Location: With the Richard Ravitch report scheduled to come out Dec. 5 and the financial state of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, there’s been some buzz about congestion pricing being put back on the table. Do you think there’s potential for that, and do you think that would be a good thing?
Mr. Aggarwala: I can’t second-guess what the Ravitch report will include, I’m optimistic it’ll be good for the city, and, at the end of the day, any thoughtful proposal that fully funds the M.T.A.’s capital needs is good for the city.
But do you think that peoples’ perspectives around congestion pricing have changed since it went down in the spring?
You know, the bottom line is that the problems that congestion pricing sought to address have not gone away. In fact, they’ve gotten worse. Over the summer, people were talking about ‘Oh, we don’t need congestion pricing, the traffic has gone down because oil prices have gone up,’ which I think is short-sighted because the $600 million per year we were going to raise for the M.T.A. just went to OPEC. But now that oil prices are going down, you see the first sign that truck sales are picking up again, and people are going to be driving more, and so our traffic will get worse again; and you know as well as I do that the M.T.A. is in an even more troubled condition than it was six or 12 or 18 months ago, when we first came out with the idea.
Whatever solution they come up with for the M.T.A., at the moment they’re looking at reducing capacity, rather than growing it, which is sort of an integral part of PlaNYC’s transit component. Has that made you think differently about how this all can happen?
To a certain degree traffic and ridership always decline during a recession because fewer people are going to work and people tend to shop less. What the current crisis, I think, really highlights is that the way we fund the M.T.A. both on the capital and the operating side needs to be rethought, because the M.T.A.’s operating budget is also so correlated to the kinds of tax revenues that come in from cyclical revenue streams.
If you think about it, the M.T.A. gets the mortgage transfer tax, which goes up when the real estate market is hot, goes down when the real estate market is cold. It gets part of the sales tax, which means as retail sales have declined, the M.T.A.’s revenues decline. This is not a rational way to think about funding a system that is really part of our basic infrastructure.
How else has the economic crisis affected the initiatives that you’re working on?
With the stretch-out of the capital budget, some of our projects, some of the parks projects in particular, really have been put into some of the further-out years. We’ve protected, thus far, some of the investments in city buildings, because they pay for themselves, so it would be short-sighted to say we’re going to cut that, and wind up paying more in the next couple of years in terms of energy. We are currently maintaining the schedule for the million trees, just because we just think that’s so important, it’s such a marquee thing, and in part because some of it comes from private donations, so we have a little bit of flexibility there.
Are there still things about this process that feel elitist to stakeholders who have to be a part of it? Is it tough to persuade people that you’re not just building LEED homes for rich people?
A couple of thoughts. The facts show that it’s not just about making luxury condos green. You do want luxury condos to be green, but, for example, we just had the first rehab of an affordable housing project, the one in the Bronx [1347 Bristow Street]. We have focused the tree plantings in the Trees for Public Health neighborhoods, where we … prioritize the neighborhoods with the highest childhood asthma hospitalization rates as the places that are going to get trees first. And inevitably, those are the neighborhoods that are less wealthy. If you think about something like power plants, if you make the power production cleaner, that will have a disproportionately beneficial impact on the neighborhoods that have environmental justice issues.
Is it possible to have a grass-roots movement of 8.25 million individuals all signing on to something? Of course not. We try to involve groups as much as we can. There are always going to be people who believe we’re not doing enough.
I think it’s more a concern about priorities—like ‘How can you be spending money on this, when people still can’t afford to eat?’
Oh, well, at the end of the day, sustainability is not a veneer. It is, in fact, the solution. And so if you think about the things over the long term that can help people get jobs, help people save money, lower the cost of living here, it is about more efficient energy consumption. If we can make our power plants cleaner and more efficient, they will be cheaper to operate, and the price of electricity will be lower. If we can make our cars more efficient, then New York City’s total spending on gas will go down. And the $13 billion worth of time that New Yorkers waste in traffic. Think about the economic drag of that.
We were talking about developers earlier. What kind of impact did they have on the evolution of PlaNYC?
First of all, we’ve got the Real Estate Board, and Dan Tishman of Tishman Construction, and Bob Fox, the architect of the Bank of America tower, all on our sustainability advisory council. So they were all, on the real estate side, integrally involved in the development of the plan. The plan actually started out as a real estate plan. I mentioned this realization that New York City had grown, even when the first Bloomberg administration had really been focused on stabilizing the city after 9/11 and making sure that we didn’t have a decline in the quality of life, that we didn’t go bankrupt again. With the midpoint census numbers that came out in late 2005, the mayor basically turned to Dan Doctoroff and said, ‘Holy cow, we’ve grown in spite of the last few years. What does that mean for the trajectory of population?’ It was a result of that that City Planning did its projections seeing the city reaching 9.1 million people—we’re going to have a million more people, where are they gonna live? Efficiency is the answer.
I think [developers] helped us think through the areas where green design really can be cost-effective. They helped us think through what kinds of trade-offs we’d really have to make. For example, there are things you can just require that cost money; there are processes that you can impose and the process costs money. Delays in a construction project literally cost money. So I think we took a much more sophisticated view of how to do green building goals and how to do energy efficiency because of their input. One example of that, I think, is that other cities have tried to do green building simply by requiring all privately owned buildings to be LEED. Now, that is one way to do it; it is not necessarily the best way to do it. And even the U.S. Green Building Council doesn’t necessarily think it’s the best way to do it.
So one of the things in the plan is a thorough review of all the building-related codes in the city to identify what are areas where either we can clear away obstacles to green design or we can impose cost-effective, hard-headed, doable requirements that improve energy efficiency. And I think this is a much more sophisticated approach, and I think we took that approach because we learned from a variety of perspectives within the development community what it means to do LEED and where it helps and what its shortcomings are.
So, about that third Bloomberg term. Has that changed your thinking about how PlaNYC continues?
The answer is yes and no. No, in the sense that we have been working to get done as much as we can. That doesn’t change. We have been working to put in place the practices and the tools that will make it easier for subsequent administrations to do sustainability planning, so things like the set of sustainability indicators that we are working on that we hope to have up and running in the next few months. That’s critical. That we want to do whether it’s a third Bloomberg administration or some other mayor in 2010 or 2014. So it doesn’t really change what we do on a regular basis. It does get us thinking if the mayor does win a reelection campaign, if he does ask us to stay around, then the idea of writing the next generation of the plan is kind of exciting.