Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


The New Battle Against Gentrification

The battle between Robert Moses and the West Village activists led by Jane Jacobs in the 1960s set the tone for how struggles over development in New York City are played out today. But if Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff's Moses-style mega-building threatens many poor and working-class communities, Jacobs' small-scale neighborhood sensibility poses the danger of a different sort of gentrification. The former benefits large developers and big business, while the latter, with its focus on block-by-block preservation, does little to promote class and race diversity.

Both the Jacobs and Moses approaches favor a narrow range of stakeholders—primarily property and business owners—and exclude other groups that have a vital interest in the neighborhood.

Several innovative advocacy groups in New York City are seeking another way. They are resisting conversion of still more neighborhoods into affluent enclaves through a combination of grassroots organizing, political education, and leadership development with their members. Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE), Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) and Organizing Asian Communities are among a larger band of organizations that in 2006 formed the NYC Anti-Gentrification Network with technical support from the Urban Justice Center. The organizations formed the network to share experiences, strategies and resources and so strengthen their efforts..

FIERCE Work in the Village

Many of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth of color who congregate on the Christopher Street Pier in the West Village aren’t residents of the neighborhood. But the pier has long provided a safe haven for such young people from throughout the city, many of whom have nowhere else to go. The experiences of these youth provide the motivation for FIERCE’s work.

The group organized to preserve access to the Christopher Street Pier. The pier was run down for deacdes until the Hudson River Park Trust stepped in and developed it in 2001. Redevelopment brought manicured lawns, jazz concerts and high-priced amenities, as well as increased harassment of the youth by residents and the police. A 9 p.m. curfew was imposed. Bathroom facilities now close at 8 p.m., discouraging young people who want to use the space later into the evening.

To confront this, FIERCE had to figure out how to bring people who did not live in the area into land use decisions. While FIERCE youth do not own property or businesses in the West Village, the changes there have had a major impact on them. For instance, after the pier was redeveloped, the trust wanted to charge medical vans serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth $25,000 a year to be in the space. FIERCE successfully fought this proposal, and the medical vans continue to have access for free.

" Our strategy is, how can we be considered a stakeholder when we can't afford to live in the neighborhood, but in a lot of ways still identify as residents," said Rickke Mananzala, FIERCE’s co-director. "It's not like this is affecting a handful of people—it's thousands of people."

Preserving Culture

FUREE has also had to confront entrenched notions of who has a say in neighborhood decisions. One goal of its Downtown Brooklyn Organizing Campaign is to preserve the Fulton Mall as a shopping, social and cultural destination for black and Latino families who have historically flocked to the area from other parts of New York City. Since Downtown Brooklyn was rezoned in 2004, luxury condos have been popping up and upscale retail has replaced mom-and-pop stores.

Like FIERCE, FUREE pressures the city to consider what defines community and how culture should be preserved.

The city recently announced, for instance, that it plans to spend $2 million commemorating the abolitionist history of Downtown Brooklyn. This marked a success for FUREE. Prior to its organizing efforts there was little public awareness of this history and no effort to incorporate it into the redevelopment.

The city does not, however, plan to preserve the houses on Duffield Street in the area that many locals and scholars believe were part of the Underground Railroad. But commemorating history will mean little if Fulton Mall's black community gets pushed out, and the cultural significance of the Duffield Street homes is ignored.

In the West Village, institutions such as the Stonewall Inn will be reduced to hollow landmarks without a thriving lesbian and gay community. "The West Village has a history of being a haven for artists and marginalized people. We're being told to let go of that history," said Mananzala.

The same is true of Manhattan's Chinatown, where redevelopment has focused on making the enclave more attractive to tourists and the affluent, while longstanding Asian communities are displaced. Through its Chinatown Justice Project, which was launched in 1999, Organizing Asian Communities is fighting to ensure that the area continues to serve poor and working-class immigrants who have historically settled there. Although many new immigrants now live in Chinatowns in Queens and Brooklyn, Manhattan’s Chinatown functions as a hub to which people travel for work, to do business, and to shop and participate in cultural activities.

Currently, Organizing Asian Communities is focused on the potential impacts of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan for development of the East River waterfront. According to the city, displacement would be minimal, but the group is concerned that once this area gets developed, the businesses there might not serve the current Asian community. In addition, a rezoning plan is being considered by community board 3, which includes part of Chinatown but has little Asian involvement.

Countering the BIDs

In their work, the three groups hope to offset the power of Business Improvement Districts. The districts collect a tax from property and business owners and so are accountable to them rather than to the broader public. The NYC Anti-Gentrification Network views BIDs as tools of gentrification that rid neighborhoods of anything that is anathema to middle-class consumers, tourists, affluent residents, or business and property owners.

"From a policy perspective, our position is, no more BIDs," said Mananzala.

Winning Battles

New Yorkers who feel that gentrification is inevitable may be inspired by the successes of the groups in the NYC Anti-Gentrification Network. For instance, members of FIERCE convinced West Village residents that the youth who frequent the pier are a valuable part of the community. They argued that the neighborhood would benefit from keeping the pier’s bathrooms open longer, and from the availability of reasonably priced food, since this would prevent the young people from filtering into residential areas to fulfill basic needs. In addition, extending the curfew from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. would make it less likely that everyone on the pier would leave at once, which tends to create more noise than if people leave in stages. Community Board 2 passed a resolution to implement these measures. FIERCE is also working on an innovative proposal to allow youth to run vending services on the pier.

FUREE's work on the redevelopment of the Albee Square Mall helped push the debate on who will benefit from development in Downtown Brooklyn to a new level. Even though the group did not stop the project, they emphasized the importance of the economic, social and cultural character of Downtown Brooklyn and made it clear they would fight to preserve it.

" FUREE has been very much in the forefront of making the politicians wake up and realize that there are people out there paying attention," said FUREE co-chair and board member Beverly Corbin. "Most of our members are people of color. We have become an entity to be reckoned with. That's the only way we're going to get respect."

Members of the NYC Anti-Gentrification Network recognize that gentrification is a national and even international issue, with common characteristics across locales. The network is affiliated with the Right to the City Alliance, a national organization formed in 2007 “to build a united response to gentrification and the drastic changes imposed on our cities.” But the groups agree that local communities must lead the fight. The extent to which that happens is a critical marker of success.

" Our job is to get people to fight for their own self-determination," said Helena Wong, program director of Organizing Asian Communities’ Chinatown Justice Project. "If we can bring people into a process where they feel like they're entitled to have a say in what happens, that's more important than some measure of whether or not we're winning in a larger sense."

Allison Lirish Dean is a journalist and urban planner, and is currently producing and co-directing, with Kelly Anderson, a documentary film about the effects of the 2004 rezoning on Fulton Mall. 






















Crumbling Systems

From the a steam pipe explosion in Midtown Manhattan to the paralysis of the city's subway system last week, New York's underlying structure seems more fragile than ever. Experts and government officials wonder whether the city's older systems can possibly meet the 21st century demands of a changing climate, new technology and increased population.

These concerns are particularly sharp in a centuries-old metropolis like New York City, but the deadly collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis has given rise to worries about the crumbling state of transportation and utilities throughout the country. One commentator wrote that the United States that once tamed a vast wilderness put men on the moon and built the Panama Canal has become "the can't do nation."

Last year, a devastating blackout in Queens spurred increased scrutiny of New York's infrastructure. The steam explosion and the subway flooding here, along with renewed focus on the thousands of bridges within the five boroughs, make it clear that decrepit and outmoded systems still threaten quality of life, the city's economy and the health and safety of millions of people. The following article examines the conditions of a city infrastructure that is another year older and, some say, drawing ever closer to its expiration date. (This feature includes some material from last summer's story, The Aging City.)

. Subways
. Bridges
. Roads
. Steam
. Electricity
. Sewers
. Water
. Solving The Problem

Subways: After the Deluge

Infrastructure Reports

Over the past several years, Gotham Gazette has published a number of articles on New York's infrastructure, its problems and efforts to fix it. Here is a sampling:

. The Aging City: The Queens blackout focuses attention on old systems throughout New York.

. Keeping the City Running: The many systems that make the city go.

. Loving the City's Infrastructure -- and Explaining How It Works: A discussion with Kate Ascher, author of "The Works: Anatomy of a City."

. Drought: Keeping New York supplied with water

. Water: Its route from an upstate stream to your kitchen.

. The Sewer System: How it works -- and doesn't work.

. Electricity: How does it get to your home?

. After The Blackout: Experts discuss the 2003 power failure.

. Steam: Heating and cooling Manhattan buildings.

. Learning from the Subway Fire: The very old equipment that makes the trains run.

. How the Subway System Shaped New York: A century of mass transit.

And be sure to play Gotham Gazette's Breakdown game and save the city from "kaput."

Lights have gone out, platforms have flooded and control rooms have burned. But most upsetting to subway riders has been the almost total disruption of service three times in the last seven months because of rain.

For several days, war stories of Wednesday's subway catastrophe floated through cubicles, boardrooms and deli lines throughout the city. The tales resemble those from September 2004 when the subway was shut down during the morning rush hour, also because of heavy rainfall.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has described such incidents as "an act of God." It now blames the National Weather Service for not giving ample warning; climate change for bringing severe and erratic weather; and city officials for not doing more to fix the aging sewer system (see below). But city officials and straphangers see the debacle as another example of the aging system's inability to handle unexpected problems.

The subway system's pumps tend to buckle and clog when rain pours down at a rate faster than an inch and half an hour. Last week's storm brought nearly two inches in one hour in Central Park.

In some areas of the city, the pumps have not been updated or improved for as many as 75 years. Though the pumps are supposed to redirect water to the city's storm water sewer system, when rainfall pours as it did last Wednesday, the sewer system gets overwhelmed, water spills into stations and sewage can run in the streets, forcing the authority to shut down power and the subways.

One report on the September 2004 flooding from the authority's Office of the Inspector General, an independent oversight arm, faulted the pumps and the valves linking the city's sewer system and the authority's pumping stations (which the authority did not know existed and had not maintained for decades). Another pointed to litter in stations, which can get swept into the pumps during storms and clog them. Along with technical and mechanical failures, the reports also cited poor communication throughout the 2004 flood.

The inspector general recommended several improvements. These included treating litter as a safety hazard instead of a quality of life issue and developing regular inspection and maintenance for the subway systems connections to the city sewer system.

A spokesman for New York City Transit said the authority could not give specifics on which of the recommendations had been implemented. In general, the authority has ordered extra portable pumps, cleared drains before storms, put work crews in place when heavy rain is forecast and brought in more dispatchers at stations to help customers.

Other technological improvements, spokesman Charles Seaton said, have been ongoing. New advisory screens have trickled into stations over the last several years, and the authority added service alerts on its web site. That web site, however, was down during much of Wednesday's emergency.

Despite any improvements, most New Yorkers who had been through the 2004 flooding had a sense of deja vu last week . They were left scrambling for other transportation and given little information about the subway breakdown. The New York Times' blog City Room garnered nearly 1,000 comments from irate commuters, blasting the authority not only for its inability to keep the subways running following a rainstorm, but also for not letting them know where to go or even which lines were down.

The subway system's woes extend beyond flooding. This became glaringly apparent on January 23, 2005 when a fire destroyed a signal relay room at the Chambers Street station in lower Manhattan. While many control rooms had been modernized to improve their resistance to fires, the one at Chambers Street had not.

The system showed the most acute signs of wear and tear in the 1970s and 1980s when track fires, delays and other breakdowns seemed a daily occurrence. No one denies that things have improved since then as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has spent some $26 billion to repair and improve the system.

According to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's PlaNYC, which calls for expanding and improving the subway system, the last major subway expansion was in the early 1930s, and much of that technology is still used to transport its 5 million daily passengers. To help bring the subways up to date the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has adopted an $11.3 billion capital program for New York City Transit, including money for signals and communications, subway cars and stations.

The problem comes in paying for all this. Bloomberg anticipates using some money from congestion pricing fees. To help improve the subways and the state's voters approved a transportation bond act in 2005. But that will not erase the expected $800 million deficit the MTA predicts for 2008.

While the authority does have a capital budget, a report (in pdf format) by the Citizens Budget Commission said the agency used some of that money to cover routine maintenance. This means that money was not spent to modernize, improve and maintain the subways. Meanwhile, the city and state have reduced subsidies for mass transit and shifted an increasing share of operating costs to passengers.

Spending taxpayer dollars to upgrade a system can be a hard political sell. "The problem is that the least sexy stuff you do in this business is state-of-good-repair stuff," David Gunn, a former MTA executive told New York Magazine. "No politician wants to cut a ribbon on a rebuilt toilet."

After last week's incident, and two less severe but similar shutdowns earlier this year, the political tide may be shifting. Spitzer has demanded an investigation into the flooding within 30 days, while Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Transportation Committee Chair John Liu and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum addressed a letter to the authority demanding answers on the authority's aging pump system.

They may not like the answer they get. City and MTA officials contend it would cost far too much to overhaul the entire sewer system to keep the subways running when the hard rains come.

Bridges: Avoiding Disaster in a City of Islands

The collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis on August had particular resonance with New Yorkers. Living in a city where all but one of the five boroughs is on an island, few New Yorkers can avoid regularly using the city's bridges and tunnels.

Built in 1967, the Minnesota bridge was frequently described as old. But all four of New York's East River crossings have carried traffic for many more years, The oldest, the Brooklyn Bridge, went into service in 1883; the newest, the Manhattan, has logged 98 years. Many of the spans carry more traffic than anticipated. Former city transportation commissioner Sam Schwartz has said that the Queensboro Bridge, for example, intended for 110,000 vehicles a day, actually carries 150,000. And along with the cars and trucks, heavy subways trains use some New York bridges.

New York City has more than 2,000 bridges and tunnels. Of them 787 are run by the New York City Department of Transportation. Others, including the Verrazano-Narrow Bridges, the Queens Midtown Tunnel and the Throgs Neck Bridge, fall under the purview of a unit of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, while the Port Authority runs several crossings linking New York and New Jersey, such as the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel.

Following the collapse in Minnesota, the city government hastened to reassure New Yorkers the bridges it operates are safe. A return to maintenance, neglected during the tough fiscal times of the 1970s and 1980s, has reduced the number of bridges the department considers to be in poor conditions from 40 in 1997 to three today. (Most of the bridges are rated fair, according to a 2006 transportation department report.) Two of the "poor" bridges are small -- a pedestrian bridge over the FDR Drive and a bridge over Willow Lake in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The third, though, is the Brooklyn Bridge, which carries almost 140,000 vehicles on an average weekday.

City officials issued reassurances that the historic bridge is not in danger of collapse. The major problems exist not with the span itself, the Department of Transportation said, but with the ramps leading to the bridge, and rehabilitation work will begin in three years. "The poor rating for the Brooklyn Bridge mean that there's only components of the bridge that are in poor condition," Lori Ardito, the first deputy transportation commissioner told reporters.

But despite the city government's assurances New Yorkers have reason for concern. After the Minnesota disaster, the MTA banned oversized vehicles from the Throgs Neck Bridge. While saying the bridge remained safe for motorists officials said they had found "advanced wear and tear."

Some may remember the emergency closing of the Williamsburg Bridge for several months for repairs in 1988. Nets under the Gowanus Expressway catch falling chunks of concrete from above. The Port Authority finds constant problems with its 79-year old Goethals Bridge linking Staten Island to New Jersey and would like to replace it. A 1999 study noted "structural and seismic deficiencies" in the 106-year-old Willis Avenue Bridge across the Harlem River. Construction on a new crossing will likely start this year, according to New York Magazine. Until then, "we're making it as safe as we can," Ardito has said.

In PlaNYC, its proposal for a "greater greener" city released this spring, the Bloomberg administration said the city must increase its efforts to maintain aging bridges. The city has "done a better job," since 1988, the report said, "but with more traffic every year, the city's bridges require significant periodic upgrade and replacement."

In the state as a whole, some 2,110 -- or 12.1 percent -- bridges have been classified as "structurally deficient," although actual conditions at the crossings vary widely. In general, a structurally deficient bridge cannot carry the load for which it was designed. As alarming as this may sound, Matthew Wald explained in the Times, "in many cases, this means nothing because bridges are generally designed for higher loads than the traffic imposes."

Following a round of inspections this month, Governor Eliot Spitzer pronounced the bridges safe." As of now, there are no reasons to believe that there are any problems [that] rise to the level of structural concern," he said.

Roads: Potholes and Other Problems

In some instances, New York City's aging streets -- paved with cobblestones and lined with centuries old structures --- offer charm and character. But many others are simply irritating.

According to Federal Highway Administration data, 45 percent of the metropolitan area's roads and highways could be considered poor, meaning it has the 10th worst roads of all urban areas with half a million people or more. The city offers a more upbeat view, but even by its accounting about 30 percent of city "lane miles" are not in good repair.

The city repaired 180, 000 potholes last year and although the pothole problem does not seem as severe as in the past -- the result of better maintenance, milder weather or less attention from the tabloids -- anyone who drive or bikes through city streets knows that gaping holes pockmark the city's pavement.

Along with bridge repairs, street maintenance was a casualty of the fiscal crisis of the 1970s as "the city's resurfacing efforts virtually stopped," according to PlaNYC 2030. Whatever repairs were done, were done poorly, the report said: "New layers of asphalt were simply laid over the damaged, older sections and sealed up. Each new layer caused the road level to rise closer to the curb. To avoid having streets at the same level as sidewalks, repairs were simply avoided."

In the late 1980s, the city stepped up its resurfacing efforts. But the repairs tapered off starting in 1992, and as a result, the number of city streets considered "in good repair" has begun to decrease.

Steam: An Explosion's Aftermath

For more than a century, steam has run discreetly underneath Manhattan streets, heating and cooling institutions like the Empire State Building, the Guggenheim and the Chrysler Building. It wasn't until July 18 at 5:56 p.m. that most New Yorkers ever thought about vapors estimated at 350 degrees Fahrenheit flowing beneath their feet.

On that July day a steam geyser engulfed Midtown Manhattan and created a large crater in the middle of a busy intersection yards away from Grand Central Terminal. The explosion left one man in an induced coma with third degree burns over 80 percent of his body, a woman dead of a heart attack and merchants in the area of 41st Street and Lexington Avenue with an estimated $1.3 million in lost business.

At a hearing last week, City Council members blasted Consolidated Edison, which operates the steam system. Senior Senior Vice President of Central Operations William Longhi bore the brunt of the council's comments, since the utility's CEO, Kevin Burke, skipped the session. Longhi refused to offer any explanation of why a steam pipe would spontaneously explode in midtown Manhattan, saying he wanted to avoid speculation.

Longhi confirmed that the explosion did not occur at a pipe intersection or a flange (where two pipes are sealed together), but at a pipe straightaway. Beyond that Longhi said Con Edison is investigating the cause and hopes to issue a public report in three months. The company also plans to have the area back to normal by mid-October.

This did not satisfy council members who criticized Con Edison for July's steam blast, its steam inspection practices and its ability to effectively and safely manage its facilities.

"It seems to me you have a warped culture at Con Edison," said Councilmember Eric Gioia. "It's a company when the lights go out no one gets fired. People get electrocuted and no one gets fired."

Immediately following the blast, Bloomberg characterized the event as a "failure of our infrastructure." But that failure, which has sparked lawsuits from several victims, also points toward the vulnerability of a system that is more than a century old.

The pipe that exploded was installed in 1924, Con Edison representatives said. While council members and engineering experts have questioned the age of the city's steam system, Con Edison refused to define the pipes as failing or old, and said it has no plan to replace the system.

"There has to be a plan in place to replace them over time," said Councilmember Jessica Lappin. "They are not going to last forever."

Although some steam industry experts told the council that it was extremely unusual to replace steam systems and that the systems scattered around the country are reliable, some said infrastructure installed during the Coolidge administration can be susceptible to potentially disastrous breakdowns.

"This may be a warning sign for this very old network of pipe that we have," Anil Agrawal, a professor of civil engineering at the City College of New York, told The Washington Post. "We should not be looking at this incident as an isolated one."

In 1989 the city did see a similar occurrence. A steam pipe exploded near Gramercy Park, killing three and injuring dozens. The explosion was caused by a water hammer, which occurs when steam collides with water and rapidly cools. That blast also released a large amount of asbestos, which Con Edison initially concealed from the public.

Following the recent blast, Con Edison and inspectors from the city's departments of health and environmental protection tested the area for asbestos. They found the toxin was not in the air, but was in several pieces of debris.

With the largest steam network in the country, New York City could be vulnerable to similar explosions in the future. But according to PlaNYC, Bloomberg is encouraging steam's use, because it is considered one of the cleaner heating and cooling technologies.

Electricity: Blackout Fears

More than a year after a blackout in Queens left approximately 100,000 residents in the dark for nearly 10 days, a clear explanation as to why it occurred has not emerged.

"It's not a supply problem," Con Ed spokesperson told the Daily News at the time of the blackout. "It's an isolated equipment problem."

With equipment that dates back to the 1940s, some question whether these incidents can remain "isolated." The area of Queens left in the dark last summer had a long history of problems, accumulating more failures than any other of the utility's 57 underground networks throughout the city within a two year period.

In 1999, as many as 200,000 people in the northern Manhattan neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood lost power for more than 19 hours. At that time, the Public Service Commission put much of the blame on aging or inadequate equipment.

"Six years later, an estimated 100,000 residents in Queens were plunged into darkness for nearly identical reasons -- inadequately maintained feeder cables that were vulnerable to heat and power overloads, an inability to identify equipment that was likely to fail, a failure to comprehend the magnitude of the problem, inadequate communication with the public, and a failure to restore power promptly," said then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer last year.

Since last summer, several studies have tried to get to the cause of the problem. In a 600-page tome released three months after the outages, Con Edison stated some of the feeder failures were from an undetermined cause, while others were attributed to the fires.

Advocacy groups and the state utility oversight agency, the Public Service Commission, remain unsatisfied by Con Edison's explanations.

In a report released in February, the Public Service Commission blamed the outage on a systemic failure by the utility to routinely conduct oversight and maintenance. In addition, the report charged that the company failed to communicate effectively with its customers and measure the blackout's magnitude.

For its part, the State Assembly released a report in January that faulted the deregulation of utility companies, which allowed Con Edison to monopolize the electric market in New York City, and charged that the state failed to put pressure on the utility to make improvements. "Con Edison continues to rely upon an aging and inefficiently maintained network grid that was not sufficiently upgraded to meet growing load, and similar power outages will continue to be experienced in its service territory if network upgrades, improved maintenance and new technologies are not quickly incorporated," the report said.

Much of the Co Ed's equipment is far older than industry standards consider reliable. In Brooklyn one paper-insulated cable is 78 years old. "Anything over 50 years becomes highly susceptible to breakdowns," said Pat Impollonia, an energy conservation engineer at Cornell University.

Con Edison has acknowledged that it uses outmoded equipment. It notes, however, that it has invested billions over the last 10 years to upgrade the system and plans to put $5.3 billion more into cables, substations, transformers and other equipment in the next several years.

"We have to make sure that the company's energy infrastructure is sufficiently strong and flexible so that it can supply future energy needs, " Con Ed Chairman Kevin Burke has said.

But accomplishing that will be neither quick nor cheap. The Independent Review Board that Con Ed set up to investigate the 1999 power outage said, "Given Con Ed's size it will take years to realize a significant benefit system-wide from changing equipment."

Sewers: Overflows When It Rains

During the blackout in August 2003, backup generators at several sewage plants didn't work, and some 30 million gallons of raw sewage was dumped into the East River.

It doesn't take a blackout for this to happen, however; untreated sewage ends up in the city's waterways almost every time it rains. This is the result of an overburdened network of pipes that handle both rainwater and sewage. In dry weather, the mixture flowing through the city sewage system is treated and released. But rain can quickly fill the pipes beyond capacity; in some areas it takes as little as 0.1 inches to do so. When this happens, sewage is dumped without being treated.

A total of 27 billion gallons of rainwater mixed with sewage enters the city's waterways each year through these so-called combined sewage overflows. Overflows contribute to the notorious smells of the Flushing River, Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal, and regularly result in city beach closings. In 2003, the swimming leg of the New York City Triathlon was called off because there was too much sewage in the Hudson after a night of rain. The sewage overflow has other serious environmental impacts, such as the threat to the Jamaica Bay marshes.

When a storm like last week's occurs, the additional water being pumped from subways can overload the city's sewers even more. That capacity, Bloomberg said, may need to be overhauled.

Some cities have two separate systems for rainwater and sewage, but everyone agrees that completely replacing New York's system would be prohibitively expensive. There is disagreement, however, about how best to reduce the impact sewage overflows have on the local environment.

The city's Department of Environmental Protection is spending $2.1 billion on various improvements centered around the construction of two huge storage tanks -- one in Flushing and one in Jamaica Bay -- that will hold excess rainwater until storms end and the excess can be run back through the treatment system.

The city says this will reduce sewage overflows, but critics are skeptical. They say that New York's sewer system is far behind other cities, like Chicago, and city must take a more aggressive approach.

Water: Delivery Problems

New York City prides itself on the quality of its water -- in fact the Bloomberg administration has undertaken a campaign to persuade fans of Poland Spring and Dasani that what comes out of the tap here beats bottled water anytime. Recently, the federal Environmental Protection Agency determined that the bulk of the city's water from upstate remained so clean it did not need filtration.

The system that brings water to us, though, is a bit more dicey. New York City relies on two tunnels from upstate, one dating from 1917, the other from 1936, for all of its drinking water. Neither of these has been closely examined since they opened, largely because inspections and repairs would require shutting the tunnels and interrupting the city's water supply. So, Jeff Jones of Environmental Advocates has said, ""A disaster could happen at any moment, a disaster of epic proportions."

A third tunnel is under construction. The city broke ground on the project in 1970 -- when John Lindsay was still mayor. Current estimates are that the project will cost $6 billion and be completed in 2012 -- more than 40 years after work began.

Once the water reaches the city thousand of miles of aging and pipes carry it to millions of faucets. More than 1,000 of the 6,700 miles of pipe were installed more than a century ago, according to PlaNYC. These are the pipes that occasionally burst, shutting streets and damaging property. Currently the city replaces about 60 miles of pipe a year, meaning the system would not be fully modernized for 100 years (when one expects the whole process would have to start all over again). PlaNYC calls for increasing that to 80 miles of pipe a year.

Looking for Solutions

Experts generally agree that the nation as a whole has neglected the mundane but important work of repairing its aging roads, bridges and pipes. While the specifics of the recent breakdown incidents vary, "ultimately the issue is the same, Hope Cohen of the Manhattan Institute's Center for Rethinking Development has written. "Pipes and bridges, cables and roads, substations and subways require unglamorous maintenance year after year, just to provide the level of service they were mean to provide."

With many competing demands for funds, politicians have tended to neglect that kind of grunt work. In the past two weeks, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has become a kind of poster child for that attitude. He vetoed a bill that, among other things, would have raised the state gasoline tax to pay for transportation improvements, such as repairs to the I-35W bridge. Pawlenty called the hike "an unnecessary and onerous burden."

Pawlenty hardly stood alone though, Stephen Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in the Boston Globe: "Like the heirs to an old mansion who elect not to pay for its upkeep, our president, governors and mayors have been in lockstep, tacitly allowing us to squander an extraordinary legacy of inventiveness, industry, and investment bequeathed to us by our forebears."

Following the Minneapolis collapse, editorial writers and politicians said this must change. The news from the upper Mississippi constituted a "wake-up call" many said. At the local state and national level, politicians weighed in with proposals to confront the issue.

Bloomberg's PlaNYC, released in April, already dealt with a number of these issues. Among other things, it calls for completing a new water tunnel, upgrading water mains and using funds from congestion pricing fees to pay for transit and road repairs.

On the other side of City Hall, council members are looking to address city's aging infrastructure as well. Finance Committee Chair David Weprin has announced he will introduce legislation urging Bloomberg to establish an infrastructure commission aimed at identifying areas in need of repair.

The commission would examine the city's roads, subways, bridges, tunnels, electric system and other utilities, and eventually set budget priorities for the upcoming years. "Everyone always talks about paying down the debt and preserving for the future," said Weprin's director of communications, Austin Shafran. "I don't know what is more for the future than infrastructure."

In Albany, Spitzer wants the state Department of Transportation to come up with a five-year plan, including repairs and improvements to highways and bridges, to present to the legislature next spring. Some in state government, though, say New York is not properly spending the money for repairs that it does have. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Thomas Libous, a Republican from Binghamton, said Tuesday that Albany used hundreds of millions of dollars money from a trust fund for road repairs for routine items such as snow removal. He has proposed a bill that would bar the money from being used for anything except repairs.

Whatever the fate of local and state efforts, a national plan to deal with crumbling transportation already seems locked in Washington politics. Senator Charles Schumer has said he will introduce legislation to double funding for bridge maintenance from $5 billion to $10 billion. He criticized Washington for funding new projects in sparsely populated states (remember the Bridge to Nowhere), while "highways and bridges in New York and other older areas have been allowed to degrade."

Another Democrat, James Oberstar of Minnesota who chairs the House transportation committee, proposed a temporary increase in taxes on gasoline, diesel fuel and/or imported oil to improve the country's bridges. Over three years, he calculated, raising the gasoline and diesel tax by 5 cents a gallon (from the current levels of 18.4 and 24.4 cents respectively) would bring in $25 billion.

President George W. Bush promptly rejected that idea. Congress should look at how it spends the money the government already receives, he said, before increasing taxes, "which could affect economic growth."

Democrats reacted angrily to the president's statement, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid charging that the president had neglected the nation's infrastructure needs "while turning surpluses into deficits."

The outburst of political bickering provides only one reason to be skeptical about the new call -- in City Hall, Albany and Washington -- for repairs and maintenance. "Each time there is one of these tragedies, politicians briefly declaim the need for a major and sustained investment in the nation's aging infrastructure," the New York Times said in an editorial. But the paper, added, "that enthusiasm quickly flags."


Neighborhoods and the Fiscal Boom

"By virtually every measure, our economy is firing on all cylinders, " Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently told the State Financial Control Board, which has overseen city finances since the 1970s fiscal crisis. Certainly, the city's "fiscal economy" is in peak form, boosting tax revenues by $16 billion, or 75 percent, in the last five years -- most of that the result of economic growth. This has enabled the city’s budget to go from a $5 billion deficit in 2003 to a $5 billion surplus in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

While the city’s fiscal economy roars, what is the state of the “neighborhood economy” -- the factors that determine the well-being and living standards of the average New York family? Strong job, wage and income growth help both the fiscal economy and the neighborhood economy, but in other areas, what bodes well for the fiscal economy can cause hardship in many city neighborhoods.


Self-Sufficient in New York

An income of $50,000 barely enables a family of four to be economically self-sufficient in New York City. The Women's Center for Education and Career Advancement has calculated how much a family would need to pay for such necessities as housing, child care, food, transportation, and health care without public or private subsidies. To be "self-sufficient," a Brooklyn family with two adults, an infant and a preschooler would need an income of over $50,000. The "self-sufficiency" level is not exactly a princely living standard, but, even so, half of New York's families are below that. One City, Two Economies

The booming real estate market and the resurgence on Wall Street have fueled the surging fiscal economy and the record tax revenues. Very low interest rates from 2003 to 2005 helped spur a robust market in residential real estate and an unprecedented wave of mortgage refinancing. The city’s commercial real estate market rebounded surprisingly quickly after 9/11 and has been hotter than ever in the past two years. Collections from two real estate transaction taxes -- the real property transfer tax and the mortgage recording tax -- have more than tripled since 2003, increasing by a total of more than $2 billion.

Wall Street’s resurgence since 2003 has also contributed to the health of the fiscal economy. Near record profits, record bonuses and payouts to hedge fund operators have contributed to city tax revenues. Realized capital gains, pumped up by rising prices for both stocks and real estate, are projected to be 40 percent higher for the 2004 to 2007 period than they were during the boom years of 1998 through 2000.

Wall Street wages (including bonuses) and capital gains account for 45 percent of the growth in the state’s income tax base since 2003 and an even higher percentage in New York City. At the same time, profits from real estate and Wall Street account for much of the $4.5 billion increase in New York City business income taxes -- a rise of 165 percent.

There is concern, however, that the good times cannot last forever. In looking ahead, city budget makers and monitors all expect some moderation. The mayor's budget office predicts tax revenues will fall slightly in the current fiscal year, the result of fewer real estate transactions, declining home prices, less job growth and declining Wall Street profits.


Even as the fiscal economy may begin to recede slightly from its pinnacle, the last few years have been favorable ones. Have conditions been as good in the neighborhood economy?

Certainly, the strong job growth in health, education, social services and tourism-related activities has boosted the employment of city residents and total incomes in the boroughs outside of Manhattan. These developments have contributed to the growth in personal income and sales tax collections, and, in the case of tourism, increased hotel tax payments to the city treasury.

But other aspects of the neighborhood economy have not fared so well. Indicators of a strong neighborhood economy include plentiful middle-income jobs, steady wage gains, affordable housing and a reasonable balance between family incomes and the cost of necessities, such as childcare, healthcare and utilities.

While the number of jobs in the city has increased over the past four years, this increase was needed to re-coup the jobs New York City lost during the 2001 to 2003 downturn. In addition, much of the recent job growth has occurred in relatively low-paying industries, such as home health care, restaurants and educational services. There has been a huge surge since 2000 in the number of people in New York City categorized as “self-employed,” a condition that often means low earnings and no fringe benefits. So, while more city residents may have jobs today, which helps explain the city’s low unemployment rate, there is an increase in the ranks of the working poor. Not enough of the new jobs provide a middle-class standard of living or even a path to the middle class.

News reports frequently tout the high and rising average wages in the city. However, such averages are skewed by the very high wages and sometimes-stratospheric bonuses paid in finance, media and professional services. For example, the state Labor Department reports that the average yearly wage in New York City was $73,259 in 2006, but in Manhattan, the average wage was an eye-popping $91,648 while for the other boroughs average annual wages were roughly $40,000. According to the Census Bureau, half of New York City families have incomes under $50,000.

While the growth in wages for the typical worker started to outpace inflation in 2006, the median hourly wage of $15.40 is still below what it was in 2002 and considerably lower than the wages of the early 1990s. In the late 1990s, productivity and wages rose together. After both slowed early in this decade, productivity began to increase in 2003. Wages, on the other hand, have grown at only a fraction of the pace of productivity. This accounts for the much faster growth in profits than in wages.

Perhaps no area represents the dichotomy between the fiscal and the neighborhood economy more than real estate. The rapid rise in housing prices over the last few years has intensified a crisis for first-time buyers and renters seeking homes they can afford. Exemplifying these contradictory forces, the sale by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company of the 11,250 unit Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village housing complex last year was a record-setting $5.4 billion real estate transaction. Although the sale boosted city tax receipts, it also meant a significant reduction in the city's supply of middle-income housing as the new owners sought higher market prices in a climate of rapidly escalating real estate values. One particularly disturbing consequence of the city's hot real estate market may be an increase in homelessness, which is now higher than it has been since the early 1980s.

While the neighborhood economy shows many healthy signs, it is not, to borrow the mayor’s phrase, firing on all cylinders. That would take improvement in the quality of jobs and sustained wage growth that outpaces the rise in the cost of necessities. Some city policies, such as the new childcare tax credit for low- and moderate-income families and the mayor's impressive plan to provide 165,000 additional affordable homes over the next ten years, should improve the neighborhood economy. State policies such as the three-stage increase in the minimum wage have helped, and a newly energized state labor department has pledged to make government again an effective enforcer against irresponsible employment practices.

New York has a dynamic and productive economy. The city and the state need to do more to make sure that the local economy provides benefits from a neighborhood perspective as well as from a fiscal point of view.


Taking A.C.T.I.O.N. at The Point

Joseph Gilmore is what they call a “Point Baby.” He started out at the Point Community Development Corporation in 1996, when he was 10 years old. He participated in the art programs at first and later went on to do photography and community work.

Today, Gilmore, in his early 20s, is an aspiring photographer and credits The Point. “It gave me an opportunity to learn certain things that weren’t available in public school and urban areas of the city. With photography I learned my own business, gaining clientele through networking,” he said. Now, Gilmore volunteers at The Point, having gone from youth participant to adult organizer.

The Point is based in Hunt's Point. Even though that area of the South Bronx is going through a remarkable renewal, there is still ample room for economic and social improvement. In 1994, Maria Torres, Paul Lipson, Mildred Ruiz and Steven Sapp founded The Point and brought a new vision to community development in the Bronx. They wanted to treat program participants not as receivers of "aid" or "charity" but as active agents of change within their community. After 13 years, The Point is an integral part of the Hunt’s Point community and its renewal.

The founders’ vision can be seen in “Activists Coming to Inform Our Neighborhood” (A.C.T.I.O.N.), a teen community leadership program. While many after-school programs keep youths off the streets by occupying them with activities like sports and music, A.C.T.I.O.N. involves them in issues that affect their lives. This helps them deal with the negative influences they may encounter and enables them to be activists, who not only recognize problems but work to find solutions. For example, instead of just grousing about not having enough parks, they find out how they can create new parks.

Conflicts and Resolutions

Police in the Schools:
A uniformed presence has made schools safer – but at what cost?

Hanging Out and Hurting Business:
Teens on the street scare away customers.

Breaking the Cycle of Violence:
A program in East New York tries to stop the mayhem by helping young people respect themselves.

Taking A.C.T.I.O.N. at The Point:
In Hunts Point, young people do not just complain about problems in their community, they try to solve them.

Cutbacks After School:
Reductions in government funds will force shutdowns of programs that keep young people active and occupied.

Recruitment is done by word of mouth. Program participants, about 20 each year, come from all parts of the Bronx and even from Westchester. “Any after-school program is self selecting. Students with the ambition to dedicate extra time to something like this after school are already ahead," said Adam Liebowitz, director of A.C.T.I.O.N. But he said that four of the young people involved did leave high school and are now trying to get their GEDs.

From his time as a participant at ACTION, from 2001 to 2004, Gilmore remembers one project especially. In 2002-2003, the group worked to help clean up South Bronx brownfields, contaminated lots of land that had to be cleaned before it would be fit for further use. A.C.T.I.O.N. participants helped document the location and previous uses of these lots in order to spur their redevelopment. Today, he says, Barretto Point Park and Hunt’s Point Riverside Parks exist partly because of A.C.T.I.O.N.’s efforts. “I actually remember documenting both of those parks,” Gilmore said.

What is now Barretto Point Park, a hidden gem on the Hunt’s Point waterfront, was previously occupied by an asphalt plant, then remained unused for many years before the Department of Parks and Recreation acquired the lot from the Department of Environmental Protection in 2001. Hunt’s Point Riverside Park is the first new Bronx River access point in the South Bronx in over 60 years and one of only four canoe launch points in all of the Bronx. It used to be occupied by a fur-dying plant.

This year, A.C.T.I.O.N. have been fighting to stop the city from building a new 2,000-bed jail at Oak Point. In collaboration with the American Lung Association and City Councilmember Joel Rivera, A.C.T.I.O.N. has also been working to pass a measure that would prohibit the sale of flavored tobaccos in the city. The attorneys general of 38 states, including New York, had reached an agreement with RJ Reynolds in October 2006 in which the company would restrict its sales of flavored tobacco products. Under the agreement, RJ Reynolds could not market cigarettes in flavors such as Twistaberry and Mochalime that were plainly targeted at kids.

But then RJ Reynolds came out with a new line of Camel Signature Blends, a “cool” new breed of Camel cigarettes, with richly colored packaging and suave-sounding flavors like “Frost” and “Infused.” In response, Intro 433 would ban the sale of any flavor cigarettes besides menthol in New York City.

As long as their efforts benefit the community, A.C.T.I.O.N. does not care if they help politicians as well. “If it’s mutually beneficial, if it’s a cause that we’re championing and we both look better then fine,” said Leibowitz.

Generally, the people A.C.T.I.O.N. members encounter – educators, other people in the community, politicians -- react well to the teenagers. “They love it,” Leibowitz said, adding “when you see youth doing it, it gives you pause and makes you really consider something.” And, Leibowitz says, the program can benefit both the young people and the politicians. "If it's mutually beneficial, if it's a cause that we're championing and we both look better then, fine," he said. "We won't just do it for no reason."


Programs for Safer Homes

Unbeknownst to many residents, the basement of the building at 312 Manhattan Avenue in West Harlem was the site of cockfights and a marijuana lab, complete with a secret growing room with dozens of plants. Amid rumors, confusion and innuendo, residents finally learned of the goings on from each other and from the media. Ultimately the building’s superintendent at the time, who allegedly had been connected to the illegal activities, lost his job.

The people who lived at 312 Manhattan Avenue could have acted earlier to curb the fights and drug use. At the next tenants’ association meeting, community affairs officer Victor Peña of the 28th police precinct told the residents of how they can work for improved safety in the buildings.

A variety of programs exist to help New Yorkers keep their apartment buildings safe. Such programs are not, of course, exclusive to Harlem, or only to buildings or neighborhoods with particular kinds of problems. They are available to buildings throughout the five boroughs, to condominiums and co-ops as well as rental buildings, and are in place in all 343 New York City Housing Authority developments. While buildings that have been the site of illegal activity get preference for the programs, other buildings can get help as well.

But like the residents of 312 Manhattan Avenue, many tenants are not aware of the assistance or do not know how to get access to it. There is no centralized place for New Yorkers to get this kind of information. And many buildings do not have enough residents who are willing to put in the time and effort to make things happen. It takes an incredible amount of energy and persistence to clean up some buildings, but, according to observers who have seen buildings once written off, even by their residents, turn around, the effort can certainly pay off. Civil libertarians, though, stress that these anti crime campaigns can infringe on residents’ rights and lead to false arrests – and worse.

Changing a Building

The Manhattan Avenue affair is relatively mild when compared to other area buildings that Officer Peña has seen turn around.

“One particular building that comes to mind,” Peña says, was on West 123 Street. It had only four tenants in a building with 40 apartments. And Peña recalls, “Two of those tenants were legal tenants. The other two were not.” The building was infested not only with rodents, but with crack dens, heroin and prostitution. There were several cases of people dying from overdoses in the building, and the garbage piles in the back of the building, Peña says, were “five or six feet deep.” The owner had been given several warnings to clean up the building but didn’t comply.

In early 2006, a man fell off the roof to his death while trying to get into one of the apartments. This incident and the subsequent investigation allowed the police to put together a MARCH operation: Multiple Agency Response to Community Hotspots. Peña coordinated the three-month effort, which eventually involved seven or eight agencies, including the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Sanitation, and the Department of Buildings.

Their efforts got results, Peña says. The tenants were all legally evicted. The owner, who was cited for thousands of dollars in violations, now has new tenants and a building that has been cleaned up both literally and figuratively. The effects extend to the entire block and beyond.

“By turning that particular building around,” Peña says, “we wiped out about 75 percent of crime in that neighborhood.”

What Help Is Available

Government agencies offer a number of programs to improve and protect apartment buildings. These include: --Trespass Affidavit Program: Provides patrols within buildings by uniformed members of New York Police Department. --Graffiti Free NYC Graffiti Removal Program: Run by the mayor’s office, removes graffiti, free of charge, by using solvents, painting over it, or by using high-pressure technology. The owner/managing agent/or custodian of a building must enroll the building in the program. --Narcotics Eviction Program: Targets drugs dealers operating out of private apartments. Upon establishing that an illegal activity is taking place, the District Attorney’s Office can demand the landlord evict all people who knew or should have known of the illegal activity. While the program provides assistance to the landlord, if a landlord fails to act, the District Attorney’s Office will step in. In general, private buildings where an investigation into illegal narcotic activity has lead to an arrest or search warrant are supposed to be enrolled in the program. --Landlord Training: Will provide a series of workshops on how landlords can improve the value of their properties.

Pro and Cons of Police Access

Along with providing needed help to tenants and landlords, building safety programs raise a number of troublesome issues, including the question of police access.

So-called vertical patrols grant local police permission to enter a given building. Typically, the officers have keys to the buildings and can patrol the building from “rooftop to basement” at any time.

“Anyone not authorized to be in the building is arrested,” Pena says. That includes people who are not tenants, workers, or guests of tenants. “You pretty much have a gut feeling for the guys who aren’t where they’re supposed to be.”

Of course, gut feelings can sometimes be wrong. Timothy Stansbury, 19, was fatally shot by an officer on just such a patrol in January 2004. According to published reports, Officer Richard Neri and another officer attempted to open the door to go downstairs at the same time Stansbury and friends, unarmed, were opening the door to get to the roof of their Bedford Stuyvesant building. When Stansbury pushed open the door to the roof just as Neri pulled it, the officer fired without identifying himself of issuing a warning.

Sainsbury’s death was a particularly tragic incident, but the patrols pose other dangers as well. “For many years, we have been concerned that law-abiding building residents and visitors are being falsely arrested in vertical patrols,” says Chris Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “While having the police in buildings can promote public safety, overly aggressive patrols run the risk of creating unnecessary tension between the police and community.”

Others argue, though, that the police presence can prevent more tragedies than it creates. Take, for example, the building on West 111th Street that Bonita Lloyd Nettles has called home since 1988. In the early years, she recalls, “it was basically kind of Grand Central Station in the building. There were all of those crackheads and crack dealers running up around the block making much ado about nothing. Outsiders had keys to the building.

“We had no intercom, no secure front door, and drug activity from basement to rooftop,” Nettles continues. “Windows needed to be replaced in public hallways and apartments. There was structural damage within the apartments and in the public areas---all of that I was able to address.”

Part of the problem, she said, sprang from people who worked in the building and so a sense of resigned hopelessness prevailed. “When you have people who live and work in the building cooperating with outsiders, it’s extremely difficult to get rid of those people,” she said. The super at the time “ruled by the threat of physical force” and tried to make sure the building did not change.

Finally, Nettles and her husband confronted the problems on multiple fronts. They sent out letters, made phone calls, attended meetings -- and had their tires slashed in apparent reprisal. But they persevered for 15 years. “Whatever program was available, we made sure we were involved in,” says Nettles, who was a member of her local community board in the early 1990s.

Finding the right programs was key. Nettles got the information through community board meetings and the monthly community meetings with the local precinct. .

Today the building is much improved. One visible sign? The graffiti that once defaced the interior and exterior of the building is gone. Before, Nettles says, “The graffiti inside and outside was unbelievable. That helped to make it easier for the drug dealers to remain there because the graffiti is used as a form of communication.”

In taking care of this and other problems, “I never accepted no for an answer,” Nettles says.

If people like Nettles work in tandem with the programs, agencies, and officials, little by little, things can change, the police department’s Peña says. “We have had numerous buildings in Harlem, that, because of these programs—the transition has been phenomenal,” he says.

“If people want to enroll in these programs or more, they should reach out to their local precinct and get in touch with the community affairs officer or ask for the community policing unit,” Peña says. The efforts are clearly worth it. The difference in Nettles’ building, she says “is night and day. You wouldn’t recognize it.”

Brenda Tavakoli is a licensed real estate agent and consultant in Manhattan.  

Albee Square: When the Mall's No Longer Home

To strangers unfamiliar with Downtown Brooklyn’s history, the Albee Square Mall at the intersection of Fulton Street and DeKalb Avenue appears unimpressive. But to locals, the mall is a landmark. People remember how early hip-hop artists like Biz Markie hung out there in the 1980s. Biz Markie even had a song about the Albee Square Mall in which he proclaimed, “So when I come in the Mall, and then I start to roam, you wouldn't think it's a store, you would think it's my home.” Older generations reminisce about the ornate Albee Square Theater, which was demolished in 1977 and replaced by the mall.

Brooklyn’s African-American community has a collective memory of this lively slice of downtown. But now this sense of shared past is threatened by a new development proposal for the site that would remake what is now an urban, discount-oriented mall into a sleek new tower with upscale retail and apartments.

The latest vision for the Albee Square site is just one of a slew of new development proposals prompted by the Downtown Brooklyn Plan (in pdf), a major rezoning approved by the city in 2004. Since then, development downtown has proceeded on a site-by-site basis, and so have the struggles to ensure that it happens equitably. When the proposal for the Albee Square site emerged early this year, advocacy groups and locals rushed to obtain information about who owns the land, what policies are shaping its future, and how purported benefits or drawbacks could potentially be distributed among different stakeholders.

The 2004 rezoning sharply raised land values by allowing much higher structures to replace the mostly low-rise buildings typical of Brooklyn’s 19th and early 20th-century past. This has encouraged landlords to begin demolishing swaths of older buildings in order to assemble parcels of land large enough for high-rise towers. To some people, this may appear as simply market forces at work, producing winners and losers. But the city’s decision to rezone in 2004 abetted the process, accelerating developers’ plans to transform Downtown Brooklyn from a “marginal commercial environment” into a 24/7 hub of upscale housing and consumption.


The principal goal of the rezoning was to encourage office construction to help New York City compete with New Jersey for back office jobs. This was nothing new. In the 1980s, the move to attract investment bank back-office jobs to Downtown Brooklyn led to construction of MetroTech, the controversial suburban-style office complex built by Forest City Ratner.

Companies that made commitments to MetroTech received substantial subsidies. For instance, what was then Chase Manhattan was awarded $51,000 in tax breaks for every employee it moved to Brooklyn. Critics charge the MetroTech did not generate jobs for people in nearby public housing and that the subsidies were excessive or unnecessary.

Twenty years later, the initial fear that the Downtown Brooklyn Plan would repeat the mistakes of MetroTech has shifted. Amid a boom in luxury housing, community leaders are worried because developers are constructing condos instead of offices in the area. Condos, once they are built, do not bring jobs.

For its part, the city points out that the Downtown Brooklyn Plan was designed to encourage both residential and commercial development in a “24/7” community. According to this line of reasoning, more people living downtown in luxury condos will make the area more attractive to business, and, in turn, drive the creation of office buildings.

Undoubtedly eager to deflect attention away from critics’ accusation that the Downtown Brooklyn Plan is failing, the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, a private group that works closely with the city, has begun touting downtown as a new magnet for the “creative class,” including media, publishing, design, and entertainment workers. The partnership’s latest rhetoric also emphasizes “retail diversity.” A recent brochure released by the developer of Albee Square touts the project as the “center of the new, redefined downtown Brooklyn,” promising “a retail experience that will finally attract the affluent surrounding populations of Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, DUMBO, Park Slope and others.”

Groups like Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, or FUREE, contend that such a vision ignores the needs of the African-Americans and the Caribbean immigrants who currently patronize the shops and public spaces around Fulton Mall. These communities, FUREE argues, will be priced out of the housing market and are unlikely to be hired by corporate business — even if financial offices do move to the area. The Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, with the city’s blessing, is reshaping Downtown Brooklyn at their expense, FUREE argues, deliberately paving the way for affluent newcomers unlikely to frequent downtown’s bustling crossroads of working-class social and commercial life.


In the minds of many community and policy groups, such as FUREE and Good Jobs New York, the Albee Square Mall deal presented a unique opportunity for the city to redress the shortcomings of the rezoning because it rests on a piece of city-owned land.

The framework of the deal was set by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. In 2001, developer Joseph Sitt of Thor Equities purchased the ground lease on the Albee Square property from Forest City Ratner for $25 million. Under the terms of the ground lease, the leaseholder makes regular payments to the city, while the city retains ownership of the land. After the 2004 rezoning inflated the value of the ground lease, Sitt decided to sell. The current buyer, a development consortium consisting of the White Plains-based Acadia Realty Trust, MacFarlane Partners and two smaller entities, agreed to purchase the ground lease from Sitt for $120 million.

Because the deal involved a lease agreement on a piece of city-owned property, a special public hearing was required before the developer could move forward. The poorly publicized hearing was rescheduled three times, finally taking place on May 25. The lack of notice made it difficult for community groups to organize their constituents. At the hearing, stakeholders were presented with a deal that had already been set without them at the table.

One proposed amendment to the lease agreement involved the terms of the purchase option for the land. During his tenure as leaseholder, Sitt had the option to purchase the land from the city at fair market value. Under the new terms of the lease, the current buyer can purchase the land from the city in 25 years for a drastically reduced price of $20 million.

FUREE and other groups argue that the city threw away what remaining bargaining chips it had by failing to demand more concessions from Sitt. For example, the city could have kept the purchase option for the land at fair market value. This could have let the city hold on to precious land or receive the land’s real value. That, in turn, would have generated money to reinvest into the community for more housing, workforce development, a requirement for living wages in all jobs generated by new development, or compensation for the small businesses that have held down the Albee Square Mall and are now facing displacement.

Instead, after first increasing the value of Sitt’s ground lease through the rezoning, the city, with the Albee deal, allowed Sitt to walk away with the capital. Now, Sitt has funds to put toward major development elsewhere, including Coney Island, where he already owns a vast amount of land, and where he plans to build a glitzy resort.

Another proposed amendment to the lease agreement gives the developer an exemption on PILOT payments, which are similar to property taxes, in return for the builder providing that 20 percent of the apartments be priced for moderate-income residents. But under a program to encourage housing construction, now awaiting Governor Eliot Spitzer’s signature, the developer would have been likely to build these comparatively less expensive homes anyway.

The new developers plan to replace the current structure at Albee Square with a 1.6-million-square-foot building, and are receiving $3.2 million in breaks on their city and state sales tax to subsidize the construction of 125,000 square feet of new office space. In addition, the developers plan a mall of about 475,000 square feet, and 650 apartments. At this time there are no further official opportunities for the public to comment on the project, and, barring any future obstacles, it will break ground in 2008.

While not opposed to more office space downtown, Good Jobs New York criticizes the use of subsidies for its construction, arguing that the city could have avoided them through a more creative approach to the rezoning. Instead, the city tied its own hands, forcing itself into a position in which subsidies are necessary in order to accomplish its economic development goals.

If the city was really serious about equitable development on its own land, it could have used a range of tactics at its disposal. For instance, in one of the more dramatic alterative scenarios, the city could have reclaimed the land from Sitt using eminent domain (which is already being used on other properties downtown), initiated a Request for Proposals process to generate ideas for the site and thereby created opportunity for more public input. FUREE was one group fighting for the expanded possibilities that might have arisen from such a scenario.

FUREE continues to press its idea for the Albee Square area, working to retain Brooklyn’s economic and cultural character. In its view, the Albee Square deal represents the city’s role in helping to accelerate the gentrification of Downtown Brooklyn, creating a domino effect that will replace one class of people with another. “It’s fat cats getting fatter, that’s all it is,” says FUREE board member Beverly Corbin.

Allison Lirish Dean is a journalist and urban planner, and is currently producing and co-directing, with Kelly Anderson, a documentary film about the effects of the 2004 rezoning on Fulton Mall.


A Tough Month for Housing Advocates

June is always a busy month for housing. The Rent Guidelines Board’s annual deliberations culminate with a final vote on how much rents can increase on the city’s almost one million rent regulated apartments. At the same time, the mayor and City Council negotiate the city budget (although their legislative energy fades as summer vacations beckon). If that weren’t enough, the State Assembly and Senate end their legislative sessions – and bills that were on hold for months, even years, suddenly win attention along with new initiatives.

And this year, as city students got their year-end grades, housing advocates produced an unflattering “report card” for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The report by such groups as Tenants & Neighbors, Metropolitan Council on Housing and Tenants PAC said, the “student (Bloomberg) has shown disregard for low income, working and middle income renters trying to afford to live in New York City. When challenged about his behavior student acts as if he is not required to be accountable to anyone.”


The Rent Guidelines Board voted 5 to 4 to increase rents 3 percent on one-year leases and 5.75 percent on two-year leases. The hikes were not as steep as last year’s increases of 4.25 percent and 7.25 percent, and tenants appeared to win some sympathy from the five public members. (The board’s nine members include two who represent tenants, two who represent landlords and five who represent the public, although the mayor appoints all nine.) But the evening meeting, not nearly as raucous as last year’s, was most remarkable, not for the rent hike, but for an about-face by its chairperson, Marvin Markus, and his call for an overhaul of the board’s approach to setting rent increases.

Acknowledging the city’s affordable housing crisis in unusually blunt language, Markus said city and state legislators should do more about it. “We are cognizant that our decisions do have a significant impact on affordability so we must explore ways to maintain reasonable rents for poor tenants and at the same time switch the undue burden of subsidizing rents from the individual owner to the public purse,” Markus said. “I call on public officials to make significant changes so that next year at this time we can enact guidelines that truly impact the rent stabilization system in a way that allows it to be a system that maintains both the housing stock and tenant affordability.”

“The system at this point calls for a precision well beyond the powers envisioned by the lawmakers who created a very serviceable system for 1969 – [but] not for today,” Markus said. Instead, he said a system that would apply an income test to residents of rent stabilized apartments would “target assistance where it is needed – to both the poorest tenants and owners in New York City.”

The statements were particularly remarkable because last year Markus blocked efforts by tenant representatives on the board to pass a resolution making a similar appeal. At that time, the chair said the board’s role was not to affect public policy.

In comments during and after the hearing, other board members also criticized the one-size-fits-all approach to setting the rents. But they had mixed reactions to Markus’ comments.

Ronald Langueduc, a tenant member, said people could look at Markus’ remarks in two ways, “Either that it’s a cynical approach and simply the board not accepting responsibility for its actions, or that it’s a sincere effort to do something,” Langueduc said. “I think (the public members) did have a considerable discussion. I think there was a lot of behind-the-scenes discussions between the public members, the mayor’s office and corporate counsel.”

Larry Wood, an organizer at Goddard Riverside Community Center, was less charitable. “They’re hypocrites,” Wood said of Markus. He criticized the chair for saying last year that the board could not “do public policy” and this year saying it can.

Whatever the case, neither landlord nor tenant members were happy with the size of the increase. “It’s woefully inadequate,” said landlord representatives Steven Schleider.

Many tenant advocates blamed Bloomberg for the board’s shortcomings because he appoints the members. “We wanted to draw attention to the fact that the Rent Guidelines Board is meant to preserve affordable housing,” said Jenny Laurie of Met Council on Housing. “And it’s a failure of the mayor to protect affordable housing in this city.”

But the mayor will only go as far as larger forces push him, said one advocate who wished to remain anonymous lest his comments lead to repercussions for his organization. “If the Working Families Party and ACORN and the unions were here, we would not be seeing these kinds of results,” the advocate said. “There would be very small increases. They just do not want to make it a priority.”

ACORN, the national lobbying group for people of low income, has worked on housing issues in the city. ACORN's executive director, Bertha Lewis, denied the group was avoiding the board's hearings and said the group was focusing on more effective ways to address the affordable housing problems in the city, particularly repealing the Urstadt Law, which gave control of rent regulation to the state government, rather than city officials. "That's not true - we've mobilized troops for years," Lewis said. "That's why we are pushing for repeal of the Urstadt Law - so the city will have control of its housing laws. We need to go to the source of the problem.".

A spokesman for the Working Families Party said the party had not put a high priority on the rent board’s deliberations because it had not been called on to do so. “It’s important and … we’re willing to step up to the extent that our partners call on us to,” said Ben Healey, a spokesman for the party. But he added, “As far as we’re concerned, the city doesn’t have enough power to actually to create affordable housing. It requires intervention in the market and the rent board is just not enough.”


Meanwhile in Albany, the legislature’s actions on housing bills fell short of advocates’ expectations. “It was a wipe out,” said Michael McKee of Tenants PAC

The legislature failed to take action on two bills that would have kept rents on apartments built as part of the Mitchell-Lama program from rising to market levels. One would have let the city require that any apartment leaving Mitchell-Lama be covered by the rent stabilization laws. Another bill would use the rent charged when the apartment was still under the Mitchell Lama program as the basis for its future rent.

Some critics blamed the mayor for the failure of the measures. “He made no effort on Mitchell-Lama even though he had two bills,” McKee said. “He refuses to deal with the loss of rent-regulated housing.

A proposal to expand the Disability Rent Increase Exemption program, which aims to keep people with disabilities from losing their apartments due to rent increases, also failed. McKee said support from the mayor could have made a difference here as well.

Bloomberg’s alleged inaction on the proposals, some advocates say, reflects an apparent contradiction in his position on housing. On the one hand, he has embarked on a major program to build new affordable housing across the city. According to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the city has started construction on more than 57,000 affordable homes under his plan. But, at the same time, the mayor has been less interested in preserving reasonably priced homes and in working to ensure that existing apartment stay within the reach of low and middle-income New Yorkers.

“He’s paid attention to building more affordable housing – he’s riding on that as though it’s the solution to New York City’s affordable housing problem,” Laurie said. “But it is not. We’re losing more affordable housing than he can build.”


In their typical end-of-session frenzy, the legislature did pass two significant bills.

One reforms the 421-a tax exemption program, a real-estate tax exemption designed to encourage developers to build apartments. Originally 421a applied to virtually all housing, but now, in light of the booming real-estate market, the city government, some state officials and housing advocates have sought to target it for construction of affordable housing and in certain neighborhoods. So, in some areas, dubbed “exclusion zones, developers would get the tax exemption only if they built some moderately priced apartments. The City Council's 421a reform bill expanded these exclusion zones and the State Legislature's bills expand the exclusion zones even further.

But along with that expansion, the 421a bill passed by the legislature in its final hours gave a tax exemption for luxury condominiums that would be a part of the controversial Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn. That alone could amount to nearly a $100 million giveaway. “There are too many secret deals in it,” said State Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan. “The bill passed in the dark of night with really very few people going over what was really in it.”

In addition, city lobbyists were not happy that it expanded the exclusion zone for developing affordable housing. Administration officials have said this could hinder development intended for middle class New Yorkers in some areas such as Queens West in Long Island City. Both the housing department and Speaker Christine Quinn have said they hope that Governor Eliot Spitzer will veto the bill unless it is change.

Another bill would allow the New York City Housing Authority to collect higher shelter allowance rates for residents who are on public assistance. Under the measure the authority would now receive the same amount of money private landlords receive. There are about 45,000 recipients of public assistance living the authority’s housing projects so the change could give the financially troubled agency an additional $70 million a year.

But that is still well short of the housing authority’s deficit, estimated at over $200 million.

The bill on the shelter allowance is “a major achievement,” Krueger said. “But NYCHA is really in a fiscal crisis. The city and state have failed them. And I don’t understand why Bloomberg didn’t help them out given the city’s huge budget surplus this year.”

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

Change Reaches the City's Edge

The Rockaway Peninsula: Isolation within the city limits

For close to a quarter of a century Richard George has sat at the kitchen table of his bungalow in the Rockaways and filed reams of lawsuits to attempt to preserve the Queens beachfront community known as “the poor man’s Riviera.”

For years, George’s efforts were geared largely toward the preservation of the bungalow colonies — the 119 remaining wooden cottages built on landfill in the Atlantic Ocean at the turn of the century and used by New Yorkers seeking a quick and affordable getaway for decades afterward. Lately though, the stakes have been raised. As the city offers incentives to developers to build housing on some of the last remaining plots of vacant land in the city, George fears great – and what he sees as catastrophic – change in the community.

About a half dozen developments have just gone up or are planned for the area. One, The Wavecrest II, a seven-story apartment complex, sits directly adjacent to George’s bungalow on Beach 24th Street. George claims such buildings are swallowing the views of the Atlantic and even making it harder for residents simply to go to the beach. The developers have blocked or built over streets, so getting to the sand or boardwalk can require a long, roundabout walk.

On the Atlantic: Escaping the urban hotbox

In response to these pressures, in late 2003, George, along with John Baxter, the somewhat eccentric owner of the Baxter Hotel in Far Rockaway, filed suit, charging that the city’s actions in the area violated its own Waterfront Revitalization Program. They lost the case but plan to appeal.

“Developers rule the roost….No matter what they do, they win. The city allows developers to build almost anything they want,” Baxter said. “We know we are never going to win, but we are going to keep filing these lawsuits until somebody listens to us.”


For his part, George is particularly peeved about one of the largest developments, Arverne by the Sea, located on 117 sandy beachfront acres. A contract for the land was awarded late last year to Benjamin Beechwood LLC in hopes it would include 2,000 apartments and help Mayor Michael Bloomberg meet his goal of providing 165,000 new affordable homes in the city.

“Today we see the future of Rockaway,” said Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the development two years ago. “After a generation of hopes and promises these homes are proof that the renaissance of the Rockaways has finally begun. It will continue to flourish with thousands of new homes, recreational and retail facilities and a great natural resource—the beloved beaches of Rockaway. Arvene by the Sea provides attractive quality housing with the Atlantic Ocean for a front porch.”

The Baxter Hotel: Seaside rooms for the working class

But as is so often the case in this rapidly changing city, existing residents see something quite different. “They want to demolish these structures [the bungalows], which are constructed to fit in with the landscape --they are low rise, the materials have lasted almost a century, they are protected from hurricanes—and replace them with these monstrous structures,” George said.

“What’s happening in Rockaway is the same thing that is happening all over to beachfront communities in the city,” said Baxter. He fears the developed will go on to create create private gated communities. “That’s what they are doing,” he said

A resident of the Rockaways for 45 years, Baxter is among the old timers who believe the developments will spoil the character of the Rockaways. But while almost everyone agrees that change is coming, if not already here, some think it is precisely what the area needs.


An isolated peninsula straddling the borders of Queens and Nassau County, the Rockways include communities like Broad Channel, Jamaica Bay, Belle Harbor and Far Rockaway. It was originally developed as a summer vacation resort for luxury and middle class residents to escape from the hotbox of the city. But in the 1960s, the city constructed a number of low-income housing projects in the area. These projects, which include the Edgemere houses and the Beach 41st Houses, were plagued by turf wars and drugs as residents struggled with poor access to good schools, hospitals or social services.

Rockaway's bungalow: Only 119 remain

Now, with record high housing prices throughout the city, a number of New Yorkers are willing to consider the distant community a viable place to live. “I find it kind of funny that they are starting to ship rich people out here because there is nowhere left for them in the rest of the city anymore,” said Lenore Martins, a resident of the Beach 41st Street houses in Far Rockaway.


Rich may be overstating it. Though Arverne by the Sea includes luxury housing, its 2,300 one and two family homes and mid-rise condominiums largely will offer middle-class housing, giving those lucky enough to win a lottery a chance at ownership. When completed the mixed-use development will include 270,000 square feet of commercial space, retail stores, a supermarket, a YMCA and parkland.

Arverne by the Sea: 2,000 new homes. Photo: Beechwood Homes

“This new oceanfront community complete with affordable housing, commercial and recreational spaces, will bring jobs and homes for the entire Rockaway peninsula. We will help thousands of teachers, police officers, firefighters, nurses and other moderate and middle-income New Yorkers to realize the American dream of owning their own home,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at the groundbreaking of the Arverne YMCA late last year.

Many Rockaway residents believe the YMCA and the other amenities that will accompany projects like Arvene, including possible ferry service, would bring sorely needed economic development and resources to the community 20 miles from Manhattan.

“I would be happy if the ferry service came to the Rockaways,” said Martins. “Of course, you do know they are not bringing the ferry service out here for us, but because of that new little development they are bringing in. … But if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.” She added the development could be a “good thing if it helps get us some services all the way out here.”

But other residents resent the luxury housing.

“My problem is basically that they are building all these high-dollar developments when they have never paid one bit of mind to us. They didn’t care that the young people here don’t have any chance at a good education, or about all the drugs run through here or the people dying on the streets,” said Peter, a resident of Beach 41st who preferred not to be further identified.

The Boardwalk: Strolling on the "poor man's Riviera"

There have been rumors of tension between residents of the low income housing projects and those of Arverne by the Sea. “I think there was a scare over some gunfire a while back,” Martin said. “Unfortunately that kind of thing happens out here sometimes. It’s been different out here for a while. The people that moved into the developments either have to be willing to stomach it or have to have a sense of humor about it—look at it as the great Wild West or something.”


Atlantic Yards and the Sustainability Test

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s long-term sustainability plan, (PlaNYC2030), is aimed at stemming global warming and promoting energy efficiency by concentrating new construction near transit hubs and using green building technology. At the same time, the mayor proposes to reduce traffic in densely developed areas with congestion pricing, to encourage bicycling, and to build new public open spaces in every neighborhood.

Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn claims to do all of these things – along with providing thousands of new apartments and jobs and bringing a major league sports team, the NBA Nets, to Brooklyn. Yet curiously the mayor’s voluminous 2030 plan includes no mention of the megaproject, Brooklyn’s largest-ever. And in many respects, Atlantic Yards, which was driven by the developer and backed by the state with minimal city involvement, would actually undermine green development and be unsustainable in the long run.

Not Transit-Oriented Development

Atlantic Yards is promoted as a prime example of “transit-oriented development” because it is located over the third largest transit hub in the city. Yet Forest City Ratner plans to build a parking garage with 3,670 spaces, and in the first phase, which could last 10 to 20 years, create over 2,000 spaces in open parking lots. These would attract more cars and increase traffic congestion. At the same time, the plans currently provide for no improvements to subway and train stations, which are already over-capacity, and no additional trains. Bus service, under the latest proposals, would not be expanded and could even decline.

This “transit-oriented” development would bring in some 15,000 to 20,000 new residents of mostly luxury housing, a demographic that relies heavily on auto use. It would serve up to 18,000 Nets basketball fans during each game – fans who would come largely from the auto-dependent outer boroughs and suburbs and who will prefer to use their cars in the late evenings when games let out. Located at the far edge of downtown Brooklyn adjacent to the residential neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights, Atlantic Yards would become a park-and-ride hub for suburban commuters, not a walkable, transit-oriented community. If the mayor’s congestion pricing plan gets implemented, through traffic to Manhattan would surely decline, but Atlantic Yards and many other projects like it would quickly fill the void. Even the environmental impact statement prepared for the Empire State Development Corporation, an enthusiastic backer of the project, found that most intersections near it would have significantly more traffic during morning rush hours and after Saturday Nets games.

There is no plan to reduce roadway capacity or introduce congestion pricing in Brooklyn. The small bicycle parking facility proposed for Atlantic Yards, which will probably charge a fee, can hardly substitute for a safe biking environment, something unlikely to exist as traffic gets worse.

If Atlantic Yards becomes a model for transit-oriented development in the city then just about any major project near a transit hub will be able to wear the mantle of sustainability, even if it ends up encouraging more, rather than less, driving. In the U.S. city where mass transit is everywhere, transit-oriented development could well lose its meaning unless there is a clear and direct connection between land use development and mass transit improvements. Transit-oriented development should include transit improvements.

In advancing his plan, the mayor noted the unacceptably high rates of asthma, especially in areas with substantial traffic. According to the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, the environmental impact statement projects no remedy for the high asthma rates in Prospect Heights.

Not Energy-Efficient

Forest City Ratner claims the new buildings in Atlantic Yards will be “green” because they would meet the requirements for energy efficiency established by the Green Building Council, an industry group. Some storm water would also be held in an on-site pond so it would reduce overflows at the local sewage treatment plant when it rains.

But environmentalists are increasingly aware that individual buildings can meet green building standards but still be part of environmentally damaging and unsustainable projects. To build its project, Forest City Ratner would demolish sound historic buildings like Ward's Bakery. Since new construction consumes enormous amounts of energy compared to sensitive renovation, this would further burden the environment.

The environmental impact statement shows that the project’s 16 towers would place a huge swath of land in the neighborhood in permanent shadows. This would severely reduce access to natural sunlight and increase the need for heating, artificial light and the use of fossil fuels in the area. It will limit the potential for solar power in the future. Given the height of the buildings, all the buildings would use elevators, further increasing energy demands.

An Indoor Environment

Finally, the health and well-being of local residents can be compromised even in “green” buildings. While indoor air at Atlantic Yard might be healthier than in conventional buildings, the developer acknowledges that noise levels in its project will be intolerably high. Their solution is double-paned windows and air conditioning. That will increase energy demand, but the noise outside means adults and kids will be less likely to venture out of doors, adding to the immobility of a population with already epidemic proportions of obesity and heart disease. In sum, buildings may be green and fresh but the vitality of urban life will be drained from them. Brooklyn’s famous stoop life will be a remote fable.

The eight acres of public open space in the 22-acre complex may not help much. When you look closely at the plans, it is apparent that the space is almost entirely private: interior courtyards for the luxury complex, the lobby for the proposed Nets basketball arena and a private green roof. Much of this private space will be built over the public streets that the city will cede to the developer. In perpetual shadows, the open space would be barren and uninviting for most of the year. As for recreational opportunities, the project that brags of its affinity with basketball hoops will have only one hoop that kids in the area can use -- if they can get past the project’s security guards.

The Vanderbilt Rail Yards would be an ideal location for one of the public plazas that the mayor proposes to build in every community district. The three-block-long rail yards are big enough to fit a plaza as well as substantial new housing development. The plaza could be a central focus for vibrant residential neighborhoods, but to be consistent with PlaNYC2030, it should be a truly public open space. If either developers or local residents are allowed to turn public spaces, built and paid for with public funds, into private preserves, they will not encourage the active living and civic engagement foreseen in the long-term plan.

As Atlantic Yards demonstrates, more “green” buildings for downtown offices and new upscale towers may become the norm throughout the city. Will these new structures be part of sustainable neighborhoods, viable public spaces, and diverse communities where everyone can go for the green? Or will they help segregate the clean and green from the rest of the city?

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. 

Stated Meeting -- Street Names Sparks Heated Debate

Despite a demonstration on the steps of City Hall and apparent racial division among its members, the City Council excluded the revered and rebuked Sonny Carson from a street-naming bill at its stated meeting on May 30, turning a normally routine procedure into a controversy. The council also -- and much less contentiously -- adopted a bill to strengthen the repair process for the city's most dilapidated buildings and a measure requiring building owners to submit up-to-date floor numbering lists to the fire department.

Sonny Carson Avenue Goes No Where

The council rejected an amendment by Councilmember Albert Vann to commemorate Carson, a controversial black activist, on a four-block section of Gates Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The vote was 25 to 15 with 7 abstentions. The bill, some council members said amid boos and hisses from the audience, represented a battle between the desire of one neighborhood to honor an activist versus reluctance by others to commemorate a man who many see as divisive.

"The issue is not just Sonny Carson," said Vann. "It's the community's prerogative."

Last month, the parks committee voted along racial lines to remove Carson's name from a street-naming bill (Intro 556). Throughout the street renaming debate, council members opposed to the designation have cited Carson's criminal record and anti-Semitic comments.

Inside the council chambers, where jeers reverberated from a packed mezzanine, Councilmember Charles Barron accused Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who opposed including Carson's name on the street-naming bill, of hampering a community-driven process. Exceeding his two-minute comment period, Barron said the speaker divided the governing body more than the late activist could ever split the city's communities.

One of many members who defended their votes, Quinn reiterated her stance opposing Carson's inclusion in the street-naming bill, contending any recipient of a city honor should be a uniting figure, not a dividing one.

"I think it is incredibly important that when we rename streets in the City of New York, when we give somebody a higher governmental honor…. that when we do that we make sure those individuals who we honor are people that sought to bring our five boroughs together," Quinn said in a press conference prior to the council vote. "I don't think Sonny Carson embodies those core values."

Normally, the street-naming process is kicked off by a recommendation from a local community board. It is then brought before the council by an individual member, approved by the parks committee and formally endorsed by the council in one of two package street renaming bills submitted every year. Vann's amendment at the stated council meeting was a last-ditch attempt to reincorporate Carson's name on the package bill.

Following the amendment's rejection, the council approved the remaining 51 honorary designations, which included the likes of modern dancer Alvin Ailey and 1920s state Senator Mark W. Allen, by a vote of 40 to 4 with 3 abstentions.

Housing Repairs

In an attempt to rid the city of habitual housing code violators, the City Council unanimously approved the Safe Housing Act -- a bill aimed at New York's most dilapidated buildings.

Currently, improvements to buildings are done primarily on a quick-fix basis through the city's Emergency Repair Program, which often addresses rat and other vermin infestations, a lack of heat and hot water and broken front doors. Although the current program attempts to fix the most hazardous problems as quickly as possible, it leaves many of the more complicated and repetitive improvements simmering.

Going beyond the emergency repairs now conducted by the city, the Safe Housing Act (Intro 561) would single out 200 distressed buildings a year and require the completion of long-term improvements. An owner notified by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development has four months to fix all heat and hot water violations as well as 80 percent of all hazardous and immediately hazardous violations.

Introduced by Quinn and Councilmember Letitia James, the bill requires that the owner of the distressed building fund all of the mandated repairs and pay any outstanding fees from the previous repair program.

The year following a building's inclusion in the safe housing program, the housing department will monitor its compliance -- at least every three months -- and require the building manager or owner to participate in a building management-training course.

Buildings selected for the program -- estimated by the housing department to cost $10.1 million in its first year - must have a history of housing code violations. If owners do not cooperate with the program, the city will conduct top-to-bottom repair work through a contractor and subsequently send the owner a bill. If the owner continues to be uncooperative, the city could eventually take over the building, Quinn said.

"The goal of this bill was to come up with a piece of legislation that could take significant steps forward to preserve affordable housing in our city, and to take the worst buildings in the City of New York and make them highly livable buildings, and to hold bad landlords accountable," Quinn said in the press conference prior to the council meeting. "I hope the message this bill sends is that if you are a slumlord, your days are numbered in the City of New York."

The bill, James said, should target the city's worst offenders and support populations who often suffer from poor housing conditions, including communities of color, immigrants and seniors.

Strengthening Fire Safety: Round Two

In conjunction with legislation signed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg this week, the City Council approved a bill (Intro 496) requiring buildings over 150 feet provide lists of floor numbers lists to the fire department if the floors do not comply with standard numbering

When Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle’s plane crashed into a high-rise last year, first responders were faced with non-standard floor numbering -- when one floor does not correspond with its actual story, such as one level being titled the 25th floor when it is really the 24th . This labeling can affect the fire department's ability to address a disaster or emergency quickly, council members said.

Introduced by Councilmember Gale Brewer, the bill attempts to address a growing trend to give floors a higher number than their actual story in order to increase the apartments’ market appeal and value. The fire commissioner will develop rules outlining the filing procedure, which will be conducted electronically.

Citing "the deplorable lack of information available to New York City's firefighters," Brewer said, "the inability for the fire department to quickly retrieve accurate building information wastes precious initial response time and is life threatening for our first responders and those in need."

The bill follows legislation approved earlier in May (Intro 553) by the council that requires that the building department notify the fire department when it issues permits for substantial renovations --changes that could also affect the fire department's response time.

Brooklyn's Business Improvement District

The City Council also approved a Business Improvement District (Intro 555) for Court-Livingston-Schermerhorn -- a vibrant commercial site in downtown Brooklyn. The area comprises 314 properties and is valued at nearly $357 million.

The district, introduced at the request of the mayor, will make way for the collection of a special tax to improve the area, according to a committee report. The extra funding, set at $765,000 for the first year, will go primarily toward cleanup to retain a strong local business presence, a spokesman for downtown Brooklyn Councilmember David Yassky said.

Reconstructing New York's Building Code Overhaul

In March, a fire ripped through a two-family home on Woodycrest Avenue in the Bronx, killing 10 people, including nine children. It was the largest loss of life in a fire since the Happy Land nightclub tragedy in 1990.

Investigators cited a number of factors that contributed to the horrific event: a wooden staircase, the lack of a sprinkler system, and smoke detectors without batteries. Still the house complied with the city’s building code, the regulations meant to ensure the safety of New York’s 950,000 structures.

Recently, Mayor Michael Bloomberg took what many view as a significant step toward preventing future tragedies by proposing a massive overhaul of the city's building code, the first in nearly 40 years.

Under the proposed regulations, for example, all new buildings over 55 feet tall, which would include the Bronx home, would be required to have a more fire-resistant stairway, automatic sprinkler systems, and hardwired smoke alarms that sound in every room. If the house on Woodycrest had been built today under the new code, the city argues, the residents probably would have escaped alive.

However, some question the unintended consequences of the new regulations: specifically, if they will drive up the cost of construction and in turn, increase the cost of housing.

“I have concerns about mandating that two- and three-family houses have sprinklers and how much it will cost,” said City Councilmember Erik Dilan, who chairs the Housing and Building Committee.

In its revised building code, the Bloomberg administration tried to strike a tenuous balance between safety and cost. It sought the help of 400 professionals – architects, union leaders, contractors, developers, and safety advocates – who volunteered more than 300,000 hours to help draft the 1,300 page document.

“Nobody ever wants to deal with the details,” the mayor said, “but these are the things that make this city affordable and livable and safe.”

Even though the city held a press conference to announce the new code, last minute revisions still are being done before it goes to the City Council at the end of May. Then over the next few months, the details will be rehashed again in public hearings. If approved by council, the new code would go into effect in July 2008

Then the biggest challenge, some argue, may be enforcing it.


The last major overhaul of the building code occurred in 1968. While lawmakers have made some amendments to it since, the regulations were essentially piled on top of existing mandates, creating loopholes, redundancies, and conflicting rules.

Attempts to revise the code in recent years have been thwarted by the competing interests of various parties – developers, architects, contractors, unions, safety advocates and environmentalists – each with their own agendas.

"When the mayor asked me to write a new building code, I wasn’t sure it was possible," said Department of Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster. "It hadn't been possible in 40 years."

Experts say two factors created the climate that made the current revisions possible. First, the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 gave many of the stakeholders the political will to sit down and work out a new code. And Bloomberg, who keeps a check list of his administration’s accomplishments, promised to do it when he was a first a candidate in 2001 and worked to keep that commitment.

Perhaps the biggest change is that, if approved, the city’s code will for the first time be modeled after the International Building Code, which governs construction in most U.S. states. In adapting the code for New York City, the committee modified it to address the city’s density, small lots, and variety of structures.

“This is a significant development for New York City,” said Carl Galioto, a partner at the architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. “We will have a building code that is better informed by national standards.”


The primary goal of the building code is to ensure safety of New Yorkers by mandating how each new building is constructed.

If approved, the code would require:
- Automatic sprinklers in more residential structures
- Hardwired smoke detectors in most residences
- New pipe systems and secondary water supplies to help firefighters get water to taller buildings.

In response to the World Trade Center collapse, new skyscrapers would include:
- Wider stairways
- Fireproof, pressurized stairways
- Stronger walls around stairs and elevator shafts
- Glow-in-the-dark exits signs
- And construction to withstand high winds and other extreme events.

"There's a lot in this code that's going to make the town a lot safer," said Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta at the press conference announcing the revisions.

Still, some critics say that there should be additional safety measures.

Last year, the New York Times reported that many of the recommendations from a major federal investigation into the World Trade Center collapse are still being debated.

Glenn Corbett, a professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, for example, questions why the steel joists which did not hold fireproofing in the World Trade Center when the fires burned at extreme temperatures would continue to be allowed in tall apartment buildings

"If we aren't allowing them in office buildings, we shouldn't be allowing them in residential buildings, or any high rise for that matter, until we figure out a way to properly fireproof them," Corbett told the Associated Press.

And even though the city learned valuable lessons from the Woodycrest Avenue fire in the Bronx, the proposed changes still fall short of the fire safety standards in some other large cities. For example, in many locations across the country, a two-family house like the one that burned in the Bronx must have two exits; in New York City, many two-family houses are allowed to have only one exit.

“In Chicago there would have to be another way out,” Larry Langford, a spokesperson for that city’s fire department told in the New York Times after the Bronx fire.


In addition to mandating what kinds of safety features each building must contain, the building code also regulates practices on construction sites. And workplace safety is a growing concern.

There were 29 construction related deaths in the year leading up to September 30, 2006, a 60 percent increase from the 18 deaths the year before.

The Bloomberg administration has made some changes to try to address workplace safety. For example, currently a safety manager is required only when a building 14 stories or more is under construction. The new code would extend that requirement to buildings 10 stories and up.

But overall, much of the new code would not substantially change the regulations that govern demolition and construction sites, according to Henry Kita of the Building Trades Employers' Association.

"In many cases the International Building Code was not as specific as the current code," said Kita.


New York City construction costs have been increasing by 20 percent a year, according to some estimates. The Bloomberg administration syas it worked to contain cost in the future.

Proponents of the new building code say it would be easier to understand and follow, especially for contractors from outside the city. It would reduce the complex process of getting the city to approve new and less expensive materials and equipment. And the buildings department would accept online applications and allow for less frequent license renewal, which will save contractors time.

Some believe this streamlining of the process could help spur the creation of more affordable housing.

“If the administration succeeds in securing its adoption, the impact should become quickly manifest in the increased volume and lower cost of new homes in the outer boroughs, where the cost of construction is a much greater factor than in Manhattan,” wrote Peter Salins of the Manhattan Institute.

However, Marolyn Davenport, the senior vice president the Real Estate Board of New York, is concerned that construction costs could actually go up under the new regulations. And she argues some provisions serve no other purpose than to allow contractors to charge more for their work. For example, the current code and the new code both require that new ceilings must be hung on a metal grid.

“There is no benefit,” argues Davenport. “It just allows someone to make more money.”

Mayor Bloomberg's proposed plan also calls for new environmental measures that he says may cost more in the beginning, but will save money over time. The code would require more efficient heating and cooling systems and that all roofs be painted a reflective color.

But experts say it is difficult to tell if the new rules would affect construction costs until it is put into practice.

"On the question of cost, the jury will be out for a while," said Henry Kita of the Building Trades Employers' Association.

Despite concerns about some of the costs of new regulations, City Councilmember Erik Dilan, who chairs the Housing and Buildings Committee, said he believes that "most of the issues have been hashed out" and that the new code will be approved by the end of the year, if not earlier. In that case, the new code would go into effect in July 1, 2008.

And those who drafted it made sure that it won’t be another 40 years before it is revised again. It includes a provision that requires it to be reviewed and updated every three years.

“This is not the end of a process, it is the beginning of the process,” said Carl Galioto, a partner at the architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill.


Once the code is approved, assuming that it is, its regulations must be translated into reality at worksites throughout the site. The City Council has particular concerns in this area. For one, some members question the policy that allows builders to "self-certify," their projects, meaning architects and engineers can decide if their projects are in compliance with regulations. The policy saves the city time and money, because the buildings department then only audits about 20 percent of the self-certified projects. But critics say some architects and engineers approve construction plans and methods that would not pass muster with inspectors.

In February, the City Council passed two bills on the issue. One would bar those who have previous violations from self-certifying future projects. Another punishes those who falsely claim their projects are in compliance with zoning regulations. Both bills are still sitting on the mayor’s desk awaiting a signature or veto.

However, Queens Councilmember David Weprin wants to eliminate self certification for one-, two-, and three-family homes altogether.

"The Department of Buildings has completely lost control of the honor system that allows builders and architects to sign off on their own work," Weprin said at a news conference last month. "As a result, we have developers acting with complete impunity with the only people that are truly watching being the community members."


The real challenge, some say, is to ensure that the new regulations are followed.

"The code is only as good as its enforcement," said Kita.

The Department of Buildings already has a full workload. Every year, the city agency reviews over 65,000 construction plans, issues over 158,000 new and renewed permits, and performs over 320,000 inspections. And the number of complaints is rising.

A 2005 City Council investigation found that the Department of Buildings was struggling to keep up with the high volume of complaints and was slow to respond, particularly in Queens.

Complaints about after-hours construction work – builders work at night in an effort to finish the project on time and avoid inspections -- have risen from 635 in 2001 to 6,160 in 2006, according to a recent article in the New York Post. At the same time, the number of violations written by city inspectors increased only from 59 in 2001 to 249 last year.

The Department of Buildings says that it has hired more staff, increased its inspections by 18 percent, and now responds to 93 percent of non-emergency complaints within 40 days, according to the latest data.

Some officials are also troubled by the rash of building collapses in recent months, each connected to renovation projects or new construction.

In March, a five-story building in East Harlem caved-in, closing subway service for hours. In Soho, a dilapidated building fell down before it could be properly demolished. The Greenwich Village bar Chumleys – once a hang-out for literary figures like E.E. Cummings, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer – closed its doors after its chimney collapsed. And most recently in Brooklyn, a 200-foot-long piece of roof of a building slated to be torn down for the Atlantic Yards project tumbled to the sidewalk below.

These events have become so routine that the real estate blog Curbed has started a building collapse betting pool so readers can leave tips on the next catastrophe.

"In the Bronx, we only have seven or eight inspectors," said Camilla Pinkney-Price, who works in the office of State Senator Ruben Diaz. "Until we get that corrected, buildings are going to continue to collapse."

Related Articles:
NYC’s Construction Boom (2007)
Reforming the Building Code (2004)
The Department of Buildings (2002)
Immigrant Construction Workers (2001)

Related Links:
History of Building Code
Review Proposed New NYC Construction Codes
FAQ about the new Construction Code
Benefits of the Proposed Codes
Learn more about the Model Code Program

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