Mayor Has 1,000 Days To Go And Plenty To Do

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s aides these days start their spiel about the long-range plan for the city by talking about the electronic clock in the corner of the City Hall bullpen counting down the days until the Mayor’s term ends.

“At this very minute, it reads 1,023 days, 11 hours and five minutes,” Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff told several hundred transportation experts last week. “It is a reminder to all of us, on an ongoing basis, that we—at least in the Bloomberg administration, and I would argue all of us—do not have a lot of time. We do not have a lot of time left to prepare New York to compete globally in the 21st century.”

A few days later, Rohit Aggarwala, who is the person directly in charge of the long-term plan, told a group of energy wonks: “Today, it has the number 1,018.”

And so it has gone, over the past three months, through more than two dozen meetings before business leaders, community groups and the general public: a Mayoral road show preparing the way for a plan to make New York City livable in 2030, by which time another million people are supposed to elbow their way into the city limits. Maybe City Hall will pick up a few ideas for it along the way. Then, some time in April—a deadline that has been pushed back three times—the Mayor will unveil this plan, by which point he will have just about 1,000 days left to actually do something with it.

If Mr. Bloomberg’s aides are peculiarly conscious of just how much time they have left, his critics are even more so, whispering that whatever he comes up with—congestion pricing? More upzoning? An energy surcharge?—he will not have enough time to act on it before being rendered irrelevant by the 2009 campaign.

What better than an environmentally conscious plan that wastes a lot of trees!

On the other hand, what better way to stay politically relevant than to try to impose his agenda on his successor?

Mr. Doctoroff says that the plan is designed to make sure that those thousand days—a little shorter than the length of President Kennedy’s White House tenure—are productive.

“It will be a set of very specific policies to enact, in some cases recommendations where we don’t completely control it, recommendations for other levels of government to achieve,” he told The Observer. “We have an enormous opportunity to get almost everything rolling. Does this mean that this will succeed in everything—whether to create an entity to perform a specific function or allocations in a capital budget? We will have the time, though, to get started on everything.”

“There are going to be one-year as well as five-year goals—immediate and measurable outcomes that people can use to evaluate the plan from a planning perspective,” said Ester Fuchs, a Columbia professor who served as in-house advisor to the Mayor in his first term. “Some of it will be in place already when he leaves office, and, in my view, the next elected officials will say, ‘Am I going to take this apart and start all over again when I have so much other work on my plate?’”

THE CONTENT AND EVEN THE LENGTH OF THE N.Y.C. 2030 plan is shrouded in mystery—Mr. Doctoroff said it was still being figured out, though a draft is under way—but 10 goals for it were laid out in December, ranging from land-use items like the amount of housing and the placement of parks, to environmental quality and replacing aged infrastructure. Some of the goals are really quite manageable: to build 265,000 new homes by 2030, as Mayor Bloomberg proposed, requires an annual pace of less than half of the units that were completed last year.

Other goals are more intractable. By 2030, at least 23 subway routes are expected to be congested, so coaxing commuters out of their cars and onto crowded trains may prove difficult—especially when mass transit is run by the state, not the city.

The central goal, according to Mr. Doctoroff, is reducing New York’s global-warming emissions by 30 percent.

“All the other goals touch that goal,” Mr. Doctoroff said. “As we move people from autos to mass transit, if you reinvest in a cleaner supply for energy; if you reduce demand for energy; the creation of park space—all have an impact on global warming.”

Rank-and-file New Yorkers will probably not be affected by many of the policy recommendations until they see the benefits. The report, for example, is expected to call on city government to further reduce the pollution caused by its own fleet of vehicles by switching to cleaner fuels, according to members of an advisory panel, and to force power producers to retrofit their plants (a requirement that may or may not result in rate hikes).

Developers could be asked to set aside property to create small neighborhood parks in return for permission to build higher, not unlike the incentives for construction along the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfront. That step would help achieve the goal of making sure that every New Yorker lives within 10 minutes of a park. (We are already, it turns out, three-quarters of the way there.)

No wonder there’s such intense interest in whether Mr. Bloomberg will recommend some sort of congestion-pricing scheme that would charge drivers to drive their cars into central Manhattan: It would be one move that could be seen, heard and felt by just about everyone, from beleaguered car owners to mass-transit commuters who could expect to see the revenue spent on more buses on the street.

The report also will take into account that the sea level will likely rise by “another five inches over the next 25 years or so,” Mr. Doctoroff said.

“To me, it’s not a report,” said Ashok Gupta, air and energy program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a member of the advisory panel that the Mayor appointed to shape the plan. “Hopefully, in the next six to 12 months, specific things will be implemented. The idea is to actually have legislation and go to the City Council and put it down as a commitment and requirements for future Mayors.”

In the past year since Mr. Bloomberg first announced the long-term plan, it went from being called a “strategic land-use plan” to one about “sustainability,” in a move that says loads about how Mr. Bloomberg sees the city’s future—and his own. Shortly after his decisive re-election in November 2005, the League of Conservation Voters, which had endorsed him (and which has 20,000 ground troops who could come in handy should the Mayor aim for national office), started to bend his ear about framing that plan in a way that emphasized improving the environment over developing it.

Mr. Doctoroff calls the league “important,” but “not the only” influence on pitching the plan in terms of sustainability. (The term has been used, after all, for blueprints for the future in Austin, Tex.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and London—pretty much everywhere, really, but New York.) The Mayor, meanwhile, has given a couple of symbolic nods to the league, appointing its executive director, Marcia Bystryn, to the advisory board and letting the organization host the December speech where he unveiled the plan’s 10 key goals before several hundred business and civic leaders at the Queens Museum of Art.

“Dan has had a strategic land-use plan in his back pocket for a long time. It came out of the Olympics process,” Ms. Bystryn told The Observer. “It was always our view that the sustainability agenda should be integrated into that. I do credit them for doing that. I think it’s extremely important that the sustainability plan be integrated with a land-use plan. Too many cities develop the sustainability plan outside the center of the administration’s priorities, where it bears no relationship with the other agendas that the city has.”

Mr. Doctoroff puts it this way: “We started out trying to understand how to accommodate the growth from a land perspective. It seemed that every time we turned around, we were fighting a tow pound or power plants or enough units of housing to meet the growth going forward. As a result, we delved into how we use land, and as we began to do that, we began to see the challenges that the intensified use of the city was putting on the infrastructure and the environment.”

The tough decisions are getting made by just a few people on the Mayor’s staff: Mr. Doctoroff; Mr. Aggarwala, the director of the Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability; and a staff of about four or five others. And yet the Mayor has gotten a lot of credit for soliciting opinions from a lot of different corners of the city through the road show, the PlaNYC Web site, and the 17-member advisory board, which includes a couple of grassroots activists and another handful of leaders from nonprofit advocacy organizations. It was also a strategy, supporters say, of getting buy-ins for whatever conclusions are drawn.

“If you don’t have people at the table in the beginning, they are going to go out there and start opposing it,” said Ed Ott, the executive director of the New York Central Labor Council and a member of the advisory panel. “It lays a bit of a social basis for getting this done. The plan for putting a park within 10 minutes of where anybody lives came from the environmental-justice people. This makes the issue mainstream. Now they’re not going to let it go when someone else becomes Mayor.”

Plans like these have had mixed results in New York over the years. Mayor John Lindsay came out with a report in 1969 on retaining the middle class that was quickly eaten up by the fiscal crisis. Back in 1992, Mayor David Dinkins outlined how the West Side of Manhattan could be rezoned from industrial to commercial use—and he was by no means the first to think of it. It took until 2004 for a Mayor to implement it.

Mr. Bloomberg, meanwhile, convened a poverty commission that produced a report last September largely derided as useless. A panel that advised the Mayor on how to reform the 421-a tax break for new apartment buildings eventually led to a City Council ordinance, but did little to create a consensus among developers and housing advocates.

“The question before us is, what can we get done in the next phase?” Mr. Ott said. “What I’m concerned with is, what are going to be the priorities?”

“I’m certainly not Pollyannaish about this,” Ms. Fuchs said. “However, if you develop this consensus around goals and outcomes, certain people who lose will continue to fight, but they will have less credibility in the city broadly. This is what makes it different.”

Mayor Has 1,000 Days To Go And Plenty To Do