Skip to main content

Featured Post

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what's coming + FAQ (pinned post)

PLANYC2030: what might sustainability mean?

The battles over land use, including Atlantic Yards, have clearly pointed to the need for planning by the government and various stakeholders, beyond a process driven by real estate developers.

Now, it seems, the city government has recognized that, and more. On 12/12/06, Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced a major sustainability initiative, titled PLANYC 2030, offering ten goals for creating a sustainable city by 2030, by which the city's population is projected to increase from 8 million to 9 million people.

The plan grew out of the mayor’s request that Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Dan Doctoroff draft a long-term land-use plan for the city, which morphed into an attempt to address "the full range of challenges to our city's physical environment," in Bloomberg’s words--issues like energy, water, and climate change. (The land-use plan was likely the unreleased 2006 study by Alex Garvin, which I mentioned yesterday.)

A slick media campaign has involved outreach to community groups and the general public, trade associations, and governmental partners. As we await an announcement of implementation plans in the next few weeks, numerous questions have been raised, among them what goals have been downplayed, whose interests are being served, and how much democratic process will be involved.

The ten goals are grouped under the following color-coded rubrics, with further details in the graphics: OPENYC (housing, transit capacity, parks); MAINTAINYC (infrastructure for water, transit, energy); and GREENYC (carbon emissions, clean air, brownfields cleanup, waterway restoration).

Few specific policies have emerged yet, but congestion pricing must be on the table. Crain's New York Business reported last week that the city is considering "requiring property owners to improve energy efficiency before selling their homes and encouraging construction of modern power plants." In a speech nearly two weeks ago, Doctoroff "hinted that major, regional transportation policy plans were in the works," according to Streetsblog.

The Moses effect

There’s some reason, in this age of Robert Moses revisionism, to be skeptical. In a panel on planning held 3/20/07 at the Museum of the City of New York, urban historian Robert Fishman recalled Rexford Tugwell, who posited a fourth governmental power beyond executive, legislative, and judicial: the “planning power.” Tugwell, who tussled with Moses and was replaced by him on the City Planning Commission, in 1960, Tugwell wrote an article called “The Moses Effect,” a not uncomplimentary acknowledgement of the importance of big plans.

Now, said Fishman, “the Moses Effect” has migrated to the private sector, which has the wherewithal to propose and implement big plans. The city needs such energy, Fishman said, “but how can this energy be contained in a unifying, cohesive, constructive, and truly general force?”

Rohit Aggarwala, the historian and former management consultant tapped to head the mayor’s new sustainability office, declared, “We want a more thoughtful, comprehensive and hopefully benign Moses effect.” To plan, he stressed, is not to site, but to think ahead. (More on Aggarwala from Streetsblog.)

“We don’t want a top-down master plan, but we can’t muddle through,” said Aggarwala, who said the city seeks a middle ground that’s not necessarily consensus-based but involves some input and consensus.

Community input

He got a sharp response from community planner Ron Shiffman, founder of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, who said, “I like to think of planning as the synthesis of reason and democracy.”

While historians and planners are good at examining past trends, local residents, Shiffman insisted, are the experts on their neighborhoods, the people who reclaimed housing during the 1970s and 1980s when the city was poised to withdraw services and banks refused loans.

(Indeed, just last week, the Municipal Art Society announced the annual Yolanda Garcia Community Planner award, sponsored by the Planning Center with funding from the Citigroup Foundation, honoring Elizabeth Yeampierre, the executive director of the oldest Latino community-based organization in Brooklyn—the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park, or UPROSE. Yeampierre is one of two community activists on the 18-member sustainability advisory board for PLANYC 2030.)

“There’s one thing missing in PLANYC,” Shiffman said. “You don’t talk about equity and about economic development.” The city needs to be conscious not just of office buildings but manufacturing jobs in new industries, including green ones, that immigrants will seek.

Aggarwala (right) said he generally agreed with Shiffman, but suggested the term “complementarity” rather than “dialectic” or “debate.”

The role of preservation

Urbanist Roberta Brandes Gratz brought up the example of Donovan Rypkema, who spoke at a recent Historic Districts Council conference, insisting that sustainability requires preservation. (Those comments, I noted last week, were pertinent to the debate about razing the Ward Bread Bakery.)

Aggarwala suggested that planners had taken that for granted, and thus not explicitly discussed it, given that some 85% of the buildings in 2030, in terms of square footage, should exist today. Buildings built before 1920 are inherently more energy efficient, he said, because they were built before energy was cheap, though they can be costly to retrofit.

Shiffman said that the Atlantic Yards plan generated a certain amount of skepticism about sustainability plans, given that recently renovated buildings are slated to be demolished, and the decisions on the project were shunted to the state. He’s also argued that the city needs the power of eminent domain, but that, if abused, as he contends it is in the Atlantic Yards and Columbia expansion plans, the backlash will be painful.

Criticism in the Voice

Wayne Barrett’s 3/20/07 Village Voice cover story, headlined All Wet: Bloomberg's man Dan Doctoroff has an answer for rising seas: more coastal condos! warned that the city was not addressing climate change and tied the challenge to the city’s pattern of growth:
There are many reasons why the city is adaptation-averse, and, of course, they start with real estate interests. If Doctoroff were to take adaptation seriously, he'd have to rethink his growth agenda, much of which is centered on the city's shoreline. His greatest development initiatives are coastal rezonings, from the West Side to Greenpoint/Williamsburg; at the same time that he can't get even "moderate" estimates of sea-level rise right, he's spurring development by the sea at an unprecedented pace.

Indeed, Barrett noted that insurance companies are raising rates or pulling out: The only private-sector advice this CEO-led administration appears to reject is the jittery modeling of the insurance industry.

What might be coming

In Matthew Schuerman’s 3/26/07 New York Observer article, headlined Mayor Has 1,000 Days To Go And Plenty To Do, raises the question of what the mayor can accomplish in the rest of his term and floats some possible tactics: congestion pricing, new upzoning, and an energy surcharge.

Some specifics:
The report, for example, is expected to call on city government to further reduce the pollution caused by its own fleet of vehicles by switching to cleaner fuels, according to members of an advisory panel, and to force power producers to retrofit their plants (a requirement that may or may not result in rate hikes).
Developers could be asked to set aside property to create small neighborhood parks in return for permission to build higher, not unlike the incentives for construction along the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfront. That step would help achieve the goal of making sure that every New Yorker lives within 10 minutes of a park. (We are already, it turns out, three-quarters of the way there.)

Congestion pricing?

Bloomberg has so far publicly opposed congestion pricing, deeming it a commuter tax, even though it’s been successfully adopted in cities like London and embraced by a range of business and environmental groups. Such a recommendation might emerge out of this plan—a reasonable cover for the mayor.

A meeting in Brooklyn

On 3/6/07, Aggarwala and staffers from the Office of Sustainability, along with representatives of numerous city agencies, held a Brooklyn Town Hall meeting in the Long Island University's Paramount Gymnasium. There were maybe 120 attendees in the cavernous auditorium, with at least 15 of them city officials.

When the city officials, sans microphones, introduced themselves, they couldn’t be heard. (Metaphor?) Assembled at tables, the attendees compiled lists of suggestions and reported to the larger group; both useful and obvious ideas emerged, but there was no process to rank them or assess the fiscal and political constraints.

We were given a sprightly booklet, featuring text in various fonts and colors, laying out the challenges and declaring “It’s up to you.” (Or, in Aggarwala's later explanation, "complementarity.")

Aggarwala read from a script with incomplete casualness, like a new political candidate still getting used to the hustings, less comfortable than at the museum panel of experts a few weeks later. Much of his spiel was in the booklet, for example pointing back to the creation of Central Park and the subways ahead of development

Echoes from a video

An accompanying video offered pronouncements from New Yorkers credentialed and not, about the need to build housing, improve infrastructure, and “green” the city.

For those attuned to the Atlantic Yards debate, unobjectionable general pronouncements offered a certain resonance. “Growth is great, but it has to be done right,” one interviewee declared. Another observed, “There’s no such thing as good housing without good parks.”

Previous suggestions

Aggarwala listed some suggestions that have emerged from prior meetings with Community Board and borough representatives, and others. Under OPENYC, they include:
--upzoning neighborhoods near transit hubs (note: the Atlantic Yards project would not be a rezoning, as the state would override city zoning)
--encourage “green roofs” as open space
--open school playgrounds year-round
--enforce traffic laws better.
--adopt congestion pricing (which also includes road pricing differentiated parking charges)

As for maintaining the city, the suggestions included:
--repair aging power plants
--create a fund for transit improvements
--educate people to reduce peak electricity demand and avoid blackouts
--finish Water Tunnel #3, which would allow the examination and repair of existing tunnels
--promote water conservation, as in the use of low-flow toilets

And for greening the city, the suggestions included:
--promote walking/biking/mass transit
--make the building code green
--retrofit existing buildings
--reduce sewer overflow by encouraging green roofs and permeable surfaces to absorb rainwater
--promote alternative fuel vehicles

(Both low-flow toilets and green roofs are planned for Atlantic Yards; the question is whether the enormous size of the development otherwise overwhelms our infrastructure.)

The audience speaks

Then came suggestions from the audience, reasonably diverse in race and age, and generally well-informed. (City Council Members David Yassky and Letitia James stopped by but didn’t stay. Writer, activist, and former Congressional candidate Kevin Powell presented his table’s list.)

Many were reprised from above, but among the suggestions:
--bus rapid transit
--using illegal housing coversions as a housing resource
--more staff for City Planning
--make the Office of Sustainability permanent
--parks on the roofs of one-story libraries (alternatively, it’s been suggested elsewhere that the libraries be replaced by larger mixed-use projects including a library)
--emphasize ferries
--charge more for streetside parking
--change zoning rules that require parking with new construction
--discincentives to drive to Downtown Brooklyn
--no free parking for city workers
--standardize the NYC building code (that’s coming_
--implement light rail
--make parks active use not passive use
--time lights to slow speeders
--residential parking permits
--penalties for taking away solar rights (an issue raised regarding Atlantic Yards)
--rethink the transportation of goods
--more meetings at the community level
--better recycling
--a bike and pedestrian path on the Verazzano Narrows Bridge

Not everything was unobjectionable. The suggestion of more one-way streets drew some boos from those already exercised by the controversial plan to turn Park Slope’s Seventh and Sixth avenues into one-way thoroughfares.

Bigger issues

Jim Vogel, secretary of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, raised the question of who the plan would serve, warning that it seemed to support wealthier New Yorkers. He pointed to the example of Brooklyn Bridge Park and wondered if it set a precedent for parks supported by commerce and a city withdrawal of full responsibility.

Aggarwala, who looked on a bit tensely as some representatives exceeded their mandate to address just three issues discussed at their table, said that the results would be synthesized on the web site, and then the office will report back on its recommendations, part of a “continued civic conversation.”

(At a 1/18/07 meeting with Brooklyn stakeholder groups, as reported by Nik Kovac in the Brooklyn Downtown Star, participants were presented with a letter to Bloomberg from more than 30 Brooklyn community groups, warning, "We want you to know that our organizations support well-planned growth in Brooklyn and all of New York City. But the city's traffic situation dictates that development...must be planned and implemented concurrently with significant transportation improvements.")

Cost and concerns

The hard questions, however, await. I caught up with Aggarwala afterward and asked how the city could pay for such changes.

For some issues, there’s a solution. Congestion pricing creates new revenues for public transit. Housing, he said, creates value, so “you can harness the value you create.” (Then again, cleaning up brownfields for housing is costly.) However, he acknowledged, “Do you really want parks to have to pay for themselves?”

On 2/6/07, Neil de Mause covered a meeting of architects and planners for Streetsblog, and found some other concerns emerged. New construction, a structural engineer said, has led to lowered building quality and a tension between union and non-union labor. And, as if presaging Barrett’s article in the Voice, they said there was little about climate change.

In a February article in Gotham Gazette headlined Plan NYC 2030, urban planning professor Tom Angotti questioned whether the population projection was correct, and suggested that the plan “continues, without further discussion, a city-wide land use policy that concentrates density around a small number of downtown centers instead of building centers for neighborhood living throughout the city.”

While Angotti acknowledged important community-driven issues have risen to the fore, including “the asthma epidemic, brownfields reclamation, power plant siting, and the lack of open space,” he pointed out that important community issues like “education, city services (especially sanitation), public health, noise, and neighborhood preservation” have been ignored.

Moreover, he observed that the plan seems to evade the City Charter's mandate about how such plans should be produced and vetted.

Stay tuned for Bloomberg's big announcement, coming sometime in April.