Bill de Blasio, New York’s Putterer-in-Chief

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Big guy, petite plans. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As Bill de Blasio glides toward a second term at the head of a global city, he is acting like the mayor of small things. New York, once thought to be ungovernable, has never been richer, more populous, more diverse, or better positioned to lead the ever-expanding urban world. That gives today’s leaders the breathing room to think about the New York of a couple of generations from now, a metropolis primed for a barrage of climate threats, technologies like driverless cars, economic vicissitudes, and shifting population pressures. And yet, instead of offering a vision for the future of the physical city, the de Blasio administration runs down a punch list: repaint crosswalks, add bike lanes, fix up playgrounds, tweak zoning, and hope these measures compensate for the lava flow of inequality sweeping across the world. Unable to narrow the income gap between the stupefyingly rich and everybody else, unwilling to rewrite the rules that govern the city’s growth, and unequipped to wrest power from real-estate developers, de Blasio contents himself with fussing around the fringes of New York life.

He need not be so timid. The real estate he directly controls — parks, streets, and public spaces — makes up fully 40 percent of the city’s area. The Department of Transportation is the largest landholder, and the New York City Housing Authority the biggest residential landlord. The mayor may have inadequate tools with which to reduce inequality and homelessness, but he does have the power to mold the physical city in profound ways. He could build new parks and transform old ones, shore up the city’s defenses against climate change before it’s too late, lead the conversion to a post-car city, and pioneer new ways to think about growth. In the public realm, though, he prefers puttering to planning.

Parks

Parks commissioner Mitchell Silver is a man with a lot of little plans that he hopes will one day add up to a big one. “I have the funds we need,” he says, before launching into an explanation of how he began his tenure by rejiggering garbage-pickup routes and gardener schedules to make the system more efficient. “Just saying give me dollars is not my first response.” The department’s budget for capital projects stands at $1.6 billion — a significant increase from the final year of the Bloomberg administration — with the annual budget for operating expenses exceeding $500 million. Silver’s flagship program revivifies patches of land so long neglected that they barely qualify as parks at all. The Bloomberg administration aspired to place a park within a ten-minute walk of every New Yorker; Silver recognized that schlepping to a square of torn-up asphalt doesn’t do much to improve anyone’s quality of life. Dilapidated, deserted parks serve more as drug marts than as green escapes. And so, in 2014, he launched the Community Parks Initiative, which will eventually spend $318 million to resurrect 67 of the most neglected parks all over the city. Among them is Sol Lain Playground on the Lower East Side, which has been fitted out with a climbable igloo, tiny stools on springs, and a lime-green slide-and-ramp combo. Silver is proud of these surgical interventions. At one ribbon cutting, he said, “People were crying, coming up and hugging me.”

Sol Lain Playground. Photo: New York City Department of Parks & Recreation

Those moments of gratitude don’t come quick or cheap. It’s taken nearly three years, from input meetings to ribbon cuttings, including a year’s worth of design and eight months of procurement, to yield the first handful of completed projects. Silver’s other signature agenda is Parks Without Borders, a modest beautification program that should really be called Parks with Somewhat Nicer Borders. The plan to upgrade Seward Park, a few blocks from Sol Lain Playground, offers a case study in how challenging it is to accomplish not very much. The $6.4 million project involves replacing cracked asphalt with brick and bluestone pavers, and lowering tall spiked gates and chain-link perimeters with friendlier low fences and ankle-high wickets. A separate effort, with its own sequence of public hearings, budget meetings, and design procedures, would merge Seward Park with tiny Strauss Park, currently divided by the unused eastern rag-end of Canal Street. These improvements, which make no difference to most people but a great difference to a few people, begins with “community engagement”— asking citizens what the city should do. Ideally, the process is democratic and careful. It’s also agonizingly slow.

“When you’re trying to make a huge impact, you want it to happen fast but the process doesn’t necessarily match that aspiration,” says Lynn Kelly, executive director of the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks. Finding out that park users in one neighborhood may want a basketball court but others prefer a dog run “takes time, but if it results in something the neighborhood is excited about and gets behind, you can’t put a dollar value on that,” Kelly says. “You celebrate the small victories in the process.”

Celebrating small victories is the de Blasio way. A few weeks before the election, he announced that Prospect Park will henceforth be closed to cars — a long-delayed and virtually painless move. On more ambitious challenges, the city equivocates, postpones, or even backtracks. For a while, the administration was talking up Brooklyn Strand, a promising plan to stitch shards of space scattered between Dumbo and Downtown Brooklyn into a continuous verdant landscape. Now, it’s sprinkling dollars on the small, easy fixes and leaving the bulk of the project until who-knows-when.

Last June, de Blasio announced that he would soon make a decision on QueensWay, a 3.5-mile unused railroad bed that could metamorphose into a linear park running from Rego Park south, through Forest Hills and Richmond Hill. Five months later, the word from his office is: We’re still studying it. And though the city had promised to replace all of the parkland that vanished in the construction of the new Yankee Stadium, de Blasio is now eyeing that land for housing.

The most far-reaching project he has dangled is the completion of a greenway around the edge of Manhattan by adding a riverfront esplanade near the United Nations and filling in a gap in East Harlem. So far, though, “jump-starting the completion” of the greenway means declaring an intent to execute plans that have been kicking around for years. Another promising frontier is Sunnyside Yards, a 200-acre sunken tangle of rail lines that could be decked over and sutured to the rest of Queens. Any site that big should include a generous portion of parkland, but still-nebulous plans envision a dense neighborhood of 11,000 apartments and an afterthought’s worth of “open space.” Don’t hold your breath: The city has put out a call for firms to come up with a master plan that may or may not some day be carried out.

All this slow-motion shuffling suggests that de Blasio’s second term isn’t likely to yield any more great new swaths of parkland than the first term did. The mayor seems to have concluded that an ever-denser city has no urgent need for more green space, or that finding it would only increase the burden of maintaining it. But New York’s thousands of parks, parklets, and playgrounds account for 14 percent of the city’s surface area — which sounds like a lot until you discover that nearly 40 percent of London is green. Parks are not just places to loll or toss a Frisbee; they’re an essential weapon in the arsenal of climate-change defenses. Five years after Sandy wrought $19 billion in damage to five boroughs alone, New York remains (according to a report by the think tank Climate Central) second only to Miami as the metropolis most vulnerable to coastal flooding. Last summer, de Blasio opened a restored boardwalk on the Rockaways that doubles as a storm-surge barrier. That’s a significant achievement, but a more challenging — and even more urgent — plan to protect lower Manhattan with a contoured park has been delayed, shortchanged, and whittled down.

Streets

A decade ago, then–Mayor Michael Bloomberg hired a visionary, Janette Sadik-Khan, to rethink the streets of New York and start righting the balance between people and cars. By the end of her tenure, six years later, her radicalism had become quasi-conventional wisdom — so much so that the National Association of City Transportation Officials later enshrined many of those tools in an Urban Street Design Guide to help planners across the country. Sadik-Khan’s successor as transportation commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, presides over the executive phase of the revolution.

De Blasio’s people deserve credit for rescuing the Citi Bike system from financial collapse and making it grow. The DOT has established a total of 1,000 miles of bike lanes, with 50 more coming every year. (It’s a slow process: Getting around the most congested parts of the city is still a horror-film ordeal, and activists recently created a ten-minute human bike lane along Fifth Avenue to dramatize the situation.) The department also invites neighborhoods to apply to have chaotic intersections re-engineered into pedestrian preserves. When the DOT’s foot-traffic data suggest a promising spot but local groups don’t exist there or community boards are slow on the uptake, staffers go out and drum up enthusiasm themselves. That’s how the congested corner of Wyckoff and Myrtle Avenues, at the border of Brooklyn and Queens, became Myrtle/Wyckoff Plaza. That’s all necessary progress, but at this rate, it will take a generation for New York to evolve into a low-carbon pedestrian Eden. “Ten years ago we were doing 20 to 30 street-improvement projects a year. Now it’s more like 100, but the city is huge and if you add them all up and figure in next year’s 100, there’s still a lot of work to be done,” says Sean Quinn, a DOT senior official.

The transportation department has also taken its first baby steps toward European-style shared streets, which are designed to give pedestrians priority over cars. (Vehicles are allowed only at certain hours and always have to slow to a crawl.) So far, the idea has hardly swept New York. After giving the concept a 24-hour tryout in lower Manhattan on a sleepy Saturday in August last year, the administration has made it permanent in one-block-per-year increments: last spring on Broadway between 24th and 25th Streets, next year on East 43rd Street between Third and Lexington Avenues. These mini-moves to redesign the streetscape are tied to Vision Zero, the philosophy that treats all crashes as preventable and aims to eliminate traffic-related deaths completely. The city has inched toward that goal, but it may take a much more aggressive approach to reach it: Last year, fewer drivers and passengers but more pedestrians and cyclists were killed in crashes than in the previous year.  Even as workers keep patiently repainting asphalt, deploying planters, and setting up café tables, the mayor shows no interest in embarking on the kind of grand generational projects that would imprint his legacy on the shape of the city itself.

The future East Side Greenway. Photo: NYCEDC

Bold ideas like that aren’t hard to find. Architects have proposed turning all of Broadway from a traffic artery into a linear park. Last June, the activist group Transportation Alternatives launched Streetopia, a set of reasoned fantasies of a nearly car-free New York. Activist organizations and design studios can crank out futuristic visions without worrying about politics or expense, but real cities are paying attention. Barcelona is experimenting with carving the gridded Eixample neighborhood into limited-access superblocks and designating some streets as arteries. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has vowed to cut cars’ turf in half, putting muscle behind that plan by converting an embankment expressway along the Seine into a pedestrian boulevard.

In the past, New York incubated nearly every modern transportation technology. Streetcars, subways, passenger elevators, trains, elevated trains, private automobiles, steamships, and airplanes all changed the city, which placed new demands on them. It seems increasingly clear that driverless cars will eventually transform cities, which can either plan how that happens or let technology dictate the terms. One architecture firm, Edg, has mused vividly on how portions  of the city’s major traffic arteries might be commandeered as a dedicated set of loops for autonomous vehicles, freeing up other roadways for parkland. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (which Sadik-Khan now chairs) recently issued Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism, a 50-page manual full of suggestions for how cities might manage curbs, turns, street widths, lanes, and delivery zones in a driverless future. The de Blasio administration claims to be studying the issue, too, but has hardly made it a priority.  When Governor Andrew Cuomo preemptively struck a deal with GM to test autonomous vehicles in Manhattan, the mayor squawked. “I really don’t like it. I think it’s a mistake. I think that it creates a danger,” he said. “There is some real great potential and there’s also really big challenges and unanswered questions and before we put a single one on the streets of New York City, we should answer some of those questions and make sure it’s the right thing to do.” Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute recently published a survey of how cities are planning for an AV future. New York didn’t even make the list.

(De Blasio has expressed more interest in reviving an old technology: streetcars. Last year, the mayor floated a plan for BQX, a light rail line connecting Brooklyn and Queens along the waterfront. The project’s future is still in doubt though: If the numbers don’t work, it could get shelved.)

De Blasio has also been cautious to the point of stubbornness in his resistance to congestion pricing, which would charge drivers to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan, rationalize the city’s crazy quilt of bridge and tunnel tolls, and funnel revenue into public transit. The mayor believes there are better ways to fund the MTA, and that the number of cars coming into the city is less of a problem than crowds of pedestrians getting in the way. One solution is to encourage tourists to get out of midtown and go visit … the Rockaways. De Blasio has called congestion pricing a “regressive tax,” saying that new tolls on East River bridges would hurt working-class Queens and Brooklyn residents. That’s a Bizarro World reading of the facts: A new report by a 170-year-old poverty-fighting organization, the Community Service Society, points out that only 4 percent of outer-borough residents drive into Manhattan, while 56 percent take public transit. Yet, instead of suiting up for the formidable political showdown that congestion pricing demands, de Blasio launched a surprise attack on electric bikes, a form of transportation that makes delivery jobs available to the aging and that poses no documented risk. (The NYPD has no data on the safety record of e-bikes, which hasn’t stopped de Blasio from preemptively declaring them “dangerous.”)

His scheme to increase the slothlike pace of midtown traffic involves banning deliveries from a few streets already sclerotic with construction and handing out more tickets to drivers who get stranded in the middle of an intersection. The fines are supposed to cover the salaries of the 160 traffic cops required to levy them, which means that the plan only works if violators keep violating. This plan to reduce traffic by encouraging more vehicles is destined for a quick fade-out. And even if the strategy did achieve its optimistic goal of moving cars 10 percent faster, it would shorten a 30-minute crosstown slog to a still unbearable 27 minutes. Revolutionary it is not.

Zoning

As de Blasio continues his endless campaign for social and economic change that lies largely outside his control, he seems to feel powerless in the area where he really could shape the future. “If I had my druthers, the city government would determine every single plot of land, how development would proceed,” he said in an interview with New York’s Chris Smith. The fact that it can’t, he added, “leaves this friction, and this anger, which is visceral.” That’s an odd complaint for the man running a metropolis where every block is governed by a Talmudic stack of regulations. It’s true that New York’s as-of-right model allows developers to do whatever the city’s byzantine rules don’t explicitly forbid. But those rules are malleable, and the power to write them is one of any municipality’s crudest and most basic tools. De Blasio has wielded that power tactically. Despite his rage against the machine, he has ably tweaked the zoning code and leveraged a booming real-estate market to ramp up housing construction in East New York, to require more affordable apartments, and to unstopper skyscraper restrictions in East Midtown. But making those changes is like replacing a fuse in a wheezing old power plant: It may keep the thing going for the moment, but doesn’t deal with its deep-seated obsolescence.

New York’s first zoning code, enacted in 1916, had two primary purposes: to keep big buildings from hogging light and air, and to prevent noxious industries from poisoning the citizenry. Those goals still apply, but over the decades, the code has accumulated into a regulatory archeological site, with old worries and aspirations buried in sedimentary layers of rules. Dig down, and you discover some well-preserved oddities. Establishments selling ice must not exceed 5,000 square feet. Nobody may store peat in a residential district. The slaughter of rabbits is permitted only for retail sale. Blacksmith shops and cotton ginning are allowed only in special districts. Many of these rules constitute harmless legal bric-a-brac and are easily ignored. But together they represent a framework drawn up for a different city, one where neighborhoods left ungoverned might have declined into toxic slums.

Today, we ask that same body of regulations to perform contradictory functions for which it is hopelessly ill-suited: Hold down housing prices, raise property values, rein in gentrification in some places and unleash it in others, preserve neighborhood character, create jobs, boost the economy, ensure comfortable waterfront seating, protect small businesses, foster manufacturing, control emissions, promote rooftop farming, desegregate schools … the list goes on. Using that code to address all the friction and nuance that drives a major metropolis is as hopeless as trying to paint the Sistine Chapel with a long-handled roller.

Industry City, spruced up. Photo: WXY architecture + urban design

Those who admire New York’s zoning appreciate its combination of stricture and flexibility, the way it prevents, say, a charming three-story neighborhood from being razed for an office park but still lets the metropolis compete in the global economy. Others see it as a damaging brake on prosperity, constricting growth and driving up rents. Both interpretations have weight. Although the Bloomberg administration was regularly criticized for allowing runaway development, it also downzoned vast tracts of the city, locking in the low-rise, semi-suburban character of residential Brooklyn and Queens. That leaves the de Blasio administration hunting for scarce, and therefore expensive, land in which to pack more people.

Zoning is a tool of power. Its archaic complexity is a boon to land-use lawyers, who guide their clients through the bureaucracy, ferret out loopholes, and negotiate exceptions. When the developer SJP Properties declared its intention to build the Upper West Side’s tallest tower at 200 Amsterdam Avenue, it relied on the minutiae of a gerrymandered zoning lot that had been carved into pieces over the course of 30 years. The neighborhood’s City Council member, Helen Rosenthal, joined the fight against the project, claiming both that a tall, skinny tower isn’t allowed on that site and that, if it is, it shouldn’t be. “I am frustrated that an arcane tidbit that only a land-use lawyer could identify can result in a 60-story building,” Rosenthal says.

And yet in a city like New York, where virtually every hole in the ground triggers outrage or a lawsuit, zoning arcana can also be the NIMBYite’s friend. The system gives local elected officials like Rosenthal enormous power over development, because in rezoning decisions, City Council almost always defers to the affected neighborhood’s representative. “Giving local City Council members untrammeled authority over zoning in their district is a recipe for NIMBYism,” says Stephen Smith, a co-founder of the real-estate company Quantierra who tweets under the handle Market Urbanism. “Cities that keep up with their housing demands — Seattle, Toronto, Tokyo — take land-use power away from City Council, and some higher level of government will step in.”

Rosenthal’s Upper West Side constituents had the resources to hire their own experts and challenge the developer to a legal showdown. So, too, did the residents of Sutton Place, who objected so strenuously to a tower that would block their views that they tried to persuade the city to rewrite the zoning. In both cases, the resisters lost, but such efforts often succeed in slowing construction and costing the developer money, which in turn drives up real-estate prices.

Maybe it’s unfair to criticize de Blasio for doing what nearly every mayor before him has done: tighten a few rusty screws to satisfy a developer here or nudge the market there. But if the mayor wants to fortify the city against the unprecedented threat of climate change, or help it absorb new arrivals without scrubbing its history, then he should be thinking more broadly. New York needs nimbler laws now — laws that permit imaginative architecture rather than ensure successive rounds of generic glass slabs; that reckon the environmental costs of demolition; weigh global competition against neighborhood needs; tie new populations to the construction of schools; and make room for as yet unforeseen industries to thrive, without prematurely killing off the old ones.

Alternatives to New York’s strange regulatory contraption exist, some with local pedigrees. Toronto recently announced it would devote a 12-acre waterfront parcel to an experiment in tech-driven urbanism that could eventually swell to 800 acres. Instead of imposing fixed zoning rules, the city collects a steady stream of data, recording who sits, walks, and eats on which patch of ground. The numbers then drive an ever-adjustable menu of planning decisions. The idea raises the specter of robot urbanism, or public spaces designed to fulfill the needs of tech bros. But life in New York may well rub off on the project: Its brains belong to the Google-affiliated company Sidewalk Labs, which is led by Bloomberg administration guru Daniel Doctoroff.

There are more analog options, too. In 2008, Miami adopted Miami21, a form-based zoning code that effectively pre-designs harmonious pedestrian neighborhoods but leaves them open to a mix of uses. Form-based zoning dictates not only how large a building can be but also what it’s made of, how it’s oriented, and where parking is located. Fremont, California, took a 900-acre area near a BART station and applied performance-based zoning, which sets goals for jobs, affordable housing, and energy savings, and leaves developers and designers to figure out how to achieve them.

None of these approaches offers a ready-made solution, but New York could surely do what it has always done with imported ideas: Stir them together into a distinctive local hybrid. That would, however, require some vision greater than zero.

The Bloomberg mission was to turn New York into a world-class city, a magnet for capital, immigration, tourism, and business. De Blasio argued that in pursuing global status, New York had abandoned many New Yorkers, and that his administration would make it a more humane city for those already here. In practice, the tone has changed more profoundly than the policies. Having inherited a municipal economy in ferment, de Blasio has had the luxury of few compromises. He has been able to direct money toward small, neglected parks without sucking it from the system’s showpieces. He’s banged the drum for more affordable housing in East New York and paved the way for the next generation of glassier, glossier, and far taller midtown towers. Bloomberg turned part of Roosevelt Island over to Cornell Tech; de Blasio is spiffing up Industry City and making eyes at Amazon. None of this adds up to a new approach to the spaces we all share. Asked about public-realm priorities for the mayor’s second term, a City Hall spokesperson pointed to the completion of Brooklyn Bridge Park and the development of Governors Island — both projects launched by the last administration. If Bloomberg had a grand, overarching vision (infuriating to some, inspiring to others) of the world’s most desirable city, Bill de Blasio has staked his legacy on making New York almost good enough, for the moment.

Bill de Blasio, New York’s Putterer-in-Chief