This post will take a step back from our traditional Staten Island focus and discuss the city at large. The lessons in it apply to Staten Island, however, as much as to the rest of the city.
The predominant real estate development pattern in America since World War II has been to move into new, open spaces and build low-density housing, offices, shopping malls, or industrial complexes (each separate from the other) in areas that used to be farms or forests. Staten Island is a classical example of such development. Many of our neighborhoods appeared shortly after the completion of the Staten Island Expressway and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Brooklyn in the 1960’s. They were the result of chaotic land-buying and building by real estate developers in areas that were previously small villages or completely undeveloped. The developers were given close to free reign by the authorities and therefore built only the bare minimum of infrastructure, with no thought given to public gathering places, transit, or, in many areas, storm sewers and flood protection features.
Few things captured the imaginations of post-war Americans as much as the promise of a bright future living is in single-family homes connected by wide, fast highways. Among New York City’s political class, if not the public, this is still the agenda of the day. Anti-social, car-oriented development that gives little thought to people’s actual needs is therefore still the status quo in much of the city. Even though today it is the classically “urban” neighborhoods – Park Slope in Brooklyn being the most-cited example – that are extremely popular, opportunities for converting new areas to urban living remain slim, which in turn reduces the affordability of housing and causes a host of environmental, traffic, and other problems.
The Bloomberg administration has favored downzoning – reducing allowable density – in more areas of the city than upzoning, despite the city’s growing population. To be fair, this happened not on the mayor’s whim, but because of the belief of some vocal homeowners and politicians that preventing development has more benefits than allowing it. In reality, of course, downzoning costs many people money – the potential value of property decreases proportionally to how much is allowed to be built on it, and fewer people per square mile means fewer services, less tax collected, and higher utility costs as more infrastructure has to be provided per capita.
The mayor failed to properly educate people on what’s best for them. He failed to explain, in the congestion pricing story, that problems people perceive as inherently related to density – for example, traffic congestion – are actually problems related to something else; in this case, the city’s transportation policy. His expansion of the city’s bike network in “hip” areas makes sense in terms of getting the best bang for the buck by citing infrastructure in high-use areas (again, the more people per square mile theory), but the alarming lack of consistent policy when it comes to basic law and order (e.g. NYPD’s non-enforcement of traffic laws) only served to turn many outer borough residents against the mayor.
With an eye towards the next mayoral administration, the question becomes then, what is to be done about creating nice places for people to live in the city? The number of affordable apartments remains small. The “last frontier” of residential development, such as old industrial areas on the Williamsburg waterfront, will soon exhaust itself. How do we house new residents without overwhelming already popular areas and yet avoid provoking bitter fights with car-oriented neighborhoods?
We believe a logical next step in the city’s development is to think outside the box and to finally connect land use and transportation policy. This could be done by focusing development in areas we call Naturally Occurring Transit Developments (NOTDs). Like Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, NOTDs are often a result of benign neglect rather than intentional planning. They are areas of the city where, for some historical reason, a large number of transit links converge. What they need is a relaxation of government-imposed limits on building, such as parking requirements and height restrictions.
Some well known examples are Penn Station and Grand Central in Manhattan, Atlantic Center in Brooklyn, and our very own Staten Island Ferry terminal. Many others can be found by looking at the inset maps on a bus map. If there are many routes coming together, it’s necessary to show them in greater detail!
Often these are points where the subway intersects with several bus lines. For example, take Ridgewood in Brooklyn. A place on the Brooklyn-Queens border, it is perhaps not as glamorous as downtown Brooklyn. But it features the agglomeration of two subway lines and 10 bus routes, with multiple Brooklyn and Queens buses terminating within a few blocks of each other. Why not look at this neighborhood not just as merely a transfer station, but as a cross-roads, a destination?
Ridgewood certainly does not need Manhattan-like density. What it needs are a few taller buildings and new public areas, which can easily fit in the large parking lots, ironically placed right next to the subway. This is perhaps a simplistic example. However, it points to the beginnings of a plan, and the city needs to have some plan, some justification for doing X and not Y. The current “plan” is to haphazardly increase density in areas along major arterials or in neighborhoods that can’t support the density without new transit (and having no plan for new transit), while decreasing it everywhere else. Why not create a plan that makes the best use of existing infrastructure?
If there is a place a lot of people can travel to and from, it should have the population it can support. The city must learn to use its transportation facilities in an efficient manner. The alternative is decay and a return to the lost vitality and near bankruptcy of the 1970s, not the wonderful suburban dreamworld of the 1950’s and 60’s.