In his first State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to tackle the “inequality gap that fundamentally threatens [New York City’s] future.” At the LaGuardia Community College in Queens, the new mayor spoke of the “Tale of Two Cities” that has taken root in America’s largest city, and he promised to address it head-on. One of the main weapons in fighting inequality, explained de Blasio, will be creating more affordable housing. He spoke of “New Yorkers crushed by skyrocketing rents” and repeated his campaign pledge to “preserve or construct 200,000 units of affordable housing.” In a break with his mayoral predecessor, de Blasio said he won’t just incentivize developers to include affordable housing units, he’ll require it. “We want to work with the real estate industry to build. We must build more to achieve our vision,” said de Blasio. “But the people’s interests will be accounted for in every real estate deal made with the City.” While de Blasio offered no new details about how he plans to achieve this ambitious goal, he said his newly-appointed housing team will present a plan by May 1st. And following a string of pedestrian deaths, de Blasio pledged to “end the tragic and unacceptable rash of pedestrian deaths on our city streets,” through Vision Zero. The mayor, though, made no further mention of a transportation agenda—bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, or otherwise.
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A team of mayors and nonprofit foundations said Wednesday that they’ll spend enough retrofitting major U.S. cities to save more than $1 billion per year in energy costs. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropy, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and the Kresge Foundation pledged $3 million each year for three years to provide technical advisers for 10 cities across the country: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Orlando, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City. The City Energy Project, as it’s called, is intended to cut 5 to 7 million tons of carbon emissions annually, or roughly the amount of electricity used by 700,000 to 1 million U.S. homes each year. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Institute for Market Transformation will help the cities draft plans to reduce waste and improve energy efficiency—a process the group said should not take more than one year. Chicago’s participation could lower energy bills by as much as $134 million annually and could cut about 1.3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the mayor’s office. In a prepared statement, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the investment would create jobs: “More energy efficiency means new jobs and continued economic growth, and a more sustainable City,” Emanuel said, “which will lead to a further increase in the quality of life for the people of Chicago.” Last year Illinois tightened its building code and Chicago ordered large buildings to disclose their energy use. In Chicago, like many of the nation’s older cities, large buildings eat up much of the city’s energy—together the buildings sector accounts for 40 percent of primary energy consumption in the U.S. While energy efficiency has long been recognized for its financial opportunity, major banks have only recently begun to invest. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he hopes City Energy Project will connect building owners and private financiers, bringing more money to large-scale efficiency initiatives.
Boston’s longest serving Mayor, Thomas Menino, will not be seeking a sixth term. Throughout his two decades in office, Menino has ushered in a number of major development projects, most notably the growth of the area around Fenway and the transformation of the once abandoned Seaport into a vibrant mixed-use waterfront neighborhood with offices, residential towers, and retail. This announcement comes on the heels of Menino’s new proposal, the Housing Boston 2020 Plan, aimed at creating 30,000 new units of housing by 2020. (Photo: Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, courtesy Wikipedia)
Cities matter. In the Midwest recent headlines have read like an urban planning syllabus: post-industrial rebirth attracts a new generation of urbanites downtown, the roll-out of high-speed rail begins to pick up pace, and while innovative solutions to the region’s well-documented problems abound, a lingering fiscal crisis and unfunded pension liabilities threaten to squash even the most attainable aspirations. Those topics and more made the agenda at University of Illinois Chicago’s annual Urban Forum held Thursday, whose lineup included the mayors of Columbus and Pittsburgh, as well as U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. “Metropolitan Resilience in a Time of Economic Turmoil” was the topic at hand. Sporting reindeer antlers, a protestor was removed from the conference for trying to confront UIC board of trustees Chairman Christopher Kennedy over an ongoing labor dispute at the University. His opening salvo may have summed up the emotional state of the intertwined crises of labor and urban redevelopment better than the slew of statistics his target subsequently laid out, but the numbers are indeed telling: Illinois faces the nation’s largest unfunded pension liability; Chicago and Cook County grapple with decaying infrastructure and persistent impoverishment—some 500,000 people in the suburbs live in poverty, outnumbering those in the city. Governor Quinn and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle skipped out on their scheduled appearances to deal with ongoing pension negotiations, but their deputy staffers filled in for the hand-wringing. It would cost so much just to “stop the pain,” said Deputy Mayor Steven Koch, and pay off debt interest at all three levels of government that doing so would bankrupt them instantly. At least they are not alone. “We have a particularly bad form of this disease,” Koch said, “but the disease is widespread.” Somewhat less grim was the following panel, which asked the top brass of Columbus, Las Vegas, and Pittsburgh to share their municipal travails. Facing financial crisis in 2001 and then again in 2008, Columbus “had to make a decision about what kind of city we wanted to be,” according to Mayor Michael Coleman. Service cuts were unavoidable, he said, but cutting too much could plunge the city into a spiral from which it would take decades to recover. Faced with cutting firemen and police, Coleman said he approached the business community with plans for a half-percent tax hike. They and the public supported it, he said, in lieu of further cuts. In Pittsburgh, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl recounted the steps he took to attract $5 billion in new downtown investment to the former steel city, which “hit the wall” around 1983. The ultra-green PNC Tower and a growing cadre of Google jobs were his celebrated examples, but he said investing in bike paths and other transportation infrastructure was critical to the revival of the city’s Bakery Square neighborhood. Secretary LaHood closed the day with a rallying cry for high-speed rail that minced no words. “High-speed rail is coming to America,” he said. “There’s no stopping it. We are not going back.” Though the secretary deflected credit for the policy change onto the President, he said his legacy would be safety, pointing to distracted driving restrictions now on the books in 39 states. “Everyone knows what’s needed in the United States,” LaHood said. “The issue is how do we pay for it?” Federal grant programs for multimodal transportation projects have expanded under the Recovery act, but LaHood said the key to sustaining growth was leveraging private money, in part through strategic loan programs. As for governors refusing to spend federal money on rail projects in their states, the secretary said, “Elections matter.”