Building a Better City
For the Next Mayor, a To-Do List
Richard Perry/The New York Times
Published: October 16, 2013
On Jan. 1, the next mayor — either Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate, or Joe Lhota, the Republican — will face a fiscal cliff of unpaid bills. Schools will need to be saved, union contracts negotiated — the future of New York envisioned.
In his 12-year tenure, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg built a gleaming Oz of new parks and plazas, skyscrapers and bike lanes. This didn’t stop plenty of terrible buildings from going up. But a focus on streets and architecture redrew whole swaths of the city: Brownstone Brooklyn boomed, the High Line opened, industrial wastelands became waterfront playgrounds. Urban living became a cause, a public good. Design, down to the curbside and the public bench, was no longer an afterthought, although the city became increasingly unaffordable to many.
The next mayor can keep architecture and planning front and center or risk taking the city backward. Courage, guile and not a little art will be required to meet the obvious challenge: building on the good parts of Mr. Bloomberg’s urban vision, but also doing some course correcting. The social welfare of all cities is inextricable from their physical fabric. A more equitable and livable city is ultimately smartly and sustainably designed. New York’s competitive future depends on getting this right.
Some moves are no-brainers: extending the bike lanes, bike shares, the plaza program, rapid-bus service, the High Line and the No. 7 subway; pushing forward with charging stations for electric vehicles, preparations for the next Sandy-like storm, and PlaNYC 2030, Mayor Bloomberg’s guidelines for a greener future.
It would also be hard to find a cogent argument against extending the Bloomberg administration’s Design and Construction Excellence Program, which raised the bar for public buildings like branch libraries, fire stations and police precincts, spreading new work by gifted local architects and by some stars, too, across the five boroughs.
At the same time, the billionaire mayor, unbeholden to special interests and devoted to data, attracted competent and dynamic commissioners, whom he let run departments as they saw fit. And he hired a powerful deputy mayor, Daniel L. Doctoroff, who cooked up major renewal projects across the city. The American Institute of Architects has floated the notion that the next mayor should appoint a deputy for design and planning. The city relies on zoning, a blunt instrument, to shape communities, which leaves us with atrocities like Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue development.
A new deputy mayor could coordinate parks, schools, transportation, landmarks, buildings and small-business development — now controlled by agencies that have too often failed to work together — in ways that might streamline construction, save tax dollars and foster neighborhoods. A deputy mayor for design could also help rethink some undercooked Bloomberg initiatives, like redeveloping Willets Point in Queens as a shopping mall; rezoning 73 blocks of East Midtown; and awarding $150 million in taxpayer money to redo the New York Public Library building at 42nd Street before there was even a solid renovation plan. (That plan may yet be forthcoming, as library officials promise, but, meanwhile, branches across the city are starved for cash.)
Everything worth doing in New York comes down to money, of course: who has it, how to get it. Building even one new PATH station ends up costing billions of dollars. Cognizant that government can’t pay for everything, Mayor Bloomberg trusted developers and the rich to share his sense of public duty. That produced some innovative public-private ventures, like Brooklyn Bridge Park. But it also fueled the mantra of disgruntled New Yorkers that much of Manhattan was becoming a corporate retreat, illustrated by the conversion of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village into the site for yet another luxury condo complex, and by One57, a 1,000-foot apartment tower for Russian oligarchs and other zillionaires. Now rising across from Carnegie Hall, it is a blight on the skyline.
By contrast, recent residences for the formerly homeless in Los Angeles and San Francisco have been buildings of architectural distinction — boons to their cities. One of the lessons of Via Verde, a pioneering mixed-income development in the South Bronx, which has thrived since opening last year (I drop in from time to time on the gardening club), is that a modest premium for green design and architectural excellence produces social and economic dividends. A new mayor could encourage more exceptional designs like Via Verde for at least a percentage of subsidized housing projects.
And he could also work with Shaun Donovan, the secretary of housing and urban development, which helps oversee the New York City Housing Authority, whose residents account for nearly 5 percent of the city’s population. The authority houses many of New York’s poorest citizens in often bleak and marooned projects. Understandably wary of politicians after decades of broken promises, residents view with suspicion any talk about repurposing parking lots for schools or retail. There was a backlash, including from the mayoral candidates, after the Bloomberg administration proposed leasing some public housing land for market-rate development. But these ideas are still worth exploring, if focused on improving and diversifying neighborhoods and knitting them into the fabric of the city — and if done in collaboration with, and to benefit, residents.
The new mayor ought to try to tackle another housing challenge, posed by the city’s changing demographic: there are more single households, thanks to the young urban migration and the silver tsunami, that gathering wave of urban-minded retirees. The city’s current housing stock doesn’t come close to meeting growing needs. Outmoded regulations and onerous state requirements get in the way of addressing this issue, like scores of others. The city’s brick-and-mortar costs are twice as high as Chicago’s. In some parts of town, developers must still add parking for every new housing unit and retail space. It’s time to redo the books and take a hatchet to rules that only make it harder to live here.
Living in the city is one challenge; getting out of it is another. A direct train to and from LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports has long been dreamed about. Other cities around the world have been investing heavily in transportation. London has boomed where it has recently renovated its trains and hubs. All the hoopla about developing East Midtown and Hudson Yards to attract global business assumes a smooth and swift shuttle to the airports.
That’s a joke today. The Shanghai Metro began operations in 1995 and has a network of 300 miles, with more than 300 stations. New York City pondered the Second Avenue subway for decades, poured billions of dollars into constructing the first measly miles, and is still years away from a single functioning station.
The one-seat airport train ride would at least take the city a step into the 21st century, and there happen to be ideas out there about how to get this done and paid for. Like all big, complicated transit projects here, this one would require the new mayor to get the Port Authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York state and federal governments on board, which is where courage and guile come in, along with the bully pulpit.
Like pushing for a one-seat ride, fixing Pennsylvania Station means getting the responsible parties — Madison Square Garden, the railroads, city and state agencies, private developers, and, above all, the governor — to sit down at the same table and negotiate, because the mayor’s authority is limited. The governor should have plenty to gain, since the stakes could hardly be higher for the region or the upside greater. It’s the mayor’s role to drive that point home.
One more thing, for the moment. We’ve had a technocrat as mayor who speaks fluent Wall Street. We could use a bard.
I mean someone in tune with what makes the city hum at street level. Brooklyn’s renaissance hasn’t just been about cheaper housing costs. Areas like Williamsburg and Park Slope are every bit as unaffordable to most New Yorkers as SoHo or Chelsea. Brooklyn’s attraction — to residents and start-ups — has to do with its neighborhood feel, characterful architecture, intimate scale and diversity.
Yes, the city benefits from attracting more rich people, but economic diversity is not just a campaign slogan. A big part of what keeps the city competitive has to do with its pedestrian-friendly streets; lively, inspired public spaces; and eclectic neighborhoods and populations.
The threat now is not just that longtime African-American residents are quitting historic areas from Harlem to Fort Greene because New York no longer feels as if it were still their home. It’s also what an executive at a giant bank in Lower Manhattan said after Hurricane Sandy: companies like his weather floods because they’ve got insurance. But the shopkeepers and small businesses, which supply downtown with its lifeblood, struggle to afford the city even when there’s no disaster. If they leave, he told me, the major employers will follow, because the neighborhood will no longer be worth staying in.
So a new administration must protect and promote local merchants, along with residents, in areas where they’re being priced out. New York’s neighborhoods need to remain magnets for young entrepreneurs, workers, artists and dreamers.
That generation moves to the music of the streets.
The next mayor should, too.