But Jacobs above all urged people to see for themselves, and that was one underlying message of a panel discussion Wednesday, titled Housing New Yorkers in the 21st Century, sponsored by the Municipal Art Society and underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation as the First Annual Jane Jacobs Forum. Last year the two organizations collaborated on the Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York exhibition.
(I wrote yesterday about how a city official’s observations on the trade-offs between neighborhood character and density suggested a process much different from that which brought us Atlantic Yards.)
(Note the lengthy comments by Benjamin Hemric below.)
Moderator Vicki Been, director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, set out a bleak picture, citing the a “terrible crisis in getting land,” leading to increasing costs of land, plus skyrocketing construction costs and “a fair amount of community opposition to a variety of proposals.” Beyond that, even before recent credit crunch, various neighborhoods, especially poorer ones, have faced a decreasing availability of credit. Also, various neighborhoods face the ripple effects of the foreclosure crisis. (Here's testimony Been recently made before Congress.)
She noted that recent Furman Center research showed that, of 333 census tracts throughout the city, 220 saw more mortgage foreclosures than new mortgages being originated. Meanwhile, the amount of housing subsidies from the city, state, and federal governments has decreased. (“That is only going to get worse,” Been added, which implies that even a Democratic administration in Washington has other priorities.)
The demand to make homes more environmentally sustainable also raises costs, she said. Further complicating the picture, she concluded, “We’re seeing increasing frustration about the ability of communities to plan for what’s going on in their community.”
Providing affordable housing
Been began with a provocative question: why does New York City have to provide housing for all segments of our workforce, to all who want to live here? Why can’t people live in New Jersey and take the PATH train?
Jerilyn Perine, director, Citizens Housing and Planning Council and a former commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, acknowledged the contradictions in Jacobs’s vision. “Here’s somebody who sort of talks with great love of the diversity of the neighborhoods, yet really dislikes public housing,” she said.
Jacobs invented the idea of community participation but, in the book, supported Columbia’s plan to expand into Morningside Park without mentioning the local community’s criticism. And while Jacobs drew “such a fine grain description of her [Greenwich Village] neighborhood,” she “dismisses the Bronx.”
“So there’s this funny dichotomy, which particularly comes through with housing,” Perine said, noting that Jacobs didn’t look at the macro housing market. “In some ways that epitomizes the conflict we’ve always had,” she said, between planners who work in neighborhoods and people who look at larger trends.
Where to put subsidies?
These days, Perine said, there are plenty of places in New York that are affordable to someone, and it’s a question of where to direct subsidies. Even 20 years ago, she reminded the audience, Mayor Ed Koch used to say that everybody can’t live south of 96th Street.
These days, there are pressure “to put city dollars into places with very high underlying market values.” If Jane Jacobs were here today, Perine said she hoped Jacobs would push officials to clarify “what problem are we solving. Are we trying to make the West Village affordable for somebody who wants a $500 apartment, or are we starting to make Far Rockaway, East New York, Bushwick and Brownsville, and Morrisania places to grow the middle-class? I’d hope it would be that.”
The AY example
Perhaps half of the 450 lowest-income apartments at Atlantic Yards, those aimed to households of one, two, or three people, would rent for around $500. There would be 2250 subsidized units.
City Council Member Bill de Blasio, in an interview last year, acknowledged that, from a purely economic standpoint, affordable housing should be concentrated in neighborhoods where it costs less to build, but argued that there are social costs to forcing the working class farther out, as in Paris.
(He also, oddly enough, claimed that the Community Benefits Agreement would guarantee the affordable housing in the absence of scarce subsidies, not noticing that the housing depends on such subsidies.)
HPD Deputy Commissioner for Development Holly Leicht said New York has to be maintain diversity, and pointed out that the city must support not only low-income housing but also housing for those of middle and moderate incomes.
(Such “workforce housing” actually would be a majority of the planned Atlantic Yards subsidized housing; the irony is that most members of the low-income group ACORN, which “negotiated” the AY affordable housing agreement, wouldn’t qualify for those units, as those seeking housing discovered at a July 2006 AY affordable housing information session.)
Leicht said Perine brought up a “complicated question” raising “hard trade-offs,” noting that HPD has walked a fine line on it.
Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) in Brooklyn, suggested that New York City’s growth depends on immigrant groups, who help fuel “our competitive edge... It’s very clear from a public policy standpoint that you have to have the housing that fuels that diversity.” Still, she acknowledged that it was valid to raise questions “about where you’re going invest those limited public resources.”
No one other than Perine took a clear stand. Later, even Perine hedged a bit, acknowledging that inclusionary housing does create some low-income housing in more expensive areas. Still she pointed to “a whole swath of Central Brooklyn... that really needs a tremendous amount of assistance and investment.”
“So. do you do that one unit in a high-market area or do you do the ten units in the lower-income communities that sort of have endemic housing issues?” she asked rhetorically. “I don’t think there’s a perfect answer.” Such trade-offs are ones that policymakers must “wrestle with every day.”
Unmentioned during the panel discussion is that there’s a lot of de facto affordable housing in less-affordable neighborhoods, thanks to 20somethings putting up room dividers in already small apartments and the creation of rooming houses by immigrants sleeping in shifts. The latter, at least, violates the housing code, raising questions of whether it should be modernized or better enforced.
(A reader reminds me that there's a lot of rent-regulated affordable housing in less-affordable neighborhoods.)
Been noted that the city could add housing supply, and affordable housing, by becoming more dense. She noted another potential contradiction with Jacobs, who detailed the fine-grained nature of her neighborhood while also supporting significant density. (Jacobs, it should be mentioned, supported density via a variety of building types, not projects, as was the dominent policy of the time.)
Leicht allowed that “it’s a complicated question,” noting that, in its rezonings, the Department of City Planning (DCP) has generally tried to upzone wide avenues in areas where there’s transit access, and to downzone smaller blocks. Also, DCP has offered a bonus by adding density for affordable housing. (Note that DCP did so for part of Fourth Avenue in Park Slope, but missed the boat in the first phase of the Fourth Avenue rezoning.)
While there has been some success, Leicht acknowledged that large parts of Queens and Staten Island have argued against density. (At a panel discussion last month, both Steven Spinola of the Real Estate Board of New York and community planning advocate Tom Angotti criticized downzonings in Queens neighborhoods with good transit access.)
Leicht went on to discuss how a more transparent process has emerged in which the public gets a sense of the trade-off between affordability and density--a process, I pointed out yesterday, absent from the Atlantic Yards plan.
Later, de la Uz brought up Atlantic Yards as an example of going too far, but exaggerated the numbers: “If it’s built the way it was approved, we’re going to end up with 16 60-story buildings, making it the most dense census tract by two in North America. There’s a point at which things get ridiculous in the conversation.”
While the Atlantic Yards density may be “ridiculous,” the buildings would range from about 20 stories to about 50 stories.
An architect’s take
Architect Mark Ginsberg of Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, offered two more factors to consider. Since 1960, the average dwelling size in this country has doubled in size, though the increase is not as dramatic in New York. Also, the size of average household is much smaller. Given those factors, a typical building houses fewer people, thus adding pressure on density.
While the city’s 1916 zoning rezoning resolution was designed for a buildout of 40 million people, clearly overambitious, the 1961 zoning resolution would only accommodate 12 million people, he said. Even that latter number must be lowered, he said, because of the combination of downzonings and neighborhoods not fully built out. Given that the city could now accommodate perhaps 10 million people, that adds pressure for density, he said. “We’re going to have to look at upzonings, hopefully in ways that don’t destroy a community.”
(Note that the Empire State Development Corporation declared underutilization--less than 60% allowable development rights--a factor in blight, which would condemn large swaths of Brooklyn.)
What about New Jersey?
Been, who noted that President-elect Barack Obama “has shown some inclination to think about cities as metro areas.,” asked what was so sacrosanct about the city’s boundaries. After all, there’s capacity for housing in northern New Jersey cities served by public transportation.
Forward-thinking transportation planners in the New York metro area see an eventual amalgamation of the PATH and New York City Transit systems, leading to a one-fare ride to cities in northern New Jersey, but that’s hardly far off.
Ginsberg said he had no problem with people looking at the region, but that might mean, as with commercial office space, population growth might occur more across the river.
How much community input?
Perine said Jacobs raised core arguments about the role of planning versus community input. “Planning is really about one thing, it’s about the future,” she said. While the community planning advocacy perspective “is important and valuable and should be listened to,” she warned, “There are very few communities that come to City Planning and say, ‘Y’know we’d really like you to figure out how you make more room for the Ecuadorians who are coming, or the South Asian immigrants we believe will be coming in the next five years.’” The audience chuckled at the recognition.
“No one says that,” she continued. “The planners really have to be thinking about the future, so community planning becomes about the future... not about sort of pandering to the idea of communities as little museums, to be preserved in the image of people who are there today, or, even worse, have some sort of nostalgic blowback version of their community that, y'know, I don’t think any community can stand up to... Does that mean we should build 80-story buildings on Barrow Street? no, but there’s something in between.”
Angotti and others would point out that, in the Melrose Commons redevelopment in the Bronx, local residents actually requested increased density.
Perine acknowledged that everybody would like their neighborhood to be contextual, but downzonings that eliminate elevator buildings also eliminate housing accessible to the elderly or the handicapped.
The role of design
Been asked design can be used to make affordable housing more acceptable to the neighbors. Ginsberg noted that there are different ways to get the same density.
de la uz noted that, during controversy over a building the FAC plans for supportive housing, neighbors raised many questions about the people the building would serve, but no one raised concerns about the design. “It was wonderful to take that off the table,” she said.
Leicht said the design of affordable housing has come a long way. She noted that a design competition, cosponsored with AIA, for an HPD site in the South Bronx led to a winning design that was arguably “a little bit less sexy” than the second-place entrant. But “the reality is, that [winner] is going to be built, it’s an incredibly sustainable building.”
Been asked how to improve community participation, whether the land use review process needs to be rethought or whether it’s more a matter of tweaking around the edges, as in Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s efforts to professionalize community boards.
de la Uz noted that the Fifth Avenue Committee doesn’t “get a shovel into the ground until we’ve had community advisory meetings and ... charrettes.”
Perine reminded the audience of Jacobs’s key criticism, that planners at that time “didn’t actually look at what was really happening at communities.” Rather than slavishly follow Jacobs’s vision of 1961 New York, “first and foremost, she’s saying, ‘Go and look for yourself.’” (That was the key message of the Jacobs exhibition last year at the Municipal Art Society.)
Current discussion, she warned “are far too Manhattan-centric, too dominated by a white intellectual conversations.” People must pay attention to “the two most dramatic changes”: the influx of immigrants and “the rapid change of household composition.”
de la Uz pointed out that “the City Planning Commission has basically become a zoning commission, not a full planning commission,” but noted that CPC has learned some lessons, and “now there’s much more advance conversation going on.”
That led up to Leicht’s comments, which I wrote about yesterday, about how “ULURP is awfully late to start a conversation about a large project.”
Been asked panelists about their wish list; what public investments might foster affordable housing. Perine returned to the regional issue. “I would swap Staten Island for Paterson and Newark and Jersey City,” she said, to laughs from the crowd. “I suggested the swap thing to Mayor Bloomberg once when I was housing commissioner, and he said, ‘That’s good, never say that again.’ But I’m not in the administration.”
She also argued for extending the Number 7 train, both westward, as already planned to support the Hudson Yards development, “but also bring a transport system to Eastern Queens. To be honest, I think if you just did that, a lot of things would take care of themselves.”
Leicht pointed to the need to increase the sewer capacity. “We just did a huge rezoning in Jamaica,” she said. “There’s tons of potential in Jamaica for density and growth, but the sewer system is outrageously outdated... If we’re going to be doing a lot rezonings and density, we can’t do it til the infrastructure is in place.”
Peine pointed out that the cities in northern New Jersey already have such infrastructure.
Ginsberg suggested a revision in city regulation, so, for example, somewhat more costly green roofs are counted in lowering a building’s impact on the sewer system.
de la Uz added that brownfields could support increased development, as is happening at the Public Place site on the Gowanus Canal. “There’s this notion that there’s no more land,” she said. “There are thousands of brownfield sites that go undeveloped because of complexity of redevelopment process.” (Part of the Atlantic Yards site is a brownfield, and state subsidies are expected.)
She also suggested efforts to improve public transportation, such as the expansion of Bus Rapid transit suggested by the Communities United for Transportation Equity (COMMUTE) coalition. Increased support for transportation, she noted, could have come out of congestion pricing.
Indeed, left on the table as the conversation ran down was how to pay for housing and other improvements. Surely congestion pricing will return in some form.
Which would be better policy, direct investments in housing or efforts to upgrade transportation in areas, such as Third Avenue in the Bronx or 21st Street in Astoria/LIC, where there’s ample opportunity for development, as planner Alexander Garvin has pointed out? Wouldn’t the latter bring more bang for the buck?
In informal conversations after the panel, the answer I got back was that it’s complicated, and that both were necessary. Housing subsidies, I was told, bring more immediate impact. Still, we should remember that lotteries for government affordable housing bring some winners but also frustrate a lot of people, so there must be efforts to increase the supply.
Perine at one point noted that, while planners should be careful not to inhibit change too much, Jacobs was writing when widespread demolition for urban renewal was common.
“It was a much more, let’s say, gruesome reality that she was reacting to,” she said. “We haven’t seen that kind of wholesale urban renewal condemnation and widespread clearance for some time."