News
10.20.2006
Nine Million Stories in the Naked City?
Red Hook, 2005

Demographers say that New York will grow by a million residents within the next 25 years, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wants to plan for them. An as-yet unreleased report commissioned by Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff makes some interesting recommendations—like decking over the Sunnyside yards and parts of the Brooklyn-Queens expressway—but doesn't get into the nitty gritty of who might actually pay for them. Is the report, Visions for New York City, really that, or is it a map for the next generation of developers? By William Menking and Anne Guiney. Photography by M. E. Smith.

In his 2006 State of the City address, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg promised to deliver a strategic land-use plan that would encompass housing, transportation, and infrastructure for all five boroughs, and would be closely tied to redevelopment initiatives already underway. For a city whose planning process has historically been decentralized, it was welcome news. Word of the report began circulating several months later, and this August, a copy appeared on the website Streetsblog.com. Visions for New York City: Housing in the Public Realm (which has not been officially released yet, and is therefore presumably still in draft form) covers much of what the mayor suggested it would, but comes from a different quarter than many expected: It was commissioned by Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff and prepared by Alex Garvin & Associates for the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC). (The two worked very closely together on NYC2012, the bid to bring the Olympics to New York.) As it makes explicitly clear, Visions for New York City is not official policy, but when it is ultimately released, will nonetheless likely provide the framework for coming discussions about what New York will look like in 25 years, and how the city will get there.

The introduction to Visions for New York City cites a projection from the Department of City Planning (DCP) that by 2030, New York City's existing population of over 8 million will exceed 9 million, if not sooner. It makes the reasonable argument that while the city's current economy is strong and has a well-planned infrastructure and a high quality of life, this cannot be ensured if growth happens in an unplanned fashion. The report thus makes a series of recommendations on where the city might house this population and how to improve its infrastructure.

Visions for New York City is divided into two sections: Increasing the Housing Supply and Improving the Public Realm. The first, and more comprehensive, section essentially looks at what developers call soft sitess in all five boroughs, i.e., areas that are now either underutilized, such as neighborhoods zoned for industrial uses where little industry still occurs, or rail yards or highways which could be decked over and turned into blank development sites. Some of the many sites Garvin & Associates studied are the Sunnyside Yards in Queens, portions of the Bronx and Harlem Rivers in the Bronx, Staten Island's north shore, and the sunken section of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Cobble Hill. The report further suggests that increasing mass transit into underserved areas will stimulate development. It also acknowledges the unlikelihood of securing major public investments to extend existing subway lines, and concedes that the creation of light rail or bus rapid transit systems is far more feasible.

Sunnyside Yards, 2001

Red Hook, 2003

These potential building sites would allow for the creation of between 160,000 
to 325,000 new residential units with virtually no residential displacement,, depending on how densely each site is zoned. Such a significant amount of new housing without any displacement is politically appealing, but of course there is a catch: The largest and most promising site is the Sunnyside Rail Yards in Queens, which would need to be decked over before it could be developed as housing. It is close to Manhattan, and if developed, would reconnect Astoria to Sunnyside Gardens, which, from an urban planning standpoint, would be an additional benefit. But at 166 acres, the very aspect that makes it so appealing—its size—is likely to make it politically and economically difficult to pull off. The site has been coveted for development since the Regional Plan Association's 1929 Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs proposed it as a place for an intermodal train station to relieve overcrowding in Manhattan. And while the Metropolitan Transit Authority owns the majority of the site, this summer, real estate attorney Michael Bailkin purchased a development option on part of it, which raises the financial stakes for anything that happens on the site. Without massive city subsidies, the cost of building such a large deck—the relatively diminutive 13-acre deck planned for Manhattan's Hudson Yards is estimated to cost $350 million—is likely to discourage anything but extremely high-density or luxury housing. According to Vishaan Chakrabarti, a senior vice president at The Related Companies who served for two years as the Manhattan director for the DCP, making some of that new housing affordable will be difficult. "The implication of the report is that all of the housing will be market-rate, but when you are talking about building housing on platforms, there are economic drivers that make [building any of it as affordable] difficult," Chakrabarti said. "We have not yet perfected the mechanism to harness market forces to build affordable housing, though it is not for a lack of trying." He added, "I was hoping to see something about this in the report."

The Sunnyside Yards are not the only familiar item on the list of suggestions: as D. Grahame Shane, a professor of urban design at Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (and a contributor to AN) said, "The list of development opportunities reads like a record of every university urban design studio for the last 15 years." That said, the report does represent an effort on the part of Mayor Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Doctoroff to think spatially about the future of the city. This is something architects and planners have long hoped would be true of city politicians. But Ronald Shiffman, a former City Planning Commissioner himself under Mayor David Dinkins and director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, nonetheless had reservations about Visions. "These same politicians are afraid to engage the public in a discussion to flesh out its finer points," said Shiffman. "They have come up with a proposal but don't discuss the social infrastructure: They don't say how this million new people will make a living. I'm glad that they are looking at it, but they also need to engage the broader community on other levels. This whole new population won't work in offices."

 Sunset Park, 2005

 Sunset Park, 2005

This oversight on the part of the report has serious drawbacks, according to other observers. Laura Wolf-Powers, chair of Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment at the Pratt Institute, believes that Visions uses a narrow and shallow definition of the public realm, since it only discusses housing and to a lesser account some transportation issues. "There are many important quality of life issues that are not acknowledged in this report, like sanitation and waste water remediation facilities. Not only that," she added, "these uses are often located in the very manufacturing zones like those along the Bronx and Harlem Rivers that the report would give over entirely to housing." While these sites might be better used as housing, these functions must go somewhere. It's not news that manufacturers and industrial businesses that want to remain in the city are having trouble finding affordable space. The East Williamsburg Industrial Park, for example, which is home to over 2,500 small businesses, is facing residential encroachment from gentrifying sections of Williamsburg and Bushwick. One of the areas cited in the report as worthy of future study is the Sunset Park waterfront, which is mostly industrial today and has been recently designated as an area that the city has committed to keeping that way. While Visions acknowledges the value of the area's current character and only recommends converting 90 acres of surface parking (operated by the Department of Small Businesses) into sites for development, it still proposes 27,400 new units of housing, which would undoubtedly put pressure on the area's industrial functions.

Infrastructural capacity is a looming issue, said Chakrabarti, and one that cannot be ignored. Nor should it preclude the kinds of conversation that Visions will surely raise: "Energy capacity and wastewater treatment are real problems. We have capacity now, but not for another million people. Still, I don't think you can say, 'We don't have the infrastructure, so we can't fulfill the demand for housing.' It just means that housing will get more expensive."

The very fact that the report was commissioned from a private planning firm 
and did not come out of DCP is telling about the nature of its recommendations. There is an underlying assumption that public investment will allow for private sector development; the ultimate feasibility of finding these public monies is skated over. In the past, the city's planning reports have come out of the DCP, or people engaged with the Planning Commission—like Robert Wagner, Jr.'s 1984 New York Ascendant under Mayor Ed Koch—but Visions rarely mentions the DCP and any role it might play in planning for the future. (Doctoroff's office and the DCP both declined to comment for this article.) In fact, the report details a list of government agencies that must coordinate to make such far-reaching new policies work, like the EDC, the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD), the Department of Transportation, but goes on to suggest, "The Mayor's Office must delegate management for these projects, as doing so is integral to their execution and ultimate success." While some might see this as a cession of public authority, Chakrabarti points out that sometimes, outsiders can say things that City Hall cannot. "There are often conflicting goals in terms of what is good for the city as a whole and what an individual neighborhood may want, especially in regards to density," he said. "An outside consultant can make important suggestions that are politically difficult."

One wonders if the secretive nature of the process, and its stress on the primacy of the private sector, is a product of Doctoroff's recent trouble with getting the West Side Stadium built, which was the sine qua non for bringing the Olympics to New York City. Several of the larger sites mentioned in Visions for New York City are on land that is at least partially owned by the state, not the city, which means that they are exempt from the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and thus due much less public review. But the controversy and public acrimony surrounding Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards proposal—which also involves decking over infrastructure, public subsidy, and no ULURP—the now-defunct West Side Stadium project, and the World Trade Center site should suggest that proposals with only a nominal amount of involvement are no less immune to trouble than those which involve public input. When Visions is released, no doubt in a modified form, we hope that it is treated not as an identification of development sites across the city, but the starting point for a comprehensive and very public conversation about New York City's long-term needs. 

William Menking and Anne Guiney are editors at AN.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS: When photographer M. E. Smith noticed one day about 10 years ago that the subway station at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in Brooklyn had been torn down, he decided to start documenting the changes in the city around him. As the pace of development picks up and once-desolate areas fill with commerce and people, his photographs have inevitably taken on a documentary quality. A show of his work in and around New York was recently on view at Cooke Contemporary in Jersey City (see Functional Shift, AN 16_10.06.2006).

William Menking and Anne Guiney