From his corner office on the 35th floor of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building downtown, Adolfo Carrion could once survey much of his domain. The regional administrator for HUD Region 2, Mr. Carrion was responsible for the federal government’s housing and urban development projects in New York and New Jersey. Stretching out before the floor-to-ceiling windows is lower Manhattan. Brooklyn and Queens are off to the left. Staten Island and the Statue of Liberty peek out from behind the towers of downtown. Out across the harbor to the right is Jersey City and, off in the distance, Newark. Glory and destitution in one vista.
Peering down, it is easy to see a century’s worth of transformational urban development. The redbrick monoliths of the New York Housing Authority, the brainchild of Robert Moses and the WPA, abound. Idyllic towers propagated by LaGuardia, Rockefeller, Lindsay and a thousand other urban dreamers, these are the projects that deteriorated into The Projects. Ringing the Battery and over the bridges to Long Island are the FDR, the West Side Highway, the BQE and the rest of Moses’s great interstate network. After four decades, Battery Park City is nearly complete, built on the landfill dredged up by the World Trade Center. More than $20 billion in Liberty bonds is at work rebuilding the Trade Center and other pieces of lower Manhattan, ravaged on 9/11.
Yet for all this work, it is hard to recognize a marquee project, a bright shining beacon of the Obama administration on the scale of those that came before.
Squinting, it is possible to see from Mr. Carrion’s office the aluminum siding wrapping the Brooklyn Bridge. It is being rebuilt for $508 million, $30 million of which came from the president’s stimulus fund. The government is not building a new bridge or new apartment complex, and it is only building a new office tower because the one that came before was destroyed. In so far as something new has been accomplished, it is in the philosophical and cerebral fashion that has been both a blessing and curse to this president.
“This is about thinking about the way we want Americans to live, in this country and as a global player,” Mr. Carrion said. “This is about building a foundation for the future of the country and about rebuilding the economy.”
When Barack Obama took office, he created the first-ever White House Office of Urban Affairs, and he tapped Mr. Carrion to be his city’s czar. This was seen as the first great signal that things would be different, that the promises made by Candidate Obama, of “putting the UD back in HUD,” would be fulfilled.
“It’s symbolic, the White House Office of Urban Affairs,” said Ed Blakely, the former dean of the New School’s urban policy department and New Orleans’s “recovery czar.” He currently directs the United State Studies Center at the University of Sydney in Australia. “It’s very important because it showed the president’s commitment to cities, though a lot of work remains to be done.”
But the office fell by the wayside amid the mounting recession, competition from the cabinet agencies and ambivalence within the administration. When Mr. Carrion left for his provincial position at HUD in May 2010, it all but vanished, with staff falling from six to two. The White House switchboard cannot find it sometimes.
Despite the apparent sputtering of the office, Mr. Carrion holds up programs like Sustainable Communities, which brings together HUD, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department to Transportation to promote regional planning by “breaking down silos” between the agencies and offering millions of dollars in grants. “It’s hard to put your hand on it, because obviously, I would love to say, ‘That’s the bridge that I like that we built,’ but there will be lots of them, as there will be houses, transportation nodes, schools near the housing, mixed-use developments and open space,” Mr. Carrion said. “So I think the proudest, as a policy geek, the proudest thing I can point to is sort of pouring the foundation for the future.”
Mr. Carrion points to a project in Harlem, to build a new school through the PROMISE Communities program, as one of these silo-busting, foundation-building initiatives. The U.S. Department of Education provided $60 million through a charter matching program for a new school, with Goldman Sachs pitching in $20 million, Google $6 million and $5 million in construction costs donated by the general contractor. HUD’s big role was remapping West 129th Street, which was removed when the housing complex the school is in was built in the middle of the last decade. “The approach now is, how do we partner with you to leverage your investments in that city to integrate the public housing into the fabric of the neighborhood?” Mr. Carrion said. “It’s a complete different partnership than before.”
Even the administration’s staunchest supporters struggle to find much to brag about. “He started a new political conversation on the importance of American cities,” Ester Fuchs, a Columbia public policy professor and former aide to Mayor Bloomberg, said. “We’re on the map again, but our territory is still very small.”
The president’s critics are even less charitable.
“There’s nothing there,” Manhattan Institute scholar and Giuliani biographer Fred Siegal said. “This is just more of the same do-nothing identity politics that has been killing cities forever.”
Much of the plight of urban policy started with Ronald Reagan. He was the first Republican president to take the White House without winning a single urban area during his 1980 run, and thus the GOP realized it no longer needed to cater to urban voters. In successive elections, the Democrats came to the similar conclusion that they could take cities for granted. “As a result, politics has largely driven the policy,” Ms. Fuchs said. Republicans could undermine, even attack cities (see: Welfare Queens, Food Stamp President) while Democrats largely ignored them.
President Obama was supposed to change all that. “To seize the possibility of this moment, we need to promote strong cities as the backbone of regional growth,” he told the U.S. Conference of Mayors on the campaign trail of June 2008. This is the first urban president in at least two generations, since JFK or even FDR.
President Obama’s cabinet has been stocked with some of the top talent from Chicago, New York and Boston, among them Valerie Jarrett, Larry Summers and EPA chief Lisa Jackson. HUD secretary Shaun Donovan came of age at the agency before Mayor Bloomberg tapped him in 2004 to champion one of his strongest accomplishments, the New Housing Marketplace plan, a $7.5 billion program aimed at the creation 165,000 affordable housing units. Now Mr. Donovan, with the help of Mr. Carrion and many of his fellow secretaries, is leading an equally ambitious program to remake the way the nation builds not only housing but entire cities.
This creates the potential problem for great expectations, though. Edward Glaeser, the Harvard economist well-known for his studies of cities—his last book was called Triumph of the City—said the president may be urban America’s greatest hope in almost a century, but that does not mean he will be able to transform it.
“He is perhaps the most urban president we’ve had since Teddy Roosevelt,” Mr. Glaeser said. “I think we’d just like more of a recognition that cities are America’s economic heartland, that they’re great things. The problem is, that is politically unwise, as disheartening as that is. So we should get over the fact that it’s not gonna happen.” If the president goes out and stumps for cities, he may wind up as fodder for Newt Gingrich in the next Republican debate.
Mr. Glaeser cautions that the hope for urban change was too great in the first place, and he said as much in an article he wrote for The Times on the day the president was inaugurated. “America today is experiencing a crisis similar to that facing the cities in the 1970s,” he wrote. “Americans cannot afford to treat the president as their personal ideological champion, or to judge him on economic conditions that he cannot control.” In other words, lower your expectations.
“Federal urban policy’s legacy has been terrible whether they are investing in cities or not,” Mr. Glaeser told The Observer. There is only so much that can reasonably be done, and even then, it is not often done well.
The president and his policies are trying to change much of that. “This is about thinking about the way we want Americans to live, in this country and as a global player,” Mr. Carrion said. “This is about building a foundation for the future of the country and about rebuilding the economy.”
But what many Obama boosters seem to misunderstand is that the president is not built in the historical New Deal-Great Society mold of past Democratic presidents. He spent his formative years in Harlem and the South Side of Chicago, witnessing first hand the failures of many of these policies. He was shaped far more by the relatively conservative influence of Mayor Richard Daley and the Chicago School of Economics. “He’s very pragmatic. He always wants the public and private to work together” said MarySue Barrett, president of Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council and a former Daley aide who worked with the president when he was a state senator. “He is a big believer in getting everyone on the same page.”
Part of the reason the president’s urban programs do no receive more recognition is because of their inherent subtlety. Something as simple as tweaking the way the Congressional Budget Office scores projects to account for the savings of sustainability and the cost of sprawl can have a major impact, thought it is not exactly something to go out and campaign on.
Competition has been a prominent feature of many of the programs, from stimulus to education to HUD grants. The administration has moved away from block grants and formulas, requiring states and municipalities to submit their plans, with only the best ones getting the money. The result is often that even the losers will embrace the policy changes the president prefers. “What the presidents wants is, if we are going to be competitive globally, we are going to have to be much more efficient and effective in how we manage our cities,” Mr. Carrion said.
Many urbanists credit this with being one of the administration’s greatest innovations, but it is also a repudiation of the old habit of showering money down on cities. “Your basic New York, political, Upper West Side and caring Democrat wants to go back to 1978,” said Julia Vitullo-Martin, director of the Regional Plan Association’s Center for Urban Innovation and an Upper West Sider. “They care about issues, but they’re stuck in the past, on programs that never worked. The president, he’s gone in a different direction.”
Yet even as the programs become more market-driven, more results-based, more, in a word, conservative, his political opponents have yet to come around. “Even the programs the other side should support, they reject,” said Eugenie Birch, a planning professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a former New York City planning commissioner. “Congress just refuses to work with this president on anything, and there’s not much he can do about that.”
This helps explain why so many projects have been handled at the agency levels, with dedicated funds and bureaucratic juggling. And why none of the marquee programs have yet been approved.
After three years of squabbling, Congress finally proposed a new five-year surface transportation bill on Jan. 31, 853 days overdue. Initially, the House bill looked like every other surface transportation bill that came before it, with the old 80-20 split between road and mass-transit spending. Obama boosters and transit advocates had hoped for a shift in priorities, maybe even a 75-25 split.
Instead, the bill got worse as the weeks went on. Safe streets programs were stripped, and the Ways and Means Committee even voted on removing mass-transit funding altogether. The Senate passed its version of the bill on Friday, which includes transit funding but strips out bike and pedestrian programs and only lasts two years. The White House supports this bill, but the president has yet to take a stand either against or for more in the way of sustainability or urban programs.
The favorable programs the administration has achieved are no longer safe, either. Among the budget lines excised from the 2012 budget was the hundreds of millions of dollars for Sustainable Communities. Clean energy and carbon taxes have also come up short in Congress.
And then there is, or is not, high-speed rail. The president’s pet project from the stimulus, $8 billion was set aside by the administration to lay the tracks for a network of lines knitting together the metropolitan areas now supposedly at the fore. A line from Madison to Milwaukee was due $810 million, a whopping $2 billion was headed to that important swing state Florida to connect Orlando and Tampa. Both of them were roundly, loudly rejected by their respective governors. Scott Walker even penned an open letter to the president after he won the election warning him not to waste his time or money.
“There was so much hope for cities,” said Terry Mazany, director of the Chicago Community Trust. “Now, four years later, we are back to the sense that if cities are going to thrive, they are going to have to do it on their own. They’re not looking to Washington for the resources anymore.”
Look no further than the State of the Union. One of his pre-eminent initiatives last year was mass transit. “Within 25 years our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail,” the president declared. This year, the only mention of transportation was the success of GM. The message has been the same across the country. A recent report by WNYC analyzed the president’s rhetoric over the past 12 months, and it found he moved from a peak of 18 train references in speeches in April to none in November or December. Meanwhile, discussions of road construction rose to 41 mentions in September and 49 in October.
“I’m hoping what we’re going to find out at the beginning of his next term is he’s already done all these transformative things at the agencies that will let him just take off on all these project,” Ms. Vitullo-Martin said, echoing the sentiment of her many city-centric colleagues. “In the meantime, we don’t have too much to look at.”
“He’s done the best that he could,” Robert Cahouette said, standing on the corner of 129th Street and Frederick Douglas Boulevard. “I hope he gets another four years so he can complete some things.”
A Korean veteran with the Marines hat and pins to prove it, Mr. Cahouette had been living at the St. Nicholas Houses for the past five years. He said he thought the president had been good for cities, but he could not point to any specific programs. Nor, like many of his neighbors, did he even realize that the administration had helped facilitate and pay for the school being plopped down in his backyard, half finished after breaking ground in April. There was no mention of the federal government anywhere on the construction fencing surrounding the massive project, twice the size of any of the neighboring redbrick apartment buildings. The president’s image-minders had the good sense to put signs by the side of the road saying the paving was paid for by the federal government, so why not here?
That might have lost them some votes, actually. “The president, Shaun Donovan, John Rhea, Adolfo Carrion, they’re all pimps,” William Danzy declared. “They sold us out.”
Mr. Danzy, with his Yankees cap and brown suede jacket, then proceeded to give a lesson in urban planning to rival Jane Jacobs. He said the idea to reconnect the street grid, to “densify” the complex, to correct the supposed ills wrought by Robert Moses, was all wrong. The 60-year-old life-long resident of the complex said most of the benches the elderly relied on were gone. “It’s not just the kids hanging out,” he said.
“Look at the Lower East Side, the Warsaw ghetto,” he continued. “These projects were meant to correct the social ills inherent in the slums. Anxiety, stress, conflict. The planners tried to eliminate that. All these cats and their new ideas, they’re full of crap.”