For the past year or so, Mayor Bloomberg’s top brains have been working, sometimes fitfully, always secretly, on a massive, bold plan to reshape the city.
As large as “several volumes,” according to one policy maven, the document will take on big ideas like taxing cars that drive into central Manhattan, building housing on top of highways and developing a new office to retool New York Harbor’s industrial perimeter into tourist- and developer-friendly waterfront property.
“We are creating a plan for the next 25 years,” Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff told The Observer.
Mayor Bloomberg’s effort echoes previous attempts to systematically reshape the city. In 1811, Gouverneur Morris developed the grid system of Manhattan streets that paved the way for the massive development of Manhattan north of Houston Street. Within 60 years, the population of Manhattan had increased almost tenfold.
The 1929 Regional Plan laid out many of the highways and parks we have today.
According to demographers, the city is headed for another epochal change, when the population hits nine million in about 20 years. For some time now, the city has been designed for something more like seven million.
“The point,” Mr. Doctoroff said, “is not just to manage the growth, but to create a greater city, a more livable city, a more sustainable city.”
Mayor Bloomberg announced the plan during his State of the City address this winter, describing it as a “sweeping interagency, five-borough Strategic Land Use Plan, focusing particularly on housing, transportation, energy and infrastructure” that would come out in April. In May, with still no plan in sight, he told the League of Conservation Voters that “encouraging sustainability is at the heart of the work.”
But the document is already four months overdue, and now has no deadline, delayed both by the complexity of the task and by the changing personnel in the upper echelons of the Mayor’s office, according to individuals close to the process. And when it is completed, it will likely be up to a new administration to determine whether the plan becomes one of Mr. Bloomberg’s most significant legacies, or just a dusty old PDF file that dies when the Mayor leaves office three and a half years from now.
“It’s certainly very complex,” Mr. Doctoroff said. “I can’t give you a timeline. It’s certainly turned out to be more ambitious than expected.”
Mr. Doctoroff wouldn’t say anything about what was in the report.
“Obviously, there are going to be lots of ideas out there and we will get plenty of input from the public before anything is decided,” he told The Observer.
But Paul White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a transit-advocacy group, told The Observer what he knew from conversations with the Mayor’s aides about the plan.
Traffic, he said, is a major concern of the plan, and the administration is expected to introduce the idea of congestion pricing, a controversial strategy employed in London that charges cars to travel into the center of town.
“They are curious about how to make it work politically,” Mr. White said. “I think from a rational public-policy point of view, the Mayor’s people are very much on board with this, but, particularly with congestion pricing, the politics are very complicated because you need support from the Brooklyn and Queens City Council delegations.”
In New York, congestion pricing would likely mean charges levied via E-ZPasses or license-plate scanning, if not outright tolls, on the East River bridges, at least during daylight hours. Cars would not be able to travel south of some point—perhaps 60th Street—without paying. Residents of midtown and lower Manhattan would either be exempt from the charges or get a discount. Every street, in other words, would become a turnpike.
Mr. White said that the Mayor would most likely include congestion pricing as “one of several areas that are worth exploring further” in the strategic report. The issue has floated in the Mayor’s peripheral vision since the start of his term, when he included hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues from congestion pricing in his 2002 budget proposal. But transportation advocates complain that Mr. Bloomberg has never done the political groundwork to build support—especially in the outer boroughs—for what many suspect must be his innermost desire.
Business groups are particularly keen to get the pro-business Mayor to take a stand against traffic and are watching for his lead. The Partnership for New York City, a policy-setting group of the city’s top corporate executives, has been working on a congestion-pricing study for more than a year but has yet to release it. (The man who brought the idea to Britain, Robert Kiley, a former M.T.A. chairman, was president of the Partnership before becoming head of Transport for London.)
In June, Kathy Wylde, the president and chief executive of the Partnership, wrote an op-ed in The New York Sun that shied away from a direct endorsement of the idea, but came very close, saying, “Cities around the world are finding the political will to do something about [traffic congestion], and New York will likely have to do the same if we are to maintain our competitive advantage.”
Mr. Bloomberg has already taken steps to bring the Department of Transportation in line with Mr. Doctoroff’s plan. In January the Mayor transferred the D.O.T. into Mr. Doctoroff’s portfolio, and the department later created a new office of strategic planning, which is now hiring several staffers.
The Mayor’s team is reportedly also looking at ways of cutting down on travel time to airports, as well as finding more space for housing. One way of increasing prime real estate would be to build a platform over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Carroll Gardens, where it now lies in a ditch. The move would bring the Carroll Gardens waterfront, presently isolated from the rest of the neighborhood, within the burgeoning and rapidly gentrifying reach of neighboring areas.
Similar platforms will be considered for the M.T.A. rail yard in Sunnyside, Queens. That site has been under consideration for numerous housing plans over the years but none of them were judged very feasible.
“If you are going to be aiming at nine million people in the city of New York, we are going to have to be creative,” said Steve Spinola, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York. “It’s very expensive to build affordable housing, and when you throw in the cost of the platform it will get even more so.”
The Economic Development Corporation is also seeking a “harbor district director” to coordinate different waterfront entities such as Battery Park City, Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Statue of Liberty, which would continue Mr. Doctoroff’s policy of eliminating Brooklyn’s cargo operations in favor of tourism jobs and prime real-estate development. The individual would lead “in the planning of complementary facilities, coordinating transportation and ensuring that the District plays a strategic role in New York City’s growth,” according to the help-wanted ad posted on the agency’s Web site in July.
The team that is working on the Mayor’s strategic plan keeps changing, according to sources. Mr. Doctoroff’s chief of staff, Joshua Sirefman, was in charge until he moved over to the city’s Economic Development Corporation this summer. A senior advisor, Joe Chan, had also supervised the work but is supposed to take charge of a nonprofit organization that will guide downtown Brooklyn’s development. The team also includes Rohit Aggarwala, the director of long-term strategic planning in the Mayor’s Office of Operations, a former McKinsey consultant and Columbia University professor who has studied New York’s historical growth.
The silence and lack of specifics have some City Hall watchers skeptical that the plan will ever get done, and if it does, that it will ever lead to action.
“There’s one problem with it and that is it is nonbinding,” a former administration official said. “It’s all fine and good to come up with these plans, but what’s there to say that the next Mayor will take any of these steps?”
On the other hand, some plans do end up surviving elections. Much of the recent rezoning of the Brooklyn waterfront and Manhattan’s West Side came not from Mr. Bloomberg’s brain but from studies done under the Koch and Dinkins administrations. The strategic plan is likely to be broader than those efforts, including discussions of anticipated problems and recommended solutions. Many of them would need further approval and input from the City Council, the State Legislature and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
“We certainly hope to do those things that we ultimately conclude ought to be pursued and to set the city on a course for the next 25 years,” Mr. Doctoroff said. “My guess is that it will be very different from what people have seen before. There will be very significant issues raised as well as having great opportunities. And consistent with the Mayor’s approach all along, we are looking to find practical solutions.”
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