Another City

Another City

A cruel economics of forced mobility is the new planning mantra of New York City.


A few months ago, I was part of a neighborhood committee that paid a visit to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to argue for the expansion of the TriBeCa Historic Districts. To some, given the neighborhood’s rampant fabulousness and its irreversible ascent into post-hipsterdom, this might seem like a vanity project of the one percent. Our argument, though, was not simply about the physical qualities of the place. The piece of the neighborhood we sought to have added to the district is home to a considerable number of rent-regulated apartments, and we think that its inclusion would have the effect of preserving the long-term housing prospects of these neighbors. The commission should find a way to protect a historic social ecology that has symbiotically taken root in the neighborhood.

Our argument went nowhere because the commission’s focus is on architecture, not people. We knew that the case for integrating historic and community preservation would not be entirely clear, but so what: We wanted to emphasize that certain principles about housing should be sacrosanct. The most fundamental ones are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: protection against “arbitrary interference with…privacy, family, [and] home,” and “freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.” The declaration also stipulates an “adequate” standard of living, including housing and social services, participation in commun­ity cultural life, and a raft of other opportunities at the vital core of liberal democracy.

While Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “progressive agenda” includes nothing that will displeasure the near left, it is strangely mute on a key component of his municipal ambitions: housing and the right to it. Getting more money into the hands of exploited workers and a little less into those of the plutocracy would redistribute wealth. Unarticulated in de Blasio’s 14 faultless points, however, is any idea about the redistribution of space, the primary raw material of wealth in the city. The mayor has come in for heavy criticism of a housing policy that not only relies primarily on subsidies to developers to induce trickle-down but also is likely to increase the physical gap between rich and poor. This worsening of the geography of privilege is evident not simply in the spiraling prices in Williamsburg or TriBeCa but in a policy that focuses on poor neighborhoods as the most logical locales for new housing for the poor. A case in point is the administration’s choice of East New York as one of three pilot sites for its policy. The neighborhood is already rife with speculation in anticipation of the city’s intervention, and the risk is that rising land prices will inexorably define affordability upward—and out of reach of many of the people already living there.

Like his predecessors, de Blasio is caught in a dilemma about what it means to plan the city. His proposal, “Housing New York,” has the revelatory subtitle “Zoning for Quality and Affordability.” The replacement of planning by zoning is characteristic of the negotiation between public and private interests that’s the stuff of any urban-development policy. While there’s general agreement that all cities must have some structures of constraint, drawing the line between the perks of property and propriety is never easy. In New York, this operates in both the realm of ownership (public, private, collective, institutional) and the “right” to transform property in terms of its use, size, performance, and appearance. The basis for both the operation and the progress of our system is that each of these constraints is subject to change—through negotiation, technological and social evolution, corruption, and reconceptualization. Paradigms shift and accidents will happen: One idea of the city succeeds another.

* * *

We are in the midst of such a shift, and it’s visible all over town. The city is cluttered with construction projects, most of which rise dramatically above the default textures in which they are supposed to fit. Downtown, apartment buildings rising in SoHo are double and triple the height of their neighbors. “Hudson Square” is on building-growth hormones, including many additions on top of existing structures. Below Canal Street, a clutch of super-tall towers dominates the skyline. TriBeCa is going fast. According to research by my redoubtable neighbor and chair of the Tribeca Trust, Lynn Ellsworth, 11 neighborhood buildings have been demolished in the past year, and at least 19 could become targets of the wrecking ball. These include the six along West Broadway just purchased by Cape Advisors for $50 million (at an astounding $1,000 per square foot), which Crain’s speculates will require apartments selling at a minimum of $3,000 per foot (do the math!) to turn a profit. Ellsworth—the organizer of our trip to Landmarks—estimates that the loss of all these buildings will eliminate about 120 rent-stabilized apartments and at least 40 small businesses. Not gonna be any poor doors here!

While few tears need be shed for those lucky enough to freehold in this great spot, TriBeCa’s transformation could become far more general, both socially and architecturally. The place is a lab, because it’s full of primitive accumulators for whom a “good neighborhood” is understood primarily as one in which property values increase as quickly as possible, and “architecture” is seen as a price multiplier. This is the classic gentrification formula: The residual value of a neighborhood’s historic “character” sanctions successor forms, creating, in the case of TriBeCa, the spreading rash of monstrosities that loom over its low-rise fabric and arrogate its prestige. We’re the happy rats who can’t resist going back to the cocaine dispenser, and, because the price gyre is so fundamentally what the neighborhood has become, the war between the fiscal and physical is thrown into vivid relief.

What’s happening in TriBeCa is not simply a further “tipping” of the neighborhood. It represents a very particular—but strategically unspoken—assumption of the mayor’s planners: The city works best by forced mobility, and is best understood as a map of the circulation of capital, with the human consequences—including attachments to place—reduced to “externalities.” One can scarcely pick up a copy of The New York Times without reading about the latest hot neighborhood transformed by its differential affordability: Families priced out of Boerum Hill hightail it to more affordable locales like Jackson Heights. Assimilated to the B-school romance of “disruption”—celebrated as the central practice of canny CEOs—this destabilized state is not simply typical of New York City but of the country as a whole, as Americans face concerns about housing and job security, and are frequently forced to relocate over their working lives.

The cruel economics of mobility also have an enervated aesthetic side. The city has too long been celebrated for the creativity of its destruction, the dynamism of its demolitions and replacements, the jackhammers gouging the streets and the cranes and towers scraping the sky. That is surely part of our self-image and not without its thrills, but its false first principle is that disruption is an absolute. Such a too-licentious willingness to tear things down complements another assumption of current planning: that density, too, is an absolute. This particular idea—which is surely channeled, in part, by Carl Weisbrod, the director of the Department of City Planning—has become neoliberal writ and is bolstered by a cadre of academics, including the enabling enthusiasts for “hyper-urban development” at Columbia University’s Center for Urban Real Estate, which has advocated, without apparent irony, filling in New York Harbor to annex Governors Island as a massive development zone. The numbers are impressive, but the premise is nuts. More recent studies of where to locate housing units are, like those of the DCP, diagrammatic to a fault, tiny massing models devoid of any nonquantifiable considerations of character. Whatever the question, density is always the answer.

* * *

Housing affordability is at a crisis stage, a symptom of a more endemic inequality that de Blasio’s progressive agenda and impulses seek to redress. The vital questions now are whether the inherited strategy of using subsidies to cajole philanthropy from developers will continue to work; whether the existing stock of affordable housing can be protected; whether a widespread policy of uneven development can be managed; whether planning coordination of new housing with necessary transport, educational, cultural, recreational, and environmental improvements can be achieved; and whether the form of this new approach will be equitable and urbane.

This will be tested all over the city, and there are reasons for both skepticism and hope. Skepticism because of what seems like a doubling down on former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s development deals and rampant rezoning. The element of the de Blasio protocols that’s receiving the most pushback from mainstream preservation organizations and progressive public officials is a zoning amendment that will allow up to a 31 percent increase in height in so-called contextual districts. According to the official definition, “contextual zoning regulates the height and bulk of new buildings, their setback from the street line, and their width along the street frontage, to produce buildings that are consistent with existing neighborhood character.” The consensus among the opposition is that this densification will be a double negative: The increased size of new buildings will disrupt a neighborhood’s formal character, and enormous pressure will be placed on existing buildings when incentives are offered to their owners and developers to tear them down and replace them with bigger, more expensive structures—producing, in the end, a context of no more context.

The reason for hope is that the mayor is supporting some very good, indeed progressive, policies: renewal of the rent laws, permanent housing for the homeless, and additional protections for tenants facing harassment and eviction. More, he has just announced a comprehensive initiative to bring public housing—a huge store of affordable housing that the city directly controls—back from the brink. Nothing could be more urgent, given the widespread deterioration, mediocre design, poor community integration, and unfortunate location of a large number of projects in flood zones (damage from Hurricane Sandy was severe). But here, too, the proposal is not yet more than a numbers game, with virtually no attention paid to questions of place and character.

The plan begins with a variety of administrative streamlinings (and an effort to collect rents from the approximately one-quarter of tenants who are in varying degrees of arrears), and only time will tell if these tactics will realize their projected fiscal turnaround. But its central proposition is to utilize “vacant” land within the projects for new construction, applying the general densification policy to new terrain. That such land exists is due to the architectural approach behind the projects—­the high modernist vision of “towers in the park,” which in the case of the New York City Housing Authority includes not simply copious landscaped areas but a large number of surface parking places (the reduction of parking requirements is one of the sensible aspects of the administration’s general housing policy). Because of this, many NYCHA projects are built to densities that are less than the underlying zoning allows, leaving what is technically a buildable surplus—free air. Any addition, though, will both change context and add to the pressures for new services and infrastructure. De Blasio’s proposal is, at the “structural” level, the same as what Bloomberg bruited about: turning over this “excess” land and space to private developers.

Whatever the developers’ plans, they will certainly transform the character of the projects. Opinion about these places has shifted somewhat in recent years. A reflexive, Jane Jacobs–like animus to their sterility has been overtaken by a more nuanced appreciation of their bowered, campuslike interruption of the street grid’s dense regularity. This bucolic view is not without limits: The projects direly need an admixture of nonresidential uses, serious attention to their public open spaces, and a redesign of their inhospitable and grim lower floors. And, their uniformity, utilitarian detailing, cheap finishes, and uninspired architecture desperately want reinvention. This problem is not exclusive to New York, and cities around the world must consider the patterns that will both renew and succeed the millions of units built according to this model. A number of hopeful prototypes for recuperating these places (as opposed to demolishing them and leaving their tenants with vouchers or just the finger) are beginning to emerge.

Because any general case against densification remains contested, the question devolves on how to do it and for whom. I have a fairly reflexive animosity to the handover of public property (and rights) to narrowly private interests. These deals are only viable when developers feel they have more to gain than they must give back, and so each of these exchanges is, by definition, a bad deal for the public. But, given the deficit in public revenue—­those housing projects were built with federal money that has long since slowed to a trickle—the municipality is forced into bed with the only people with cash. If one accepts this premise, as de Blasio has, then the overriding issue is the resulting mix of tolerance and the proportionality of the trade-off.

For a straight housing deal during the Bloomberg years, the price point was 20 percent affordable units for the strictly voluntary bulk bonus. De Blasio is looking to increase the price to 30 percent and make it mandatory (although there’s no move to implement this so far). And he’s looking to do better still with the projects. Here, the proposal is for a two-tiered system, including one in which NYCHA land would be leased (in a number of as-yet-to-be-specified complexes) to developers who would be obliged to provide 50 percent affordability, and another in which land at three complexes (two in Brooklyn, one in the Bronx) would be leased to developers for $200 million in a 10-year deal, for which they would build 10,000 “low-rent” units.

Many details bedevil this arrangement. What will attract developers to accept a cross-subsidy from market-rate housing in neighborhoods in which there’s no market for it? What will happen to the 10,000 units after 10 years? How can the administration lock in affordability after its term expires? And, to get back to the place where I began, how will the design of all this construction and amendment help secure not simply the fiscal health of NYCHA but environmental excellence and healthier, more livable, and complete neighborhoods. The just-released report contains only the vaguest, most notional images of transformation and none that even begin to suggest how the huge quantities of new housing will be placed in the chosen sites.

The fiscal tail is wagging the design dog, and this is what unites the transformation of the projects with that of TriBeCa. Just as the blight of luxury towers rising around Central Park or Grand Central is really no more than the decorative extrusion of the underlying lots, the pure monetization of space, the city risks treating place as a matter of speculation rather than care, finesse, and the medium of true distributive equity. Besides, it isn’t clear whether the massive displacements, demolitions, and reengineering of our class and spatial structure will result in any increase in affordable housing: We’ve been losing it at a rate that far exceeds even the rosiest predictions for its replacement.

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