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Building the (New) New York

The Bob and Jane way.


(Illustration: Nick Higgins.)  

We are a city of 8 million people, give or take a few hundred thousand. But we are building a city for 9 million. Literally. Right now. That will be New York City’s total population just a couple of decades hence, and politicians, bureaucrats, developers, architects, and engineers are, as you read these words, figuring out how to fit another million people onto the collection of islands and peninsulas we call home. We can’t just bulldoze and slap up some towers—we’ve learned some lessons from the sixties—and it isn’t just half a million new homes that we need. Those million need offices, factories, labs to work in. They need subways, buses (and ferries and trams) to commute in. They need places to park and places to play, plus the power to light their homes. All in a city that can’t sprawl.


This is Tomorrowland—a new city, a city larger than San Francisco, built on top of the city we know. In ten years, New York City will be transformed in ways we can only guess at. But in the pages that follow, you will explore our best guess, based on the plans, the dreams, the cornerstones, and the rising steel in nine city neighborhoods, spread over all five boroughs. In 2016, we won’t be able to be so parochial anymore—one Times Square isn’t going to be enough to fulfill the entertainment needs of that bigger, younger, more diverse population, and you’ll be talking about the lights on 125th Street. Fresh Kills will be three times the size of Central Park. If you imagine the city as a play—every neighborhood has a role—a lot of understudies are finally going to be called onstage.

When New York didn’t get the Olympics or the Jets, there were lots of pitying articles about how Mayor Bloomberg’s (and Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff’s) big dreams had died. But that was a complete misperception. City agencies went right on ahead with their plans. Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning, check. East River waterfront, check. Soon, Governors Island, Willets Point. Eventually, something new on those West Side rail yards.

And New York is—finally—getting greener. Mandated green city buildings, new sustainable towers in Battery Park City. Community groups dream of more green buildings on the ruins of the Sheridan Expressway. What is fascinating is the recovery and recycling of the works of the city’s greatest bogeyman, Robert Moses. He was responsible for the last great era of park building in the city, but he also sliced apart neighborhoods with highways and towers. Today’s mini-Moseses are combining his initiatives, building parks on the neighborhoods his roadways isolated, transforming infrastructure into landscape architecture. It is on the long-ignored waterfront that the most amazing transformation is occurring.

Sprinkled like jewelry across this new city fabric are projects, some fabulous, some already outdated, by both the dinosaurs and fledglings of the architectural pantheon. Yes, we’re getting our Gehry (one, two, three, four, maybe more), but also our Morphosis, our ShoP, our TEN Arquitectos.

But often in some peculiar locations. Piano across from the Port Authority? Gehry in Brooklyn? Viñoly by the Williamsburg Bridge? The New York of 2016 doesn’t husband all the new design ideas in Manhattan but spreads them out. (One can’t help but get a little giddy with all the big names, but there is a dark side to hiring all these out-of-towners. Too often they serve as ambassadors to the upper-middle class for owners with an agenda, cloaking the same old towers in a park.

The planning phrase on everyone’s lips is “eyes on the street,” the reductio ad absurdum of the argument of the late Jane Jacobs’s 1961 Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs argued that the lifeblood of her then-threatened neighborhood, the Village, was the shopkeepers and homeowners and stoop-sitters who watched the sidewalks and parks for free. Under City Planning commissioner Amanda Burden, neighborhoods are being contextually zoned to preserve their “special character.”

Jacobs’s vision was lovely but limited, with little room for new buildings, new neighborhoods. Rereading her arguments, one develops a sneaking admiration for the size of Moses’s thoughts. For the city to grow, it needed major change. Under Bloomberg, big thinking is happening again. What we have is a—some would say unholy—alliance of Bob and Jane. Exaltation of the neighborhood, coupled with the idea of building new ones from scratch. The Bloomberg administration still lags in taste at times. Why does every economic-development initiative have to be as big as possible? (Note to gadflies: Many of these projects are not yet set in stone. If you hate it, you can still change it. Start your blog now. But also start imagining an alternative—preferably in PowerPoint.)

Still, when Majora Carter, executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, stands on the newly green rooftop of the historic American Banknote Company Building and quotes Daniel Burnham, one can’t help but get a little chill. “Make no little plans,” she says. “They have no magic to stir man’s blood,” goes the rest of the quote. For Tomorrowland, little plans haven’t been made.


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