Gotham Gazette

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My Own Private Blackout


  My own Private Blackout

I'm not chaining myself to trees, but I understand that everything I do affects the environment, and it makes me feel guilty.

When the largest blackout in the nation's history occurred, it did not bother me too much. My neighbor and I already had had our own private, self-induced blackout. Living in similar apartments, we had a contest for the lowest electricity bill. The loser would pay the winner's bill and the winner would enjoy bragging rights.

I went without air conditioning, a definite power hog, opting instead for a ceiling fan at its slowest speed. My pre-war apartment runs cool, but at times during the summer I felt like a thin crust pizza in a brick oven.

Yet I persisted. The TV, radio, stereo, computer, and cell phone re-charger were unplugged so as not to leak electricity. There were moments when I sat in the dark, dressing in twilight, and feeling my way to the kitchen after sundown. Some might see this contest as a bit too fervent, but I found something refreshing in the darkness -- a conscience free of guilt.

Normally, my day is rife with guilt because I call myself an environmentalist. I'm not chaining myself to trees, but I'm green enough to understand my contribution to the daily depletion and degradation of our natural world.

It starts with the morning shower where freshwater pours down the drain - a precious resource steadily depleted. I do not run the water while brushing my teeth or shaving, but I still take a shower every day.

Around the corner is the local Johnny-on-the-Spot auto repairman operating on the street, cash only please. He pops open radiators and drains iridescent gunk into the storm drain. When it rains, the toxins will wash directly into the Hudson River. But I am quiet. What am I going to do, bark at a guy who simply does not know any better? Maybe I should. Maybe this is guilt by reticence.

Standing on the subway platform, a young man finishes his drink and throws his empty cup onto the tracks. I frown, but say nothing. The subway is already artificial and soiled, but that's not the point, trash goes into trash cans - that's civilization 101.

I am happy to be able to take a subway, and secretly relieved that the air-conditioning functions so well, even knowing full well the enormous amount of juice necessary to make me comfortable on my little commute.

I quickly trace the current back to the source. Most likely the energy is generated by burning fossil fuels, which change the Earth's climate for the worse. The fuel is also non-renewable, its extraction and production the source of tremendous environmental, political, and economic ills. I read newspaper headlines and see they're all about the war in Iraq. My tiny consolation is that I am not driving an automobile.

At the office, I work under perpetually glowing fluorescent lights and am surrounded by hundreds of mostly idle machines still sucking power. Even at night, the lights are ablaze. And the copiers and the printers go all day. I try not to notice how much paper ends up in the barrel or will end up there, today and tomorrow.

The image of a barren slope comes into my head from the aerial perspective of a soaring raptor. The rust red soil, without tree roots to hold it in place, washes downslope into a river shocked by the deluge. The hawk floats high over the stripped hills searching vainly for once abundant prey.

Perhaps I should be out campaigning for greener offices and smarter printers. Maybe I should walk into the CEO's office and help him understand; maybe I should dedicate my life to this singular cause. Instead, I go to lunch.

At lunch, guilt is a garnish to my sandwich. Large scale production of meat and poultry is tough on the environment -- from pesticide-sprayed and fertilizer-covered fields of feed crops that have left an area the size of New Jersey devoid of life in the Gulf of Mexico, to bacteria-laden animal waste spilling directly into waterways.

The newspaper I read on the way home and throw into one of the iron bins on the subway platform raises the question -- is it really effectively recycled? There are no separated waste streams on a subway platform. It is hard to know for sure about any of that these days.

Dinner comes around and my friend has made a nice fish dish, but hunger pangs turn into pangs of guilt. I cannot help but think she has unknowingly purchased one of countless over-fished species or one of the many species raked off the bottom of the ocean by commercial fishing trawlers, destroying essential habitat and killing scores of other creatures along the way.

After thirty days, I beat my neighbor in the electricity-bill contest by less than two dollars and resumed my normal existence of full-on guilt. We have to eat, we have to move goods and people, we have to run business and the society that sustains us, I know all that. But nothing says we have to do it the way we currently are. Hopefully, sooner than later, I will not have to sit around in the dark to feel free of guilt.

Mike Misner has written about the environment for Earth Island Journal, the New York League of Conservation Voters, and the Littoral Society.

The Lesson Of The Blackout Is NOT More Power Plants


The recent northeast blackout has fueled proponents of building more power plants in the city. We told you so, they say, we need more power to meet rising demand. But even before anyone knows what really caused the blackout, the best guess is that it had more to do with the way power is managed in the northeast than the amount of power available. Author Greg Palast chalks it up to deregulation, which he says “was like a committee of bank robbers figuring out how to make safecracking legal.”

Still, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Trans Gas Energy Systems is pressing ahead with plans to locate a 1,100 megawatt power generator on the East River waterfront, in an area slated for new residential and mixed use development and a park. Trans Gas wants this waterfront site because it’s near gas transmission lines. Both the city administration and local community board have been against siting the power plant there, saying the massive structure will cast a shadow over redevelopment plans and a potential site for the Olympics 2012 games. Williamsburg Watch, a local advocacy group, tells the story and has the latest news on their web site. Also look at the Greenpoint/Williamsburg Waterfront Task Force site. A city-wide coalition, Communities United for Responsible Energy (CURE) brings together neighborhoods facing similar issues.

No Local Control in Siting

Incredible but true: New York City neighborhoods have no formal role in deciding where public utilities and other major facilities like sewage treatment plants and waste transfer stations are located. At best, community boards can cast a vote that is only advisory. Neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Greenpoint, which have a grossly disproportionate burden of such noxious facilities, have little formal power to close the door and prevent more from coming in. Williamsburg/Greenpoint processes the majority of the city’s solid waste, has the largest underground oil spill in the country, and is host to the city’s only radioactive waste site.

The New York City Charter includes a very weak requirement that in the siting of such facilities the city consider whether a neighborhood has more than its “fair share” of such facilities. Unfortunately, the fair share criteria apply only to selected projects that undergo the city’s land use review procedure and thus come before the community boards, City Planning Commission and City Council.

But City Hall also has no control over the siting of most energy facilities like Trans Gas. These are licensed by the state, which has the power to override all local land use regulations. This power to override damages the ability of every local government and its neighborhoods to plan, because state officials can come in at any time and ignore local plans. Any state agency or authority set up under the state, like the Metropolitan Transit Authority, or a bi-state agency like the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, can override local laws whenever it pleases, without regard for the impact of their project on neighborhoods. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, for example, put most of its Manhattan-based bus garages in Harlem, a neighborhood with one of the highest asthma rates in the country.

Every municipality gets its legal authority to regulate land use from the state, which allows municipalities to pass their own zoning laws and do their own plans. The state doesn’t do local plans or set up zoning rules. But the state undercuts the ability of local government to plan by using its powers to override. This power to override has only one possible virtue: it can foil local Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) sentiments that would make it impossible for the state to find a site for needed facilities. But what happens when the state always wants to put its projects in the same overburdened neighborhoods? It’s not that the state has a plan for the location of energy facilities. They pretty much go along with the proposals of the power industry, which always looks for the cheapest land in neighborhoods they think are politically powerless -- in particular, low-income communities and communities of color. In the neighborhoods this is known as environmental racism. (Trans Gas is said to be looking into alternative sites, but they too are in low-income waterfront neighborhoods, Sunset Park and Red Hook).

And what if the facility isn’t needed at all, as the opposition to Trans Gas argues? Even taking Con Edison’s inflated figures on projected peak demand, there are already enough new power plants licensed to operate to meet expected demand over the next five years.

Sustainable Energy Planning

What’s missing here is a long-range plan for energy provision based not only on the stated needs of power companies but concerns for the local and global environment. The U.S. consumes a fourth of the world’s energy and has only five percent of world population. It is the largest contributor to global warming. This is directly related to the U.S. model of urban development, which is based on sprawled suburban growth and dependency on cars. Sprawled, low-density development means more miles of transmission lines and more home-based appliances.

Con Edison gets at least 94 percent of its energy from non-renewable sources of energy like gas, coal and oil which are responsible for emissions that fail to meet federal clean air standards. The prices of these fuels are heavily supported by national government policies, including foreign policy. What consumers pay does not compensate for the costs to individuals and government of damages to the environment and public health. If the same priority were to be given to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydro power, the air might be cleaner. And if there were more serious attention paid to energy conservation beyond the occasional moralistic appeals to consumers not to consume too much, there might not be the need to continually expand capacity.

Homes, offices and factories in the U.S. rely on heating and air conditioning for climate control, both big energy users. Here at the local level, architects and planners are just beginning to learn how to produce buildings and cities that are more energy efficient, but for the most part these efforts are voluntary and the exception instead of the rule. Local building and zoning codes need to be changed to required maximum exposures to natural sunlight, better insulation, green roofs, and “smart” appliances, for example.

“Anything is Better”

A side effect of the Trans Gas issue is the “anything is better” syndrome. This illness occurs when neighborhoods unite and put all their efforts into stopping such a dreaded project. If they win, they lower their guard and end up accepting the first alternative that comes along. In last month’s Land Use column, I showed how the City Planning Department is proposing zoning changes that would allow for market-rate housing on the waterfront. They are hoping that the community board will forget about its plans for affordable housing and mixed use on the waterfront because anything, even luxury housing, would be better than a power plant. Inoculation against this illness requires a dedication to implementing the Greenpoint and Williamsburg plans which, after all, were approved by the City Planning Commission and City Council.

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

Lessons from Lincoln Center for the Ground Zero Cultural Center

The 40-year-old Lincoln Center marriage is breaking up: City Opera is hoping to find a new home downtown and the Philharmonic is moving back to Carnegie Hall. And, after months of squabbling over budgets and plans, the chairman of what was to have been a $1.5 billion overhaul of the center's aging buildings has resigned.

Meanwhile, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation is seeking to fill a half-million square feet of space designated for culture at the World Trade Center site. In an open invitation, the agency declared that it is "in search of cultural institutions that will establish and maintain Lower Manhattan as a world class cultural destination full of vitality, energy and diversity." Interested parties are requested to submit preliminary proposals by September.

Just as Robert Moses dreamed up Lincoln Center to revitalize a run-down neighborhood, city and corporate interests believe that culture can be a magnet for development downtown. So, the time is right to ask: what's wrong with Lincoln Center? With the benefit of hindsight, what mistakes can the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation avoid in creating the next-generation cultural center?

Lesson #1: Don't Erect Pedestals

In the late 1950s, Lincoln Center was conceived as a temple to high art, proof that New York could compete with European cities as a cultural destination. It catalyzed the creation of arts complexes in capitals across the nation, helping to redefine the role of cities at a time when businesses and families were fleeing them in droves.

Today, Lincoln Center is trying to reinvent itself -- holding parties in its courtyard, reaching out to younger and more diverse audiences, trying to overcome an aura of elitism or, worse, dullness. As part of the center's more modest plans for renovation, stores, restaurants, and a series of sloping ramps will be created along 65th street to open up the campus.

Judging from architect Daniel Libeskind's plan to restore part of the grid and create parks and other public spaces, the new World Trade Center site will be built on a human, rather than monumental, scale. Yet, the shadow of history at Ground Zero -- sacred ground to many -- will place the cultural institutions built there on a different kind of pedestal. There will be a museum to explore the 1993 and 2001 bombings of the towers, and a memorial to the victims. But, will the art that is mounted at the theaters, galleries, or concert halls be required to match the moral seriousness of the tragedy? Will producers, even unconsciously, avoid politically controversial works out of fear of upsetting the families of the dead?

Lesson #2: Don't Be Afraid of Commercialism

Building Lincoln Center proved enormously expensive -- $159.5 million, more than four times original estimates. The Metropolitan Opera House cost $12,000 a seat, at a time when opera houses were being built elsewhere for a fraction. Once expectations had been raised, production costs skyrocketed: Don Quixote, the City Ballet's lavish tribute to its new home, cost more than any other ballet in history.

Originally, Lincoln Center was to have an office tower to generate rental revenue and defray maintenance expenses. The decision to eliminate the tower, and let the city operate the underground parking lot, deprived the center of important funds that could have made it less dependent on corporate and government largesse.

World Trade Center planners should remember that it is easier to raise money for new buildings than it is to pay for their upkeep. It's unlikely that future cultural groups will join the handful of institutions that have their utility costs picked up by the city, and few private funders will volunteer to pay for air-conditioning. Following a growing trend among nonprofits, the new cultural groups should seek to maximize earned income through ticket sales, investments, rentals, stores, and educational programs. They should also pool resources. To encourage collaboration, the city could offer joint purchasing options for common products and services.

Lesson #3: Listen to the Pros

Lincoln Center's architects had to answer to many constituencies, but in many cases they failed to please the Muses. The Avery Fisher Hall was resurfaced three times in its first seven years in hopes of improving muddy acoustics. The Vivian Beaumont Theater was built with huge backstage areas to accommodate multiple sets from shows playing in repertory -- an outmoded model even then, and one that saddled the theater with unnecessary expenses.

Planning for the World Trade Center site will appropriately involve many different parties, but it is crucial that arts professionals have a prominent place at the table. In the past, public officials have proved more adept at discussing the symbolic value of arts than attending to the practical needs of directors, musicians, actors, or museum workers. Perhaps the most important lesson from Lincoln Center is that, over time, cultural spaces will have to meet many different production and aesthetic demands. To prepare for this, veteran theater architect George Izenour calls for designs that are intrinsically adaptable, with walls that move, seats that disappear beneath the floor, and sound panels that can be tuned for the occasion.

Lesson #4: Don't Think Too Big

The producers at Lincoln Center have to fill huge spaces, including a 3,800-seat opera house, 2,900-seat concert hall, and 2,700-seat theater. To succeed, each organization has to cultivate its own constituency of diehard opera fans, ballet aficionados, or theater junkies.

A new cultural center should include performance and exhibit spaces of varying sizes and work to build bridges between different audiences, taking a cue from smaller venues around the city that house film, theater, live music, and visual art. It should vary curtain times -- post-work concerts, late-night weekend performances, Sunday brunch gallery openings -- and make a commitment to keeping tickets affordable.

During the economic boom, Manhattan was arguably more successful at selling and displaying art than creating new work. The World Trade Center cultural infrastructure should make room for independent artists and cultivate the graphic arts, television, and film industries already based downtown. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation should consider proposals from smaller and less-established arts groups, and the city should offer subsidies and tax incentives to create affordable artists' studios and living space around the cultural center.

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related article:
Remaking Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center finds itself at a turning point. Some of its facilities are outdated and will need costly repairs. The New York Philharmonic is leaving and the New York City Opera might not be far behind. Some are asking whether the concept behind Lincoln Center is still valid - and if it ever was.
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Lincoln Center


  Aerial photograph of Lincoln Center
photo by David Lamb

related articles:
Lessons from Lincoln Center for the Ground Zero Cultural Center
At the same time that Lincoln Center is "breaking up," the site of the World Trade Center is trying to become a cultural center. What mistakes made by Lincoln Center can the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation avoid?

The Power Broker Revisited
The debate over current NYC projects, from the rebuilding of Ground Zero to the bid for the 2012 Olympics, Robert Moses' influence is felt above all others -- a man who has been dead for more than two decades.

A Community Plan for Robert Moses' "Highway to Nowhere"
Community groups in the Bronx have a plan for Moses' Sheridan Expressway, a 1.25 mile stretch of highway that has been called a "road to nowhere." They want to tear it down.

Transcript of Gotham Gazette's Reading NYC Book Club Discussion About The Power Broker
On August 20, Gotham Gazette's book club held an in-person discussion about Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker , with guest Tom Angotti, professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College.

Robert Moses never cared all that much for the performing arts, but he sure could put on a show. On May 14, 1959, the master builder brought President Dwight Eisenhower to New York for groundbreaking festivities at the future site of Lincoln Center.

As soon as Ike turned the first spade of earth, Leonard Bernstein, the dashing young music director of the New York Philharmonic, launched the orchestra and a choir from the Juilliard School into Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus.

The ceremony was a grand prelude to an even greater spectacle - the wholesale remaking of the Upper West Side. By the late 1960s, Moses would utterly transform a rundown neighborhood into a cultural hub, obliterating the very streets and lots, ironically, that Bernstein had brought to life on stage in "West Side Story" just a decade earlier.

Lincoln Center's creation marked the first time that a city attempted to use the arts as a catalyst for urban renewal and economic development on such a vast scale. It was the project that, as Moses biographer Robert Caro wrote, "best revealed the vast breadth of Moses'creative, city-shaping imagination." Over the years, Moses' vision would be adopted by cities across the country seeking a way to attract people and investment to their moribund downtowns.

Today, though, 44 years after Eisenhower stuck his shovel into the ground near the bustling intersection of Broadway and Columbus Avenue, Lincoln Center finds itself at a turning point. Some of its facilities are outdated and will need costly repairs. The New York Philharmonic has given up altogether on acoustically challenged Avery Fisher Hall and plans to return to Carnegie Hall, which it left in 1962. The New York City Opera might also bolt in a few years for a new house, either at Ground Zero or some other location.

The strains have led many to ask whether the concept behind Lincoln Center is still valid - and if it ever was. New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger recently wrote that rather than serving as a hub of activity for the West Side, Lincoln Center has become the "hole in the middle of the doughnut."

"The idea of a cultural campus set apart from the city never made much sense, even though Lincoln Center did, to be fair, promote the urban-renewal effect that Robert Moses intended," Goldberger wrote. "The neighborhood would probably have been gentrified without Lincoln Center, of course, but hardly in the same way, or on the same timetable."

Goldberger's complaints are chiefly with Lincoln Center's architecture and its relationship to the cityscape. But as Lincoln Center embarks on a major renovation program, it also finds itself answering questions about its artistic and economic viability. Does the concept of a cultural campus still make sense? Would dispersing its component companies promote growth elsewhere? What kind of future does Lincoln Center have if one or perhaps two of its major constituents leave?


Moses was far less interested in helping artists and musicians than he was in using them as a magnet for development. On 15 acres that had been largely filled with boarding hotels and sagging tenements, Moses assembled a university, two opera houses, a concert hall, a library, a music school, several theaters, a public plaza, a park with a band shell and an underground parking garage. The construction displaced thousands of families. But Moses certainly succeeded in attracting builders.

From his office, Reynold Levy, the president of Lincoln Center, can see highrises almost everywhere. Across the street from his window, cranes mark the site of a new apartment tower opposite Avery Fisher Hall. To the south, the twin-towered AOL Time Warner Center, which will include the new home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, nears completion.

"I don't know of anyone who doesn't credit Lincoln Center for helping to galvanize this extraordinary amount of economic development around it, from its beginning to this day," Levy says.

According to Lincoln Center officials, taxable property in the Lincoln Square neighborhood appreciated 1,724 percent from 1963 to 1999, compared to 309 percent growth for Manhattan as a whole. The additional growth represents an extra $154 million in property tax revenues for the city each year.

Overall, Lincoln Center officials attribute $675 million a year in direct and indirect economic activity within the city to their complex. While some of that activity would have been generated by arts groups whether Lincoln Center existed or not, Levy says that clustering these organizations creates a sort of multiplier effect that draws business and activity.


Indeed, these days, big retailers and book and record superstores call the Lincoln Center area home, attracted by the crowds that are regularly drawn to New York's cultural megastore. And it's not just concert- and opera-goers who fill the streets around Lincoln Center. Business leaders say the performing arts center has brought residents back from the suburbs and kept others from moving out of the city.

"It's still crucial to the economic viability of this neighborhood," says Monica Blum, president of the Lincoln Square Business Improvement District. "Five new buildings are going up in the neighborhood or have just been completed and there's been a 13 percent increase in population just since the last census. People want to eat here and want to shop here. In many instances, it's the Lincoln Center patrons who want to live here."

Bringing arts organizations together also stimulates creativity, Lincoln Center officials say. True, it's impossible to attend more than one performance at a time, but performers and administrators can benefit from proximity. The result can be programs that cross disciplines, examining an idea or an art form both on stage and, say, on screen through the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

That kind of collaboration will become more prevalent in the future, Lincoln Center promises, as it develops programs to fill Avery Fisher Hall once the Philharmonic leaves. Levy suggests that Lincoln Center's diversity could, for instance, attract visiting orchestras for extended residencies by offering symphony musicians a chance to perform at the Met and giving visiting conductors opportunities to work with young musicians at Juilliard.

Economic and artistic opportunities have driven a number of cities to emulate Lincoln Center's example, even as the original has come in for criticism at home. Cities ranging from Newark to Philadelphia to Dayton, Ohio to Kansas City have recently completed or begun their own performing arts centers modeled on the idea that the arts can spur an urban renaissance.


Still, even Lincoln Center's supporters acknowledge that changes are needed. "I think it's lost its luster," says Blum. "It needs polishing."

The plaza, with its famous fountain in the center, looks great on postcards and comes alive when events such as Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors are scheduled, but it can be a cold and forbidding place at other times. The travertine stone that covers most of the buildings is flaking off, a victim of wear and pollution. Most critically, just about every group needs more space and nearly all the facilities will have to be modernized if they are to live up to their reputation as being world-class.

At one time, a $1.5 billion proposal was on the table that would have included a thorough renovation of Lincoln Center, including the rebuilding or replacement of Avery Fisher Hall for the Philharmonic. Also floated was the idea of placing the entire plaza under a glass canopy designed by celebrity architect Frank Gehry.

Economic realities, however, forced Lincoln Center to proceed more modestly. The organization has hired the architects Elizabeth Dillard and Richard Scofidio to help knit Lincoln Center into the fabric of the West Side by removing the barriers to street life that were part of Moses' original suburbanizing impulse.


West 65th Street, which now resembles a dark tunnel, will be narrowed and turned into a street-level showcase. The bridge over the street will be removed and screening rooms and glass-fronted studios will give passersby a view of artists at work, creating a new attraction much like the Today show's transparent studio at Rockefeller Center. Also planned for the northern end of Lincoln Center are an eatery, a bookstore, a boutique and a TKTS booth that will make it easier to attend a performance on a whim.

Levy says 65th Street would serve as a lively counterpart to Lincoln Center's other open spaces, which many people consider a refuge from the city streets.

"Our aim is to achieve the best of both worlds, to retain the serenity, the peace and the openness that Lincoln Center now affords . . . and at the same time to infuse some vitality and bring energy off of Broadway into 65th street," he says.

Whatever people think of Lincoln Center, one thing is certain - it is here to stay. And while some of the ideas that led to its birth are now out of favor among planners, Lincoln Center's legacy is undeniable.

As Hilary Ballon, a Columbia University professor of art and architecture, wrote in a recent New York Times article, "Moses is now widely regarded as the antihero of modern planning, but his approach to urban renewal at Lincoln Center was bold and influential. Lincoln Center embodies the proposition that the arts are an indispensable element of good urbanism. From the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris to the Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao, Spain, it has proven a valid and enduring idea."


The Death of the Community Reinvestment Act

The Community Reinvestment Act died prematurely this month, at the age of 26. The federal legislation was intended to force financial institutions that operate in neighborhoods of low and moderate income to address the credit needs of people in those communities.

If I were writing its obituary, I would say that, in 1999, CRA (as it was commonly known) fell into a coma and was placed on life support after being struck by the disease known as the Financial Modernization Act, a lethal form of federal legislation which allowed for the merging of the banking, securities and insurance industries. A complication rising from chronic deregulation, acute obsolescence and rising levels of corporate power was cited as the cause of death.

The Community Reinvestment Act was widely regarded as landmark legislation which helped found the modern community reinvestment movement in New York and nationwide. It represented one of the first federal acknowledgements that the discriminatory banking practice known as "redlining" was common among financial institutions.

By creating regulatory criteria and standards for how banks conducted business in poor areas, and by providing public access to this information, the law established the basis for a bank's accountability to low-income areas. In doing so, it almost single handedly created the idea that banks have financial responsibilities, if not moral obligations, in poor neighborhoods.

The legislation thus in effect sparked the entire movement known as community banking. It prompted more than an estimated trillion dollars in loans in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and billions of dollars in community development grants and donations throughout the country. Arguably, the Community Reinvestment Act shaped every retail bank community relations, community development and philanthropic division in the country.

In New York alone, an entire generation of community development professionals - including those who provide alternative financial services, attempt to build wealth, promote "financial literacy" about the banking industry and advocate for discrimination-free financial services in poor communities in New York - had taken its cue from CRA.

At the peak of its prominence, the law became an important, if not blunt, instrument, for community-based groups who monitor bank community reinvestment track records and the CRA performance ratings that are assigned to depository institutions by regulatory agencies. Because a bank's CRA performance was considered when it applied for regulatory approval for an action such as a merger with another institution, community advocates would sometimes seize this modest window of opportunity to challenge a bank's application and "encourage" banks to become better corporate citizens. And while the vast majority of such challenges were rejected, they at least led to rare meetings of the minds between bankers and community groups.

But the law had powerful enemies, particularly in the form of the banking lobby who blamed it for hampering banks with unnecessary compliance burdens and red tape. By the mid 1990s, the law came under repeated attack. Senator Phil Gramm, the prime sponsor of the 1999 Financial Modernization Act, once accused community organizations of being "extortionists" because they used CRA challenges to win concessions and services from banks.

As its detractors gained ground and the banking industry underwent a dramatic transformation, the law's original provisions were diluted and its influence waned. Perhaps most importantly, with the merging of the banking, insurance and securities industries and an explosion in the growth of high-cost, non-depository consumer credit institutions that are not regulated by CRA, the lion's share of lending and financial activity in low-income neighborhoods is no longer subject to CRA scrutiny, even as complaints of lending discrimination and abuse have skyrocketed.

CRA is survived by the federal Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and by the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, which was enacted by Congress in 1975 and requires lending institutions to report public loan data.

Technically, CRA is still on the books and banks still have CRA compliance departments. But as far as the financial services industry is concerned, it has effectively swatted away a regulatory irritant and has never looked back.

As for those who consider themselves community reinvestment watchdogs, I suspect they are neither anxious to concede defeat nor have the luxury to complain about the genie that has already escaped the bottle. Just as the financial services industry has been “modernized”, so, too, will activists have to create new, modern tools that will allow customers and lay people to compel banks to put a little something back into the areas where they have taken so much.

Mark Winston Griffith, a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Essence and Spin, is also founder of the non-profit Central Brooklyn Partnership, which organizes people to build economic power.










Will The Bountiful Triangle Return?

New York started with a single island. That first island was not Manhattan, but "Nut" Island, now called Governors Island. But the colonists soon expanded to Manhattan and then to Brooklyn. For more than three centuries, the focal point of life in New York City was the bountiful triangle of water, bounded by Brooklyn, Governors Island, and Manhattan. What was once the heart of the city now offers an extraordinary opportunity once again - if we take it.

Governors Island

The first European colonists in our area only took Manhattan after they had a secure foothold on Governors Island. Now, the roles are reversed. Earlier this year the state and city announced the formation of the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation. As part of the deal with the federal government which allowed the return of the island to state control, some type of educational facility is planned. A family entertainment center and artisan workspaces also seem to be on the list. Just last month, the new preservation corporation opened the gate to the island for public tours which are available to both individuals and groups. Wildly popular, (with long waiting lists each week) the collaboration between the preservation corporation, the National Park Service, and the handful of civics involved in organizing the tours (now extended through October) bodes well for the creative problem solving that the island demands. But will the novelty wear off?

Redevelopment of the island is hamstrung by two factors. The first is that nobody uses it now; it is not part of modern New York. Then, the island is accessible only by a ferry from Lower Manhattan and the price of this centuries-old disconnect grows higher. One way to cultivate visitation might be to link with other harbor attractions now. If art and craftsmanship is part of the future of the island then perhaps links to the gallery districts in Chelsea or DUMBO could be created. If tourism is anticipated to become a driving force then the 3+ million annual visitors to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island may want to come learn about New York's colonial history as well.


Brooklyn is close by, with a silent fleet of barges, lighters and container ships passing through Buttermilk Channel daily. Just last year, the state, city, and Port Authority took an important step in creating Brooklyn Bridge Park by consolidating Fulton Ferry Park with a patchwork of city and Port Authority controlled piers (numbered one to five) and other properties between the Manhattan Bridge and south almost to Atlantic Avenue. Now a second phase of planning has been initiated to the south along Piers six to 12 extending down around Atlantic Basin and into Red Hook.

Before any new structures have been built, concerns about commercial development versus open space are growing loud. The Church of Latter Day Saints, for example, has expressed its intent to sell its building on Furman Street, and this prime waterfront property could tie together two currently separated areas of the waterfront (Piers one to five, and Piers six to 12).

South of Atlantic Avenue along Buttermilk Channel, the wave of waterfront redevelopment seems to be crashing up against the bulkhead of Brooklyn maritime activity on Piers six to 12. At this confluence of the Channel, the East River, and the harbor the ecology within the water is almost as complicated as the political ecology on the land. The crux of the issue seems to be whether maritime and port land use still makes sense in this area (a report is expected in late September). Divergent visions for this area defined by Atlantic Avenue to the north and Atlantic Basin to the south range from a new Carnival Cruise Terminal, a beverage distribution center, or a southward extension of Brooklyn Bridge Park. A recent planning exercise by the New Amsterdam Development Corporation showed how low-scale housing might look where containers are now stacked four and six high.

The undeniable physical reality is that on an island home to more than seven million people, maritime trade and transit has to make sense somewhere. In a city where traffic congestion approaches lunacy levels on a near-daily basis, we have to cultivate and stabilize water- based alternatives not just for people but for goods as well.

East River Piers

Across from the Brooklyn Piers are the East River Piers of Manhattan. The canal on Broad Street that brought trade right to the door of today's Stock Exchange has long been filled in, and the river segregated from the prime office district of Lower Manhattan by a highway that is simply too big for its place in the city. Recently the Bloomberg administration convened an advisory committee to ponder new plans for the area that emphasize housing. A consultant is being sought to help think through the challenge of appending this waterfront to the body of Lower Manhattan. While housing needs are pressing, we can't forget what brought us to this spot on the island nearly 400 years ago: transportation.

Yes, Lower Manhattan is important for the commercial, cultural and corporate identities that are all embedded in the words "New York City." But this stretch of Lower Manhattan is even more significant because it's the one place in the city where the water and land transportation systems come together -- where the subway comes right to the water's edge.

Between the Staten Island Ferry Terminal and the Pier 11/ Wall Street Ferry pier lie probably the most underutilized stretch of waterfront in any part of New York City. This area was the commercial and transportation heart of New Amsterdam, largely because it was where the East, the Hudson, and the Harbor converged. Today, the Staten Island Ferry, the Battery Maritime Building (terminal for the Governors Island Ferry), the Port Authority heliport, and the Pier 11 Ferry Terminal at Wall Street make for a linear transit district that could be the basis for tremendous growth if they can be better connected, and possibly bolstered with new transportation uses.

What the Dutch knew and we seem to have forgotten, is that the value of waterfront lies not just in the return on investment, but how the water itself is used. From the founding of New Amsterdam on Governors Island to the creation of the first regularly scheduled ferry service between the shores of Brooklyn and Manhattan in 1642, the connections that were made between these areas over a just a quarter century fueled the growth and enabled a prosperity that lasted over 300 years. We have an opportunity to bring this area to prominence once again.

Carter Craft, an urban planner, is program director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.












A Community Plan for Moses' "Highway to Nowhere"


Robert Moses, the “master builder,” constructed 627 miles of highways in and around New York City during a roughly 40-year period. Many of his projects divided close-knit neighborhoods, demolished viable housing, relocated the poorest New Yorkers to the city’s edge and promoted flight to the suburbs. Now the Sheridan Expressway, a 1.25-mile Bronx segment of his legacy, is slated for a $245 million reconstruction by the New York State Department of Transportation, and locals are fighting back with a plan of their own.

Their plan includes tearing the highway down, and would add the Bronx to a growing list of communities worldwide that are removing roads in the name of urban revitalization, open space, and waterfront access.

Over the past five years an effort by community groups, residents, and regional planning organizations has pressed the New York State Department of Transportation to study an alternative plan for the roadway – one that would remove it altogether in favor of riverfront open space and other possible uses.

The "Community Plan" for the Sheridan Expressway

The proposal, crafted by the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance, was recently accepted by the Department of Transportation as one alternative in the Environmental Impact Statement for the project. “Decommissioning the Sheridan would bring the Moses effect full circle,” said Alexie Torres-Fleming, Executive Director of the Bronx community group Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice. “We’re looking for a major project that reconnects neighborhoods, uncovers the area’s natural resources, and addresses one of its biggest transportation problems.”

Sheridan History

Some of the South Bronx’ most distinguishing elements are its highways – miles and miles built during the 1950s and 60s. The Cross Bronx began construction in 1948, the Major Deegan in 1950, the Bruckner in 1957. The last of the South Bronx expressways, the Sheridan, was begun in 1958.

These roads evicted many long-time residents, cut through vibrant districts and created corridors of blight that walled off neighborhoods. At the same time, numerous high-rise public housing projects were developed and the South Bronx was rapidly transformed into one of the city’s poorest areas. “The South Bronx became a dumping ground for the city’s environmental burdens. The land is overrun with power plants, waste transfer stations and toxic industry and is bisected by highways,” said Christina Hemphill of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.

As Moses’ power waned, neighborhoods and institutions north of the Cross-Bronx Expressway were able to stop construction of the Sheridan’s second phase. The four-mile extension would have brought the highway through Bronx Park to connect with I-95. Governor Nelson Rockefeller officially killed the project in 1971.

The short section of the Sheridan that was built runs for only a mile and a quarter between the Bruckner and Cross Bronx Expressways. Its four lanes carry 40,000 vehicles per day, approximately one-fifth the volume of traffic on other nearby highways. The New York Post has called the short strip of road a “highway to nowhere.”

The Sheridan Neighborhood

The Sheridan Expressway today

The Sheridan Expressway cuts through largely Hispanic and African American neighborhoods, separating them from each other and the Bronx River. The area has significantly lower than average household income and car ownership rates. It also has some of the highest asthma rates in the entire state. South Bronx neighborhoods have twice the average asthma hospitalization rate of New York City, and 10 times the state rate. Sheridan area neighborhoods are also sorely lacking in open space, with less than 1/2 acre per 1,000 residents – approximately 10 percent of the national average.

Yet the South Bronx also features an impressive density of competent and highly committed community activists. Groups like Sustainable South Bronx, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, Mothers on the Move, Nos Quedamos/We Stay and The Point have demanded and begun to win better housing, traffic safety measures, and greenway projects. They are also mobilizing local residents around the community plan for the Sheridan.

“Before public hearings this March, we collected over 700 petition signatures from Hunts Point residents alone against reconstructing the Sheridan,” said Manuela Arciniegas of Sustainable South Bronx. “Our plan serves the business community and the permanent residents of our area. It creates opportunities for positive development.”

The Transportation Department’s Plan

In 1997, the Department of Transportation unveiled plans for a $245 million reconstruction of the connection between the Bruckner and Sheridan expressways, including the construction of new ramps to bring trucks that drive on the Sheridan closer to the Hunts Point Market, a 60-acre wholesale food market that distributes food to grocery stores in New York and New Jersey. The department also said that the project would improve safety and alleviate congestion.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a transportation agency watchdog group where I work as a planner, has questioned the the utility of a multi-million reconstruction of the roadway since the Department of Transportation first released its plans. As one small highway within an overbuilt South Bronx road network, few vehicles use the Sheridan and it is generally considered redundant. The Cross-Bronx, the Major Deegan, and the Bruckner already meet at two other points, and are also connected by the Bronx River Parkway.

In addition, building new ramps to bring trucks closer to the market would further isolate the neighborhood of Hunts Point from the rest of the Bronx, and cast shadows on a nearby park that is under construction.

The Community Plan

In a major victory for Bronx residents, the Department of Transportation has recently agreed to study the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance’s “Community Plan” alongside their original plans for the roadway. The "Community Plan" would instead use the 1.25-mile, 28-acre highway for open space as part of the Bronx River Greenway, a bike/pedestrian pathway and park planned for the entire 23-mile length of the Bronx River. “We live in the community 24 hours a day. DOT doesn’t live here, the engineers don’t live here,” explained Francisco Perez of Mothers on the Move. “But because we are black, Hispanic and poor, other people make decisions for us. It’s time for us to make our own decisions.”

The plan also would make it easier for trucks to access the Hunts Point Market, with new entrance and exit ramps off the Bruckner Expressway at Leggett Avenue. Few trucks are even using the Sheridan to get to the market, said Joan Byron of the Pratt Institute, another member of the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance. “Eighty percent of truckers to Hunts Point already use the Bruckner for part of their trip to or from the market. And a largely industrial route from the Leggett exit to the market is available and preferable to present routes.” A Department of Transportation survey of truckers found that only 15 percent use the Sheridan to access the market, and only 5 percent used it to exit.

A third component would elevate the Bruckner Expressway over the Bronx River. Currently drivers on the elevated Bruckner Expressway must merge with Bruckner Boulevard (running beneath the expressway) to take a single bridge over the river -- a frequent source of bottlenecks. Elevating the express lanes would create space for bike and pedestrian lanes and allow the reopening of cross streets east and west of the river that are now blocked by the expressway.

If the "Community Plan" were implemented, safety and congestion problems at the Bruckner/Sheridan interchange would disappear along with the interchange itself. If the Sheridan were eliminated, it would also get rid of a frequent source of congestion along the Cross-Bronx. The new Bruckner exit at Leggett Avenue would improve access to the Hunt’s Point Market and keep truck traffic off of from residential blocks.

Other Highway Removal Projects

If the Sheridan is dug up, it will join a growing list of highways being removed by major cities. Waterfront highways have already been eliminated in San Francisco, Portland and Toronto. A similar project was just approved in Seoul, South Korea and Milwaukee, Wisconsin will soon finish its demolition of a downtown freeway.

Milwaukee’s Park East Freeway will give way to parkland, an entertainment complex and new office, retail and residential construction. It shares remarkable similarities with the Sheridan. Community groups stopped the construction of the Park East in the mid-1970s, and the road only stretches one mile long. The road was underutilized and a blight to the community, and when the area around the highway stump began to revitalize in the 1990s, community leaders agreed to remove the highway and help spur the neighborhood’s continued growth. That agreement was reached in 1999, and the $50 million demolition began in 2002.

Next Steps

These examples prove that road removal is viable in major urban areas, but will the Department of Transportation follow suit? The State Department of Transportation recently began its environmental impact study for the Sheridan. It will examine the impacts of the department’s original ideas for a rebuilt interchange, as well as decommissioning the Sheridan.

While the draft environmental impact statement won’t be published for two years, the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance still has hurdles ahead. One challenge includes convincing companies at Hunts Point Market that the community's plan will make transportation better for them rather than more difficult. Government officials will need similar convincing. The Department of Transportation will be reluctant to give up highway capacity and as in so many areas, the ultimate decision makers are the governor and the mayor. Winning their attention, with the help of local elected leaders, may be the biggest challenge of all. “There are few things New York politicians fear more than being blamed for making traffic worse,” said the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s Jon Orcutt.

“If the community alternative for the Sheridan seems radical, it’s because for fifty years, we have allowed highway engineers to be the primary shapers of huge parts of our cities, and allowed the movement of vehicles to trump all other considerations of urban design, public health and safety, and environmental quality,” said Byron.

Danielle Burger is the New York City planner at Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an alliance of regional transportation experts, planning organizations and environmental groups working to improve transportation throughout the metropolitan region. Tri-State is also a member of the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance.

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RELATED ARTICLE: The Power Broker Revisited

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The Blackout Via TV; By Phone; On Blogs. Also: Only Days Left To Save .NYC

 When the blackout occurred, I had plenty of water, a working landline, two cell phones that never lost power, 24-hour Internet access, a fully-operating electric stove, and cable TV. That is because I was in Tokyo.

The only New Yorkers I could bond with, though, were the CNN anchors on my TV as they beamed me images of Avenue A and gave accounts of the bonfire in Tompkins Square Park just steps from my apartment.

It was somehow instructive to be on another continent, another culture -- a place where, on June 22, there had been a "voluntary blackout." It was called Candle Night, and its purpose was to get people thinking about energy conservation, among other things. (It is sponsored by an environmental organization called the Sloth Club) As part of this event, major tourist sites such as Tokyo Tower and Himeji Castle were left in the dark, on purpose.

Over the summer in Tokyo, amid earthquakes and typhoons, there were also fears of power failure, especially, according to the Japan Times, because of safety inspections that required the closure of 17 nuclear power generators.

But, following the blackout in New York on August 14th, Japanese utility companies were quick to reassure Tokyoites that a major power failure would never happen in Japan. This, the newspaper Asahi Shimbun told their readers, is due to differences in Japanese power grids and rerouting capabilities. Not everybody in Japan is so confident, though, especially one of the major train companies, which operates at full capacity every day.

Calling New York, But Not Getting an Answer

Despite all of my technology, it was impossible to contact anyone in New York. Landlines rang and rang with no answer due to overloaded telecom networks, despite Verizon's extensive back-up systems which insure that hospitals, essential services and 911 are operating during emergencies. Payphones continued to work for those patient enough to stand in line (scroll down to the fourth photo).

Most of us prefer the convenience of cordless phones ("Can I call you back? I'm in the shower right now.") forgetting that they won't work without electricity. Some have even abandoned landlines all together preferring to pay only one bill, for their cell phone. But, for the most part, cell phones from the top six carriers were unreliable through Friday morning. Verizon Wireless reported getting four times their usual traffic. Cell phone towers require electricity and have only three to six hours of back-up batteries.

This is the second time that cell phone networks have faltered in the face of an emergency. The first was during 9/11 when the Internet became the most reliable communication network. Unlike 9/11 however, the Internet was of no use in the blackout because most people couldn't connect to it without a computer. However, BlackBerry e-mail pagers did work because they rely on an older type of network technology.

If there was any time to be low-tech, it was during the Blackout of 2003. New Yorkers quickly learned the value of having at least one battery-operated radio, flashlight, plug-in phone.

Blackout Blogs

Many New York blogs covered the blackout with photos. Some of these include Gothamist, CamWorld, Capn Design, Satan's Laundromat, and those by John Wehr, Andrew Raff, Jesse Chan-Norris, Adam Fields, and Robert Spychala's SnapLog. The Fray, and many other blogs, are collecting stories Blackout 2003 from their readers.

To follow up on the bonding theme, online community Craigslist New York received almost thirty postings about "missed connections" during the blackout - personal ads resulting from the many close encounters in the dark. But are you sure you want to meet someone you only saw in the dim beam of your flashlight???

Another Plea for .NYC

The city has only until August 25 to file comments that could result in ownership of the Internet domain name .NYC. If secured, this new name could replace .COM, .GOV or .ORG in New York City-related organizations and businesses. For a brief background on this issue as of March 2002 see "The Battle for .NYC."

Proponents of this plan argue that the city could gain marketing power, increase revenue and improve the quality of life in New York if the .NYC name were secured. Queens Community Board 3 has been backing this issue since April 2001 when it passed an Internet Empowerment Resolution requesting that the city obtain .NYC. However, those opposed disagree with the concept that a city government should be able profit from the licensing of Internet domain names such as or

In order to make .NYC a reality, lawmakers need to file comments with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Further attention and support from Mayor Bloomberg, Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications Chief Gino Menchini, City Council Technology in Government Committee Chair Gale Brewer and Commission on Public Information and Communication Chair Betsy Gotbaum and others is needed.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

The State Of Bloomberg's Affordable Housing Plan

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s five-year plan (In pdf format) to increase affordable housing in New York City, officially began July 1, the first day of the new fiscal year. The administration’s strategy, unveiled last December, was to preserve 38,000 units of affordable housing, and build 27,000 others, with a total of $3 billion. In May, Bloomberg offered the New York State Affordable Housing Conference an updateon the plan, reporting that things were shaping up well.

“We’re already moving forward on virtually every single element of The New Housing Marketplace plan,” he said. “Since last December we’ve put the rehabilitation and production of approximately 8,000 housing units into the pipeline. We’ve assembled city-owned tracts for creating hundreds more. We’re developing regulatory reforms that will speed private housing construction. And we’re targeting residential rezoning that will catalyze construction and rehabilitation throughout the city.”

While the city’s budget woes haven’t made the mayor’s goals any easier, he has remained staunch in his housing commitment. “It’s true that we won’t see some of the dividends from our housing plan for years to come,” he said. “Given the city’s current budget problems, some people may think that’s a luxury we can’t afford now. That’s exactly wrong. Building for the future is a responsibility we can’t shirk – especially now.”


Recently, Housing First!, a coalition of community, business, civic, labor, and religious organizations promoting affordable housing, released a report(in pdf format) on the mayor’s plan that compared it to their own proposed solution to the city’s affordable housing crisis. The coalition has called for a 10-year, $10 billion dollar plan that would produce 100,000 new homes and preserve at least 85,000 more. Their report suggests that the mayor’s plan moves in the right direction, though not far enough.

“ The mayor has made an important new commitment and that is a critical step forward,” said Joe Weisbord, staff director of Housing First!. “But, at the same time, the city’s housing situation continues to deteriorate. We need to look to the future when the economy and budget situation will improve. We see the plan that our coalition came up with as a good benchmark for the level of effort that’s going to be necessary in the long term.”

Most distressing to Housing First! is the drop in the city’s 10-year capital strategy commitment to housing. “ If you compare it to the strategy that was issued two years ago,” Weisbord pointed out, “city capital funds declined over a billion dollars for a ten-year time frame. That’s a product of these across-the-board cuts that the city has been making, but that means we continue to fall behind.”

While the city’s billion dollar capital cut is offset in part by an influx of funds from the Housing Development Corporation and from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the capital inflow for housing over the next ten years is still more than three-quarters of a billion dollars less than what was planned two years ago.


Another unhappy surprise for affordable housing advocates has been the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s plans for housing near the former site of the World Trade Center. Overall, the federal tax-free Liberty Bond program (In pdf format) allocates up to $1.6 billion for residential rental development, but so far, only $50 million will go toward apartments that are affordable to those learning less than Wall Street wages. The amount is very far from the $293 million proposed by Mayor Bloomberg last December, in his “21st Century Vision for Lower Manhattan.”

So as it now stands, thousands of apartments will soon go up in lower Manhattan, and only 300 will be affordable to moderate income families, those earning between $50,000 and $85,000 a year. And so far, there has been no Liberty Bond commitment to housing for New Yorkers earning less than $50,000 per year.

Affordable housing advocates still have faith in the Bloomberg administration’s commitment to improve the city’s housing situation. But there is disappointing news.. Homeless statistics are at a record high, vacancy rates painfully low. A new study(in pdf format) out from the Citizen’s Housing and Planning Council estimates that well over 100,000 households counted in the 2000 Census were illegal additions to existing housing structures, attesting to the city’s dire need for additional housing, and one black market solution.

“ That’s a measure of how poorly we’re serving the population with our existing level of commitment to housing,” said Weisbord. “And an indication of how serious the situation is.”

From all outward appearances, Mayor Bloomberg seems determined to do something about it. “We are not going to push our problems, or our responsibilities, off on our children,” he told the New York State Affordable Housing Conference. “New York City has been down that road before -- during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s -- and we know exactly where it leads. We’re still paying the price for that mistake. We won’t make it again.”

Rebecca Webber is a journalist who has covered housing issues for Gotham Gazette since July 2000.















Greenpoint and Williamsburg Zoning Changes

The Department of City Planning recently released a proposal to rezone large sections of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn’s Community District 1. Most of the area to be rezoned is on and near the waterfront. Large sections of the waterfront, now zoned for heavy manufacturing (labeled M3), have been vacant for many years or occupied by industries such as waste transfer facilities strongly opposed by the surrounding community. Williamsburg activists are currently fighting the state’s plan to locate a 1,100 megawatt power plant on a waterfront site the city and community have proposed for a park. (For more information go to Stop The Power Plant).

The city and local community agree that changes have to be made on the waterfront. The current M3 zoning would not allow for the kinds of changes all agree are needed. But is zoning the right tool at this time to make these changes? Zoning is but one among many tools the city has at its disposal. Other tools include housing incentives and subsidies, infrastructure improvements (streets, sidewalks, utilities), industrial and business incentives, and city services (schools, community centers, and parks).

If zoning is changed without doing anything else, however, zoning can actually distort the way development occurs, leading to unwanted results. It can undermine the plan. How can that be?

Zoning Based on Detailed Planning and Programs

Zoning is basically a system for regulating the way land is used. The main “uses” set out in the city’s Zoning Resolution are residential, commercial and industrial. Within each of these uses, zoning sets up a maximum amount of building floor area that can be erected. But how do you know what the right mixture of uses and the right amount of building area should be? You know because you’ve planned the way you want the community to look, not in the abstract but on the ground, block by block. That is, the zoning is based on a detailed plan to develop and preserve the community.

Now, Greenpoint and Williamsburg do have officially approved plans, known as 197-a plans. The plans were made after years of community meetings involving a broad array of groups. Community Board 1 sent the plans to the City Planning Commission which, after numerous changes, approved the plans in 2001.

But these plans outline general principles that include waterfront revitalization, maintaining the mixture of residential and industrial uses, public access to the waterfront, and development of affordable housing. They do not say what uses should prevail on each block, or how much should be built on each block. That takes detailed block-by-block planning, by city agencies, property owners and community organizations working together to achieve the general vision set out in the community plan. It takes a detailed program and budget. Unfortunately, when the City Planning Commission looks at community plans it discourages them from putting in a lot of detail. The approved plans are completely disconnected from the city budget, so ideas mentioned in the plan don’t necessarily find their way into the programs or projects of city agencies. In other words, city agencies can easily file the plans away on a shelf and ignore them. It is then left to community activists to keep struggling so the city will honor them.

In Greenpoint and Williamsburg, the city has not done the detailed planning for redevelopment that should follow the general principles laid out in the approved plans. As a result, many community activists in Greenpoint and Williamsburg look at the zoning proposals and see them as potentially undermining the plan’s principles. Also, the rezoning is moving faster than the planning process, and will make any detailed planning, including design issues, moot.

Where’s The Affordable Housing?

For example, there’s plenty of room for new housing in the zoning proposal, but there’s no whiff of affordable housing, a cornerstone of the community plans. According to the Department of City Planning, making housing affordable isn’t their job. The department rejected proposals for inclusionary zoning in the recently approved Park Slope rezoning in Brooklyn. By rezoning without a plan for affordable housing the city will guarantee that the millions of square feet of new housing to be built on and near the waterfront will be “market-rate”–and out of the reach of most current residents. City planners points to the mayor’s housing plan, a city-wide plan that targets waterfront communities and promises over 65,000 units of affordable housing. But this is a city-wide proposal and there is no guarantee that any of those affordable units will end up in Greenpoint or Williamsburg. So for affordable housing there is no detailed plan. For market-rate housing, there is a detailed “plan”--the city’s rezoning proposal.

A committee of the Rezoning Task Force, a community-based group in Williamsburg, put together a vision statement for affordable housing that gets to the bottom of the issue. The committee states that “the city must guarantee that affordable housing will be integrated into each redevelopment site. Such a guarantee is possible through the implementation of present and any future tools such as: designating the use of ‘inclusionary zoning’ or an ‘affordable housing bonus’ zone, a Tax Increment Financing district, utilization of existing tax abatement programs.”

If we look more closely, the Department of City Planning rezoning plan explicitly negates the principles laid out in the officially approved Williamsburg Plan. That plan states that the city should capitalize on the availability of large underutilized waterfront sites to develop affordable housing and maintain income diversity.

Where’s the Mixed Use?

The Department of City Planning proposal also includes the establishment of mixed use zones (labeled MX), which theoretically would allow both industry and housing to coexist. But there is no detailed block-by-block plan or industry-by-industry plan that will guarantee the retention and development of industry. As a result, many of these blocks that are now zoned exclusively for industry will attract new market-rate investment for housing, pushing out whatever industry that’s left. Again, for market-rate housing there is a detailed plan--the city’s rezoning proposal. For industry, there is nothing—no incentives to grow, controls on rents, or assistance in making them better neighbors and eliminating conflicts with nearby residents. It is easy for planners to sit in their Brooklyn offices and draw lines on a map rezoning large areas of

Greenpoint and Williamsburg for mixed use, but unless something is done proactively to protect industry the net result will be a complete transformation of these areas from mixed use to upscale residential. It will be a “back-door” residential rezoning. (See the last two Land Use articles, about “as-of-right development" and “zoning to kill manufacturing" ). And that runs directly against the community plans approved by Community Board 1, the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

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

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