Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


9/11 + 5

Covered completely in ash from the collapse of the twin towers, the clothes in Chelsea Jeans in lower Manhattan remained in the store window for 13 months after 9/11, presented and preserved by David Cohen, the store's owner. In October 2002, his display was packed into hermetically sealed crates. Now the crates have been unsealed and the scene recreated, literally, as a museum piece. They are now on display in a glass case next to the cafeteria in the basement of the New York Historical Society.

New Yorkers are preparing to mark the fifth anniversary of September 11. There are exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum and the Police Museum, retrospective panel discussions, a new movie and a new book that promised to stir up controversy, and a day of commemoration planned for Ground Zero itself, ending with the Tribute in Light, an art installation intended to be a one-time deal that has morphed into a periodic memorial

The permanent memorial, meanwhile, is still a series of architectural drawings.

Like previous anniversaries, the fifth anniversary will undoubtedly inspire not only reflection on the attacks but also on the progress that has been made in rebuilding the city. This September 11, though, there is little to mark except the passing of time. Ground Zero looks more or less what it looked like on its fourth birthday or, for that matter, its third. The general public is no longer following the debate what the memorial should look like, or what kind of retail stores should go there. The agency in charge of coordinating the rebuilding of the site – the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation – says it is "nearing the end of [its] mission", and had declared itself defunct.

Many of those involved say that the progress continues, even if it isn’t visible to the naked eye. The transportation hub, which has always been immune to the vitriol and stagnation of the memorial and the Freedom Tower, remains on schedule. Designs for the remaining three towers will be unveiled this week, the first time that plans for the entire site will be made public. The change in administration in Albany, many believe, will push forward turning this plan into actual buildings.

Each reassurance, though, seems to carry less weight with New Yorkers who marked the “symbolic beginning” of the construction at Ground Zero – the laying of the cornerstone of the Freedom Tower – over two years ago. This summer, the cornerstone was actually removed from Ground Zero, as newfound concerns about where on the site the Freedom Tower should be built arose. It has not returned.

When construction will be completed, or what, exactly, will be built are still open questions. Meanwhile the pain from the attacks themselves has been dulled by another passing year. Have we gotten over it?

"I think people are sick of hearing about closure," said Amy Weinstein, the curator of Elegy in the Dust, the exhibit at the New York Historical Society. "But I think that with the passage of time, things have changed. People have some perspective, a little distance, or a measured appreciation for how their lives have changed."

Investigative reporter Wayne Barrett believes that time has healed the pain enough to raise questions that would have been taboo in years past. His new book Grand Illusion questions former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's legacy as a 9/11 hero; in a recent interview he said he has long had the material to write the book, but held off until he and his publishers thought people would be ready.

"There had to be an adjustment period," he said.

For those most affected by the attacks – those who lost loved ones, those who are getting sick from exposure to the chemicals released in the buildings’ collapse, and those who live and work in the immediate area – life didn’t return to what it was before 9/11. Cohen of Chelsea Jeans, for example, watched as his store went out of business as downtown's economy dried up after 9/11. He moved his family out of the city he had immigrated to almost twenty years earlier, and started over in Florida.


Life in the city is different than it was before 9/11. In some ways, the changes are subtle, or have been internalized. In others, it remains unclear how the aftermath of 9/11 will play out years from now.

Security: The single factor that has changed the everyday life of New Yorkers more than anything else since 9/11 is the increase in security.

The most visible tightening is at the airports and in the air. But there is a greater police presence on the ground, and underground. Bags on the subways are searched randomly. Earlier this year the police department announced that it would establish a "ring of steel" around lower Manhattan, recording every person or vehicle to go south of Chambers Street. The project has been put on hold because of a reduction in anti-terrorism funding – an issue that has suddenly become a constant source of tension between New York and the federal government – but aggressive surveillance measures continue to be put in place by the government and by private businesses.

The Partnership for New York City, a business group representing major employers, recently surveyed its members, finding that their costs for security have risen between 10 and 20 percent, well over the average increase nationwide. Insurance costs for companies operating in New York have also spiked.

There is a social price as well, says Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is concerned about the city's willingness to subvert personal liberties for security. Often, the threat of terrorism is being used to monitor legal political activities in ways that would have been unacceptable before 9/11.

"When you don't feel the pain immediately, you don't notice the problem," she said. "It's very, very difficult to reverse practices like this."

Health: For years, officials have questioned whether there is a direct link between certain illnesses and exposure to chemicals released in the collapse of the Twin Towers. But just last week, the city sent guidelines to doctors for identifying illnesses related to 9/11. The state also recently passed a law giving more generous benefits to rescue workers whose illnesses seem 9/11-related.

The toll that 9/11 will eventually take on the health of those who worked on the rescue effort – or those who simply lived nearby – will likely continue for many years. But critics still say that there has been a failure to take responsibility for such sicknesses at all levels of government.

Economic Development: The aftermath of the attacks doomed individual businesses, like Chelsea Jeans or small manufacturers in Chinatown, who always operated on thin margins. But industries whose outcomes looked bleak several years ago are no longer struggling. Restaurants, tourism and retail, and the airline industry are operating at or above levels they were before 9/11. In fiscal 2006, the city's gross domestic product, a measure the comptroller's office uses to measure the city's overall economic output, surpassed its pre 9/11 peak for the first time since the attacks.

Some things, however, have changed.

Companies are also more apt for spread their operations geographically, instead of concentrating them in Manhattan. This, along with national economic trends, means that there are seven percent fewer finance jobs now than before the attacks, according to Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York City.

Businesses want to ensure that they no longer rely solely on a single geographic location, she said, and have moved some operations out of New York as a result.

"That's probably a permanent dislocation."


The physical rebuilding of lower Manhattan – a project that gripped the attention of the city in a way unlike any before or since – has faded from the daily news. But what happens at Ground Zero remains vitally important for the city's economic – and emotional – recovery.

Lower Manhattan, says Wylde, has about 28,000 fewer jobs than it did before 9/11. This is roughly the number of people who worked at the World Trade Center, and "for obvious reasons, those jobs aren't back," she said.

Wylde and others see positive signs for the development of Ground Zero, but acknowledge that the project remains beset by frustration.


Positive Signs


Transportation Infrastructure: The one piece of the plan for Ground Zero that has moved smoothly is the transportation hub, designed by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava. A temporary PATH station already exists on the site, and is scheduled to be replaced by 2009.

One block away, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is working on a new $750 million Fulton Street subway station. Critics have called the project unnecessary, but others say it will make the area a more attractive place to the businesses that will hopefully move into the offices at Ground Zero. It appears to be moving ahead on schedule.

"You have to realize the tremendous capital expenditure that's being made downtown to rebuild transportation, communication," said Brian Weld of Colliers ABR, a real estate firm. "The basic nuts and bolts of downtown are being entirely rebuilt."

A Better Business Climate? Even with improved transportation to the area, there have long been doubts that the commercial real estate market in New York could handle much new office space. There are signs today, however, that new office buildings would do well.

Demand for new office space is strong. Vacancy rates are falling, and rents rising. Much of what is available downtown is in older buildings without large blocks of space. Many feel it seems ready for new buildings.

7 World Trade Center: People looking to illustrate the strength of the market point to Seven World Trade Center, which World Trade Center site developer Larry Silverstein finished building in May. There were major concerns about the building's marketability, but it has filled about half of its 1.6 million square feet of office space. Weld takes this as a sign that the building is succeeding.


Open Questions


Despite the positive news literally surrounding Ground Zero, considerable concern remains about the signature pieces of the Ground Zero development.

Freedom Tower: The Freedom Tower, it seems, is immune to the sense of optimism about the prospects for commercial buildings downtown. It is commonly understood that Governor George Pataki sees it as his physical legacy to the 9/11 recovery, but many feel his political and personal commitment to the building has inspired him to push a project that may well fail.

The 1,776-foot tall Freedom Tower would contain about 2.6 million square feet of office space. It is further from public transportation than other buildings planned for Ground Zero, and is perceived as a possible terrorist target. There are no committed tenants for the building.

Governor Pataki says that government agencies will take at least one million square feet of space in the building, but critics do not see that as a guarantee. Two of the three gubernatorial candidates have expressed concern over the financial prospects of the tower. Eliot Spitzer has called it a "white elephant". While he says he is committed to building it if elected governor, he adds that he would reassess the project if the one million square feet were not leased when he took office.

The Other Towers: Some involved in rebuilding share Sptizer's concern. The Regional Plan Association has said the towers along the east side of the site -- bordering Church Street -- would be a better investment. It may make sense to build these buildings first, they say, gradually introducing new office space instead of glutting the market.

Designs for the three buildings are scheduled to be unveiled this week. At the moment, they are scheduled to be completed by 2012.

The Memorial: Civic groups who have been involved in the rebuilding would see the creation of a memorial as the primary immediate concern at the site.

"The lack of a memorial, the lack of a plaza, is a key problem," said David Kallick of the Fiscal Policy Association. "I don't think there's a problem with the buildings coming on line one by one as the market demand increases."

But the memorial has its own challenges. There is still controversy over how the victims' names will be displayed. That, combined with a general uncertainty over plans for the site, has made fundraising difficult. To date, the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, which is in charge of building the memorial, has raised $132 million. Estimates for how much it will cost to complete the memorial range from $500 million to close to $1 billion.

Cultural Buildings: As Ground Zero is beset by funding concerns on all sides, it seems that the cultural buildings planned for the site have been orphaned.

"It's not on anybody's funding timetable," said Ric Bell of the American Institute of Architects. "Where does that leave culture on the site?"

The End of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation: Despite these open questions, the agency formed to direct rebuilding announced this summer that it would soon go out of business.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation arranged the design competitions for the master plan for the site and the memorial, played a role in the controversies over the Freedom Tower, and passed out billions of dollars in public money for post 9/11 recovery.

"The LMDC had a mission and we're nearing the end of that mission," its chairman, Kevin Rampe, said at the time.

Most of the power over rebuilding has always rested with the governor, and many agreed that the organization had outlasted its usefulness. With a layer of bureaucracy gone, the decision-making would be sharpened.

"Not that they were a negative force, but the cacophony of voices I don't think was the most expeditious way to get decisions made," said Wylde of the Partnership for New York City.

The agency does have some issues it must resolve before it closes its doors, however. There are still tens of millions of dollars in grant money to be distributed. The agency says it does not have exact numbers on how much money it has, but newspaper reports indicate that there is about $45 million in "community enhancement" grants and another $7 million in cultural grants remaining. It is not clear who will distribute this money if the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation doesn't.

The agency has also not developed design guidelines to go with the master plan for the site. These would determine what the site would actually look like, from the actual buildings down to light fixtures and curbs. Failure to put such guidelines in place has been a sticking point for those who say they are a necessary part of the master plan.

"These questions will be resolved over the next couple of months, Michael Haberman, a spokesperson for the agency, said of the issues surrounding the grant money and the guidelines.

But Bell of the American Institute of Architects says that the agency's biggest failure has been its inability to get such guidelines in place. While an opportunity has been lost by not having them ready before design work began on the buildings, he says they are still "desperately needed."


Two weeks before the fifth anniversary of 9/11, New Orleans marked the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In many ways it was like the first anniversary of 9/11: the intense media attention, the public grieving, the sharp questions about recovery.

In response to criticism that rebuilding in his city was not moving quickly enough, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin made the comparison explicit.

"You guys in New York can't get a hole in the ground fixed, and it's five years later. So let's be fair," he said on 60 Minutes. Nagin was making a point that is regularly made in the editorial pages of New York's newspapers, by public officials, and even by those who are involved in the rebuilding itself. As a statement of fact, it is indisputable. But any public statements about Ground Zero are likely to evoke an emotional response. Nagin was criticized harshly, and soon said he regretted the remarks – on a trip he made to New York City last week to entice investors into contribute to the rebuilding of New Orleans.

"I will never again refer to that site as a hole," said Nagin. "It's a sacred site that's currently in an undeveloped state."


Barging Back

Barges are poised for a comeback. Not that they ever left New York-the big flat vessels travel up and down New York waterways filled with petroleum, stone, rocks, sand, scrap and chemicals. Almost all of the home heating oil used on the East Coast comes through New York Harbor on barges.

And yet barges used to carry much more -- in fact, everything loaded on or off of ships from around the world. The great Erie Canal was built in 1817 for barges. But by the middle of the 20th century, bridges and tunnels and the Interstate highway system made transport of goods speedier and easier by trucks. Even garbage, once carried by scows (which are similar to barges), started being transported by trucks. Today barges carry just six percent of the nation's cargo.

With traffic-clogged highways and high fuel prices, far-sighted planners in New York are looking to barges once again.

According to a plan passed by the City Council in July, the city's trash will once again be hauled away by barge. Officials also hope that container ships will unload cargo onto barges as well.

Moving Containers

Until the mid-1970s, New York was a commercial harbor. "If you saw a pleasure boat, they were lost," says Eric Johansson, director of the Maritime Industry Museum in the Bronx. But then exactly half a century ago, a new kind of ship was created, container ships, which carry their cargo in truck-size containers that can be easily transferred to the back of a truck or attached to a locomotive. The container ships were huge and needed massive amounts of space to unload. This is what did in most of the commercial waterfront business in the city. In the city today, cargo unloads only in Brooklyn and Staten Island. Most of the container ships go to New Jersey ports. Now real estate developers have jumped into the old working waterfront to put up commercial and residential buildings.

Johansson, a former tugboat captain, bemoans the transformation. He wants to see more, not less, commercial traffic. And the way to do this, he thinks, is by bringing back barges. "Anything moved by water is more cost efficient than on the road. You gain a little speed with trucking, but when fuel costs go up, it won't be efficient. It's always cheaper to go by water. You don't have to build a road. You've got the waterway sitting there naturally."

Even a small, inland barge can carry 60 containers. That would make 60 tractor-trailer truckloads. "If you could take 60 18-wheelers off the road with one barge, why wouldn't you want to do that?" says Tom Wakeman of the Port Authority. Larger barges can carry 200 or more containers.

The idea of using barges for containers is not just a dream. For three years, there was a federally-funded pilot program to move containers from the giant ships in New York Harbor to Albany, via barges.

The experiment failed. Different experts give different reasons why – it wasn’t given enough time, there weren’t enough trips back and forth, there wasn’t enough marketing, not enough effort to sell the shippers on the idea, too many marinas blocking the barges along the waterway into Albany, etc. Tom Hannan, who is in charge of the barge program for the Port Authority, believes the barge program might simply have been ahead of its time. The shippers weren't ready to embrace it because they didn't see a cost or time savings. As fuel costs grow and the ports and highways become more congested with ever-greater imports, that will change, and the economical barges will show their virtues.

Today the Port Authority is planning another pilot program, this time to transport containers by barge to Bridgeport. Since Bridgeport is along the truck-congested I95 highway corridor, shippers might be more inclined to use the barge service. They are also looking at services to Camden and Providence.

Hannan of the Port Authority is optimistic. The Albany program "was an incredibly complicated process, but we learned a lot,” he says. “We're in a position to do much better.”

Moving Trash

In a few years, whether or not the container/barge program takes off, barges will be more numerous, because they are slated to start collecting and hauling off the 12,000 tons of trash city residents produce each year. Garbage trucks will load their trash onto barges at transfer stations along the rivers. The capacious but unglamorous vessels will then carry the unglamorous waste off to landfills in other states. That will ease traffic, odors and road wear, saving 3.5 million miles of driving a year.

Today, most of the garbage goes to transfer stations in poor neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens for compaction. Then it is trucked out to landfills. The new method is meant to be more equitable. One of the transfer stations will be on the Upper East Side in Manhattan.

Though barge proponents say that water transport is economical, the cost for transporting the city's trash will increase from $77 to $107 per ton. Officials say that in the long run, the costs will be lower, but implementation will be more costly than the current method.

It took years of wrangling, but the City Council passed Mayor Michael Bloomberg's trash plan in July with a vote of 44 to 5. It should be implemented by 2009, according to Bloomberg.

Soon, the big unassuming worker bees of the rivers are likely once again become a major force in moving items to and from New York.


Democrats Move in on Staten Island's Republican South Shore

New York State Senate-District 24:

The Candidates

• Bob Helbock

• Andrew Lanza

• Matthew Titone

Other Races

• New York State Assembly- District 21: Ethnic Politics in Changing Flushing
• New York State Assembly- District 57: Succeeding Green in Fort Greene – and Beyond

• New York State Senate-District 13: Bringing the Money Back from Albany
• New York State Senate-District 20: Debating Health, Education, Reform and, Yes, Atlantic Yards, in Central Brooklyn


The South Shore of Staten Island has had the same state senator – Republican John Marchi – since before the island was connected to the rest of New York City by the Verrazano Bridge. But after 49 years in office, the 85-year old senator is not seeking reelection, leaving the seat for the 24th district open. Two Republicans and one Democrat are vying for the spot, in a race that has the potential to play not only a local role, but also affect the balance of power in Albany.


The Staten Island Expressway running east and west across Staten Island serves as an unofficial divider between the wealthy Catholic Italian neighborhoods of the south shore and the poorer, more ethnically diverse north.

The 24th District is a traditionally conservative area, and generally votes Republican – a rarity in new York City. Despite this distinction, the area has more registered Democrats than Republicans. Matthew Titone, a lawyer who has done pro bono work for various AIDS organizations and sits on the board of directors for the Community Health Action of Staten Island, is the Democratic candidate. He lacks formal political experience and has raised only $37,000 – far less than his opponents – but comes from a prominent political family, likely boosting his name recognition.

Two Republicans are competing for their party's line in a rare Republican primary. Andrew Lanza is the current city councilmember for the South Shore. He is running against Bob Helbock, counsel for John Marchi and former chairman of the Staten Island Republican Party. Lanza has an edge in fundraising; he has raised $141,000 as compared to Helbock's $110,000. He also has the endorsements of Mayor Bloomberg, the borough's Republican Party – the same one that Helbock once chaired – and nearly every elected Republican official in Staten Island.

He has also held elected office, unlike Helbock. "Lanza will run on a record of accomplishment," said Rich Flanagan, an associate professor of political science at the College of Staten Island. But that record may also work against him: Lanza's 72 absences out of 153 city council meetings last year made him the councilmember with the worst attendance record.

Helbock has secured the backing of both Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro and outgoing Senator Marchi, his former employer. He will be running on the Conservative Party line as well. His attempt to also run on the Independence Party line failed due to a successful petition challenge by Lanza.


All the candidates describe traffic and development as major issues.

"We had a traffic problem 10 years ago," said Titone. "Now it's a traffic crisis." He calls for a "real analysis" of traffic, and would like to see charter buses serving residents who work in New Jersey.

Lanza says that traffic issues have "really ravaged the island over the last 20 years," and helped motivate him to leave the public sector and run for political office. He wants to maintain the suburban character of Staten Island, and cites the establishment of a mayoral traffic task force and zoning restrictions to prevent overdevelopment among his accomplishments in the council. Lanza argues that a bus depot should be built, along with a ferry to the South Shore, so that residents do not have to make a "Lewis and Clark" expedition to get to Manhattan.

While Lanza implies that Staten Island politicians have not done enough to address traffic problems, Helbock thinks that "insufficient planning on a city level" is to blame. Staten Island, he believes, will need help from federal, state and city government to fix its traffic problems. Among his proposals is an expansion of the train that runs north to south along Staten Island's east side.

The controversial plan to build a NASCAR track in Staten Island has been a flashpoint issue for those concerned about traffic. The first public meeting on the proposal in April nearly ended in a riot, with the police shutting it down before any organized debate could begin. At one point Lanza's microphone was almost ripped from his hands.

Lanza has been a harsh critic of the plan, saying it has done "nothing to address the legitimate concerns of [Staten Island]." Helbock also opposes it, saying the traffic plan is "unacceptable." Titone's view is less clear.

"I am not opposed to it," he said, "but not convinced it's good for Staten Island."


The candidates have also taken strong positions on the state of health care on Staten Island. Titone says he would like to focus on health insurance policy in Albany. "Doctors are being hurt by insurance policies. The only [ones] doing well are insurance companies,” he said.

He also complains that there used to be five hospitals on Staten Island, but now there are only "one and a half" – the only fully functioning hospital being Staten Island University Hospital. New York City Health and Hospital Corporation, which operates public hospitals and clinics, does not fund any hospitals on Staten Island, and Titone says the corporation hasn't met its responsibility to the area.

Lanza says if he’s in the legislature, he will push the public hospital system to provide service to Staten Island. He also suggested that, if necessary, the hospitals corporation would fund Staten Island’s hospitals through “threat of lawsuit.”


The Democratic Party will likely have several big names on its ticket this November , and it is hoping that Titone will automatically get the votes of Spitzer or Clinton supporters.

Titone is also relying on Albany's bad reputation to win him points as the candidate for change. The Republicans in the State Senate and Governor Pataki have "created nothing but a dysfunctional government," he said.

Helbock is also pushing for change in Albany, saying he would like to make all member items public, so that it will be clear where legislators are sending money.

This election may also have a big effect on Albany by changing the balance of the Senate. The Democrats are hoping to gain four seats in November, retaking the majority for the first time in decades. This makes the election in Senate District 24 a rare event in New York City – one where party actually matters.

"Staten Island is the one place where a two-party system works," said Flanagan of the College of Staten Island. "It's a very interesting race … probably the only interesting [election] in the city."


Open Space in the Atlantic Yards Development

"A Garden of Eden grows in Brooklyn," announced the glossy brochure Brooklyn residents received in their mailboxes promoting the controversial Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn. The brochure borrowed the words of former New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp to promote developer Bruce Ratner's publicly subsidized mega-development slated to rise at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. In addition to building a Frank Gehry-designed basketball arena to bring the Nets to Brooklyn and 16 high-rises with up to 6,800 units of housing, the project promised open space and recreation for area with a severe shortage of parkland.

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement was released in July, giving the community its first chance to look closely at the details of a development that has skirted the usual public review process. Has the developer lived up to his promise for open space? Does the plan contain enough active and passive recreational space for the projected 15,000 or more new residents as well as the people who already live in the surrounding neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Boerum Hill, Prospect Heights, and Park Slope? Will the open space, set in between apartment towers, be truly public? And are there plans or mandates in place guaranteeing that the space's management, programming, and maintenance would make it accessible and inviting to the public?

What's There Now

No one disputes that the area surrounding the Atlantic Yards site has an acute lack of both active and passive open space.

The city's optimal goal for open space per thousand residents is 2.5 acres, of which 2 acres should be for active recreation. Anything less than 1.5 acres of open space per 1,000 residents is considered a deficiency of open space. At present, according the Draft Environmental Impact Statement's optimistic calculations of existing public space, there are just .36 acres of open space per 1,000 residents within a half-mile radius. Half of that acreage is for active recreation.

The amount of usable parkland is actually much lower than the statement indicates, however, because a third of the 23.79 acres it counts are mostly fenced-off greenery within the giant traffic circle known as Grand Army Plaza, one of the most treacherous intersections in Brooklyn. Another few acres are asphalt courts, or schoolyards and fields available for limited hours. The statement mentions other open spaces that it claims mitigate the shortage, such as community gardens, private plazas and public parks not officially within the area analyzed. These include Prospect Park, whose closest entrance is a good half-hour walk from the project site; heavily used Fort Greene Park; the exposed and unappealing plaza outside the Atlantic Terminal shopping mall; and even a few unshaded benches attached to planters at an entrance to the Atlantic Mall.

The Promised Parkland

Atlantic Yards includes seven acres of open space on top of a deck to be constructed over the Vanderbilt rail yards. The designer is Laurie Olin, the highly regarded landscape architect who designed Bryant Park and Battery Park City. All of the park space would be in the interior of two large blocks containing ten high-rise residential towers.

The open space plans include two playgrounds, a half basketball court, an active play area for bocce and volleyball, a large oval lawn, and trees, but no baseball or soccer fields. A curving walkway would continue the street grid through the middle of the space. There will be pools that hold water as part of the comprehensive storm water management plan.

In addition to the parkland, the project calls for an "Urban Room," a soaring lobby for the Nets arena that is to double as a community space. The developer originally promised a running track on the roof of the arena, but, said Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco in an email, "We decided against sending the public to the roof for safety and design reasons, given how difficult it would be to provide access." Now, an acre of green rooftop is being reserved for private use by building tenants, which the environmental impact statement says will reduce the need for public open space.

On face value, the amount of open space is respectable. It constitutes almost a third of the project's 22-acre site. But because the towers would have so many residents -- with a projected 15,000 to 18,000 residents, it would become the densest census tract in the country -- the area within a half-mile radius would actually end up with a lower ratio of public space per resident that it has now, .28 acres per 1,000 residents. The percentage of active recreational space would drop to .15 acres. The already fully booked sports fields in Prospect Park and elsewhere in the area would not be able to absorb the overload.

Compare that to Battery Park City, which also has about a third of its 92 acres of residential and commercial development set aside as parks and fields. When completely built, it will have about 14,000 residents, so the ratio of parkland per 1,000 residents meets the city's goal of 2.5.

At Battery Park City, much of the parkland was put in before construction of the buildings. At Atlantic Yards, however, no parkland is slated to be constructed until the second building phase, which includes most of the residential towers, estimated to be completed in 2016. For families affected by a lack of places to play, ten years is most of a childhood. Also, the economic and real estate climate can change drastically over ten or more years. Changing financial circumstances could prevent the developer from finishing the green space as planned or create pressure to increase the footprint of the buildings.

In addition, according to the environmental statement, the multiple tall buildings will throw some of the existing public spaces into shadow and make them less likely to be used. Particularly affected will be the open space around the Atlantic Terminal Houses, which will get far less sunlight during the colder months. That would reduce the value of its open spaces for relaxation and recreation, and could affect the housing project's safety, because parks are much safer when people are using them.

The underlying assumption of the open space plan seems to be that it is acceptable for the developer to (eventually) keep the status quo, more or less. The environmental impact statement states, "It is recognized that [the city's minimum standards of parkland per capita] are goals that are not feasible in many parks of the city."

"Clearly the development requires more emphasis on open space and parks," said Christian DePalermo, executive director of the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks. The group wants to see the amount of parkland increased and make it more accessible to the public. It is also lobbying for the creation of interim park space during the first phases of construction.

Public or Private Eden?

From the sketches available, the park space itself looks appealing. Yet it is surrounded and enclosed by tall buildings. Would it end up being used mostly by the residents of the towers? Would there be an invisible "keep out" sign, as in Stuyvesant Town or other apartment complexes with interior parks?

Forest City Ratner says that it has taken pains to create a publicly accessible space that invites the public in. "The entire space has been developed to create access for all, including sight lines that run through, open spaces, play spaces, walkways, and quiet places," said DePlasco. Entrances to the space have been designed so that the interior of the green space is visible from the sidewalks, and a tree- and bench-lined walkway continues Pacific Street through the larger of the two high-rise blocks. A southbound bicycle path would run through the project area.

Urban planning experts aren't convinced, however, that the design puts public access first. "A lot of the corridors are matched up with building entrances and areas that seem like outdoor lobbies," said Andy Wiley-Schwartz, vice-president at the Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit group that works to improve community life through public spaces. He is reviewing the open space part of the environmental impact statement as a consultant for the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods.

The Municipal Art Society, a nonprofit advocate for excellence in urban planning and design, conducted an eight-month analysisof Atlantic Yards. Regarding the open space component, it concluded that the parkland would serve primarily as a backyard for the residential skyscrapers. "Look at any successful park, and you'll see it's surrounded by streets," said Jasper Goldman, an advocacy associate at the society. "This is laying down buildings and then carving the park around it. We keep asking, 'Can you point to an example where a space configured like this functions as a public space?'" In concluding that the project in its present form does not work for Brooklyn, the society set forth five urban design principles by which the plan should be amended, including "Create a real public park."

Also important to consider is whether the rest of the development will have the scale and street life to attract pedestrians to the edges of the park. "Pedestrian movement is critical to the success of open space," said Wiley-Schwartz. Even now-before the addition of an arena, new stores and offices, and of more than 6,800 apartments-the site is a pedestrian's nightmare. Shoppers walking to its malls face a gauntlet of dangerous street crossings and a trek past blank walls on treeless sidewalks. Plans for the Atlantic Yards include planting street trees and providing retail space for bodegas and boutiques, the kinds of things that increase pedestrian traffic, but few details have been provided. "Who knows if that's going to happen?" said Wiley-Schwartz.

Another reason planning experts lack confidence in the park plans is developer Bruce Ratner's poor track record in this area. They argue that previous Brooklyn developments, including the Atlantic Mall and Metro Tech, have contributed almost nothing to public open space or a vibrant street life. "If your plan was to be public and provide open access, the project has the wrong combination of developer and architect," said Wiley-Schwartz. "You've got an architect who builds suit-of-armor buildings that repel people from their edges. The exterior of the Bilbao Musuem is famously unsafe. And you've got a developer who builds tower-moat projects."

It is also not clear whether the 10,000-square-foot "Urban Room" in the arena will function as intended. "It is being marketed as the Grand Central for Brooklyn, but it's configured like it's going to be a lobby to the arena," said Goldman. "Will it function as a public space given that?"

"We do hope people use the Urban Room to access activities at the arena," said DePlasco of Forest City Ratner. "But beyond that, we hope that it is a comfortable place to just sit, rest, and watch other people. There will be programming there as well, including music, art displays and other activities."

How Will It Be Managed?

Even more than its design, the way a park is managed is the most important factor in making a truly public space, according to planners. "That's true for any park anywhere," said Wiley-Schwartz. "If Bryant Park was as beautiful, but didn't have chairs, ice-skating, wi-fi, movies, and events, it wouldn't be the thriving open space that it is now."

To bring people into the Atlantic Yards park, said Wiley-Schwartz, its managers would need to create "events, destinations, and exciting things." But the interests of the residents would naturally tend to dominate the types of activities that would take place, he argued, effectively privatizing the space.

The proposed open space would not be public parkland; it would be owned by Forest City Ratner and be considered privately owned public space, like the so-called "bonus plazas" in midtown created in exchange for allowing the construction of taller buildings. Those spaces are governed by city law requiring they be properly maintained, identified, and open to the public, although the laws have not always been enforced.

"The only requirement we have is to create spaces that are inviting to all, and to ensure, to the extent possible, that they are safe," said Pelasco. "As with other spaces, these will close at night and there will be consideration for activities related to safety. But like Bryant Park and other public spaces that are part of residential areas, these will be open and alive while respectful of the people living nearby."

Neither the city nor the state appears to have set any requirements for maintenance or public access, or any enforcement mechanism.

Battery Park City offers a good example of how a large housing and commercial development can include parkland that is both a destination for visitors and an amenity for the neighborhood. There, most of the parkland is between the waterfront and the buildings. It is officially public parkland, although it is managed by a nonprofit conservancy and maintenance is funded largely by the residents of Battery Park City and its residential and commercial developers. Throughout the year, the conservancy offersactivities ranging from classes for children to music festivals.

In the Atlantic Yards project, critics argue, the open space looks more like window dressing, something to make the huge towers more palatable to residents of tree-lined brownstone Brooklyn. They have concluded that the plan is woefully short on parkland, given the project's planned density and the privatizing design of the new open space. Counteracting good urban planning policy and design, critics argue, the development would actually worsen the existing deficiency of public open space, and overload the recreational infrastructure far beyond immediate area. It is also shortsighted from a purely economic viewpoint, they say, because well-maintained parks raise real estate values. Elected officials have lined up in support of the Atlantic Yards project, but they focus on the promise of affordable housing, jobs and a major-league sports team. What the officials forgot to notice, parks advocates argue, is that the emperor has hardly any parks.

Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues. 





























Housing Code Enforcement in Need of Repair

On a hot summer evening in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, several tenants gathered at a community-based organization to discuss the housing conditions in which they are forced to live. “We have been living with very bad housing conditions for too long. My apartment’s bathroom does not even have a showerhead, and we have been taking baths with a bucket for over a decade,” explained MarĂ­a Quintanilla, a native from El Salvador who moved to Bushwick sixteen years ago.

Other tenants shared their stories as well. “Last spring, my daughter was bitten by a rat that came into our apartment through a gaping hole in the ceiling. She still has a scar from it,” said Claudia LĂłpez, also a resident of Bushwick. “Our landlord leaves the trash in the basement and refuses to fix the holes in our walls, ceilings and floors. The building that I live in has 94 housing code violations, and they are not being fixed,” Lopez continued.

Hazardous Housing Not Uncommon

Quintanilla and LĂłpez are not alone. Hundreds of thousands of low-income families in New York – many of them immigrants -- are forced to live in shockingly squalid conditions because of landlords who take advantage of lax housing code enforcement. Of all the community districts in the city, Bushwick has the greatest number of serious housing code violations and has seen an increase in housing code violations over last four years, according to the State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods 2005, recently issued by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University. In 2004 alone, Bushwick had more than 184,000 serious housing code violations.

The problem seems to be getting worse. An investigation of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development by New York City’s comptroller revealed that more than half of the 250,000 violations that the agency issued went unanswered by landlords. Even worse, an estimated 40,000 violations are fraudulently claimed to be resolved each year.

Rising Rents Limit Mobility

While New York City is seeing record levels of new construction each year, the number of units that are safe and affordable for low- to mid-income families has decreased dramatically. From 2002 to 2005, the median monthly rent for unsubsidized apartments in the city increased by 20 percent (8 percent after adjusting for inflation), while the citywide median income fell by 6.3 percent, according to the Furman Center report. Furthermore, the median share of income spent on rent by New York City renters increased from 28.6 percent in 2002 to 31.2 percent in 2005 – exceeding the 30 percent threshold that is considered the maximum rent burden households should bear.

With immigrants making up two-thirds of the low-wage workers in New York City, this disparity between income and rent has left many immigrants with no choice but to remain in substandard and dangerous housing provided by negligent landlords. Strong housing code enforcement then becomes even more necessary to ensure that all immigrants can live in safe and healthy housing conditions.

Legislative Fix

The New York City Council currently is considering legislation that would address this issue. The legislation would strengthen enforcement on problem landlords by requiring the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development to re-inspect any building found to have a class C, “immediately hazardous,” violation (the most severe kind) in order to ensure that repairs have been made. If repairs have not been made, the bill mandates that the agency immediately make the repairs itself and then require the landlord to cover the agency’s cost of re-inspecting and repairing their buildings. The bill’s sponsors argue that this would ensure that low-income tenants would no longer have to wait months or even years for immediately hazardous violations to be fixed. The legislation could also give tenants the leverage they need to stand up to landlords who look to take advantage of them.

The Role of Language

Immigrant advocates believe that the Department of Housing Preservation and Development must also increase its capacity to conduct outreach to the diverse communities that it serves. In May of this year, the Urban Justice Center, in collaboration with the New York Immigration Coalition (the organization for which I work), and various community groups published a report entitled, Hear This: The Need for Multilingual Services in New York City. Our findings, which are based on 697 surveys conducted between July 2005 and February 2006, showed that many immigrants and tenants with limited English proficiency are living in unhealthy and unsafe living conditions, and yet, more than 60 percent of them do not know that there is a city agency dedicated to addressing their housing needs. Immigrant communities are not using the services as much as they could –and even when they do try to use them, they are often unable to communicate with agency staff members in the language they understand, and so give up.

Javier H. Valdés is a housing advocate and special projects coordinator with The New York Immigration Coalition.


The 2006 Blackout - “ Too Easy Just To Blame Con Edison

Though the mayor’s aides saw them as rude, the Queens politicians who rolled their eyes behind the mayor’s back in the middle of last month’s blackout may actually have been reacting more civilly than most people from western Queens would have done, given the circumstances. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was holding a press conference in which he said that Con Edison and its chief executive officer, Kevin Burke, deserve our thanks.

It would be difficult to find any New Yorker who has been feeling that way lately. (Even the mayor has changed the way he talks about the utility.) First, there was the 10-day blackout in Western Queens – which is home to some of the city’s largest power plants -- that shut electrical power for perhaps 100,000 people. Then, as soon as power was restored in Queens, a series of substantial power outages began on Staten Island.

A few days later, Bloomberg declared a heat emergency for New York City, and on the third day of 100-degree weather, the strains on the electrical system were clear. There were scattered outages in all five boroughs (as well as throughout the region) and Con Edison reduced electrical loads in particular in Midtown and the East Side, sending workers door to door to encourage area businesses to conserve energy. Con Ed also reduced voltage in all of Brooklyn and Queens, and began to power its own headquarters with a generator rather than from the grid.

As of this writing, assuming that no widespread blackouts occur in the next few days, it is clear that Con Edison did a much better job of mitigating risks to the power supply in August than it did in July.

What is less easy for sweltering New Yorkers to admit is that Con Edison can only shoulder part of the blame for what’s been happening.

Why the July Blackout Happened, and Why August Was Better

Although residents of western Queens may not agree with this assessment, New York City has one of the nation’s best electrical systems. Indeed, Con Ed won an award in 2002 for being one of the eight most reliable utilities in North America.

Approximately 70 percent of the system’s wiring is underground, and thus is less vulnerable to many severe weather conditions. The system is designed so that other cables can pick up the slackwhenever a cable fails.

The 2006 blackout is not easily compared to the 2003 blackout, which was a cascading international event that affected the entire city. A closer parallel to the 2006 Queens blackout is the 1999 blackout that affected Inwood and Washington Heights in Manhattan. That only went on for about 30 hours –- enough time for then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to sue Con Ed.

During the 1999 blackout, Con Ed realized that so many cables had failed that there were not enough left to handle the load. The utility decided to shut down the entire system for Inwood and Washington Heights temporarily, reasoning that this would lead to less disruption in the long run. Con Ed did not make the same decision in Queens, and the result was much misery. Once the August heat emergency hit—-particularly on August 3—-Con Ed took preventative measures just as it had in 1999, and again avoided widespread blackouts.

The lesson seems clear, but Con Ed is hesitant to acknowledge it. On August 2 the utility released its first report about the Queens blackout. It offers the most detailed chronology to date of what occurred during those days, but does not address the underlying causes. Con Ed’s CEO, president and chairman Kevin M. Burke says that that analysis will take a “couple of months” to complete.

Political Fallout of Queens Blackout

Charitably put, Burke’s refusal to provide a definitive cause for what happened in Queens reflects his deliberative nature as an electrical engineer. Even granting this, it is another sign of Con Ed’s tone deafness about this entire event.

In addition to the frustration of being without power, the extremely low initial estimate of affected residents infuriated people in Queens. Con Ed originally claimed that around 2,000 customers (or 8,000 people) lost power. The more than ten-fold increase offered later, coupled with a refusal by Burke to state definitively when power would be restored, only stoked the outrage. Con Ed did expedite the process for claiming reimbursement for food spoilage, which can be up to $350 for households and $7,000 for businesses. But otherwise, their public relations has been disastrous.

It strains credulity that only around 2,000 customers would be affected by a blackout that hindered a major airport. Although it is possible that Con Edison deliberately deflated the estimate—-thereby risking the scorn it now faces—-the more likely explanation is that it simply does not know how to measure its customers.

The “rule of thumb” that 1 customer = 4 people is merely a guess. There does not appear to be any scientific technique for measuring how many people utilize particular portions of the electrical grid. Because Con Edison insists on framing estimates in terms of the number of customers rather than of the total population affected, it inevitably looks disingenuous.

Another flaw in Con Ed’s approach is relying on the complaints it receives by phone as its primary measurement of the extent of damage. What about the people whose only phone is powered by electricity? What about the fact that many people probably did not call because they assumed somebody else had called already? When Con Ed conducted a block-by-block canvas on day four of the blackout--something that could have happened on day two or even day one—-it finally recognized the extent of the problem.

The comments of City Council member Eric N. Gioia effectively convey the outrage. During the crisis Gioia stated of Burke, “I think he has put lives at risk and potentially cost lives.” Both Gioia and state Assemblymember Michael N. Gianaris have called for Burke’s resignation, and grilled him during City Council and Assembly hearings on July 31 and August 3. US Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney has called for Con Edison to offer much greater compensation than $7,000 for affected businesses. Finally, William M. Flynn, chairman of the State of New York’s Public Service Commission, has come close to accusing Con Edison of lying during their investigation of what happened. At the Assembly hearing, Flynn stated, “With every word that they give us from now on, we’re going to go back and verify for its veracity.”

Mayor Bloomberg was the one prominent defender of Con Edison during the crisis, to the great anger of Queens residents and politicians. He defended the utility against a chorus of complaints, and at one point even proclaimed, “I don’t think that I could have gone in and done any better.” It now appears that this was a strategic move to smooth relations with Con Ed while the crisis unfolded. Following Con Ed’s release of the chronology on August 2, Bloomberg said, “Am I satisfied? Of course not…we are going to find out what happened and what steps we can take to make sure it does not happen in the future.”

Long-Term Implications of the Blackout

Mayor Bloomberg should want to prevent any repeats of the Queens 2006 blackout. But the sobering reality is that this prolonged blackout may not be our last.

Con Edison deserves criticism for its decision not to temporarily halt power and prevent a prolonged power outage, and especially for its absurdly low estimate of affected New Yorkers. But the larger forces that brought about the blackout are beyond the control of any utility.

The months of January through June of 2006 were the warmest first half of the year in the continental United States since 1895. On July 17, the day the blackout began, New Yorkers joined many other Americans in coping with oppressive heat.

Add to the rising temperatures the fact that New York will experience significant population growth over the next 20 years. The extent of the growth is up for debate, but our population will definitely increase. More people and hotter days will inevitably lead to more blackouts, and also cause greater strains on other parts of the city’s aging infrastructure.

The long-term solution to maintaining a thriving city will require modernizing our infrastructure and reducing global warming. The first part of this equation is more directly within the control of New Yorkers, but we can act on both fronts.






















City's New Waste Plan and the Neighborhoods

Four years after the Bloomberg administration outlined a new strategy for disposing of the city’s garbage, the City Council, on July 19, 2006, approved the mayor’s plan. The new Solid Waste Management Plan (referred to by officials as SWMP) looks ahead to the next 20 years, and promises big long-term savings and better air quality for the city. But perhaps its greatest impact will be in the waterfront neighborhoods of Brooklyn and the Bronx.


The new plan would funnel most waste to eight transfer stations located on the waterfront in each of the boroughs. Barges and trains would then take the waste out of the city, avoiding the use of thousands of tractor trailers and the significant traffic and environmental impacts they give birth to. Over time the plan would save the city money by streamlining operations, though in the short term costs will go up. The plan would also move responsibility for recycling into a separate office, sheltering it from the Department of Sanitation’s institutional distaste for recycling that has in the past led to the abolition of the entire program. Recycling will now expand and greater emphasis will be placed on the education of residents and businesses.


The Role of Neighborhoods


Most news reports failed to recognize the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods (OWN) as one of the intellectual authors of the new strategy. This group, a coalition of 26 community organizations that got together over a decade ago to fight the concentration of private waste transfer stations in their neighborhoods, came up with the idea of retrofitting some of the city’s existing marine transfer stations, combining both household and commercial waste in a single plan, and insuring that no one borough had to bear the burden for the rest of the city. OWN’s members include neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx that take some 70 percent of all waste (excluding construction waste). OWN’s plan, prepared with the help of the Consumer’s Union and released in 2000, has three major components:

  1. retrofit the marine transfer stations,=
  2. boost recycling
  3. reduce waste.


In 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, facing a rising budget for the Department of Sanitation and cries from impacted neighborhoods, announced a new city strategy that followed the main lines of the OWN plan. The OWN plan is the first city-wide plan generated by neighborhood groups.


Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE (United Puerto Ricans of Sunset Park), a member of OWN, was elated at the City Council action. “We were delighted that the mayor pushed for this plan and the Speaker had the wisdom to work with him.” Yeampierre, who also chairs the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance , was quick to note that Brooklyn’s Sunset Park “is one of the city’s environmentally burdened communities” yet it “has accepted its responsibility” since one of the large marine transfer stations is located there. “We’re still trying to get the capacity of this facility reduced,” she said. When asked what she thought about the continuing opposition of Upper East Side (Manhattan) residents to a smaller facility in their neighborhood, Yeampierre replied that “environmental burdens have to be shared.”


Waste Export vs. Sustainability


The concept of “sustainability” mentioned by Yeampierre deserves some careful consideration and could point the way towards greater progress on waste. Sustainability generally means planning to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. Up to now, solid waste policy has been driven by short-term pragmatic steps that failed to look at long-term consequences. For about a century, the Department of Sanitation’s role has been literally to take out the trash. First it was stuffed into landfills and when landfill space ran out, it was exported. In 1987, the city increased the fees at its last remaining landfill, Fresh Kills in Staten Island, without planning for the rash of new privately-owned waste transfer stations that sprung up, principally in low-income communities of color. Most of the city’s waste wound up going through these neighborhoods.


The assault on these neighborhoods by trash dealers was combated by a nascent environmental justice movement, which claimed that these communities were getting a grossly disproportionate share of the waste. Many of these neighborhoods were already burdened with polluting facilities and had exceptionally high levels of asthma that could be related to diesel truck fumes, traffic, and poorly managed waste facilities. They pressured City Hall to adopt strict regulations governing private waste transfer stations, as required under Local Law 40. When local activists went into battle, they soon linked arms.


When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani closed the city’s last landfill in 2001, the city’s sanitation agency kept on doing what it had been doing in the past, taking out the trash. Once all of the city’s waste was exported the Department of Sanitation budget grew rapidly, nearly doubling in amount.


The one part of OWN’s agenda that advanced very little with the new solid waste management plan was waste reduction. While city government has taken some important steps to reduce its own waste, legislation will be required to tackle the enormous trash flow resulting from unnecessary product packaging, the outdated bottle return law, and the low cost to manufacturers for making rapidly obsolescent products that can’t easily be recycled. Groups like INFORM and the NYC Waste Reduction Coalition have been in the forefront of proposing methods to reduce the total volume of waste. Looking forward, their efforts need to be linked with the efforts of the neighborhoods and government to deal with the more fundamental issues of sustainability. A lot more can be done to reduce the sheer volume of waste that’s exported. New technology may allow for decentralized systems to compost organic waste from kitchens, including the restaurants that produce most of Manhattan’s commercial waste, but it may take legislation and more innovation in government to make this happen.


Related Articles, Reports And Sites

Taking Out the Trash, OWN/Consumers Union



Newly Approved Trash Plan Puts Emphasis on Recycling by Winnie Hu, 7/21/06 NY Times


City Council Backs Mayor’s Trash Disposal Plan by Winnie Hu, 7/20/06 NY Times


New York City Environmental Justice Alliance




NYC Waste Prevention Coalition



Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning. 

Creating a Healthy Future for Harlem and New York City

Kids Playing Baseball in Harlem

That which ails society as a whole is usually at crisis level in the poorest neighborhoods and communities of color. This is particularly true when dealing with issues of health. Ailments such as diabetes, hypertension, stroke and AIDS occur at alarming rates in Harlem, the area I represent in the New York City Council.

A 2004 report by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene illustrates the significant correlation between income and health. For instance, those who live in low-income neighborhoods are more than six times more likely to contract AIDS than those who reside in higher income neighborhoods. Likewise, low-income residents are more than three times more likely to have diabetes and suffer from a stroke.

The relationship between an individual's income level and their physical condition exists for a number of reasons.

First and probably most importantly, the overwhelming majority of low-income families have poor or no access to preventive health care. Annual visits to the doctor can often prevent serious illness or deteriorating health conditions.

Poor eating habits also play a key role. Many neighborhoods in New York City are in desperate need of grocery

Public School Yards Should Be Open to the Public

By Gale Brewer

On weekdays, the schoolyard at PS 9 on West 84 Street in Manhattan buzzes with students climbing on the jungle gym, skipping rope, and playing basketball. But on the weekends, the scene is different; the playground is empty and the gate to the yard is locked.

It was not always this way. In years past, the schoolyard was open on evenings and over the weekends and neighbors used the area as a place to play with their children and to meet with one another.

This is also the case in more than 700 other schoolyards across the city. All of the underutilized schoolyards occupy approximately 948 acres of public land - an area greater than that of Central Park.

Despite a clear lack of recreational open space for residents, the Department of Education has closed most of its schoolyards to the public during the evenings and on weekends. In fact, 73 percent of all Department of Education schoolyards lie empty when school is not in session.

The citywide closure of playgrounds has occurred only in the last ten years. The exact rationale for closing schoolyards to the public seems to be unclear, but in most cases, the policy has persisted with little resistance.

And although the majority of schoolyards are closed to the public outside of school hours, roughly 300 schoolyards across the city do remain available to the public when children are not in the building. The majority of these are operated by the Department of Parks and Recreation, although additionally almost 25 have been “adopted” for operation by the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit land conservation organization.

As more and more families are denied access to outdoor recreational spaces, it has become increasingly challenging for parents to promote their children's physical health.

Designating or creating new public space in New York City is an enormous challenge, requiring us to be creative in our effort to provide residents of all neighborhoods with access to adequate recreational facilities.

Let's open our public spaces to the public and give New Yorkers the space they need.

Gale Brewer represents the Upper West Side district 6 in the New York City Council











stores that offer more quality foods. Unfortunately, some residents only can shop at smaller stores that do not offer many fruits, vegetables, or other healthy foods. Likewise, nutritious food is often more expensive, which is why many parents purchase items with little nutritional value, such sugar-filled fruit drinks, rather than real juice.

Finally, too many New Yorkers ignore the benefits of exercise, particularly for children who are forming the habits that they will carry into adulthood. Physical fitness classes in our schools have become more lax, and we have simultaneously allowed our children to spend more and more free time on the Internet, playing video games, or watching television. There is little green space in many of our neighborhoods and what we have is often not maintained.

The only solution to this growing health crisis is to educate and engage our communities in healthy practices, beginning with young people.


Studies have shown that 27 percent of New York City's kindergarteners are obese and 15 percent are overweight. It is likely that these children will grow into adults who continue these unhealthy practices, causing harm to their own bodies and risking the well-being of those who depend upon them.

City agencies and various community-based groups have been gradually developing and implementing programs that will hopefully help us put our community on the track to good health. And fortunately, we are beginning to see these initiatives take shape.

Dr. Gregory Hodge, who is the principal of the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, has created an evening cooking class for both parents and students. This class is geared toward teaching how to cook healthy and fulfilling meals while also increasing the interaction between the parents and the school itself.

The world-famous Sylvia's Restaurant and North General Hospital have taken a similar course of action. These two local establishments have joined forces to create a cooking curriculum that will be implemented in public schools. This program also has the goal of teaching high school students how to diet properly, which can affect one's performance in the classroom. The curriculum will teach children how to tweak familiar foods and recipes in order to make them healthier. The program is still in the planning stages, but when it is complete it will act as a model, giving students the ability to prepare savory foods that are also healthy.

A coalition of health organizations and philanthropists have also created the Healthy Schools Program, designed to improve the nutritional value of food served in cafeterias, increase physical activity during the school day and after school, and implement classroom lessons on healthy lifestyles.

City agencies have created innovative ways to promote healthy living. For example, the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene recently encouraged the owners of small grocery stores in Harlem to sell low-fat milk. Historically, stores in Harlem have been reluctant to sell low-fat milk because they felt that it was not in demand. City officials helped with the promotion and even gave out free samples to children and their parents. The response was very positive and a number of small grocery store owners have recently committed to buying low-fat milk in the future.


We must also make a push to increase physical activity in our schools.

As a City Council member, I have received numerous complaints about the shortcomings of gym classes in our public schools. Overcrowding, lack of gym or classroom space, poor equipment and inadequate lesson planning have created an environment in which physical activity is no longer emphasized. Schools must begin to implement physical education programs that are more demanding, and it is essential that these classes take place five times a week.

Programs such as S.P.A.R.K. (Sports, Play and Active Recreation for Kids), a school based program that promotes physical activity, should be used as the model in engaging our children, parents and teachers in different types of physical activity that will strengthen both their body and mind.


HIV/AIDS continues to be a problem in the New York City, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.

The mayor’s office has taken a tremendous step by setting in place a curriculumthat seeks to educate young children on this particular topic. It is well documented that prior to this initiative the city was falling far short of its mandated responsibility to educate students in grades K through 8 on health, particularly HIV and AIDS awareness. Moving forward, we hope that this new initiative will make children more aware of their bodies and the responsibility that comes with having sex.

I hope we will continue to create innovative ways to encourage New Yorkers, both young and old, to take proactive health measures that increase their chances of living a long and productive life.


With all of the negative things that are taking place in our nation and New York City, we must work to correct things over which we have direct control. Preventive health programs are a necessity for all New York City residents, and we must encourage proactive health initiatives in low-income communities.

We must not allow socioeconomic level be a deterrent from healthy living. Healthy schools and parents create mentally and physically sound children that will one day affect the path of our beloved city and great nation.

Inez Dickens represents district 9 in the New York City Council.



























Counting The Empty Buildings

Not long ago, 240 Manhattan Avenue, a six-story apartment building at 110th Street, would have fit right into its Harlem neighborhood. Nearby vacant lots served as dumping grounds for garbage and meeting places for rats. Morningside Park across the streets was a popular place to smoke crack.

But the vacant lots are gone, replaced by gleaming new residential buildings, the rats are gone, and in the park, people are lighting charcoal for family barbecues.

While many other buildings have been rehabilitated, somehow 240 Manhattan Avenue has been left out of the transformation. The building has been vacant since 1999, according to the city housing department's Web site. (Its owner, Baruch Singer, could not be reached for comment.)

Its boarded-up windows, peeling and fading paint and locked-up entryways seem to defy logic: How could anyone leave vacant such a building in such a "hot" area? How could anyone abandon it? More generally, with all the talk about a housing crisis in the city, why is any available space not being utilized?

Those are the kinds of questions that Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's office is hoping to answer with a survey of abandoned buildings and vacant lots, the first survey of its type in decades. Stringer's office has organized over 100 volunteers to walk block-by-block through neighborhoods on the Lower East Side and Harlem, among other areas, where abandoned or vacant buildings are not uncommon.

"We want to do this count to see how far we've come in the last 35 years and better understand why the abandoned buildings still exist despite the hot real estate market," Stringer explained.

Abandoned, Or Just Vacant?

Certainly, the city has come a long way. In the 1980s, the city controlled over 100,000 apartments; today, it controls a little over 2,000. Little by little, the city has shed the buildings it seized from landlords who did not pay their real estate taxes. Some were turned over to the tenants themselves, others were turned over to non-profit organizations.

The distressed buildings remaining today such as 240 Manhattan Avenue -- abandoned or neglected by their owners -- are knottier problems. Few are probably abandoned, said Mark Alexander of Urban Builders Collaborative and a long-time developer.

"Often times, what looks like an abandoned building is not an abandoned building," Alexander said. "They are buildings with vacant apartments above occupied stores."

The buildings are vacant for two general reasons, Alexander said.

"In lower Manhattan and selected parts of northern Manhattan, these are potential development sites," he said. But conflicts between multiple owners or financial difficulties owners would face if they actually tried to rehabilitate a vacant building effectively prevent development of the vacant building, he said.

"In the northern part of Manhattan and outer boroughs, [vacant buildings are] largely a result of the neighborhood distress of the 1970s and 1980s," Alexander said. "Landlords could not afford to maintain the apartments above the storefronts. It was not economic to maintain the apartments. They vacated them because they couldn't make money off of them."

In other cases, however, the city owns buildings that landlords abandoned. Elaine Toribio of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council said those cases are perhaps easier to understand.

"The reasons those sites might not be developed is the city hasn't gotten its act together on which agency should develop the property," Toribio said. "And even once they have a plan, it could be an issue of money."

"It's easier to understand why they're vacant and boarded up when the city owns them," Toribio said. "But when it's a privately owned building, you can just kind of shrug and say, ‘Who knows what the person is thinking?'"

Forced Vacancy

But some advocates said in some cases what the person is thinking is, ‘Let's keep this building vacant in order to make apartments scarce and consequently drive up rents.'

"I think that's part of the issue because of the fact you're dealing with supply and demand," said Roosevelt Orphee of Picture the Homeless, which has organized the survey with Stringer's office. "Leaving the supply down, you up the ante, so some people just can't get in the game and you change the dynamics of the market.

"The landlords are keeping them off line and losing money, so what's going on?" Orphee added. "They are not stupid. They're speculating."

In other cases, Orphee said landlords had admitted to him that they simply do not want the hassle of dealing with tenants.

"Landlords are finding ways to make money without dealing with tenants," he said.

It would not surprise some, too, if landlords were hoping to get a building deregulated by leaving it vacant for years.

Next Steps

Doing the survey will be easier than devising ways to address the problem of distressed buildings, Stringer admitted.

“We want to really put this information into a database and figure out what to do about it,” he said. “You can’t just go out and say let’s build affordable housing when there is no vacant land. When we do talk to developers and building owners we want to have an intelligent discussion.”

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  























Drowning and Rescue in New York

Surrounded by waters with treacherous currents New York City offers up plenty of ways -- intentional and unintentional -- of getting in too deep. Yet, even with all the water surrounding the city, there are surprisingly few deaths each year.

The police department's Harbor Unithas 28 divers whose duties include rescuing people and recovering bodies from the 146 square miles of New York waters. They work from helicopters or boats, and must deal with low visibility in the sometimes murky water.

Drowning Accidents

Most at risk for unintentional drowning are teenage boys. "The most common drowning victims are males in their teen years through their mid-20s," reports New York Department of Health.

Their stories are poignant. An adventuresome 14-year-old boy, Joseph Johnson, exploring the Bronx River on a raft made of found objects along the shoreline, drowned when his raft sank in June 2005. Johnson, who had climbed through a hole in the fence along the river, couldn't swim.

That same month, a group of teenage boys got in trouble swimming too close to a rocky jetty in Long Beach. The waves battered them against the rocks, and one, Yuhang Gao, 15, of Flushing, Queens, drowned. It was the day before the beaches officially opened, so no lifeguards were patrolling.

Young men at risk are not just a New York phenomenon. Nationwide, 80 percent of all drowning victims are male, and drowning is the second-leading cause of death from injury for children from 1 to 14 years of age. African American children from age 5 to 19 drowned at 2.3 times the rate of white children. That is because African Americans are less likely to know how to swim, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

But overall drownings are relatively uncommon in New York City. In fact, if you want to avoid accidental drowning, New York City is one of the best places to live – despite all the water. The rate of drownings here is less than a quarter of the national rate (1.14 per 100,000 people nationally, .28 for the city). Of the 1,078 accidental deaths in New York City in 2004 ( latest statisticavailable from the New York City Department of Health), there were 22 drownings. That includes deaths such as babies drowning in bathtubs as well as kids getting in trouble playing in rivers and beaches.


Not just daredevil kids perish in the waters around New York. Aircraft, boats and construction projects can also cause danger in the water.

The year 2005 was a particularly rough one for aircraft over New York waterways. A small airplane crashed off of Coney Island last May and killed three tourists from West Virginia along with the pilot from Queens. Two helicopters crashed into the East River last June. One was loaded with sightseers and the other with executives from MBNA. All survived with the help of police divers and other rescuers.

In the city, lethal boating accidents are also rare. A powerboat ran into a rowing shell with four men at the oars in the Harlem River in October 2005. The men were out for their regular early-morning exercise. One, Jim Runsdorf, a real estate developer, 41, lost his life in the accident. Another rower was injured. The crash was judged an accident because of low visibility in the pre-dawn.

Ocean waters are particularly treacherous for boats. In June, postal worker Jeremiah Swinton died after the fishing boat he was in capsized off of Breezy Point.

Construction workers can also be the victims of accidents in the water. Last October, Kervin Collado, who was working on the Third Avenue Bridge, fell into the Harlem River. A Fire Department diver could not get to him before he died.


The city offers tempting methods of self-destruction in the water. Despite that, of the 493 people claimed by suicide in 2004, only 15 died by drowning. The most notorious such suicide in recent years was that of storyteller Spalding Gray, who jumped off the Staten Island Ferry in January 2004. Causing additional distress to his family and fans, his body didn't surface for two months. It finally washed up near Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

In March, a 14-year-old boy, Sidney Hatchett, climbed over the railing along the promenade under the FDR Drive. His 6-year-old sister ran for help, but by the time rescuers arrived, the teenager had drowned. He was depressed over being bullied at school, his mother later said.

People wishing to end their lives may also seek out bridges although the bridges are designed to prevent falls and jumps. Guardrails and tall fences along bridge walkways deflect most potential suicides.

Some try and fail. Jumping off a bridge provides a more likely method of self-destruction, but it's not a sure means of demise. In May 2005, a 20-year-old woman survived the 135-foot fall from the Brooklyn Bridge. She was taken to the hospital where she was in critical condition. A 24-year-old Bronx man, Hector Amid, also survived his leap from the Brooklyn Bridge in March 2004.

Surviving such a leap is called "taking a Brodie." The phrase originated with a man named Brodie who survived after leaping from the bridge on a bet in 1886.

While the police maintain jurisdiction over most water rescues, the Fire Department sometimes comes to the rescue. A ladder company resounded to a 911 call when a suicidal man jumped off the Triborough Bridge in December 2005. Rescuers lowered their ladder from the bridge to rescue the man, who clung to a wall (evidently having changed his mind about wanting to die).

It's not always possible to determine how someone entered the water to commit suicide - or if their death was in fact a suicide. Mystery still surrounds the death of 34-year-old jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler, whose body was pulled from the East River in Brooklyn in 1970 after missing for 20 days. The death was ruled accident or suicide, and talk swirled of a more nefarious end to the brilliant musician's career.

A police spokesperson says that the department does not track how many people attempt to jump off of New York City bridges-or how many succeed.

No Escape

Not everyone who gets pulled out of the waters wants to be rescued. In April, a car thief being pursued by police jumped out of his car and right into the East River at the Madison Avenue Bridge at 135th Street. Police helicopters and boats continued the chase. Even in the dark, they could see his shiny bald head, and though he continued to try to get away, police pulled the uninjured suspect from the water in less than 20 minutes.

After a man in his 30s who was holding a baby, jumped in the water off of Edgewater Street in Staten Island in March, a police officer in uniform jumped in and rescued the baby. Rescuers also grabbed the man.


Railings and police vigilance will only help some of those who get in deep waters. The Red Cross says the best method of surviving is learning to swim. Swimmers should never go in the water alone and should only swim where there are lifeguards. The New York Red Cross website lists swimming classes:

While New York beaches do have lifeguards in the summertime, none of the city's rivers have beaches or lifeguards. So even in the dog days of summer, when a dip in the Hudson or East River is most tempting, it's not a good idea to dive in.

Boaters should wear life jackets and avoid alcohol. The NYPD Harbor Unit recommends a boating safety course (888-FOR-USPS).  

























Zoning Versus Planning in Manhattanville

The New York press is flooded with stories and editorials about the fight over Columbia University’s expansion plans, but most accounts ignore a key part of the story. Unlike the opponents who successfully fought Columbia’s 1968 plan to build a gym in Morningside Heights, today’s community residents and students, while they too protest Columbia’s proposals, have their own plan for the area.

Columbia proposes to build 17 acres worth of campus in the Manhattanville area of West Harlem. The university would develop about seven million square feet of building space. The $7.4 billion project would take 25 to 30 years to complete and, according to Columbia, result in 2,000 construction jobs and another 9,000 permanent jobs. The project includes rezoning 35 acres and displacing some 400 people and 1,600 jobs.

Columbia has made much of its willingness to listen to and meet with community residents and businesses, to help relocate those displaced, and to mobilize their signature architect, Renzo Piano, to design a new campus that is more inviting to the community. Piano’s designs purport to open up the new campus to the street grid, promote ground floor retail, and generally create quality urban space instead of a campus enclave.

But other people – in the community, on campus and elsewhere – see a future for the area that includes a different kind of Columbia expansion – and much more than the university’s plan to rezone the area to spur new growth.

The Community Plan

After scores of community meetings, Manhattan Community Board 9, which includes West Harlem, put together their own vision of the future. Drawn up with the help of the Pratt Institute Center for Community Development and the Department of City Planning, the plan was submitted to the City Planning Commission in the fall of 2005, at the same time the commission saw Columbia’s proposals to rezone the area. The commission ruled that the community plan met minimal requirements for consideration under Section 197-a of the City Charter. This provision allows community boards to do their own plans and submit them for official approval by the borough president, planning commission and City Council.

The community’s broad-ranging 197-a plan differs from Columbia’s rezoning scheme in several ways. The community plan includes, but is not limited to, rezoning the area so that Columbia can expand. The plan calls for preservation of existing housing and businesses as well as new development in keeping with the existing built environment. It would protect and expand low cost housing. Instead of eliminating industrial and auto-related activities, the mixed-use character of the neighborhood would be expanded. Redevelopment would be achieved without the use of eminent domain to force existing owners and tenants to leave. And any rezoning would be done to help implement the community plan, whereas Columbia's rezoning proposal reflects mainly its own development needs.

While Columbia’s proposals for rezoning leaves the future of the neighborhood to the vagaries of the real estate market, the community plan calls for a different kind of development that would shape instead of succumb to the market. This would include limiting the amount and scale of new residential development. The community plan favors the use of innovative green or environmentally friendly building technology, zero waste development, and proposes specific measures to improve the quality of the environment. This responds, in part, to community concerns about Columbia’s plans to build a biotech facility that could pose risks to community health. The plan also calls for expanded social services for those in the community so that neighborhood residents get services on a par with Columbia’s student services.

Columbia’s rezoning plan would allow the university to pursue its expansion plans, but create uncertainty for the rest of the neighborhood. The proposed rezoning from manufacturing to residential and institutional uses will increase land prices and rents, feeding neighborhood concerns about displacement and gentrification. The phenomenon has already had effects in other parts of Harlem, creating concern among people with modest incomes about whether they will be being able to stay in their neighborhoods.

Columbia President Lee Bollinger has been adamant that his vision of the university’s future requires that Columbia build on the entire tract of land between 125th and 133rd Streets. Nearby residents have a role he said – but should not be all powerful. “We are trying to do things that help the world more broadly. The community is not everything," he told the Times

Meanwhile, the City Planning Commission, the city’s main decision-making body on planning and zoning, has looked at both the community plan and Columbia’s zoning proposal and told both parties to “enter into a dialogue and make good faith efforts to achieve consensus.” Some discussions are taking place but so far no one seems to have budged very much. Community representatives recently created a local development corporation that will negotiate a legally binding “community benefits agreement” with Columbia. Agreements like this can be useful when consensus can’t be reached, but once those discussions start it is hard to imagine where the consensus will come from.

While the city’s planning department worked closely with Columbia and the community to devise their respective proposals, the planning department and commission have stayed on the sidelines. This poses the risk that the planning commission could act hastily and without adequate information when the plans finally get submitted for their approval.

Columbia’s Iron Fist and Velvet Glove

According to some community activists, Columbia’s relations with its neighbors had improved substantially until a few years ago. A decade ago, the university put together a working group involving a number of community representatives to explore options for the school’s expansion. The university’s administration worked quietly to develop trust and partnerships with local groups and activists.

Then a couple of years ago the velvet gloves came off. As if to remind everyone that, in any partnership, Columbia would always be the senior partner, the school’s administration floated the idea that, if they had to, they would get the Empire State Development Corporation to condemn the property needed for the university expansion. This provided a sharp reminder to all that Columbia had access to the pinnacles of government.

The threat of condemnation has often been called “planner’s blight” because it can force owners to sell and businesses to close decades before anything new goes up on the site. Under Governor George Pataki, the state development corporation has let developers use the threat of eminent domain to force deals with local property owners and create the impression that nothing can be done to stop the development bulldozer (as in Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards, for example).

Despite the relatively good years of the 1990s, some community activists think Columbia never took community participation seriously. According to Nellie Bailey of the Coalition to Preserve Community, “Columbia created an image of engagement and their dialogue was not of substance. For years they have worked behind the scenes to push their agenda. They pressured business owners to sell and the city’s housing agency to get rid of tenants.”

Now, with the threat of condemnation facing them, residents worry they cannot be equal partners in the University’s Community Advisory Committee. And it is not only residents: Columbia’s own students have formed the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification and neighborhood residents and businesses have come together in the Coalition to Preserve Community. According to the student coalition, “we are unified in our commitment to continue to work and stand in solidarity with those most affected by the process of gentrification, and in our commitment to educate and mobilize the student body towards a goal of greater university accountability.”

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning. 

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