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Flashback: touting equitable development, de Blasio suggested Atlantic Yards (!) as template

Well, this tweet sure caught my eye, as Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke 11/1/16 at Crain's 2016 NYC Summit.
That was questionable Nov. 1, and it was even more questionable a few days later after the project's original developer, Forest City Ratner, confessed its investment was essentially worthless.

There's a broader context for de Blasio's remarks, and that too deserves skepticism.

Preparing for growth, but when do 9M people arrive?

The premise of the summit was that New York had better prepare for growth, with housing, transportation, and other infrastructure, and Crain's New York Business on 10/301/16 published 12 firms envision ways for New York to absorb 9 million residents, including:
  • Repurposing existing track beds to allow light-rail commuter lines and commercial development
  • Suspended tram line encircling the five boroughs and parts of New Jersey
  • Develop airspace above Metro-North rail beds to increase housing and unite neighborhoods
  • Extend the No. 1 subway to Red Hook, Brooklyn
  • A hotel, residential, convention and park complex to bring the Javits Center to its full potential
  • Transforming unused space under elevated infrastructure into public plazas
  • Adding multiuse buildings to underused schoolyards
All projections deserve caution, however, because the Bloomberg administration in 2007 launched PlaNYC 2030 (see 2011 update), assuming that the city would have 9 million people by 2030. That's not going to happen.

Now the projection is by 2040. As Justin Davidson pointed out 6/29/16 in New York magazine, chief demographer Joseph Salvo revised the timeline after the 2008 recession.

Where and how to build (taller & denser)

The Daily News quoted academic Mitchell Moss as saying "vast areas of the city" could add housing, including--in the newspaper's paraphrase "Red Hook and the Atlantic Ave. corridor in Brooklyn and several parts of the Bronx."

The mayor also talked about expanding light rail, if the BQX streetcar succeeds, and ferries, as Crain's reported. Crain's also supplied some top quotes from summit panels, including:
“We don’t have a good way to have that conversation without pitchforks and torches coming to your house.” —Jerilyn Perine, executive director, Citizens Housing & Planning Council, on ostensibly reasonable but nonetheless controversial ideas for housing more New Yorkers, such as right-sizing rent-regulated and public-housing units, legalizing basement apartments, and allowing buildings with only small or dormitory-style units
“When people ask, Which bridges are yours? I say, The ones with no tolls on them.” —New York City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, who did not seem proud of the toll-free status of city bridges but nonetheless declined to take a position on tolling them because, she noted, Mayor Bill de Blasio has not yet done so
“It creates an intrinsic inefficiency to the process, but it’s part of the burden of functioning in a democracy instead of a dictatorship.” —former MTA chief Richard Ravitch on the anti-corruption, environmental-protection and other measures involved in the awarding and building of public projects
But the big news, as the Daily News summarized it, is that de Blasio thinks "the city will need to be taller, denser, and conquer neighborhood fears that development will force locals out."

Watching de Blasio: authenticity

So let's go to the videotape (below), starting at 16:47.

"What's become attractive is having a lot of wonderful people in the same place," declared de Blasio, pivoting to characterize such people as those seemingly coveted by millennial marketers. "People want to be in an urban environment. They want access to culture. They want access to talent. They want access to business partners. They want to live some place exciting and engaging. They want authenticity.

Oh, the authenticity gambit, so often played with Atlantic Yards.

"And I think we can all say, the neighborhoods of New York offer authenticity, in all its forms," de Blasio said. "And we're proud of that. No one's ever accused New Yorkers of being inauthentic. What you see is what you get. And that is a great calling card in this world today."

Wait a sec. The notion of personal authenticity--telling it like it is--is not the same as, say, repurposing a building in Williamsburg and calling it The Ice Cream Factory.

"We have the attributes, because every major economic sector is so well represented, because so many key businesses are here, we have the attributes that attract talent, that retain talent, that give opportunity to people who grew up here," de Blasio continued. "All of that is happening simultaneously. We have extraordinary academic institutions, we have an extraordinary health care sector. We have the things that facilitate positive growth in so many ways.

That began to sound like Bloomberg's "luxury city," but that's not de Blasio's goal.

A city for all?

"And it's important to recognize that we have to protect that reality," the mayor continued. " And when I say that, it gets back to the notion of keeping this a city for everyone. I've often talked about the fact that there is a secret sauce here. There is something about New York that made us so great over many, many generations. And yes, even when we were experiencing trouble, we still were that creative center, we still were that entrepreneurial center."

Note that "secret sauce" struck me as a variant of "special sauce," a phrase oft-used by Comptroller Scott Stringer, a de Blasio critic and potential rival.

"What is that special ingredient? It is to me, unquestionably, diversity, unquestionably the fact that we've been an open city," de Blasio continued. "A city of strivers, a city of people who believed they could do something that hasn't been done before. And that correlates to being a city that's open, in a sense of affordable, open in a sense of being tolerant and inclusive. This is what works for us."

Neighborhood wariness

de Blasio then tried to thread the needle. "And this is why there's so much concern in neighborhoods all over the city, about the changes people see around them," he said. "It's not just that human beings, inherently, have a certain nostalgia to us, a certain appreciation for the things that we know and love. It's that people fear the kind of change that will displace them. They fear the kind of change that'll leave them out."

"And they fear a gilded city," he said. "By the way, there are examples around the world that would validate that fear. There are cities, famously in Western Europe, where the cities themselves increasingly became places for people of means, and working people were forced out to the periphery. And I don't think that's worked out so well for a lot of our European cousins."

Actually, that's happened to a significant degree  in New York City already, but de Blasio wasn't saying so.

"I think New York City's magic is that everyone's mixed together: a typical New York City subway car represents more diversity than people in many parts of the world experience in their lives," he said. "And we think it's normal. We think it's an everyday reality. And that's part of what makes us great."

Well, it would make us greater if there were more subway lines, and more frequent service.

"And we have to foster and protect that. That's why an emphasis on addressing income inequality, and emphasis on addressing an inclusive society is not only morally right, in my opinion, it is practically right, as well," he said. "Because this formula for the city has worked in such a sustained fashion, we need to cherish it. We need to protect it."

Growing the right way: creating inclusion

"But that is not, by any stretch, an endorsement of not growing," de Blasio said at around 20:33 of the video. "I think we have to grow. I think it's inevitable that we grow. I think we have to grow the right way, however.  I want to reference the editorial this morning, in a wonderful publication called Crain's, which makes a really important, and one we talk about often. I understand why there are people in this city, again, who bristle at growth, bristle at development. They look at development, not unfairly, through a prism of their past experience. They look at development, in their eyes, as an agent of inequality, of separation. An agent of creating a neighborhood beyond their grasp."

"A lot of people experience that. A lot of people went through that," he continued. "And so it's not unfair to say: is that what new development will mean as well. Well, the Crain's editorial points out something I learned a long time ago as a City Council member in Brooklyn: that it's true, there are types of development that can exacerbate inequality and reduce inclusion. There are also types of development that can increase inclusion, that can open up opportunity. And we have to have a good and clear civic conversation about what that difference is."

Quick, let's go to that editorial, headlined Shaping New York's future requires not only foresight, but guts, which praised the "bold if not prescient" proposals it solicited and observed that "tight restrictions on building exacerbate inequality.

The Brooklyn example: Atlantic Yards

"I had an experience in Brooklyn many times," he said. "I had it around the Atlantic Yards development, but I had it around smaller developments as well. Where neighborhood folks, again, I understood why they feared development, I understood why they didn't like the notion of potentially more traffic or congestion, or parking spaces being taken up. That's normal, that's fair."

Actually, a lot of neighborhood folks also thought that developer Forest City Ratner was gaming the system (which it did, though it hasn't worked out well for them).

"But the argument I would make, and this goes back over a decade: do you believe in an economically diverse city or not? Do you believe in an inclusive city or not?" de Blasio continued. "If you believe in an inclusive city, we have to create affordable housing. And the only way we get affordable housing is through development."

(Emphasis added)

The only want to get affordable housing is through trickle-down development, with mostly market-rate units? That's the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park example and it's surely not the only example--the city can manage a larger amount of affordable housing if it already owns the land.

But the Atlantic Yards housing just isn't very affordable, which surprises some who look likely, and seemed to surprise one density proponent who thinks public officials demanded too much of the developer:

Doubling down on development

"We have to create jobs for working people. The only way we get that is through development," de Blasio continued.

Not so.

"Real economic development has nothing to do with real estate, and this is something Jane [Jacobs] taught us in The Economy of Cities," author Roberta Gratz said at a summit in October 2010. "Economic development is an activity that comes first. The buildings to house it comes second."

"It is fair to say we need ground rules; we need the kind of development we can believe in," de Blasio said. "We need it to be transparent and consistent. That's all more than fair. But the notion of locking things down the way they are, as the editorial points out today, the danger in that is that it bakes in inequality. It doubles down on inequality."

Sure, but remember, it's not necessarily binary: the opponents of Atlantic Yards proposed a counter-plan for significant density over the public property, the Vanderbilt Yard. Their name was Develop Don't Destroy not "Bake In Inequality."

de Blasio pointed neighborhoods where development "has occurred without framework or ground rules," contrasting it with rezonings his administration has proposed, which guarantee affordable housing and other public goods.

Those rezonings, however well-intentioned, have come generated a good deal of skepticism, partly because of the mixed results of projects de Blasio has championed, and also because affordable housing does not always track a neighborhood's need.

Interestingly enough, at about 35 minutes in, de Blasio raised the issue that likely hampers the truly wholesale change New York City needs in areas like housing: the historic lack of federal support.


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