Almost indisputably, the mayoral race this year was a desert of big new ideas for New York City. Be it the lack of a competitive Democratic primary, the billions in budget gaps or the challenger’s preference for blanket criticism over policy prescription, the incumbent and-at the time of this writing-presumptive winner, Michael Bloomberg, was never forced to offer much in the way of innovative policy.
This was particularly true in the realm of the physical city: land use, planning, housing, development. An Oct. 26 speech by Mr. Bloomberg on New York in 2013 focused on implementing his existing initiatives-admittedly no small task. His prepared remarks used the words “continue” or “continuing” nine times. The past two elections, after all, gave rise or significant momentum to such concepts as the High Line and the mayor’s plan for 165,000 units of subsidized housing, among other ideas.
Whether the mayor is completely out of ideas, holding back a long list of new innovations for the post-election period or, more likely, somewhere in between, The Observer queried various planners, advocates and economic development professionals on what City Hall could do in the next four years. The responses reveal no dearth of ideas-from cheap to expensive-should the Bloomberg administration opt to freshen its agenda.
What follows is a rather random list, without any specific order, value judgment or weight on feasibility.
Filling Vacant Land
One first stop could be a study that the administration itself commissioned in its second term that outlined a long list of large undeveloped sites that could be the launching pads for future growth. The 2006 study, by planner Alex Garvin, suggested ideas like decking a platform over the Sunnyside rail yards or the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Cobble Hill, and developing along the Bronx and Harlem River waterfronts.
Similarly, financial crisis or not, some urge the widespread private development of the often-underused vacant land in the city’s Housing Authority projects.
“With existing zoning, you could build on some of those vast empty spaces,” said Hope Cohen, associate director at the Regional Plan Association’s Center for Urban Innovation.
The existing plans for the 172-acre Governors Island-build a $250 million park, thereby attracting development-glaringly reflect the era when they were conceived: when “billions,” “budget” and “surplus” were said in the same breath. A new plan could be needed, and ideas such as removing a restriction on housing development or moving CUNY to the island have been bounced around.
Or perhaps something more radical: Multiple planners suggested moving the United Nations there.
Much of the work that’s come out of the Department of City Planning in the past six years has been a set of rezonings that allow office and apartment towers to sprout in formerly industrial areas (e.g., Williamsburg, the far West Side, Willets Point in Queens).
While many of the obvious candidates have been tackled already, there are a few neighborhoods or sites that are often pointed to as possible next steps. Seward Park, the set of empty Lower East Side lots, slated for major residential development for decades, has been held up repeatedly over political concerns. Hudson Square, the former printing-industry-heavy neighborhood north of Tribeca, was previously floated as a candidate for a big rezoning by Trinity Real Estate, which dominates the area. And there’s the district south of the World Trade Center, Greenwich Street South, which has long been pushed as an area that could blossom with a set of new parks and development should someone just put a deck over the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel entrance ramp (the Downtown Alliance this fall has a campaign urging this).
The average annual tax for the buyer of a $750,000 Manhattan condo: $5,975. For a $750,000 co-op, it’s $4,453. And for a small home of the same value: $3,301.
Various groups, including from inside the real estate industry, have long pushed for a bit of an injection of rationality into the tax structure-which would require going to Albany to get approval, though some changes could be made locally. When these critics have whined to the Bloomberg administration, officials have generally nodded in agreement, but done little to act.
If last year can be seen as a template, tenants and a number of Democratic legislators will make a concerted push to change state rent-regulation laws, attempting to further restrict landlords from converting rent-stabilized apartments to far more lucrative market-rate units. With the debate confined to Albany, the Bloomberg administration steered clear and said almost nothing on the issue. The city bit its tongue intentionally, a city official suggested, and plans to be ready to take a stance this spring.
“There was a reluctance to raise it before the election in a vague way and have it come off as pandering,” the official said. “In actuality, it’s something we’re having substantive policy discussions about.”
Of course, the existing laws are hardly a bright emblem of rationality-they allow a billionaire to be rent-stabilized, for instance, but only until his or her rent reaches $2,000 a month-and there have been many calls for a complete overhaul to the system.
City-owned land has been given away to develop tens of thousands of units of below-market-rate housing under Mayor Bloomberg. But come 20 or 30 years down the line, those affordability requirements generally expire, leaving the city with less land on which to build, and less affordable housing.
Housing advocacy groups-the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development and many others-have long been pushing permanent affordability in these programs, and there was a hope that the issue would gather steam this mayor’s race.
(Though the mayor did revise his housing plan, scaling back new construction and emphasizing ways to protect properties headed for default and poor management, courtesy of the financial crisis.)
With the financial sector looking more feeble than once thought, many a planner has recently called for City Hall to light a fire in the institutional sector, growing hospitals and colleges around the five boroughs.
“Institutions will be a major source of growth in the coming years,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of the real estate development program at Columbia University and a former City Planning official. “We should do whatever we can to support the expansion of our medical, cultural and educational institutions.”
Governors Island, anyone?
West Side, Revisited
The Bloomberg administration spent much of its first four years planning a new future for the far West Side, envisioning a plethora of office and apartment towers. The development isn’t going anywhere until the economy recovers, particularly over the 26-acre rail yards, which would need two platforms, costing more than $900 million, just to be able to start building. There has long been a suggestion that the government build the platforms, then parcel out the development à la Battery Park City. (The Related Companies is the rail yards’ conditionally designated developer.)
“If you look at Battery Park City, the landfill was done,” said Barry Gosin, CEO of real estate brokerage Newmark Knight Frank, “Then, over time, it was developed.”
“Nobody’s going to build all at once anyway,” he said of the rail yards, espousing a government-funded platform.
Then there’s the Javits Center, currently undergoing a $460 million renovation. Dropped, at least for now, is talk of what to do long term with the convention center, which is far smaller than the event halls in other major American cities.
Among others, Mr. Chakrabarti, who once worked to expand Javits in its current space, said it should be relocated, using the value of its waterfront land to finance a move.
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