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The Fungibility of Air | The Nation

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The Fungibility of Air

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Equitable Building, Manhattan

Equitable Building, Manhattan

Surely, the most durable contribution made to planning during the Bloomberg years has been a massive rezoning of the city, over 124 separate actions affecting nearly 40 percent of New York’s total area. The rezoning—which has included both up- and downzoning—has, in theory, been guided by the sensible belief that density is managed in relationship to accessibility and that growth should be concentrated around existing subway stops and neighborhood centers. Critics of the policy have focused on its disproportionate effects. Downzoning, or creating lower-density areas, has occurred in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods—thus supporting property values for the better-off—whereas upzoning, or creating higher-density areas, has mostly occurred in poor neighborhoods of color and at former industrial sites like the East River waterfronts in Brooklyn and Queens. There, the city’s promotion of a continuous edge of luxury high-rise construction will have a deleterious effect on the working-class and manufacturing neighborhoods that lie behind it, not simply threatening gentrification but walling off those neighborhoods from the river’s amenity. The problem was foreseen by Jane Jacobs, who wrote a cautionary letter to the mayor shortly before she died in 2006, urging him to desist from rezoning Greenpoint—an “ugly and intractable mistake.”

The Furman Center at New York University has done what seems to be the only substantial research on the net potential effects of the rezoning. In several reports, it suggests that the final result is a substantial gain in the city’s buildable volume, which, of course, was the primary motivation of the policy—part of the administration’s efforts to reconfigure the city to house the additional million inhabitants it believes will arrive over the next decades. And by relying on FAR to increase the total volume of real property in the city, the Bloomberg administration has supported the industry with which it has the coziest ties and to which it owes the most fealty. There is also a trend among certain academics and public planning intellectuals—Edward Glaeser of Harvard being the most prominent—to theorize density as planning’s most important principle. The new school of close-packing argues, not without reason, that density induces sociability; that dense cities are more fundamentally sustainable; that by making room for more residents, density increases tax revenue, allowing an increase in municipal services; and that the suburban alternative which has been our national model since World War II needs to be revamped.

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Let us stipulate that all of this is so. The problem with the close-packers is that they tend to treat the idea of density as an absolute, leaving unexamined not so much what justifies density but what should limit it. At the end of the day, density’s rationale must be something other than the idea of maximizing economic returns for those in a position to benefit from such development. It is true that certain values—historic patterns, landmarks, social ties and other conditions that fall under the rubric of “context”—also form part of the equation, but I wonder if there are not more fundamental standards that might be invoked for establishing the value of urban air. To begin, the importance of sunlight and clean air in the prevention of asthma, depression and other health problems remains salient. With this in mind, what might be the effects of tying buildable area absolutely to housing reform, the availability of open and green space, and a more capacious interpretation of zoning? What if there was a formula by which the area of parkland were to become the gold standard for the production of bulk? At the moment, there is a multiplier of very roughly four or five in the relationship of habitable floor area to park acreage. New York remains one of the best-served cities in the nation for park space (and Michael Bloomberg deserves kudos for his efforts as mayor to expand and enhance the parks), but no policy exists for linking built density with the corollary necessity for relief, save in the zoning legislation designed to guarantee that sunlight finds the street. By tying new density to new open space and by including a calculus of proximity, a more cogent vision of good city form might arise.

An abominable vision of the current system gone wild is “Billionaire’s Row,” a phalanx that includes Empire State–sized hyper-luxury high-rises going up on 57th Street. On winter days, some of these buildings will cast shadows a mile long onto Central Park, a pall created by limited environmental controls on the effects of air-rights transfer, which mainly take the form of district preservation or contextual zoning that specifically limits building heights. The same conundrum is at the heart of the legislation just signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo for the transfer of air rights from Hudson River Park (technically, from the developable pier space within it) across the West Side Highway, where they will be sold to permit the construction of high-rise waterfront towers. The revenue would finance the completion and maintenance of the park, much as has been done with the High Line. 

While there is nothing theoretically wrong with collecting public revenues from private uses—this is how the whole system works, after all—there are problems with the limits of the transfer and with the way it reinforces social stratification. The daisy chain of public amenity adding value to private holdings is simply too specific and too unregulated by any theory of the value underwriting the trade-off. The legislation dumps a strict regulatory regime for a bonus system and sidelines a progressive definition and enforcement of a set of public goods and rights for a system of exchange in which one public good is swapped for another. Certain benefits (affordable housing) are implicitly rated greater than others (access to light and air). But exactly whose ranking is this?

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The only real baseline for it is profit. Creating FAR is the urban equivalent of printing money, and the Department of Planning (which wags refer to as the “zoning store”) functions as the Federal Reserve, manipulating supply. But these decisions risk being haphazard and opportunistic if they are not founded on a broad, firm set of formal principles and ambitions that arise from community needs, vivid imagination, a keen sense of what constitutes a good city, and an abiding struggle for real equity. The formal medium by which these conflicts should be resolved, and a comprehensive vision of public interest in the city advanced, is a plan. As the urban planning professor and activist Tom Angotti has noted, New York City’s planning department has never actually produced a plan (the last effort, in 1969, was never adopted), engaging instead in a particularly narrow, highly quantitative version of planning—one that wields the power to zone as its principal instrument and considers an increase in both the amount and ease of development as its main motives. 

The city’s PlaNYC2030, for all its excellent suggestions, was produced in 2007 with only minor input from the planning department and has never been vetted or approved according to the process set out in the City Charter, giving it shaky legal standing. It was prepared by the Economic Development Corporation (which Angotti describes as “the mayor’s proxy in negotiating deals with developers”) and based largely on the work of the management consultants McKinsey and Company. It is thus not the city’s plan but Mayor Bloomberg’s, and he’s about to leave office. De Blasio’s positions on many major planning issues remain unclear. In the past, he has supported controversial projects, including the Atlantic Yards and the Greenpoint-Williamsburg redevelopment. But those who voted for him were surely moved by his commitment to use the powers of his new office to dramatically narrow the city’s obscene income gap, and to reinforce the operation of governance as a means to promote social justice rather than the trickle-down ethos of the Bloomberg era, so decisively rejected by voters. De Blasio has the opportunity to institutionalize the best elements of PlaNYC 2030 and bring it into the community-empowering framework embodied in the 1989 charter revision. Planning must replace zoning, and community voices must speak louder than those of autocrats and plutocrats. The great motto of the Hanseatic League was Stadtluft macht frei: “City air makes you free.” It’s time to free our air.

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