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The difference between Michael Bloomberg’s final State of the City address and Bill de Blasio’s first was so vast it seems impossible the two were speaking about the same city. In the newly opened Barclays Center, then-mayor Bloomberg touted the booming development across New York—from the Atlantic Yards to the Hudson Yards. He referenced job opportunities, sustainability, and, of course, the bike-share program.
One year later, at the LaGuardia Community College in Queens, Bill de Blasio spoke of “The Tale of Two Cities”—a town racked by inequality. He didn’t talk about any big, splashy developments, but pledged to help “New Yorkers crushed by skyrocketing rents.” There was no mention of transportation, climate change, or infrastructure—all considered bright spots in Bloomberg’s complicated legacy.
But while Mayor de Blasio makes national headlines for his laser-like focus on tackling inequality, he has been appointing highly competent individuals to lead the city’s housing, transportation, environmental, and planning teams. All of these appointments, explained de Blasio, are not separate from the fight against inequality. They are central in waging it.
In early February, de Blasio appointed Carl Weisbrod—a real estate industry veteran with experience in the private and public sector—to chair the city’s planning commission. Weisbrod is perhaps best known for his integral role in cleaning up Times Square in the 1980s and later helping to transform Downtown Manhattan into a mixed-use neighborhood.
Rick Bell, the executive director of New York’s AIA chapter, said Weisbrod is “an excellent choice” for planning commissioner because he “brings to the table the skillset, the mindset, and the attitude of someone who is going to take the promises made, the expectations of the de Blasio campaign, and realize them.”
As planning commissioner, Weisbrod will be instrumental in accomplishing one of de Blasio’s key legislative goals: to “preserve or construct” 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years. He will be joined in that fight by the mayor’s new housing team.
The mayor recently appointed Shola Olatoye—a former executive at an affordable housing non-profit—as chair of the New York City Housing Authority. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s new commissioner is Vicki Been, who was the former director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. And Gary D. Rodney, from the affordable housing developer Omni New York, is the new president to the Housing Development Corporation.
Alicia Glen—the former head of the Goldman Sachs’ Urban Investment Group—is the city’s new deputy mayor of housing and economic development.
Even with a strong team beside him, de Blasio’s affordable housing goal will be exceptionally difficult to achieve. One tool de Blasio will likely use to hit his 200,000 figure will be “mandatory inclusionary zoning,” or requiring developers to include affordable housing units in new buildings. Under Bloomberg, developers were only incentivized to do so.
And since it will not be enough to just “preserve” existing affordable units, the de Blasio years might see significant zoning changes to offer new development opportunities. The benefit of this could be twofold: more development would boost the number of new affordable housing units, and the housing stock overall.
In terms of transportation and the city’s streetscape, the de Blasio administration is poised to build on Janette Sadik-Khan’s impressive legacy of transforming New York City streets. The mayor’s selection of Polly Trottenberg—the former under secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation—to lead the city’s DOT has been lauded by those championing safer streets and improved transportation. “The personnel positions, and particularly hiring Polly Trottenberg, look really good from street safety and livable streets perspective,” said Ben Fried, the editor-in-chief of Streetsblog.
Trottenberg will be responsible for more than bike lanes and pedestrian plazas; she will work alongside the new police commissioner, Bill Bratton, to implement the mayor’s “Vision Zero Action Plan” to reduce pedestrian fatalities.
It has become clear with these appointments that the mayor plans to use every department, and every new official, to address the city’s inequality. Combatting inequality is a daunting, if not impossible, fight to wage from City Hall, but the mayor and his team seem ready to at least throw some punches.
Every day, thousands of cyclists and pedestrians jockey for space on a narrow strip along the center of the Brooklyn Bridge. A ballet plays out as cyclists commuting to and from work dodge eager tourists looking for the perfect photo op, as the soft chime of bike bells blending with the din of car traffic below. At the Brooklyn terminus of the bridge, however, the already-chaotic scene devolves into a dangerous confluence of cars, bikes, and pedestrians as the path abruptly ends in the center of a busy intersection at Adams and Tillary streets.
After five years of study, meetings, and schematic designs, however, accessing the Brooklyn Bridge will soon be improved under a plan to revamp the Brooklyn Bridge Gateway Area streetscape, encompassing Tillary Street between Cadman Plaza West and Prince Street and several blocks of Adams Street, with widened sidewalks, improved bike lanes, and increased landscaping.
A joint effort of the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) and the Department of Design and Construction, the campaign to improve the bridge entrance began in 2009 with community workshops that identified project goals including improved safety and better aesthetics. At the intersection of Tillary and Adams streets, for example, the crash rate is nearly nine times the New York state average, with 117 crashes between 2008 and 2010. The dialogue resulted in a set of schematic plans presented in 2009 and 2011, but the proposal languished without federal funding until last December, when another update was presented to and unanimously approved by Brooklyn’s Community Board 2 Transportation Committee.
Last month, the full community board approved NYCDOT’s polished traffic safety and landscape plans showing the revamped Brooklyn Bridge Gateway Area. The first phase of the project reconstructs the entrance to the bridge at Adams and Tillary streets, softening the busy intersection with widened sidewalks, dedicated bike lanes, and more landscaping. Pedestrian and cyclist access has been streamlined by converting Adams Street into a tree-lined boulevard with a 30-foot-wide median containing widened and separated paths for pedestrians and cyclists. The design includes place-making amenities such as new benches, wayfinding signage, bollards, and even a water bottle filling station.
An access road along Adams Street will be reconfigured to accommodate the wider median, including removing a row of parallel parking and adding a bike lane. A group of neighborhood residents have expressed concern about these changes, citing construction noise and pollution from passing cars. The group has asked the city to conduct an environmental review, but NYCDOT has said such a study is not required by law.
Future phases along Tillary Street aim to increase safety and curb problems of motorists parking in bike lanes by replacing concrete jersey barriers along bike paths with extended sidewalks and new landscaping. The plan also streamlines bike access to Downtown Brooklyn. Throughout the target area, curb extensions at intersections—called neckdowns—and widened sidewalks will help slow car traffic, improve visibility, and reduce the length of street crossings. NYCDOT did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
The city plans to begin construction on the first phase of the project along Adams Street by the end of the year. Construction is expected to last 18 months. Future phases are contingent on additional funding.
A couple of weeks ago, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne sat down with LA mayor Eric Garcetti at Occidental College’s Keck Theater to discuss the changing face of LA. The city, as Hawthorne mentioned (and as I have pointed out on numerous occasions), is undergoing a tectonic shift from a car-oriented, sprawling, and private city to a transit-oriented, dense, public-oriented one. So it seems fitting that LA has a mayor who, at least in his words, supports these changes and takes architecture and urban design seriously.
In many ways the discussion was a chance for Garcetti to tout his accomplishments in the urban realm as both mayor and councilman, from the establishment of the Great Streets Initiative, meant to improve the pedestrian and bike experience on the city’s thoroughfares, to the installation of hundreds of new bicycle lanes, to the installation of numerous pocket parks. He also promised to start construction on a subway connection to LAX (and the extension of several other lines) before the end of his tenure, help re-fund the city’s affordable housing trust fund, complete the effort to recode our outdated zoning system, and he mentioned that he was tripling the size of the city’s Urban Design Office (albeit from one person to three). He spoke about his lobbying trip to the White House to fight for the transformation of the LA River, and mentioned that the Federal Government was now choosing between alternatives, not just weighing whether or not to do something.
And you know what? A little bragging is ok. Granted many of these initiatives were started before Garcetti started office, and any of these accomplishments come from a large pool of people, not simply from his desk. But if somebody has a record in the urban realm to brag about, I want to hear about it. I want more people (particularly people outside of our fields) to understand that urban change can be a positive thing, not something to fear. Sure, not all change is good. But change in LA is inevitable, and if we know what we’re getting, and are willing to fight for the best result, then we can shape it to fit our needs.
As much as we lament that LA’s fractured political system leaves our mayor without much power, having an ally in the urban realm is a gift that we can’t take for granted. The mayor can appoint the right people in relevant departments (planning, building, transportation, etc.); he can issue executive orders; and he can rally people behind major initiatives. Just look what Mayor Bloomberg was able to achieve in New York City. Garcetti also wasn’t shy to attack the unsuccessful schemes that the city has undertaken in the past. He attacked the LAUSD’s recent wave of schools as “fortresses” that “don’t talk to the architecture of the city.” And he joked that widening the 405 Freeway was “analogous to finding a slightly bigger sponge to throw in the ocean.
That being said he did not turn a critical eye on what he hasn’t accomplished, or what problems he could still address. Why, for instance, is our planning department reactive, not proactive? Why, despite all the talk, are our entitlement and permitting processes still so dreadfully inefficient? Why does our procurement process still favor the well-connected and well-financed? Why are we still allowing freeways to be widened, despite the mayor’s outrage about it? And why aren’t more architects part of (or leading) city commissions? Of course these are just a few, but the only part of the discussion that was missing was a critical look at where the mayor hasn’t been successful to this point.
Still, the fact that the Mayor is talking about these things at all—particularly
in such a public forum—is a victory for architects, planners, and any advocates for the urban environment. The more we can keep these topics on the radar the more this city, and others, will successfully adapt to fit a world that has changed dramatically and live up to its staggering potential.
On October 26, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel cut the ribbon opening a brand-new roadway through the former site of a massive U.S. Steel manufacturing plant. Over the next 40 years, McCaffery Interests is planning to build a massive, sustainably designed mixed-use development known as Lakeside on this 600-acre area in South Chicago.
City and state transportation departments have been planning the South Lake Shore Drive extension to reroute through traffic on U.S. 41 around residential areas since before McCaffery and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill revealed the Lakeside master plan in 2004.
The $64 million, state and city-funded road now connects to 79th Street at Rainbow Beach Park in the north and crosses the Calumet River with Ewing Avenue in the south. It does more than provide a bypass of residential areas to the west. South Lake Shore Drive, which connects to Lake Shore Drive via South Shore Drive and Marquette, gives Lakeside the edge it needs to attract retailers to anchor its first phase, called the Market Common.
During a tour in October, McCaffery Interests project manager Nasutsa Mabwa said that the road was delayed for three years. In 2010, press reports said construction would begin in 2012, but it wasn’t until Mayor Rahm Emanuel came into office in 2011 that the road’s construction got back on track.
South Lake Shore Drive is 1.9 miles long and was built with some sustainable development features. For example, it offers parallel parking atop permeable pavement, is illuminated with LED street lights, and is planted with 600 new trees. It also has wide bike lanes along half its length.
The Lakeside website presents a transit vision of using rapid bus routes and light rail that cut down the travel time from the development to Midway airport and downtown. An electric commuter rail is less than half a mile away. Mabwa said that the images on the website are ideas. “We know we have some weak points and we know we have to bring the rail transit closer,” she said. The Chicago Transit Authority has the option to plan buss routes on South Lakes Shore Drive. All of its existing bus routes serve residential areas located a couple blocks west.
South Lake Shore Drive also opens Park 523 to the public for the first time. The park was built in 2008, just a year after Solo Cup sold some land to Lakeside Development, and five years after 87th Street was connected to meet it and provide access to a proposed Solo factory.
The City of Santa Monica recently green-lighted construction on the $10.7 million Colorado Esplanade streetscape project, designed to improve public access to the Santa Monica Pier and provide pedestrian links from the soon-to-arrive Expo Light Rail line. Work will commence next year, and the light rail is scheduled to arrive by 2016.
Designed by Peter Walker Partners, the landscape firm behind the National September 11 Memorial, the plan turns Colorado Boulevard into a westbound-only, multi-modal thoroughfare from the downtown Santa Monica station at Fourth Street all the way to Ocean Avenue, edging the coast. A new promenade will connect the light rail station to Ocean Avenue, the Pier, and the future Palisades Garden Walk. An expansive public amphitheater stairway, called the Gateway Triangle Garden, will lead to the Expo Line’s Fourth Street Station and create a dedicated public gathering zone, named the Downtown Expo Station Plaza. The City Council had earlier rejected a xeriscape design for this zone, noting that a more welcoming public space was desired.
The plan also includes dedicated bike lanes in both directions and widens the south-side sidewalk to a generous 55 feet with decorative paving and seating. The lanes will eventually tie in to the regional network of bike paths and connect with Santa Monica’s Bike Center. Numerous trees will also be added in accordance with the city’s Urban Forest Master Plan.
According to the Santa Monica Lookout, the city has secured $9.7 million in funding, including a $3.3 million Metro grant. When legislation shut down California redevelopment agencies last February, the city had to cut the promenade budget in half.