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05.05.2014
Editorial> Will De Blasio Make Progress on Design?
William Menking hopes that design will not be given short shrift by the de Blasio administration.
Flickr / Caruba

There are some ominous signs in the first days the de Blasio administration indicating that the next four years may not be the best ones for the built landscape of New York City. We pointed out in the last issue of The Architect’s Newspaper that the Domino Sugar agreement between the city and Two Trees development will provide seriously needed new affordable housing units, but at a cost to its surrounding neighborhood. Two Trees agreed to a 30 percent increase in the number of affordable units in the project—up from 660 units to 700 (out of a planned 2,200 totals units), but in return the developer will be allowed an enormous increase in the height of the project. The tallest residential building will now be 55 stories, which the developer claims is in scale because of its relationship to the nearby Williamsburg Bridge. I am not sure if the city bought this notion of appropriate scale—or if it even cares—but it does raise fears of what we might get in the way of new buildings as the mayor moves toward achieving his goal of 200,000 new units of affordable housing.

Will he seek affordable housing no matter its effect on the surrounding neighborhood and the residents who are already in place? We have been told by a New York architect that when he submitted drawings to the Department of City Planning under the Bloomberg administration he would get a personal telephone call from Director Amanda Burden saying, essentially, “we like your plan for the park but could you go back and detail the benches as they don’t seem correct for their use and site.” This attention to detail and concern for the built fabric of the city seems—at least based on this hastily agreed upon Domino plan—no longer to be a major concern to the planning department.

One of mayor de Blasio’s major campaign themes was for the city “to thrive as a 21st-century economy,” and for working families to make ends meet, the “city need(ed) a fast, reliable, and affordable transportation system.” He claimed that the city “needed a more accessible and connected system that links trains, buses, bicycles, commuter rail, and pedestrian spaces into a unified whole that serves every New Yorker. But when presented with the potential failure of the enormously successful Citi Bike share program, de Blasio seemed to be less certain about supporting an integrated system. He would, he said, collaborate with Citi Bike “to help them find ways to be more efficient and more effective,” but he maintained the “tens of millions of dollars” the program needs to keep rolling will not come from the public sector. At this moment, he concluded, “city budget money is not on the table.”

This is an unsettling first reaction from a “progressive” willing to raise taxes on the city’s wealthiest occupants to pay for something he believes important. He apparently does not value the bicycle share program and does not see its potential—maybe because the bike share program does not meet his standards of equality as it seems to be only for the privileged zones of the city. The program, typical of the Bloomberg years, was rolled out in Manhattan south of 59th Street and in gentrifying neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Rather than cutting the program loose it should be enlarged to go from the edge of Yonkers to the Rockaways in Queens and Nassau County, so that it would truly encompass a new vision for the city. The public nature and healthy benefits of the bike share program seem entirely deserving of public support and financing. It would be a shame if, in the future, we think back on the Bloomberg administration as an isolated golden age of creative initiatives, rather than only the beginning of what the city can become in all neighborhoods for all its citizens.

William Menking