It’s Alex Garvin’s Town; You’ll Never Live In It

Alex Garvin has been Dan Doctoroff’s favorite urban planner for about seven years now, ever since the deputy mayor came across Mr. Garvin’s book, The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t, in a Barnes & Noble.

His brand of urbanism with a free-market conscience appealed to Mr. Doctoroff, who was then just another investment manager with an Olympic dream. The two got together and worked out a way to bring the games to New York.

First it was NYC2012. Now it’s NYC2025.

With the Olympic bid by the wayside, Mr. Garvin has been working on a report on housing and infrastructure investments for the Strategic Land Use Plan, a nearly covert effort by the Bloomberg administration on what should be done to accommodate the nine million New Yorkers of the future (up from 8.1 million today). It is believed to be just one of a handful of reports that various consultants are preparing for the strategic plan, and was secret until Aug. 16, when Aaron Naparstek, a writer, posted it on StreetsBlog, a transportation Web site. Mr. Naparstek, whose own book, Honku: The Zen Antidote to Road Rage, may at one time or another may also have been found in Barnes & Noble, said that he had obtained the finished report in June from “a City Hall insider.”

Some of the ideas included in the report were mentioned in an Aug. 21 Observer article on the strategic plan, but the 87-page document delves into copious detail. The introduction cites “opportunities to build between 160,000 and 325,000 housing units, with virtually no residential displacement, and to dramatically improve city’s public realm through strategic capital investment.” Chief among them is a platform over Sunnyside Yards, the 166-acre commuter and passenger train yard in Queens, which would, when built out over three phases, provide space for up to 35,300 apartments. A more controversial idea that The Observer said is under consideration–congestion pricing, or charging cars for entering lower Manhattan and midtown weekdays–is not mentioned in the report.

“If housing production does not accelerate to match the growing population, housing prices will climb still higher,” the report states. “Such an expensive housing market will make it difficult for New York to attract the world’s top companies and employees, to retain an economically and culturally diverse population, and to continue expanding opportunities for every New Yorker.”

Of course, Mr. Garvin could have put his pen down right there. How much of an overpopulation problem would we have if no one wanted to live here?

But it becomes clear that Mr. Garvin wants the city to grow: increasing housing, he writes, “absorbs the city’s growth,” while improving the “public realm … helps ensure that growth occurs in the first place.”

And so, while the first part of the report is about creating housing, the report is illustrated with charming photos of tree-lined streets in Paris, bicycle lanes in Vienna and trolleys in Minneapolis, giving the impression that Mr. Garvin actually believes that just a little more urban planning will make New York City a civilized place to live!

“Alex is one of the pros in the business, and he’s raised a lot of interesting ideas about development potential,” said Robert Yaro, the president of the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit planning group. “It’s particularly useful if it’s going to be a catalyst for public discussion, and I think that’s the key, that it needs to be seen as a beginning for dialog.”

It is unclear just what Mayor Bloomberg thinks of the report and how much of it will end up in his final plan, but outside consultants typically submit numerous drafts, get feedback, and shape their final versions to make them more or less acceptable to their clients. Mr. Garvin, a Yale professor as well as head of his own planning firm in New York, referred questions about the report to the Mayor’s office, which refused to comment. Mr. Doctoroff, reached separately, said he was tied up in meetings, but previously he has promised that the public would have a chance to provide input during the creation of the plan.

The idea of building platforms is nothing new for New York: Park Avenue was created over the New York Central rails; the Bloomberg administration is trying to build a deck on the West Side; and developer Bruce Ratner is proposing to cover Long Island Rail Road tracks in Brooklyn. Developers have likewise eyed the Sunnyside Yards for a long time, but no one has jumped.

“We’ve been looking at these sorts of opportunities, but as a private developer, it is very hard to figure out how to get involved,” said Jon McMillan, the planning director for Rockrose Development Corp., which is developing part of Queens West nearby. “There are several layers of ownership: the city, the M.T.A., and there’s even a private owner that has an option on part of it. Opportunities like this really have to be competitively bid.”

The trick to making it work economically is to figure out how many apartments developers are allowed to build on top of the platform in order to pay for the cost of the platform. At some point, Mr. McMillan said, “you turn the dial” and find the density that is at once acceptable to the community and also profitable for developers.

“If it’s not there already, it is almost there,” he said.

Another experienced developer in the outer boroughs, though, doubted it could be done without government subsidizing the cost of the platform.

“The concept is an excellent concept, the concept of building housing wherever it may be built,” he told The Observer. “The problem is that the infrastructure costs of a site like that are so enormous.”

Mr. Garvin estimates that maybe R8 zoning (roughly eight- to 10-story buildings, depending on its footprint) and definitely R9 zoning (roughly 12- to 18-story buildings) would be sufficient to make the platform worthwhile, but he does not spell out the specifics.

“Sunnyside Yards probably has more potential than any area in New York,” said Councilman Eric Gioia, who represents the area. “Platforming would give us an opportunity to build schools, homes that the middle class can afford, and create a vibrant new neighborhood.”

The idea of building over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Cobble Hill appears to be more controversial, however. The local congresswoman, Representative Nydia Velázquez, recently secured more than $300,000 to study how to cover the expressway, which runs in a ditch along the neighborhood’s western edge. But community members are leaning in favor of cantilevering a broad sidewalk over either side of the ditch, narrowing the gap but leaving a slit through which car exhaust could escape.

“I don’t understand how putting housing over the highway will still let the highway breathe,” said Murray Adams, president of the Cobble Hill Association. “What that does is put all of the burden on either end of the platform instead of dissipating fumes throughout.”

Mr. Garvin’s ideas may run into other difficulties as well: He recommends rezoning 21 blocks of Sunset Park for housing while the Bloomberg administration set them aside earlier this year as part of an “Industrial Business Zone,” a designation meant to keep manufacturing companies from getting pushed out of New York City because of rising real-estate prices. “For housing to be built in these areas, the city must make a policy decision–as recommended by this report–that each site holds greater benefit to the city as a residential or mixed-use community than under its current uses,” the Garvin report states.

Other ideas are innocuous by comparison, and Mr. Garvin argues that they are relatively cheap. Planting trees along streets, for example, can be accomplished for the bargain-basement price of $650,000 a mile. (Keeping them alive is another issue.)

Mr. Garvin also suggests closing more major streets on Sundays as now is the practice in Central and Prospect Parks, and “pedestrian reclamations,” which means getting rid of parked cars along one side of the street, and broadening the sidewalk to create a sort of mall, with trees and benches along the side. In general, cars, especially parked cars, do not come off very well.