Gotham Gazette Wed, 21 Apr 2021 18:16:16 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Schumer Says Big Infrastructure Package is on Deck; What's on New York City's List? rep clark us

Senator Chuck Schumer at City Hall (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

As Mayor Bill de Blasio celebrated the passage of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which will deliver $6 billion in direct aid to New York City government and many additional billions to New Yorkers, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer had more good tidings to offer as he promised that a massive infrastructure program is next on the agenda. 

Biden has proposed a $2 trillion “Build Back Better” plan to invest in infrastructure and combat climate change. It’s reminiscent of FDR’s New Deal, investing in major public works projects and programs to create millions of well-paying jobs. That type of two-pronged approach has been proven to work and it will undoubtedly be invaluable to New York City, which has immense long-standing infrastructure needs and where unemployment remains high, at 11%, in the wake of the pandemic. 

In his own preliminary budget plan outlined earlier this year, de Blasio proposed a $118.8 billion ten-year capital strategy, increasing planned spending from last year on infrastructure like schools, housing, roads, and more. Last week, the city announced that it would resume spending on $17 billion worth of projects that had been put on pause when the pandemic hit last year.

“We’ve got to get back to work building more school capacity in the communities that need it most. We’ve got to get back to work building and preserving affordable housing,” de Blasio said at the announcement, as he outlined other areas of investment. “Coastal resiliency, fighting climate change, protecting our communities. We're getting back to work on that. Improving our city streets, creating safety, Vision Zero, deepening our efforts there. And, of course, one of the places we've come to love even more during the pandemic, our parks, continuing our investments in our parks. So, that $17 billion is going to make a huge impact and help New York City come back strong.”

Schumer also looked to the future, on Thursday. “If we get a massive infrastructure bill, it can help build our mass transit, build out our mass transit, build out our highways,” Schumer said while making an appearance during de Blasio’s daily news briefing. He said the federal government would also give approval and funding for the Gateway program, featuring new tunnels between New York and New Jersey and which had been held up by the Trump administration. “Gateway is going to be coming soon too, and that'll create jobs that make sure that you can get under the tunnels from New Jersey to Manhattan, which helps our economy, our New York economy, our New York/New Jersey economy grow,” he said.

Asked about the city’s infrastructure priorities in light of Schumer’s comments at the mayor’s briefing, representatives for de Blasio told Gotham Gazette, “Broadly, we’re looking for federal investments in transportation, NYCHA, affordable housing, green projects, resiliency, broadband, and state of good repair programs,” and said the city has “already begun discussions with the federal government on multiple infrastructure fronts.”

They declined to provide a specific list of projects.

As Schumer’s comments indicate, infrastructure needs in New York City extend beyond what city government has control over, such as through the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), a state-run authority that is partially funded by the city and where the mayor has some say about decisions.

It’s all welcome news to elected officials and urban experts who have spent months extolling the virtues of public works programs to revive New York City’s economy, though of course it has to come to fruition before anyone will celebrate.

There are several major infrastructure projects in New York that have been proposed and delayed, or even abandoned, that could benefit from federal funding such as Phase II of the Second Avenue Subway, the proposed Utica Avenue subway extension in Brooklyn, the Red Hook subway extension, a Triboro line using some existing rail lines to connect Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, among others. 

The Regional Plan Association, an urban policy think tank, recommended in a January report that the federal government should fund capital programs that have been laid out by local and state agencies in the tri-state area. Specifically, it pointed to the MTA, New Jersey Transit (NJT), the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (PANYNJ), the City of New York, and the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). If all those plans are funded, RPA estimated that they would create about 263,000 jobs annually. 

The latest stimulus package is delivering billions in aid for mass transit that will help New York – $6.5 billion for the MTA, $1.7 billion for Amtrak, and $418 million directly for New York airports  – but those funds are for operating expenses and agencies have deep capital needs. The MTA’s $54 billion capital plan for 2020-2024, for instance, is far from funded and is being reevaluated. As the RPA pointed out, about $37 billion worth of projects in that plan are “ready-to-go” and could be initiated if the federal government steps in with aid. (And separate from aid, the MTA needs the federal government’s approval to implement congestion pricing, a key planned source of dedicated capital funds revenue. The Biden administration, including former New York City transportation commissioner and MTA Board member Polly Trottenberg, appears receptive.)

The New York City Housing Authority is perhaps the worst off in terms of long-term disinvestment and crumbling, aging infrastructure. The authority’s capital needs have ballooned over the years, and its own estimate is that it would cost nearly $40 billion to bring NYCHA developments into a good state of repair. Those costs could increase to $68.5 billion by 2028 under the worst case scenario, according to NYCHA. At the federal level, several lawmakers have backed a Green New Deal for Public Housing – introduced by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York – which would invest $180 billion over ten years into repairing public housing developments and retrofitting them with green infrastructure. 

New York City is also particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, with its waterfront communities at risk of being inundated by rising sea levels, its wastewater and sewage system unable to handle major storms and its energy infrastructure prone to failing during periods of peak demand. 

“Few other cities would benefit more from a public works-style program to get the economy going and confront the climate crisis,” wrote Jonathan Bowles and Laird Gallagher of the Center for an Urban Future, in a February op-ed in Gotham Gazette. They argued that New York City officials should already be identifying shovel-ready projects to launch as a federal infrastructure program is on the horizon. CUF has compiled a list of potential projects, soliciting opinions from experts in coastal resilience, environmental justice, urban agriculture, renewable energy, and more. They include projects to retrofit infrastructure too make it sustainable and resilient, new renewable energy projects, urban forest expansion, consolidated organic waste collection, solar and battery storage, floating farms, raising streets in low-lying neighborhoods, and many others.   

“For the city to make the most of Biden's "Build Back Better" infrastructure agenda, policymakers must act now to lay out federal funding plans for projects that can break ground this year and get New Yorkers working again,” they wrote. “With citywide unemployment still lingering above 10%, and sea levels and temperatures continuing to rise, we cannot afford to wait.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Schumer Says Big Infrastructure Package is on Deck; What's on New York City's List? Fri, 12 Mar 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Could a Public Works Program Save New York City's Economy? maybdb arrival

Could the reinvigoration of the New York economy come from public works? (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Somewhere around a million New Yorkers are out of jobs and billions in tax revenue has evaporated as New York City bears the brunt of possibly the worst disaster in its history. The coronavirus has been devastating the city’s people, their way of life, and their livelihoods. As elected officials and experts look to the future, when the pandemic eventually subsides, they must plot a path out of the crises that will remain.

New Yorkers will need jobs, and once the city is running again in some form, it will need its infrastructure to bear pace. As a growing number of experts and elected officials has suggested, large-scale public works and jobs projects could be the solution, marrying twin needs by putting people back to work while rebuilding and reimagining the post-pandemic urban landscape.

Public works are a tried and true method to inject adrenaline into the economy after a period of significant disruption. In the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933 created the Public Works Administration, or PWA, which pumped $4 billion over nearly 6 years – the equivalent of about $79 billion today when adjusted for inflation – into the construction of public buildings, dams, sewage plants, hospitals, roads, highways, and more. In 1935, it was followed by the Works Progress Administration, which provided employment to more than 8.5 million people over eight years to work on infrastructure construction projects while also funding arts and culture and more. The WPA received nearly $5 billion to accomplish its goal, nearly $99 billion in today’s dollars.

New York City, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, has taken stabs at large infrastructure projects and creating jobs, with a four-year, $67.2 billion capital program and the “New York Works” jobs and workforce development plan to create through city intervention 100,000 “good-paying jobs” (at least $50,000 annually, according to the mayor) by 2027. But those efforts have in some ways lacked ambition and have now been hobbled by the budget crunch currently facing the city because of the coronavirus. The city has postponed many planned infrastructure investments, and was already struggling to get momentum behind the jobs program.

Federal intervention -- desperately being sought to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars by de Blasio and other elected officials in New York and across the country -- could help not only in keeping infrastructure plans on track but could also fund broad educational training programs, including some with social services components.

“New York has significant infrastructure needs, so a public works program could be a real boon to the city, not only to get New Yorkers back to work but to take care of some of our enormous challenges like climate change,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, an urban policy think tank.

Those needs are indeed dire, and were well before the city’s economy came to a grinding halt. New York City sorely lacks affordable housing, an issue de Blasio has sought to tackle with a much-criticized 300,000-unit, 12-year plan. The building stock of the New York City Housing Authority, the public housing agency home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers, has been crumbling from disinvestment over decades and needs roughly $40 billion, with its maintenance and repair costs projected to rise to about $68 billion over the next eight years. The state authority that runs the city’s subways and buses was finally on a more focused path to address much-needed upgrades and repairs, but that $50-plus billion vision has been derailed after the pandemic plunged the MTA into fiscal chaos.

Many neighborhoods in the city desperately need more school seats, park space can be at a premium, and as Bowles’ organization showed in a 2014 report, “Caution Ahead,” many of the city’s public buildings, roads, bridges, water and sewer mains, and subway signals were more than 50 years old. The report said the city would require $47.3 billion over five years to bring infrastructure to a good state of repair. Last year, CUF published an update to the report that noted progress made on water and sewer infrastructure and road surfaces by the de Blasio administration, but also found that other areas had worsened, with state-of-good repair funding gaps increasing for the Department of Education, Department of Parks and Recreation, and the New York City Housing Authority, among other agencies.

Though the question of funding underpins everything, several local elected officials have been raising the idea of a massive program to build infrastructure and create jobs to ameliorate the city’s unemployment crisis, while injecting money into the local economy and building, repairing, and improving city infrastructure.

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat running for city comptroller in 2021, is calling for a program modelled on the WPA. Council Member Mark Levine, a Manhattan Democrat whose leadership of the Council’s health committee has propelled him toward the front of the current crisis, has called for a $1 billion investment in the creation of a 15,000-strong “public health corps” to directly fight the coronavirus and provide a raft of related services to its victims.

“My goal is to spur big thinking on this and help the public see the opportunity here by going big to make it safe to reopen,” Levine, who is running for borough president, told the New York Daily News.

“We are going to need to make the most intelligent [budget] cuts possible and look at the macroeconomic solutions, which involve more government spending,” Rosenthal said in a recent interview on the Max & Murphy podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits. “We have to build back in such a way to begin to address the economic disparities that have already existed.”

At the federal level, Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx and Queens has been a prominent voice for a Green New Deal, a major green infrastructure program that she championed well before the coronavirus made the idea all the more appealling to those looking to the federal government to boost the economy. Almost all of the city’s congressional delegation has signed on as co-sponsors. 

De Blasio has already announced several task forces and economic sector advisory councils to lead the city’s comeback from the coronavirus, including a “fair recovery” task force and one focused on racial inclusion and equity. Their suggestions are due to the mayor in a few weeks. Governor Andrew Cuomo has also convened his own reopening committees.

There are several underlying prerequisites to a massive public works program that experts say would be necessary for it to launch and succeed. Chiefly, they say any such program cannot begin without the federal government infusing billions of dollars into local projects. A successful strategy should also include job training and apprenticeship programs so that workers, particularly low-income workers who lack a college education, aren’t left in the cold once the infrastructure projects are completed, experts agreed.

Then there’s the question of which projects should be prioritized. Should the city build more mass transit infrastructure that can reduce people’s reliance on cars? Can New York City build new affordable housing while also bringing its public housing stock to a state of good repair? Resiliency projects to help withstand the ravages of climate change? Schools? Parks? Water infrastructure? Road and bridges? Community centers and libraries? And will public funding spur or in some cases even depend on private investment?

Will the federal government come through?
New York State and City both have massive capital infrastructure programs already underway. But the coronavirus has prompted recalculations. Mayor de Blasio’s latest budget proposal, created amid severe budget shortfalls, delays funding for several infrastructure projects, including his affordable housing program. The move will bring down immediate debt costs but could strain the city’s already overburdened and crumbling infrastructure, among other negative consequences. Without federal funding, the city will struggle to keep even current projects going, let alone launch new ones.

“It's in the interest of the federal government to see people back at work, but also to fortify the infrastructure, bridges, roads, school buildings and public housing,” said Bowles. “That's the job of the federal government. So it is their responsibility.”

Chris Jones, senior vice president and chief planner at the Regional Plan Association, noted in an interview that the New Deal programs were worth about 7% of the country’s GDP at the time, which would equal at least $1.5 trillion now. “They should be talking about something of that order of magnitude,” he said.

He pointed out that state and local governments are still in “survival mode” and that all efforts are focused on getting through the crisis as best as possible. “There’s certainly a lot the city and state can do but without a substantial amount of federal funding, it’s still going to be in the mode of trying to maintain a state of good repair, modernize where they can, and using every tool that’s available to do that,” he added.

But the wheels of government turn slowly and President Donald Trump has spent the last three years repeatedly expressing support for a major infrastructure plan, but never delivering one. In light of the pandemic, Democrats in Congress have been pushing for some infrastructure in the next round of federal stimulus funds, which has led to a degree of optimism that it could finally be achieved. But not everyone is convinced.

“Like in so many areas, Donald Trump has given lip service to ideas like infrastructure and never really shown the willingness to invest or to push the Republican Party to invest,” said Shaun Donovan, former Secretary for Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, who worked on recovery efforts after the Great Recession prompted by the housing and banking crisis. “Unfortunately, I’m concerned that we may need to wait for Joe Biden to become president in order to get a significant investment in infrastructure,” said Donovan, who is considering a run for New York City mayor. 

“I don't trust Trump, or the Republican Party to craft a proper infrastructure plan,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect, former city planner, and associate professor of professional practice at Columbia GSAPP. 

The current crisis, however, may force the federal government’s hand. Trump has vacillated on statewide closures as he sees the economy hemorrhaging, and wants people back in the workforce as soon as possible. Infrastructure investment is also an issue of bipartisan consensus.

“The federal government will show up,” said Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild By Design, an organization in New York formed to propose solutions to recovery from Hurricane Sandy, “because they need to ensure that our entire economy is rolling again and a big piece of that is usually on the capital spending and construction side, because it employs a lot of people.”

Which projects should be prioritized?
Those who spoke with Gotham Gazette had largely similar ideas for where an infrastructure program should be focused, but one thing they all agreed on was that any and all projects should prepare for the impacts of climate change.

As Chester pointed out, there are steps the city and state could take in the coming months. The fall election ballot will give voters across the state the chance to approve a $3 billion ecological restoration and flood mitigation bond act championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. And the city’s capital program is still in motion, and should actually increase spending, Chester said, particularly with interest rates remaining low.

Carlo Scissura, president of the New York Building Congress, said the federal funding could quickly jumpstart “shovel-ready projects” like the expansion of the Second Avenue Subway, the redesign of Penn Station, the renovation of LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark Airports, to name a few. “You have to really prioritize what is ready, what can happen in the next six months to a year, and those projects should be the ones that really continue to boom and move forward,” he said.

Others expressed a longer and more holistic view. 

“For me, an investment in infrastructure has to meet multiple tests,” said Donovan, who also worked on the federal response to Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and the Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks. “While all of these disasters are different, they all share similarities in the sense that those who are most vulnerable before the crisis are hit hardest by the crisis. “We have to make sure that we're starting with infrastructure investments that are going to benefit the most disadvantaged, benefit people of color in New York City, and that has to be central to the way we're looking at the challenge because in many ways, the true measure of recovery will be how the most vulnerable are recovering.”

Donovan said the city needs to develop a “culture of resilience” so that every project, no matter how small, is planned with climate change in mind. And he spoke both of environmental and social resilience, noting that building infrastructure that promotes stronger social ties – parks, libraries, and the like – also helps bind communities during times of crisis like the present. Those communities can then respond faster and more cooperatively when the time calls for it.

“I don't think we should be prioritizing one over the other,” said Chakrabarti. “I look at these things like, ‘Where are places where we can simultaneously deliver great mass transit, housing that people can afford, schools that are great, and easily accessible health care.”

Chakrabarti noted that the 2009 federal stimulus after the Great Recession intended on a large infrastructure program but largely failed to realize long-term investments, instead choosing to favor shovel-ready projects. For instance, the push for a high-speed rail system was left by the wayside.

“High-speed rail didn't work out because it wasn't shovel ready,” he said, noting that the environmental review process and the strong lobby behind it meant that large projects like that could not be streamlined. “As a consequence, all of the stimulus money back in 2009-10 ended up being spent on things like filling potholes. We didn't get any lasting infrastructure out of it because of this shovel-ready problem triggered by this environmental review problem.”

An example of the kind of holistic projects that Chakrabarti envisions is the master plan for Sunnyside Yard, which he helped create for the city (his contract has ended). “That's a classic example where you're not prioritizing real infrastructure or housing. You're looking at it holistically, to do a bunch of things at once,” he said of the initial plan that would deck over a massive Queens railyard to build 12,000 permanently affordable homes, 60 acres of open space, a regional rail hub, new schools, libraries and other types of social infrastructure..

The priorities, according to Bowles, should be retrofitting city buildings to make them energy efficient and building more green infrastructure, fixing the “embarassing state” of New York City public housing developments, and building digital infrastructure for city schools.

New York State has already moved along this front. Last year, the Legislature and governor enacted the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which some called a version of a Green New Deal for New York. It mandates strict new limits to curb greenhouse gas emissions and requires a broad expansion of renewable energy sources to replace the state’s energy consumption, with the expectation that thousands of jobs will be created along the way.

What role will the private sector play?
Perhaps the one area where there seemed to be disagreement among the experts Gotham Gazette talked with was the degree of involvement for the private sector in the success of a public works program. 

Where government investment goes, private investment naturally follows. “Any dollar that the city spends is going to have a multiplier effect,” said Chester. “We just need our public investment to step up and do it in ways that are going to ensure that our communities are going to be enhanced for the future.”

Scissura said public projects should work in conjunction with private investment. “Even with the federal government, we should be doing public-private partnerships,” he said. “I don’t think it’s one or the other. You get federal investment. You do public-private partnerships. You get bonds. You do everything all at once.”

Chakrabarti scoffed at the idea. “The severity of the COVID crisis, especially in New York City, is 40 years of neoliberalism coming home to roost. It's 40 years of underinvestment or no investment in public goods,” he said. “For instance, why did it take so long to close our schools? Because our schools also act as homeless shelters.”

Public-private partnerships, he said, have failed to maintain the city’s infrastructure or meet the pressing needs of its population. “It’s not clear to me that the private sector actually delivers these things more efficiently.”

Will there be a pipeline for jobs and training?
Bowles argued that any infrastructure program should be supplemented with apprenticeships and job training, to create new skilled workers who can continue to be employed after projects are completed. But that’s something that New York City has struggled to do even in good times.

The city’s workforce development plan, produced in 2014, de Blasio’s first year as mayor, has mostly been shelved. It was meant to invest $60 million annually by 2020 to connect low-skill workers with entry-level jobs and workforce training, and $100 million annually by 2020 to help middle-skill workers. By November 2017, only $6.4 million had gone to the first program while the second had received only about half the announced funding.

De Blasio’s jobs plan, New York Works, was announced in 2017 and meant to create 100,000 “good-paying jobs” in ten years. By June 2019, it had only directly produced 3,725 new private sector jobs, raising questions about whether the city’s investment of hundreds of millions of dollars was an efficient use of its funds, though officials said they expected it to move slowly initially given its focus on developing useful space for jobs to flourish, like renovations at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the creation of a life sciences center.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit quasi-agency that leads the city’s main job creation programs, is focused, as is all of city government, on the response to the coronavirus. “Once we move past the worst of this public health crisis, job creation will be key to making up what we lost,” said Chris Singleton, an EDC spokesperson, in a statement. “Whether these jobs are in the public or private sector, we'll do everything we can to get New York back to work - and building a fairer and better city for every New Yorker.”

Experts who are already preparing for that fairer and better city agree that it can only be achieved if the economic recovery is focused in part on bolstering the workforce through training and investment in the city’s public university system, CUNY, by maintaining the city’s quality of life to prevent urban flight, by focusing on low-income communities of color that are hardest hit by the virus, and promoting small businesses, particularly those owned by women and people of color.

Council Member Rosenthal is optimistic that the federal government will provide the necessary infusion of funds that the city needs to leverage to bolster its economy. “I think we have to assume that the federal government is going to come through with aid to New York City and so we shouldn’t be holding back on spending money today...,” she said in the recent interview on the Max & Murphy podcast. “First, I’d ask the Economic Development Corporation to target the best industries, public-private partnerships, to invest in job training programs. Similarly, perhaps through the EDC public-private partnerships, to create a local WPA-style program to get people to work today and rebuild our infrastructure. We’ve got crumbling NYCHA buildings. We have to prepare our communities for the physical impact of climate change.”

Bowles said any program should include apprenticeships, training, and “ladders for people that get a chance to work on these projects to build skills for careers.”

Gary LaBarbera, the head of the Building & Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said that “New York needs an economic stimulus – now more than ever – and large-scale public works projects are always a reliable economic driver for middle-class workers and for New York’s economy.” He said “large-scale infrastructure projects create thousands of good jobs and economic benefits” and that they will “no a major component” of New York’s recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Could a Public Works Program Save New York City's Economy? Thu, 07 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Healing the New York Region with Coordinated Planning gov cuomo exec

An argument for a regional approach to recovery (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)

Even for a metropolitan area that experienced the trauma of September 11, 2001 and the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, nothing could prepare residents of New York and their neighbors in New Jersey and Connecticut for the COVID-19 crisis. The death toll has already far surpassed that of the World Trade Center attack and will continue to climb. The economic damage is certain to exceed the job and income losses of those events and the 2008 financial crisis combined. The impacts on our collective psyche won’t be fully known until well after the pandemic has passed.

More than even in those earlier disasters, the response to this crisis requires a coordinated effort from the states and communities that are intricately tied together in family, social, and business networks that use the same roads, trains, stores, offices, schools, parks, and public spaces, drink the same water, and breathe the same air.

The decision by Governors Cuomo, Murphy, and Lamont, and their fellow governors in four other northeastern states, to form a Regional Coronavirus Reopening Council is an unprecedented collaboration that is crucial to reopening their interdependent economies. The council can have an even greater impact if it lays the foundation of a coordinated, long-term strategy to build a region that is healthier, fairer, and more resilient.

Planning for the recovery needs to start with the realization that the region is very sick and still in intensive care. Easing stay-at-home orders and other restrictions too soon will result in more deaths, a likely return to lockdowns and a longer recovery.

Returning to full physical and economic health will also require treating the underlying conditions that made us so susceptible to this disease.

The vastly disproportionate impact that this has had on black, Latino, and Native American populations, and the racial profiling the has been targeting the Asian community, is rooted in our history of racism and segregation. The sharp divides between the affluent, the middle-class, and low-wage workers without benefits or savings is a glaring outcome of decades of growing economic inequality. High levels of air pollution and other environmental hazards have always been a health risk, and appear to make us particularly susceptible to serious coronavirus effects. The fragility of vital systems like the transit network and unemployment insurance is the result of decades of underfunding and a failure to modernize. Slow adaptation to climate change will lead to even greater vulnerability and inequity. Even immediate measures to restart the economy need to address these fundamental flaws.

All of these conditions are national in scope and call for a concerted national response. But both the unique character of the region and the scale of the epidemic here require a vision and plan for the tri-state metropolitan area at least, if not the entire Northeast. The governors, through the regional council, can set a course that both speeds recovery and begins fixing structural problems.

A starting point for the long view can be Regional Plan Association’s 2017 Fourth Regional Plan, a once-in-a-generation vision for the tri-state metropolitan area. Many of its recommendations will need to be reassessed in a post-COVID-19 world, but the long-term challenges addressed in the plan are, if anything, now more important to overcome. The values of health, equity, prosperity, and sustainability that shaped the plan can guide the actions we take at each stage of recovery and renewal.

As we transition to recovery, the immediate focus on coordinating guidelines for reopening and physical distancing can shift to incorporating health goals and metrics in all regional and state agencies. New York State’s health-in-all-policies guidelines are a good place to start. These will be particularly important in reducing the vast disparities in health outcomes by race and income.

A united effort to secure the region’s fair share of federal transit assistance is the first order of business to keep the region’s circulatory system from spiraling into decline, but why stop there? With support from the governors, the region’s transportation agencies could join in creating a universal fare-payment mechanism and start to integrate rail services to allow more direct, one-seat rides to different parts of the region.

The council could spearhead an effort to give affordable, reliable Internet service to every household in the region, eliminating a leading source of both urban and rural inequality while reducing the region’s vulnerability in future disasters. This could set the stage for more difficult but essential conversations on how to expand affordable housing and reduce segregation throughout the metropolitan area.

An economic restart may be our best opportunity to rebuild in a way that supports a healthier environment and greater resilience to both future pandemics and climate change. Interstate cooperation to reopen the economy can be a foundation for large-scale climate initiatives, such as expanding regional greenhouse gas reduction programs, scaling up renewable energy, and capitalizing adaptation trust funds.

Recovering from the coronavirus pandemic will require a mobilization of the region’s talents, resources, and political will to a degree not seen since at least the deep fiscal crisis of the 1970s. We have a chance to not only recover much of what we lost, but to heal the wounds and divisions that new calamities would otherwise exploit.

Chris Jones is Senior Vice President and Chief Planner at Regional Plan Association. On Twitter @RegionalPlan.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Healing the New York Region with Coordinated Planning Sun, 03 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Needs Design-Build; The Governor's Signature Can Deliver It Cuomo construction design build

(photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)

New Yorkers are famous for our limitless ambition, but the City’s potential is limited by our government’s ability to build and improve public infrastructure to advance equity, speed commutes, adapt in the face of climate change, and boost our economic competitiveness. Simply put, we can’t grow if we can’t build our public infrastructure. Thankfully, Governor Cuomo can expedite construction and repairs to schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, and much more, cost-effectively, by signing the NYC Design Build Act.

The NYC Design Build Act amends the procurement laws in two important ways: it allows the city government to combine a project’s architects, engineers, and construction teams into one contract and one collaborative team. This way, the design team is forced to wrestle with the issues of construction costs and schedules in a way they do not do today. Second, the NYC Design Build Act would allow New York City to choose construction contractors that can deliver the best value along a range of factors including quality, innovation, and schedule, as opposed to just choosing the lowest bidder.

These changes will encourage better planning and understanding of the total costs of the project up front, which should clear many of the risks and delays that cause these projects to drag on interminably.

Going forward, the Legislature should extend the common-sense design-build strategy to all state and city agencies. The Legislature must find other ways to reduce the cost of operating and maintaining the infrastructure we already have, including through public-private partnership legislation. Otherwise, New York City will fail to keep pace with our peers in the nation and around the world. But, in the meantime, the NYC Design Build Act is a good first step, and we encourage Governor Cuomo to sign it.

Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez represents parts of Manhattan and is the Assembly sponsor of the NYC Design Build Act. Sarah Fitts and Jamie Rubin are members of the Regional Plan Association Board. Fitts is also an attorney working in energy and infrastructure; Rubin is CEO of Meridiam North America, which develops infrastructure projects in the United States and Canada, and was former Commissioner of New York State Homes and Community Renewal.

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New York City Needs Design-Build; The Governor's Signature Can Deliver It Thu, 26 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Hidden in Plain Sight: Billions in Potential Revenue for NYCHA eh density

(East Harlem NYCHA superblocks possess massive amounts of unbuilt air and ground space, as illustrated in the HOUSING DENSITY show currently on view at the Skyscraper Museum.)

NYCHA developments full of high-rises seem massive from a distance, but on closer examination their visual bulk disguises a deeper truth: they are dominated by open space. What to do with all this unbuilt space has inspired competing and controversial plans for infill and redevelopment. A growing number of policy experts believe that the New York City public housing authority would benefit just as much from a more aggressive program to transfer development rights for cash. They are right.

That NYCHA is “underbuilt” has been known for decades, but the general consensus has been that the rules governing Transferable Development Rights made it impossible for the housing authority to monetize the unbuilt square footage. Large NYCHA superblocks frequently lack adjoining parcels to which these rights could be transferred under current rules. NYCHA, to most eyes, appeared to be landlocked.

Intrepid staff at the Regional Plan Association have now calculated that a straightforward rule change (a city Zoning Text Amendment) could put into play an astounding 78 million square feet of NYCHA’s transferable rights. Selling these rights, they estimate, could yield $4.2 to $8 billion for NYCHA repairs.

The key to unlocking these revenues is to allow the authority more flexibility than typical property owners in moving its Transferable Development Rights around the city. By moving NYCHA air rights across the street, up to a half mile away, or within a Community District, the opportunities for revenue generation increase exponentially.

unused dev(Image Courtesy Regional Plan Association, Time to Act)

These eye-popping revenue projections could be game-changing when it comes to paying for much-needed repairs of boilers, apartments, and more. 

Relying more on development transfers would also defer a growing number of pitched battles over infill and redevelopment. As illustrated in the HOUSING DENSITY exhibit at the Skyscraper Museum, low-density NYCHA superblocks (even in their rundown state) offer current residents a style of living that is difficult to replicate anywhere else in New York. Where else in the city can you find relatively large apartments (avg. rent $533 per month per apartment) with windows in every room looking out on open space, trees, and the city?

Infilling NYCHA with new structures will not only take away some of the city’s last open spaces, and tree canopy, but will further undermine the remaining quality of life for current NYCHA residents. Less air flow, fewer trees, and reduction in permeable surfaces seems like a bad idea for a warming city. Infill projects are, therefore, stalling out for a good reason. Redevelopment projects of buildings and grounds offer a brighter hope for completely rethinking NYCHA’s midcentury tower-in-the-park formula, but so far the politics of redevelopment are even more fraught than infill.

johnson house

(Johnson Houses in East Harlem: Just one of many NYCHA developments with extensive tree cover and lawns.)

As with all things NYCHA, a major policy shift on Transferable Development Rights will generate enormous resistance -- but probably not from NYCHA residents. Instead, it will be NYCHA neighbors, some of them blocks away from current projects, who will feel the impact. If this proposal moves forward they will find that many builders can upsize their plans for development. Expect a backlash from non-NYCHA neighborhood activists and those that represent them including city, state, and federal elected officials.

Some say the politics would be too difficult and few city leaders have embraced this brave plan as of yet. There is, however, a double standard here that should be addressed. Politicians found a way, for instance, to make similar changes in East Midtown in the name of commercial modernization. Zoning text changes there enriched a few billionaire property owners, and were achieved over some vocal community objections, so why not make similar changes for the benefit of NYCHA’s 400,000 residents? 

It is hard, moreover, to have much empathy for city residents and their elected officials resistant to finding alternative funding sources for NYCHA. It is true that Mayor de Blasio has committed unprecedented local funds to NYCHA, but the City of New York has found much more additional money for generous labor contracts, ferries, new jails, and bike paths, while allowing NYCHA residents to face another winter with very old boilers. If politicians and non-NYCHA residents are unalterably opposed to Regional Plan Association’s proposals, they should at least propose an alternative means of financing the $30+ billion renovations NYCHA needs. 

In the meantime, the treasure hidden away in underbuilt NYCHA superblocks should be used as a major downpayment for immediately upgrading resident life.

Nicholas Dagen Bloom, Professor of Urban Policy and Planning, Hunter College is author of Public Housing That Worked, How States Shaped Postwar America: State Government and Urban Policy, and a co-curator of the HOUSING DENSITY show.

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Hidden in Plain Sight: Billions in Potential Revenue for NYCHA Sun, 01 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
8 Steps to Fix New York Transit and Get New Yorkers Moving Again Cuomo subway repairs

Gov. Cuomo underground (photo: The Governor's Office)

With the transit system in New York City in constant crisis over a sustained period of time, from delayed trains underground to ever-dropping bus speeds on the streets, the question of how exactly to fix mass transit has been on the minds of elected and appointed officials, advocates and analysts, and, of course, frustrated commuters. In the aftermath of the short-term Subway Action Plan, the effectiveness of which was somewhat difficult to quantify and apparently underwhelming, officials are trying to focus on how to provide more long-term physical and fiscal stability for the beleaguered Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

While the ambitious plan to upgrade train signals, bus routes, and MTA spending practices that MTA New York City Transit president Andy Byford has called Fast Forward seems to be a universally agreed-on blueprint to improve city transit, how the plan gets funded and implemented is somewhat more muddled thanks to political disagreements between state and city leaders.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has embraced congestion pricing, a plan that would fund the MTA through tolls on vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street, what the Fix NYC panel has determined should be the border of Manhattan’s central business district. Cuomo called the scheme -- which is aimed at both funding the MTA and reducing Manhattan roadway congestion -- an “idea whose time has come” last year, but the only part of the proposal that was agreed upon by state leaders this year was new fees on taxis and app-basd for-hire vehicles ($0.75 added to for-hire-vehicle carpool rides, $2.50 on taxi trips and $2.75 on FHV trips that go into Manhattan south of 96th Street), leaving the more difficult matter of adding a toll cordon in Manhattan to be dealt with later -- perhaps in the 2019 state budget, as Cuomo has indicated.

Cuomo is also demanding the New York City “pay its fair share” for any subway upgrades, an ask that observers have called dubious and one that seems wrapped up in his running feud with Mayor Bill de Blasio.

For his part, de Blasio has resisted embracing congestion pricing, calling it “regressive” even in the face of data showing car owners are wealthier than regular city transit riders, and has instead pushed a millionaires tax as a way of providing the MTA a new revenue stream. The mayor’s resistance to congestion pricing has drawn criticism from subway advocates, who have put together an advocacy coalition made up of anti-poverty and transit groups to push for the toll, and the millionaires tax is an idea Cuomo and even Democratic state Senators have dismissed as not having much support in Albany. In recent months de Blasio has appeared warmer to congestion pricing, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall as it gains support and appears to be a top Cuomo priority for the new year, pending his own reelection.

There’s also a coalition of elected officials who feel like the answer is to institute congestion pricing and the millionaires tax, in addition to reinstituting the commuter tax and getting the federal government to end the carried interest loophole. With the expected price for Fast Forward coming to close to $40 billion, these officials argue that neither congestion pricing nor a millionaires tax would provide the needed revenue for the MTA even when combined with contributions by the city and state.

Along with the policy-makers themselves, New York’s other top transit minds, who often influence policy outcomes, continue to assess ways to improve the subway and bus systems. Asked by Gotham Gazette how city, state, and MTA leaders can make real improvements, experts outlined roughly eight key steps, ranging from instituting the much-discussed congestion pricing and Fast Forward plans to more ambitious proposals that would encourage the city and state to look at mass transit as an all-encompassing ecosystem instead of separate pieces that happen to operate under a single public authority.

1. Fast Forward
The transit experts who spokes to Gotham Gazette pegged moving ahead with Fast Forward as an important next step in the life of the MTA. “The Regional Plan Association has long advocated for modernizing the signaling system in the subways, improving bus service, and making all stations ADA accessible, these are fundamental parts of Fast Forward,” said Kate Slevin, the senior vice president of programs and advocacy at RPA.

Not only does the Fast Forward plan include the physical improvements that Slevin noted, but it signals to riders and employees at the agency that there could be a new way of doing things going forward. “The MTA finally has a big picture vision, which is important for aligning the priorities of the many projects and fixes that have to be done,” Liam Blank, the advocacy manager at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign told Gotham Gazette. “They've lacked that for a number of years, and as a result we've gotten hodgepodge improvements that don't really show benefits to a majority of commuters.”

It’s the signal system upgrade at the heart of the plan, though, that Byford has suggested can be done on 11 line segments in 10 years, that could make the biggest difference according to Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute with a focus on transit. “The single-biggest thing we need to do is get more people onto the trains more reliably, and you can't really do that with the signal system the way it is,” she said. “Even if [the signal upgrades] aren’t on the exact schedule the Fast Forward plan laid out, it's a high-priority, I think it's important,” Gelinas said, noting that the communications-based train control-equipped L train has on-time performances over 90 percent compared to averages of 60 percent performance across the rest of the system, which Gelinas, Byford, and everyone else paying attention wants upgraded to CBTC as quickly as possible.

2. Congestion Pricing
Of course, implementing Fast Forward will require a large infusion of money for the MTA in order to get this work done. For revenue, and other reasons, transit experts peg congestion pricing as a necessary step to improve city mobility and livability. “There should be costs to bringing a large metal vehicle into the city,” Gelinas said, noting the effect that car traffic has on pedestrians walking around cars in crosswalks and cyclists having to dodge cars in bike lanes.

Not only would congestion pricing compel drivers to pay what Blank called “their fare share” for using public infrastructure, it would also free up street space in Manhattan which helps improve bus speeds there. “Fewer cars on the road means that the buses can start to move at speeds comparable to other cities. Right now they're stuck in the same traffic as the rest of the cars, so we have a transit system that's ineffective down below and on the surface,” Blank said.

And the need for it, according to Slevin of RPA, is almost impossible to overstate. “I can't stress enough how the key is congestion pricing to help us fix the subway, fix the buses, and provide the revenue for Fast Forward. And we have to get it done in 2019, we have to,” she said.

3. Control Costs
Whether or not a new revenue source for the MTA comes to fruition, the authority must look at how it actually spends the money it has at its disposal, according to transit watchers. The good news, on that front, is that members of the MTA board have spoken up about cost-controls recently, including a well-received report by Scott Rechler that laid out how the MTA could cut costs by reforming the agency’s bidding and project management processes.

“I think the board has laid out some common sense changes to how the MTA does business that will make things more cost effective and done in a more timely manner,” Slevin said, about proposals like simplifying contracts and making it easier to change projects on the fly. “But the leadership of the MTA and the whole agency has to be on board with implementing those changes and explain to the public how they're going about that.”

Like with many governmental agencies and authorities, personnel costs loom large. A coming jump in employee healthcare costs to $2.6 billion in 2022, according to Gelinas, means the authority should take a look at those and other costs as a preparation to make a bigger ask. “I would like to see a full audit of every single cost. Not even start with cutting health benefits, but are there better ways to deliver this healthcare, look at the labor rules, really justify spending every dollar before you do congestion pricing and say, ‘Oh by the way we need more money too.’"

There’s also an upcoming opportunity for the MTA and the Transportation Workers Union to find savings in staffing rules when they negotiate a contract in 2019, according to Jamison Dague, the director of infrastructure studies at the Citizens Budget Commission.

“What you'd like to see is some coordination between management and labor to improve productivity,” Dague said. “Whether looking at some of the work rules and the staffing as far as how flexibly you can deploy certain workers for different types of tasks, or even when it comes to hiring, can you can be less specific in the types of job requirements.”

Public-facing introspection could help make the case for more funding. “Byford could use a set of talking points on how the MTA is changing inside,” said Jon Orcutt, director of communications and advocacy at TransitCenter. “The line station managers are achieving X, we brought this project to a close under budget, we have our procurement process under review and will be instituting reforms by X month and so forth.”

Part of the spending fix can be as simple as the MTA taking a more active role in buying work materials. “Contractors and subcontractors buy the materials like cement and steel,” Gelinas said. “You'd think it would make sense for the MTA to buy those because it's a much bigger purchaser on the world market, and then give them to the contractors. Materials procurement is very opaque and there's a lot of room for corruption and middle men and padding and all kinds of things there,” she said, but the process still flies under the radar and delays projects that are as simple as repairing some stairs.

4. Use Current Projects as Proof Points
It’s also important for the MTA to prove they can actually improve the lives of New Yorkers, in order to build political support for the authority’s larger plans. The upcoming completion of the 7 train’s much-delayed CBTC signaling system is another opportunity for the MTA to show off what service improvements actually look like, while also explaining how other lines will be upgraded more efficiently, per Fast Forward.

“[Andy Byford] needs to deliver on that, and he needs a huge communications push to show why it's gotten better,” Orcutt said. “It would be great for everyone in Queens and also the whole city to see, ‘We re-signaled a line and it's great. And if you want more of that on your subway you have to fund Fast Forward. Delivering something tangible is really key for them.”

“The more the MTA can do to build its credibility in the near term will help with some of these longer term funding discussions,” said Slevin of RPA. “The L train shutdown is an opportunity to show you can get a big project done faster and cheaper by ripping off the Band-Aid and having a shorter period of time when there's more pain for riders,” she said, an especially salient point as Fast Forward fixes will most likely come with massive service disruptions.

5. Remember the Buses
There is one area where New York City government can exert more control on its own, advocates say, which is the bus system. “The city has [bus lane enforcement] cameras,” Orcutt said. “They can move them around, they can broadcast the fact that the cameras are out there more vigorously,” he said, and can also ask the NYPD to actually enforce the rules against driving and parking in bus lanes, a subject that Orcutt said the mayor “has been completely obtuse about.”

And as budget season starts in 2019, Blank of Tri-State Transportation said the city and MTA should lobby state lawmakers for even more bus lane cameras, an improvement that advocates called for in a recent “Fast Bus, Fair City” report. Blank also said the city should follow another one of the report’s recommendations and add 100 miles of bus lanes in the next five years, on top of the city’s existing 120 miles of lanes.

Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute suggested a more radical redesign of the city’s streets if human-based enforcement didn’t speed the buses up. “The city can do more with the physical infrastructure itself, something like building out a curb so the traffic can't easily get into a bus lane. They do that in Paris, with reverse bus thoroughfares, so buses come in the opposite direction of traffic. So you'd have to be very stupid to go into that lane and be hit by a bus. When human enforcement of things like speeds and double parking doesn't work, use the physical environment to nudge people in the right direction,” she said.

6. Don’t Silo; See an Ecosystem
Taking care of the bus system is part of an overall attitude shift that needs to happen, one that sees transit as one interconnected system instead of competing ways of getting around. “I think that for far too long transit has been seen in silos, and as a result it's created a disjointed transportation network that we have today, mainly in terms of how it functions,” Blank said. “Things don't have proper transfers, the investments are clearly unequal between the systems and especially between different neighborhoods. So we need to start seeing these things as complementary and operating like an ecosystem.”

Taking care of the buses, in an example Slevin laid out, would make it that much easier to work on the subways during Fast Forward. “You have to make the bus system faster so you have a reliable alternative when you're fixing the subway,” Slevin said. “So if you have a bus system that functions better you can have longer term windows to work on the subway.” Slevin also gave an endorsement to Scott Stringer’s new proposal to provide a single-ride ticket for use among the subway, bus, and LIRR and Metro-North stations located in the city.

A vision of interconnected transit can even extend to pieces of it outside of the MTA’s purview, according to Associate Director of NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Sarah Kaufman. “I imagine an app like Citymapper, which already integrates multiple modes seamlessly into its direction platform, also providing a payment option through pre-loaded funds. Perhaps 10 Citi Bike rides would lead to a free ride, or 20 subway trips earns the user a discount. During gridlock alert days, prices could surge on Ubers while remaining low on transit in order to modify New Yorkers' behavior,” she said.

While New York isn’t set to completely phase out the MetroCard in favor of a contactless fare payment until 2023, the city can look to places like Chicago where transit users can connect to the subway, buses, and bike share system with a single app..

7. Expansion’s Also a Must
While the MTA has to make sure the trains and buses they actually have now are running effectively, there’s still a need to grow the transit system according to some experts.

“I don't think we can afford to wait another 20 years to add three stops to the Second Avenue subway. We have to be doing [Crossrail-type] of things here too if we want people to have a good quality of life. I don't think it's too ambitious,” Gelinas said in response to the question of whether the MTA should have to choose between bringing the subway system up to good repair or expanding it.

Slevin at the RPA made the case that the MTA should study expansion now, since it typically takes so long to get a huge new project off the ground. “It takes many years to build new transit lines so the MTA could start studying the Triboro now, and then be ready to build once resources become available,” she said, making the case for the Brooklyn/Queens/Bronx line that the RPA has endorsed and which would largely run on existing  little-used, above-ground railroad tracks, thus requiring significantly less construction than another new subway line, while also providing much needed access between boroughs that doesn’t rely on trips into Manhattan.

“Part of the reason we are in the transit mess we are in now is because we failed to invest in the system, modernize it, and build new lines to meet growing demand. We can’t make that mistake again,” said Slevin, also arguing for expansions like the Utica Avenue line in Brooklyn, building the Q into the Bronx, and a Jewel Avenue line in central Queens, all subway extensions into dense, transit-starved neighborhoods.

Gelinas echoed Slevin’s argument that a current lack of real planning could doom the city down the road. “We should be able to do two things at once, and if we can't, we're really harming the future of the city.

8. Communication is Key
As any perusal of Twitter will show you during a morning commute meltdown, transit riders are almost as annoyed by a lack of information about delays and trains getting rerouted as they are by travel disruptions themselves. Beyond confusing and irritating commuters, a lack of communication saps enthusiasm for proposals that would improve the system. “People understand when there's a real problem, but what they hate is not getting straight talk about it,” said Orcutt of TransitCenter. “If people don't feel like the MTA is levelling with them, it's much harder to get them to rally around more funding,” he explained.

“Multiple studies have shown that passengers mostly trust the transit agency when they are provided real-time information -- even when it's bad news,” Kaufman told Gotham Gazette. “The information gives the perception of control over the system, whereas only sharing the word ‘delay’ does not.” Kaufman recommended the agency lean on specifics when telling riders why their train is delayed, especially since clearly communicating something like a signal failure could encourage riders to lean on elected officials to focus more on the issue of signal replacement.

“[Communication] should just be a management thing. You don't need new anything for that, you just run it well and have somebody in charge,” Orcutt said. It’s a step the agency has made some movement on, hiring Sarah Meyer as the agency’s chief customer officer, but the effort at clear, timely, and focused communication is obviously still dogging the MTA with the occasional management failure and inaccurate countdown clock and website information.

While improving the way the MTA shares real-time problems plaguing the subway system won’t actually fix those problems the way other solutions can, it will at least help with the perception of screaming, or tweeting, into a bureaucratic void when something goes wrong.

by Dave Colon, Gotham Gazette

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8 Steps to Fix New York Transit and Get New Yorkers Moving Again Mon, 22 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Community Boards and Land Use corey jo comm board 2

A community board meeting (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

The mayor’s Charter Revision Commission met on Tuesday at the Pratt Institute for the third of its four expert advisory issue forums, this time discussing potential changes to community boards and the city’s land use process. The first meeting, held last Tuesday, focused on voting and election reform, while the second, held last Thursday, focused on campaign finance reform.

The commission, consisting of 15 members appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, including Chair Cesar Perales, will finalize a list of proposed changes to the city charter by early September that will then appear on the general election ballot in November for voters to approve or disapprove.

Stakeholders and experts such as City Comptroller Scott Stringer, community board members, academics, and advocates provided commentary and recommendations for the commission regarding the issues of community boards and land use; on some issues, the panelists and the commissioners all seemed to be in broad consensus, while on others there was evident discord.

One area of relative cohesion was a recommendation that all community boards have a full time expert on urban planning as a paid staff member, though it is unclear that this would rise to the level of being charter-mandated (there has been City Council legislation introduced to make such a requirement for each community board, which, if passed, would become a part of the city’s administrative code, not the charter). Most community boards are said to be understaffed and rely on volunteers to do important work; board members are all volunteers, which can both tilt the demography of the boards in certain directions, like wealthier than the represented area, and lends itself to a general lack of intimate knowledge of planning.

Stringer, who noted that he became the youngest ever appointee to a community board in 1977 at the age of 16, made his position clear, saying “what is truly needed” is “a full time urban planner on the staff of every community board.”

“The sole responsibility of this planner would be to support the board’s analysis in the development of recommendations on land use matters and to coordinate community based planning activities,” he continued. “Expertise of the urban planner would better enable community boards to conduct comprehensive community planning.” Stringer said the urban planner should have a degree in urban planning, architecture, real estate development, public policy, “or similar disciplines,” and that the city must “include the necessary budget appropriations to fund this position.”

“A community planner would be a game-changer in communities that are experiencing extraordinary land use applications, and quite frankly, they don’t have the expertise and they’re at a tremendous disadvantage,” Stringer said.

Kyle Bragg, a charter revision commissioner and secretary-treasurer of labor union 32BJ SEIU, questioned whether all community boards would need a land use professional, saying that land use applications (ULURPs) are not constantly being considered in a community board like Far Rockaway as much as in Midtown Manhattan. Stringer disagreed, saying that development is occurring all over the city and that “gentrification knows no bounds.”

Stringer also recommended that the city provide training on issues of land use to members of community boards on a periodic basis, something that Stringer said he prioritized as Manhattan Borough President (borough presidents appoint most community board members in their respective boroughs).

Stringer did not, however, endorse community board member term limits, breaking with some of his fellow testifiers. “When you have term limits, you also have a lame duck status that sets in,” he said. “We’re gonna see that with people now in their fifth year wondering what office they’re gonna run for next, and I dare say you’re gonna see a lot of musical chairs and people thinking about the future, not necessarily the job in front of them. And that’s just the reality of elected term limits,” he said, in apparent reference to the dozens of City Council members, five borough presidents, and three citywide officials who are all term-limited at the end of the current term. Instead, he endorsed a process undertaken during his borough presidency of periodic reviews of board members, reappointing those doing a good job and sacking those who weren’t.

Community board members who testified did not offer unequivocal support to term limits.

“I think it takes a couple of years to try to figure out how to write a resolution, how to understand city government,” said Shah Ally, chair of Manhattan Community Board 12. “But I also don’t think you need to be on the board 30 years, either.”

Rachel Bloom of government reform group Citizens Union, meanwhile, took an unambiguous stance in favor of term limits.

“Community board members should be term-limited, serving [up to] five consecutive two-year terms,” she said, while noting that the term limits should be phased in gradually to “ensure there is not a mass exodus of institutional knowledge from the boards.”

Stringer claimed that community boards have deviated significantly from their ancestral origin in 1951, at the impetus of Manhattan Borough President Robert Wagner, as Community Planning Boards. The comptroller said that, with numerous elected officials maintaining district offices, the use of community boards for constituent services draws resources away from the more integral tenet of land use.

During the portion of the commission hearing focused on land use, two general themes played out among the speakers: that the land use process does not adequately facilitate community input and that the process is more geared toward short-term zoning concerns and less toward long-term community planning.

“The symptom of the conflict, the neighborhood-city conflict, throughout much of the ULURP process that can both stop good things from happening and also not give communities power over unneeded or unwanted uses, is a sense that there is no ability to proactively community plan,” said Moses Gates, the vice president of housing and neighborhood planning at the Regional Plan Association. “That unless you’re able to put forth a positive vision that has some oomph behind it, and some ability to be recognized, that the only option you’re left with is an option of obstruction, or an option of essentially trying to go through the process and make the best of what might be perceived as a bad deal.”

Gates recommended the creation of an “Office of Community-Based Planning” to assist communities, and community boards, in land use and planning. Gates also recommended a charter codification of a “fair share” program, wherein communities shoulder burdens of ill-desired land uses, like a sewage treatment plant for instance, equally, instead of being shouldered disproportionately by communities without the political and social capital to fight those land uses.

“Planning is more than land use,” said Elena Conte, director of policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development. “It properly considers the systems and the structures into which land use fits. It’s about the social, environmental, and economic wellbeing, and land use is not planning. And so I think we are asking the wrong questions of our land use procedures, right? Both government, stakeholders, developers, and communities feel as though too much is being lumped onto the process unfairly.”

Others, such as Hunter College professor Tom Angotti, said that the important decisions are often made unaccountably in the “pre-ULURP” process, meaning a period before the city’s official Uniform Land Use Review Process that takes land use decisions from developers or the City Planning Department to community boards to the Borough President and Borough Board to the City Planning Commission and, finally, to the City Council.

“All those discussions that go on, side discussions, agreements that get made behind closed doors, are part of the undemocratic process that precedes ULURP,” said Angotti. “And it’s followed by a series of public hearings, at the community level, at the borough president level, at the City Planning Commission level, at the City Council level, which are more theater than true democracy. Why? Because we’re stuck in a method for participation that is bankrupt.” Angotti noted that concerned citizens are often forced to wait hours in order to testify for three minutes to a few sleepy-eyed bureaucrats.

Angotti also recommended that ULURP decisions be made based on preordained “197-a” plans submitted by community boards, rather than on an ad hoc basis. Since the 1989 charter revision that established 197-a plans considerable by the City Planning Commission, only 17 community plans have been submitted to the city.

“The biggest single reform could be a charter requirement that every ULURP action be consistent with a 197-a plan,” forcing both community boards to submit such plans and the City Planning Commission to take them seriously and not simply shelve them.

Commision Chair Perales, however, criticized the land use panel of testifiers as failing to clearly present their recommendations in a digestible manner.

“We are supposed to put something clear and concrete before the voters,” Perales said. “We’re not decision-makers here. We’re here to determine what it is the issues that you think should be addressed in a revision of the city charter. And if you have the opportunity, or are so inclined, maybe go back and send us something that will help us to digest, better understand, what your positions are on what we can do about land use with what are gonna be relatively minor changes in the city charter.”

“Remember,” he continued, “you don’t want to go into the voting booth and have to review a three page referendum that this planning commission put before you, so we have a tough job, and while we have been persuaded by many of your comments, I’m not so sure we understand how to put it before the voters.”

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Community Boards and Land Use Wed, 20 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
What's The [DATA] Point? 1996, with Chris Jones of the Regional Plan Association whats the data point

What's The Data Point? Episode 23 -- 1996, with Chris Jones of the Regional Plan Association [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

chris jones wtdp ep 23

The Regional Plan Association (RPA) just released its latest comprehensive 25-year regional plan -- The Fourth Plan -- to help New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut plan for the present and the future. RPA's Chief Planner, Chris Jones, joined the podcast to discuss the plan, its goals and key components, possible challenges, and immediate steps toward needed progress.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Carol Kellerman of CBC (@cbcny), and guest Chris Jones of RPA (@RegionalPlan). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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What's The [DATA] Point? 1996, with Chris Jones of the Regional Plan Association Thu, 14 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
A Vision for the Future of the Tri-State Region map 9788

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut must reform their governing institutions, overhaul and integrate their transit networks, fight climate change, and make it less costly to live in the region. Those are the four major thematic prescriptions of the Fourth Regional Plan, a comprehensive vision released on Thursday by the Regional Plan Association (RPA), a prominent urban think tank that has advocated for comprehensive urban development projects in the tri-state region for more than 90 years.    

The RPA is a private group composed of urban experts and business leaders who first came together to release a broad holistic plan for the New York metropolitan region in 1929. It has since grown into an influential research and advocacy organization and many of its proposals have informed state and local policy. The latest plan, as with past documents, proposes long-term solutions to major urban issues such as economic growth, mass transit, affordability, and housing.

The new plan is “much more inclusive” than past iterations, said RPA President Tom Wright, at the Thursday release at The New School in Manhattan. The RPA sought input from civic groups, community-based organizations, and thousands of residents from the region, he said, and employed analytical data tools that were unavailable in the past.

“The challenges that we’re talking about with this plan are clearer than they’ve ever been because we’ve been tested,” Wright said, referencing the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the great recession, and Hurricane Sandy, which he called the “three great shocks” that have affected the region since the last regional plan was released, in the mid-1990s.

At the core of the plan are four guiding principles -- equity, health, prosperity and sustainability -- on the basis of which the plan recommends actions to improve state institutions, fix the region’s transportation infrastructure, tackle the challenges of climate change, and increase household incomes while creating more affordable housing.

“Unless we dramatically increase our infrastructure capacity, housing supply and productive capabilities, economic growth over the next 25 years will be half what it was over the last 25,” Wright warned. “And without this growth, we won’t be able to raise our living standards, expand opportunities or pay for the investments that we need.” He predicted that the plan’s recommendations would double predicted job growth from 850,000 jobs to nearly 2 million jobs by 2040, and that it would end homelessness and sharply reduce inequality along racial, ethnic and gender lines.

Many of the recommendations would require broad cooperation between state and local authorities from the three states. They include creating an integrated regional rail network for the three states and modernizing major transit hubs and airports in the region.

Building on commitments already in place in the three states to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, the plan recommends that the region follow California’s lead to expand their carbon pricing efforts to transportation, residential, commercial, and industrial sectors. Those efforts could generate $3 billion in revenue a year combined, the plan estimates.

The RPA also proposes a more proactive approach to coastal resiliency instead of one dependent on federal aid to respond in the wake of climate disasters. It imagines a Regional Coastal Commission of the three states which would take a “long-range, multi-jurisdictional, and strategic approach” to resilience and sustainability. It also puts forward the idea of a Tri-State Energy Policy Task Force, to focus on sources of sustainable energy to create a greener electrical grid.  

Many of the recommendations deal with New York City’s own public transit and traffic crises. The plan supports a congestion pricing strategy and changes to highway tolling to reduce traffic. It also addresses the specific problems of the MTA, calling on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to create a Subway Reconstruction Public Benefit Corporation to renovate stations, reduce overcrowding, repair the signal system and improve accessibility for people with disabilities. One of the apparently less popular proposals involves shutting down more weeknight service on the subway system to create longer windows for subway repairs. An apparently more popular aspect includes several subway line extensions.

The plan also suggests reforming the structure of transportation authorities such as the MTA and the Port Authority to provide more accountability and transparency while reducing the cost of constructing new transit infrastructure. The plan also proposes new divisions at the Port Authority to handle operations and a separate infrastructure bank for major projects.

Addressing the audience, First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, who is set to leave the de Blasio administration in January, praised the plan and RPA’s focus on long-term outcomes across political jurisdictions. “You have to challenge us, you have to challenge the conventional wisdom,” he said of the plan, expecting that one government or the other, even de Blasio’s, would find fault with parts of the proposal.

But he said it was invaluable in thinking of the prosperity of the larger region with which New York City’s future is inextricably linked. “We rise and fall together,” he said, “and it’s time we recognize that.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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A Vision for the Future of the Tri-State Region Thu, 30 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000