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PlaNYC gets praise from planners, but momentum must be sustained

While an April 14 panel consisting of community representatives and planners offered mild praise for and much skepticism toward Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 sustainability initiative, an April 23 discussion, sponsored by the NY Metro Chapter of the American Planning Association, was far more positive, though participants suggested several areas for improvement.

NY Metro Chapter President Ethel Sheffer called it “this terrific initiative” and, indeed, there was generally positive reaction. The city released a PlaNYC progress report the day before. The press release stated 117 of 127 initiatives (93%) are in progress, and about 70 percent of PlaNYC initiatives can be accomplished by the mayoral administration, while the request require cooperation from other levels of government.

“From turning our yellow and black cabs to green, beginning to plan the 8 regional parks that were never finished from the Robert Moses era, and planting more than 50,000 trees as part of our MillionTreesNYC effort, New York City is making big strides in becoming one of the greenest cities in the World," Bloomberg said in the press release.

Other highlights include:
  • a new landscaping requirement for commercial parking lots
  • 60 miles of bicycle lanes and roughly 800 new bicycle parking rack
  • an Executive Order codifying the Bloomberg Administration’s goal to reduce its energy consumption by 30 percent by 2017
  • an RFP for the installation of 2 megawatts of solar capacity on City-owned buildings
  • the incorporation of green building concepts, such as reflective roofs, into the new Construction Code.

Some critique

In a report issued last week, Building a Greener Future: A Progress Report on New York City’s Sustainability Initiatives, the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund praised the mayor but suggested that, “despite the significant progress made in the last year, much still needs to be done.”

It offered six priorities:
  • Approve legislation that codifies the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability in the city’s Administrative Code.
  • Work with the City Council to amend the City Charter to require the City to spend an amount equal to 10 percent of its energy expenses in energy-saving measures.
  • Create an office to assist building owners in converting to green technologies.
  • Include a measurement of every agency’s energy consumption and savings in the Mayor’s Management Report.
  • Fully staff the proposed Office of Environmental Remediation and create a unified planning infrastructure to guide the development of new open space projects.
  • Create a variable-price parking program that would increase the price for street parking in the Manhattan Central Business District during peak hours, begin a comprehensive study of the parking requirements in the Zoning Resolution and increase city funding for the MTA.
At the panel

At the panel, describing the city’s progress, Ariella Maron, Deputy Director, Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability, NYC Mayor's Office of Operations, was particularly enthusiastic about several measures, including rules that all new taxis be hybrid by 2012. “It’s looked in law, it’s happening, it’s fantastic.” Also, she said, “it’s amazing” how city agencies have embraced various initiatives.

While community representatives expressed unease at the earlier panel about the longevity of some initiatives, Maron said, “We’re working very hard to codify as much as possible,” including a bill that puts sustainable planning into law.

Beyond the specific governmental initiatives, Maron noted, individual New Yorkers can take several steps themselves, summarized on the GreeNYC page, including shifting to online bills, shopping with cloth bags rather than plastic, and unplugging electrical outlets.

Housing issues

Despite Bloomberg’s efforts, the housing shortage is going to increase, warned Jerilyn Perine, Executive Director, Citizens Housing and Planning Council. She described how city investment in the 1980s and 1990s “helped build a marketplace” and attract private capital, but most new construction was unaffordable to the average New Yorker. Less than 25% of available apartments are affordable to New Yorkers at the median income

More singles live in New York, and more life with fellow adults, thus leading to the now-typical post-college mutliple-roommate situation, where clusters of unrelated people, each with their own income, compete with nuclear families for larger apartments.

While 8% of households were doubled up with families or friends in 1996, the number grew to 10% by 2005. Worse, more than 29% of households paid 50% or more of their income in rent in 2005.

Perine suggested that one solution might be to rethink density, not in terms of the size of buildings--which is what generates neighborhood opposition--but the interior design.

“We live at a palatial standard” indoors compared to most of the world, she said. While that may not be true for those packed into studios in Manhattan, she noted that zoning requirements even for supportive housing--where single adults could live in one room--require 600 square feet for apartment.

While inclusionary zoning can deliver more housing, she said, it’s unrealistic to think the city of New York can provide enough units on its own; the federal government needs to help.

Praise and caution

Veteran community planner Ron Shiffman, founder of what is now the Pratt Center for Community Development, He agreed with Perine: “We desperately need to get the federal government back in the business of building housing.”

Shiffman said he applauded the city and mayor for the plan, a “very bold vision... that needs a great deal of support.” That was the context, he said, with which his criticisms should be seen.

He said the city had to “build the base within communities” to support the plan. He said the plan didn’t engage equity and social justice, such as access to affordable housing and transportation. (His comments about housing could be seen as supportive of but ultimately critical of projects like Atlantic Yards.)

He said the city needs to be part of the “second industrial revolution,” producing green products within its borders.

Mobilizing the public

Marcia Bystryn, Executive Director of the NY League of Conservation Voters, saluted Bloomberg for “the precision and rigor with which he has proceeded.” While others have expressed dismay that the sustainability plan was linked to economic development, warning of the city’s sympathy to developers, Bystryn suggested that it rather recognized the centrality of the issue.

"It’s critical” to mobilize the public so sustainability is part of the agenda for the 2009 mayoral election, she said. Even without congestion pricing, she said the city could do certain things on its own, such as revising parking policy (an issue I’ll look at separately).

Where’s the money?

Without funds from congestion pricing and federal aid, there’s a significant lack of funds for infrastructure; Bystryn cited a “chasm” between available funding and the MTA’s capital plan.

Shiffman suggested a solution for the city’s loss in revenues: reinstituting the stock transfer tax, which New York City adopted in 1966 but phased out in 1978. Here’s an IBO report that offers several cautions, at least regarding the version as proposed in 2003. Here’s a more recent article making the case.