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MAS Survey on Livability: fuzzy findings on "Big Real Estate Development," overall good news on public satisfaction, and reasons for caution

At the second annual MAS Summit for New York City, the Municipal Art Society released its second annual MAS Survey on Livability, which included some fuzzy findings under the rubric of Attitudes toward Big Real Estate Development:

While overall the majority (62%) of New Yorkers think large Real Estate Development in a neighborhood is a good idea, only about 4 out of 10 think it makes the city a better place to live, and nearly one third think it makes no difference.
• Maintaining Neighborhood Character
o New Yorkers divide when it comes to real estate development at the expense of a neighborhood’s character. 51% think the city should invest in real estate development that will create jobs even if it changes the character of a neighborhood, while a similar proportion (49%) say the City should only support development that retains a neighborhood’s character.  60% of Manhattanites support the investment of Real Estate Development that maintains the character of a neighborhood, while only 43% in Brooklyn, 45% in Queens, and 44% in the Bronx do.
o More than half of Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens residents support Real Estate Development that will create jobs even if it changes the character of a neighborhood, as opposed to residents of Manhattan (40%) and Staten Island (47%).
The question was worded differently from the question in last year's survey, which suggested wariness toward housing built out of neighborhood scale. Given today's economy, there surely is more willingness to accept development that brings jobs.

Devil in the details

Actually, the official summary posted above is a little off. The first question in the survey was more general, not using the word "neighborhood":
Overall, do you think large real estate development in New York City is good idea or a bad idea?
Why wouldn't 62% of New Yorkers, or more, be against that? However, as we've learned with Atlantic Yards, the devil's in the details: the issue is not merely scale, but the amount of government subsidies, extraordinary assistance such as eminent domain, and the democratic (or not) nature of the approval process.

No wonder that activist-turned-consultant Majora Carter, on a lead-off panel yesterday to assess livability, questioned whether projects like "the stadiums" and "the shopping malls" improve communities.

Rather, it's better when the city partners with communities, said Carter, who in the evening was to keynote a benefit for BrooklynSpeaks in its effort to fight for "accountability at Atlantic Yards." At the Summit, she showed slide showing how a dump in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx has been transformed into a park.

Overall, good news

The Summit was held at the Rose Hall of Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. Survey findings were summarized by MAS President Vin Cipolla:
“New Yorkers remain satisfied overall with living in New York, but when asked about their neighborhoods and their satisfaction with amenities and services on the local level, opinions got less generic and much more personal. We continue to see some underlying discontent, especially among people living outside Manhattan and those with lower incomes.”

“With these Livability Surveys, we are establishing a valid baseline to track trend data going forward on a number of these key indicators, It’s clear that citywide organizations like MAS need to step up our individual and collective efforts and presence in neighborhoods and forge new partnerships with community-based organizations to address these issues.”
Such partnerships can sometimes be dicey, as the MAS spearheaded BrooklynSpeaks, but, believing litigation unwise, withdrew when the organization finally went to court.

News coverage

The news appeared in several media outlets:
What's missing? "Staggering inequality"

While Cipolla did acknowledge "some underlying discontent," the survey didn't quite capture some important demographic changes. As research psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove said at one panel, "As we know in the U.S. as a whole, the divergence in income is getting just unbelievable, verging on obscene."

She cited the out-migration of black, Latino, and Asian New Yorkers. "Everybody doesn't have to be rich," she said. Rather it's important to have a high-quality street life. "But it seems to tip, if you take too much of the money and too much of the opportunity away, you trap people and create real division."

Cipolla acknowledged the polarization when it came to many residents' feeling that arts and culture were not accessible to them.

Fullilove also noted a 7/7/11 New York Times report that, at least in 2007, four of ten apartments in Manhattan were owned by part-timers--a sign that New York was more "a place to sell... as opposed to a place to live."

Streetsblog cited "New York City’s staggering levels of inequality," linking to Ezra Klein's citation of former Brooklynite Christopher Ketcham's Orion Magazine article, The Reign of the One-Percenters:
New York, the FPI [Fiscal Policy Institute] informs us [in Grow Together or Pull Further Apart? Income Concentration Trends in New York, 12/10], is now at the forefront of the maldistribution of wealth into the hands of the few that has been ongoing in America since 1980, which marked the beginning of a new Gilded Age. Out of the twenty-five largest cities, it is the most unequal city in the United States for income distribution. If it were a nation, it would come in as the fifteenth worst among 134 countries ranked by extremes of wealth and poverty—a banana republic without the death squads. It is the showcase for the top 1 percent of households, which in New York have an average annual income of $3.7 million. These top wealth recipients—let’s call them the One Percenters—took for themselves close to 44 percent of all income in New York during 2007 (the last year for which data is available). That’s a high bar for wealth concentration; it’s almost twice the record-high levels among the top 1 percent nationwide, who claimed 23.5 percent of all national income in 2007, a number not seen since the eve of the Great Depression.
Graphic from Fiscal Policy Institute


Doing it differently

Indeed, listening to a panelist at the summit yesterday, Rahul Bhardwaj, president and CEO of the Toronto Community Foundation, led me to the foundation's tenth annual Toronto's Vital Signs Report, which didn't pull punches in a 10/4/11 press release:
Under the "Gap Between Rich and Poor" section of Toronto's Vital Signs, a projection of current neighbourhood income trends to 2925 predicts an almost complete disappearance of the city's middle income neighbourhoods.
At other Municipal Art Society events, notably in the 2007 series keyed to an exhibit on Jane Jacobs, attendees have expressed deep concerns about similar patterns of change. The economic downturn surely has slowed such trends, but without changes in the city's economy and education system--issues also touched on at the Summit-- those concerns won't go away.

MAS Livability 2011 Survey for New York City - Presentation

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