxing welfare recipients to finance welfare.

Sometimes, in the world of New York politics, it is possible actually to complete, within a reasonable time, useful modest-sized projects that only a small fraction of voters see as important. But that is possible only if few voters see such ventures as bad ideas.

It takes heavy lifting and real political risk--as it did when the Dual System of subways was built--when those conditions are not met. But the last time there was really heavy lifting in public affairs in New York was 25 years ago, when there was a desperate fiscal crisis. That is not something to be wished for, nor it is likely to happen. So, settling for small things--that make sense, one hopes--seems the best we can expect.

Dick Netzer is Professor Emeritus of Economics and Public Administration at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service of New York University

Breakdown


Save The City From Kaput

Breakdown

New Yorkers rarely think about the hidden systems that keep the city running, until something breaks down. But those who monitor these systems say it is not just events like September 11 or the 2003 blackout that pose a threat to the city. The biggest threat may be the everyday wear-and-tear on the city's systems, and fixing New York City's underground infrastructure takes foresight, planning and billions of dollars.

Breakdown!

ARE ALL SYSTEMS GO?

Overview Articles

Keeping The City Running
(10/06/03) Will a system of rusting pipes, crumbling cables, shaky subways and rocky roads lead to an apocalyptic metropolis?

The Capital Budget
(11/17/03) When the mayor recently announced the most ambitious school construction plan in the city's history, he brought attention, at least briefly, to the oft-ignored capital budget, which funds major construction and repair projects critical to New York's future -- or at least is supposed to.

System By System

Electricity
(12/08/03) You can make all the electricity you want, but transmission is key, as much of the Northeast, including New York City, learned when it suffered through one of the worst blackouts in history on August 14.

Telecommunications - The 21st Century Office
(11/10/03) New York City is falling behind in providing the high-tech services that businesses need.

Natural Gas
(10/11/03) Once viewed as a pesky nuisance, natural gas has become more and more in demand - and more and more expensive. Sam Williams follows the journey that gas makes from prehistoric swamp to the grills, stoves, furnaces, clothing dryers and power plants of New York City.

Steam
(11/10/03) New York City remains the world's largest supplier of what some call a great, underappreciated asset: steam.

The Sewer System
(10/20/03) New York's sewer system began 150 years ago -- and some of the pipes have never been replaced. A look at the challenges: out-of-date equipment, harmful chemicals, constant spills, and some persistently weird beliefs about what's down there.

Water
(12/08/03) New York City's water supply system has been called a marvel of engineering -- the eighth wonder of the world. But leaks, pollution, and years of delay in building a new water tunnel threaten the city's water supply.

Garbage
(12/08/03) For years, city officials have wrestled with what to do with all of New York's trash.

 

Find your Breakdown has moved to a new location. Click the following link:
Breakdown (iFrame version)
Standalone, no presentation

The Tour Guides Quiz




This is a quiz especially for Gotham Gazette readers who want to challenge their own New York savvy. They are not the exact same questions as those offered in the professional licensing examination for tour guides, but they tap into the same vast treasure trove of New York City legends and lore. (For more about the actual test for tour guides, read Testing the Tour Guides)

Simply click on the circle next to the answer you think is correct, and an answer will appear in the box below. Keep trying until you get the correct answer.





Three articles in this series:
• Testing The Tour Guides
• The Tour Guides Complain
• Test Your NYC Knowledge

Moving Around the City -- A Quiz About Transportation in New York


 

 
Which subway system has more riders -- New York's or Mexico City's? What mayor rode mass transit to his inauguration? And how loud are those car alarms? Test your knowledge of New York City transportation.

Simply click on the circle next to the answer you think is correct, and an answer will appear in the box below. Keep trying until you get the correct answer. To learn more about the subject, click on the Gotham Gazette story after each question.

 


 

 

 


RELATED ARTICLES
• New York's Fight for Transportation Dollars in Congress
• City Council Transportation Legislation
• A Brief History of New York Transportation
• An Appalachian Trail Through The Heart Of NYC