Skip to main content

Featured Post

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

So, does increasing transit capacity foster gentrification?

Looming behind the 2003 Atlantic Yards proposal--and ever more present as the project has moved fitfully forward--is the question of gentrification: would the project further it, or help fight it? The answer, so far, is more of the former, though if built as proposed--with faster and more affordable below-market housing--that might be less pronounced.

(To clarify, I'm referring to residential gentrification in the overall study area within a 3/4-mile radius, not the blocks immediately near the project, some of which have stagnant retail.)

But it can't be teased out from everything else going on, notably the huge influx of market-rate units in Downtown Brooklyn, thanks to a rezoning, ostensibly to enable office space, that instead ushered in luxury towers. (The affordable units are significantly in a segment near the Brooklyn Academy of Music where city-owned sites lowered land costs and allowed the city to mandate some below-market units.)

So that leads to another question: do transit improvements cause gentrification, or mitigate it, raised in a 7/10/16 post by Second Avenue Sagas blogger and transit expert Benjamin Kabak, titled Some thoughts on gentrification and transit improvements.

He wrote in response to the proposed BQX streetcar, at that point stretching from Sunset Park (now Red Hook) to Astoria. He wrote:
This issue has arisen in the so-called visioning sessions New York City has held on the mayor’s Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar proposal. During multiple sessions, attendees have expressed concerns that the streetcar will speed up gentrification and displace long-time residents. Thus, the plan, these opponents say, should be discarded in the name of affordability.
Both Gothamist and amNY have explored these arguments, and for the sake of fairness, I have to note that those at these sessions have raised more compelling arguments against the streetcar, including the lack of subway connections, its location in a flood-prone area, and the overall concern with the viability of the route. It may not do what a transit line should do — that is, connect people with where they are with where they want to go — and concerns that the streetcar is a giveaway for developers and waterfront tourists rings true.
Indeed, one of the forces behind this particular project is Two Trees, developer of the Domino Sugar project in Williamsburg, which is at the waterfront and far from the subway. (Now the BQX would start in Red Hook, not Sunset Park.)

Accessibility adds to rent?

Kabak, though, wanted to critique the notion that areas are "home to lower income residents because they are inaccessible," and that increase in accessibility leads to increased demand and thus rent. He suggests that the BQX plan would have to come with anti-displacement policies.

That's a key part of the package. See these comments from Council Member Brad Lander on  the importance of tenant protection and social housing, along with increased residential capacity.

Residential capacity is surely part of it. As Stephen Smith (aka Market Urbanism) commented on Kabak's post:
In an ideal situation, transit would come with more development, which would ease pressure on the existing housing stock. That’s what happened in a way with the Dual Contracts expansion, where supply in the outer boroughs drove down the price of housing in Lower Manhattan, allowing people there to consume more of it in the form of less crowded apartments.
Unfortunately, BQX doesn’t really add to the city’s transit capacity, and the administration is not planning to upzone any land anyway.
Actually, the BQX route, whether it be a streetcar or increased bus service, should lead, at least in Astoria along wide 21st Street, as planner Alex Garvin has long suggested. Whether a streetcar that's not part of the MTA system, thus disallowing transfers, would be the solution is a whole 'nother question.

Increasing transit capacity

Kabak criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio's affordable housing plan for lacking a transit component:
The mayor can talk about prettying up some subway stations in East New York, but that doesn’t do a thing to decrease travel times and increase mobility. (Whether the BQX itself does that is up for debate, but on a general level, that’s what transit improvements should do.)
Atlantic Yards doesn't/didn't have a transit component beyond adding new exit/entrance capacity at the Barclays Center plaza, though the new railyard should ultimately help Long Island Rail Road service, which is not yet helpful to intra-city commuters.

Rather, it was conceived--as with the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning--to take advantage of proximity to existing capacity.

But increased transit capacity--including such things as an express F train--could increase mobility. Last December, I wrote for The Bridge How Fixing an Overstressed Region Could Change Brooklyn, summarizing and prognosticating about proposals from the Regional Plan Association, including:
  • extending the 4 and the 2/5 subway lines (unlikely)
  • extending the 1 line from South Ferry under the East River to Red Hook (ditto)
  • a Triboro rail line, extending from the Bronx to Bay Ridge, (more plausible, given the existing, underused freight right-of-way,)
  • converting bus lines to Select Bus Service (SBS), New York’s version of Bus Rapid Transit (doable) 
  • adding eight new streetcar routes (more expensive)
New capacity could usher in more balanced development, including market-rate and affordable housing, and lower the pressure on existing supply near transit, which is why neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Flatbush have been gentrifying. 

Variations of such discussions have been ongoing. In November 2008, I reported on a panel that included former city housing commissioner Jerilyn Perine, who argued for extending the Number 7 train, both westward, as already planned to support the Hudson Yards development, which would "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.”

Perine's also suggested that integrating a regional transit system to include Newark and Jersey City--not that the PATH system was built to be compatible--would take significant pressure off the five boroughs.

The point is: if you can fit more people onto the subways, you can accommodate more people, and that should lower costs, at least--and that's a big if--if that begins to get ahead of the current demand.