ew York is in trouble. It may not seem that way from newspaper headlines or with all the cranes in the sky all over town but, trust me, New York is in trouble. If, as they say, as New York goes, so goes other cities, others should take heed.
I started writing about this city and its rebirth in the late 60s and through the 1970s at the old, pre-Murdoch New York Post, when experts still thought the city was doomed. Then in several books I observed the same process of slow, citizen-based rebirth in other cities. Experts said the organic rebirth I was observing was too small, ad hoc, not significant. In New York and elsewhere, those experts didn’t know how to observe correctly how the process was actually unfolding on the ground in contrast to their theories, plans and statistics. Planners predicted New York’s population would not top 5 million and that the suburbs would keep luring away urban residents. Similar predictions were made in other cities.
Yet, people were starting to trickle back to New York or resist the suburban lure. In neighborhood by neighborhood, citizen activists took on the challenges in their own backyard. Community Development Corporations formed to revive abandoned buildings and create affordable housing. Historic preservationists staved off the bulldozers and then reclaimed the buildings now, so valuable, that developers want to build near them.
The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) predicted Armageddon if the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Ladies Mile on Sixth Avenue (now a major shopping street), the Meatpacking District on the lower West Side (explosively popular), SoHo (now the success every city tries to replicate) and many of the residential neighborhoods all over the city. Now REBNY members salivate to build and overwhelm some of those same neighborhoods with inappropriate development.
Commercial streets were cleaned up and small entrepreneurs stepped forward. Parks and vacant lots were cleaned out to become gathering spots. The city emerged slowly, organically, out of the deterioration that experts thought could only be addressed by demolition and new construction. Local efforts overcame city neglect. Planners, designers, developers, politicians, all the experts were wrong. The city revived. Small steps led to big change. And not because of policy makers at the top.
Why should anyone now trust those same experts and city leaders to fully grasp the trouble we’re in? At the top of the power pyramid, few doubt their own assessments; to them the city is at its most successful, but at the base of the pyramid, on the streets of our neighborhoods, citizens know better. They did then; they do now. Politicians turn a deaf ear at their peril.
You, New Yorkers for a Human Scale City, are the newest and most encouraging activist voice in a city where few of the longstanding voices either still exist or, in recent years, have had their activism muzzled. You are willing to say the emperor has no clothes, but you are also willing to work hard to provide the appropriate new garments.
Politicians and planners will resist. Calling people NIMBYS is the fallback position but that just exposes their own ignorance. In more than 40 years of writing about both community-based resistance to out-of-scale, out-of-character top down proposals, I have rarely found the community unwilling to accept change. It is never a resistance to change, just a resistance to the kind of change that threatens community survival. And, most often, that resistance is accompanied by reasonable, sometimes transformative, alternative initiatives.
So let me state as forcefully as I can: NIMBYISM is only in the mind of the challenged leaders and their developer partners. You are in a unique position to develop a clear, reasonable and realistic manifesto, a shopping list of alternatives to stem the bleeding of the city’s character, uniqueness and livability. You cannot only articulate the problems, present reality as it is experienced on the ground, but you can develop a set of alternatives to current city policies.
What would a reasonable set of alternatives look like?
FIRST: Call for an immediate moratorium on 90-story buildings. This is an idea universally desired. Not so many years ago, a dramatic “Shadow in the Park” demonstration led by the Municipal Art Society was staged with umbrellas. And that was when only one building threatened the park and the skyline. Outside of the developers who build them and the designers who design them, no one in this city wants more 90-story buildings. The City Planning Commission could do this now. Instead, the Mayor and the Chair are trying to get legislature in Albany to lift the city building height limits that one would hardly know even exist. The excuse, Chairman Weisbrod, was quoted as saying, is, “We [meaning the city] want to control the height, not Albany.” Well, folks, there is no reason to trust the city to control anything. The nightmare can only get worse. This is one case where one can hope Albany keeps the power over the city.
Be ready, in fact, to join the train to Albany being planned early in the next state legislative session to protest the proposed lifting of building height limits. I can’t tell you yet the details and who is planning this action but you’ll know in time. Consider it as important as the 1978 train trip to D.C. to hear arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court on the Grand Central landmark case.
SECOND: Demand that all future air rights transfers come with a height cap. That height cap should be contextual to the receiving transfer site. It is hard to know where the next expanded air rights proposal will appear and it may not be easily apparent at first. For example, a new decent design proposal has been floated to deal with the Madison Square Garden/Penn Station site. But no one points out that the Penn Station site is loaded with unused air rights that you just know will land all around that neighborhood. A 40 or 50 story height limit should be attached to any transfers.
Air rights transfers are already out of control. Transfers were once limited to adjacent or caddie-corner sites mostly from landmark properties. It was a very legitimate way to compensate landmark owners who gave up the ability to tear down their building and build new when designation was given. That’s why now the owners of Grand Central and the Biltmore Hotel are so outraged by all the easy giveaways of air rights in their backyard that would occur with the rezoning of midtown east. Their long held air rights are losing value. The planned transfer from the Hudson River Park Trust over the highway to the St. Johns Center development carries no height limit, at least not yet. Councilman Corey Johnson could make that happen. Tell him you want him to do so.
THIRD: Pull back the curtain on Community Amenity Packages. Reveal them to be the excessive giveaways to developers that they are. For example, the so-called public amenity for the S.L. Green Building next door to Grand Central, for which a generous bonus was given, is nothing more than a bonus to the building itself. An underground extension of the Grand Central concourse below grade to the Green building, which is what it is, is of benefit only to the Green building. This is the kind of unjustified bonus that could occur all over the Midtown East rezoning area.
FOURTH: No more privatization of public spaces for which a zoning bonus had been given long ago. You know this issue well since you already opposed it on Water Street. But this could happen elsewhere, if not stopped in principle.
FIFTH: Let’s bring some reality to the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Program. Communities should have been brought in, in a truly collaborative way, at the beginning of the planning process. If they had been, the Inwood plan might not have been defeated and communities all over the city would not now be scrambling to develop alternative plans.
Prohibit demolition of any existing building with 10 or more affordable units to make way for a new building with so-called “affordable” units, too expensive for the tenants displaced from the lost building. And, for those buildings that must be taken down, create a deconstruction policy that is environmentally responsible, creates more jobs and minimizes debris going to landfills.
Put stronger anti-harassment rules in place and increase even more than recently done the free legal representation available to victimized tenants. If harassment were not out of control, that legal assistance would not be necessary.
Offer tax breaks to current property owners who commit to restrict the rent increases in their buildings. Legalize conversion of single family homes into two family residences which is happening anyway, illegally and often dangerously. Imagine if the brownstones built for single families had not be allowed to be converted to multi-family and back again to single family.
Create other incentives for preserving existing affordable units instead of just to new building developers. We are losing more affordable units than we’re gaining. Level the playing field for preservation and new construction.
SIXTH: Stop giving tax incentives or any kind of public investment for more malls, even when they are disingenuously mislabeled “transit hubs.” The $4 billion Calatrava edifice is a three-story Westfield Mall with a train attached at each end. The Westfield Mall at the old World Trade Center was a real place where you could get your shoes fixed, have keys made, or buy a hot dog. This is hardly true here. It is a give-away of the most outrageous scale.
The city is being malled to death and streets are losing traditional businesses across the five boroughs. Westfield, Brookfield, Time Warner, Herald Square, Queens Center, malls are emerging everywhere. We need instead to start giving incentives to landlords who keep commercial rents reasonable and tax incentives to local businesses who don’t send their profits out of the city to a distant home office. No incentives of any kind should be given to “formula retail,” another term for chain stores.
The Planning Commission always finds a reason why they can’t do something; let them figure out how to be proactive in a good way. They say they don’t know if small business closings are a real problem or how much of a problem. They could know in a New York minute; just ask the neighborhoods. They could have a block by block survey. Or let them just walk the streets. You can’t miss the problem when you observe, observe, observe.
Finally, seventh and eighth are two big new ideas that would change the conversation from just adjusting existing policies to taking some real new and innovative steps forward.
SEVENTH: Enact a Demolition Tax for reasons of BOTH sustainability and preservation. It does not have to be onerous, but it might provoke needed thought about our excessively wasteful throwaway culture that sees too much of our built environment head to landfills at great cost to the environment. Beyond landmarks, this might encourage the practical reuse of undistinguished but viable buildings that can be recycled and added onto.
EIGHTH: Enact a modest transfer tax on the sale of any property over $3 million to create a pot of money to help non-profits (religious buildings and others) with their landmark buildings, instead of allowing enhanced development rights transfers that result in over-development. Massachusetts has had a similar and very successful program in place for years.
I am not the genius who thought up these last two but their merit is beyond question. In a city where our leaders and experts only know how to think in conventional real estate terms, it is time to think out of the box, be innovative and demonstrate that citizens like us can come up with solid ideas of things to make happen that bring positive change to our own backyard, if only we are given a genuine seat at the table of change.
Jane Jacobs famously said, trust the locals, they know what is happening in their neighborhood, they are filled with good ideas on how to improve their communities and their city for everyone. We prove her right all the time. Unfortunately our leaders are too threatened to recognize it.
This first appeared as a keynote address to the first full-day symposium of the civic group, New Yorkers for a Human Scale City. Featured image via volley studio.