thoughts on our urban future

PlaNYC (2) – A response to future growth: Housing

In my first post on PlaNYC I gave an overview of the policy and the reasoning for it.  In this post I want to look at one of the key focal areas of the plan which falls under the ‘land’ category which is housing.  By 2030 NYC expects to add a million people to their population growing from 8 million to 9 million.  The plan is a comprehensive proposal to prepare for that future growth to ensure that it is viable.  The three main areas that the plan addresses in this respect are; ensuring housing is available, affordable and sustainable; improve transit capacity to reduce congestion; and to ensure all residents are within a 10 minute walk of an open space promoting better urban ecology as well as active lifestyles.

The city estimates that they will need 265,000 new homes by 2030 and that while the city can accommodate them, they want to ensure that they are affordable and sustainable.  There are currently 12 housing initiatives to address housing growth issues from a variety of angles:

  1. Pursue transit oriented development: A city-wide rezoning strategy to direct growth in areas with high transport accessibility.
  2. Reclaim underutilized waterfronts: Reassessing previous industrial land as opportunities for new housing development.
  3. Increase transit options to spur development: More than 2.5 million New Yorkers live more than a half mile from a subway stop resulting in higher concentrations of drivers.  Improve bus services and look for opportunities for transit extensions to get people out of cars.
  4. Expand co-locations with government agencies: Look at opportunities in city-owned land for mixed use housing opportunities for example, pairing housing with existing libraries, schools, or parking lots.
  5. Adapt outdated buildings to new uses: Enabling outdated schools, hospitals, or municipal buildings to be repurposed for housing while maintaing cultural heritage.
  6. Develop under-used areas to to knit neighborhoods together: Continuing to scrutinize the urban fabric for opportunities for development with focus on community involvement.
  7. Capture the potential of transportation infrastructure investments: Very much linked to the first initiative, looking for opportunities to expand the transportation network.
  8. Deck over rail-yards, rail lines, and highways: Explore opportunities to create ‘new land’ for development.
  9. Develop new financing strategies: Enabling financing for middle and lower income families.
  10. Expand inclusionary zoning: An initiative that allows developers to build denser market housing in exchange for providing a percentage of their units as affordable housing.
  11. Encourage home ownership: Currently 33% of New Yorkers own their own homes compared to the national rate of 67%.  Develop programs to encourage home ownership especially for affordable apartments over single family homes.
  12. Preserve the existing stock of affordable housing throughout NYC: Working with partners to address the end of many affordability restrictions set by government and avoid loss of affordable housing by providing incentives to owners to keep their buildings affordable.

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the things that I think is excellent about the way this policy is being enacted is the transparency.  There is accessible and easy to understand information on all of these initiatives on a single website to allow local people to be informed and active in their governance.  In the area of housing progress, the City publishes an ‘progress update‘ to show what they have done on each initiative and how far along they are towards achieving it.  As of April 2010, 4 of the above initiatives were deemed ‘achieved’, 5 were deemed ‘mostly achieved’, and 3 were deemed ‘not yet achieved’.  This seems pretty impressive for the first few years of what is a 30-year plan and shows that the City is taking action- a critical element to progressive legislation.

But growth never comes without growing pains, no matter how much preparation is involved.  The city recognizes in all of its housing documentation that the real tension is as expected between growth and affordability and about preserving neighborhoods while at the same time investing in, improving, and densifying them.  Most urban designers know that this is almost an impossible goal to achieve and that the reality lies somewhere in between ideal desire and ultimate fear.  With added investment to deprived areas, property values will for the most part always increase.  This will encourage some long standing members of the community to sell-up, no matter if they have to or not.  New housing will also always mean new residents who bring new social aspects, new market demands, and will by default change the existing mix.  Revitalized neighborhoods will always be different from what was there before, although they can work very hard to preserve and enhance elements of the past.

Additionally, there will also always be resistance to change and in many countries fear and mistrust of political aims which creates an environment of mistrust and skepticism.  Unfortunately in many cases there are good reasons for these feelings.  “Fool me once….” and all that.  So it is not surprising that one of the development sites cited by the plan for redevelopment is also one of the most controversial in terms of gaining local buy-in and acceptance- the Gowanus Canal.

The Gowanus Canal represents a large area of previous industrial land, and wetlands in Brooklyn which sits in between and adjacent to many existing neighborhoods and that is fairly ‘close in’ to the city making it a highly desirable location, although it comes with no shortage of problems.  The site is heavily polluted and needs extensive clean-up before it can be properly redeveloped.  Recently the Environmental Protection Agency finished a study and called it “one of the most contaminated water bodies in the nation”.  The regeneration of this area has not been at all fast, although it has all been pushed forward by the pressures of PlaNYC.  In 2009 there was extensive controversy over whether or not the site should be listed as a Superfund Site which would have meant federal involvement in the environmental clean-up.  This was opposed by the City who felt it would be too slow and probably didn’t like that they would lose some control over the project.  It is also suggested that designation as a Superfund Site would hinder development options and that the city is catering to development interests rather than city financial interests or even local interests who seem to be in support of Superfund designation.  In 2010, the City lost that battle and the EPA declared the Gowanus a Superfund Site.  In the meantime, the site is still flagged in the ideals of the city vision and in the watchful eyes of large scale developers as prime real estate and this controversy over the environmental stewardship is in many ways as much about development as it is about the environment.

It’s true that redevelopment of this area could provide a substantial amount of new homes and community amenities.  It is true that it could become a long-lasting area of community pride.  It is true that housing sites are desperately needed and that such well positioned sites close in to the heart of the city can not possibly be ignored when the growth and housing pressures are so intense.  But this project shows just some of the difficulties in implementation when all of the low-hanging fruit is gone.

Only time will tell if the Superfund designation will hinder growth and development.  As long as the community stays as vigilant about progressing the clean-up as they were about obtaining the designation, then I would suggest that it would be impossible for such a well positioned and high-amenity providing site to stagnate.  It is clear that there will be future arguments between the artists who have taken up residence in the old industrial buildings and the developers who will want to build skyscrapers, but this cannot take place until the site is clean.  Although it is only putting off the inevitable.

To reiterate my overall feeling about PlaNYC- there is no way that such a substantial and forceful bit of legislation will get everything right.  But at least they are trying.  I cannot be anything less than impressed with the intelligent articulation of the housing problem facing the city, the clear list of ideas for how to address it, and the urban challenges that the City is digging in to try and change.  Urban challenges that previous city administrations have chosen to overlook and ignore.

In my next post: PlaNYC addresses the future of its urban transportation networks.

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