Friday, December 27, 2002
I finally got around to reading Mayor Bloomberg's Vision for Lower Manhattan. Guess what: it's really, really good.
The plan is anchored in a few, key truths:
* Downtown is now a 24-hour neighborhood, not a business district, but it lacks crucial amenities to make it a real family neighborhood.
* As a business district, downtown suffers crucially from poor transportation links to the airports and to the suburbs.
* New York City as a whole and downtown in particular make extraordinarily poor use of its waterfront, which in most cities is a magnet for tourism and recreation.
The plan, therefore, is oriented around solving each of these problems. Public investments to create new parks, a tree-lined promenade on West Street, and facilities on the waterfronts will make the area far more attractive to residents. Less-expensive investments in amenities like schools and libraries would logically follow the private-sector creation of new housing in developments similar in concept to Battery Park City. New transportation links to Newark Airport and Kennedy Airport (by train), the LIRR and by ferry to Laguardia Airport and the New Jersey suburbs would dramatically improve access to downtown as a business destination. (It's a shame that there's no link planned to MetroNorth; that would seem to be too expensive.) These transportation upgrades chew up 80% of the budget for the plan.
The emphasis is on building neighborhoods and creating a city friendly to pedestrians, commuters, tourists and residents. It's a sensible plan that would significantly upgrade the quality of life downtown. And it would have positive spillover effects. A more viable downtown Manhattan would also mean a more viable downtown Brooklyn, and would make the New Jersey suburbs most convenient to downtown more attractive as well. Investing in a plan like this is the best way to ensure that New York recovers more quickly from the current slump.
Of course, there are other investments needed as well. The far West Side of Midtown - the 30s through 50s west of 8th Avenue - is a region crying out for a new business district. They are talking about extending the #7 train starting next year, providing a key transportation link; that would probably be the biggest bang-for-the-buck transportation improvement the city could make. Other plans for the area will probably wait until we see if we win the Olympics bid, since that area is where most of the Olympic facilities would be located. The Long Island City area of Queens is another area that should be developed. And I'm going to throw in my own pet area for development: Red Hook. With regular ferry service to downtown and midtown, Red Hook could be radically transformed in a few years into a premier outer-borough residential area. The views are spectacular from there and the only reason the area is has remained a slum (albeit a "funky" one, with artists and the like moving in) is the lack of transportation links to Manhattan; there are no subway lines in the neighborhood.
The city needs badly to invest in the future. Bloomberg clearly sees this. One the things Giuliani did very poorly was planning. He got many things right - including the most important thing: fighting crime - but this is one thing he got wrong. Bloomberg is headed in very much the right direction. But none of this is going to happen unless his Administration also gets the city's operating budget under control. The city is just not fiscally credible enough to invest the way it needs to. That means making tough decisions, and challenging entrenched interests, to reduce city spending. We have got to be more effecient about bus service, about social services, and about the big kahuna: education. If we don't spend less on running the city, the interest costs from these kinds of crucial investments will be unsustainable. On this matter - reducing spending - Bloomberg's record is far more equivocal, even negative.
Bloomberg was elected to do three things. First, hold the line on crime. So far, pretty much so good, though it's early innings yet. Second, reform education. So far, not so good; much of what has happened has been symbolic, and we're all waiting to see whether Bloomie has the guts to challenge entrenched interests or whether he's just going to tinker. He's won control of the schools; now he has to use it. Third, rebuild the city. Here he gets a mixed grade. His ideas about development are mostly excellent. But his ability to achieve them depend on his handling of the budget and taxes, which has been fair to poor.
Give him credit where credit is due: if he achieves half of what he's planned development-wise, Bloomberg will go down in history as the Baron Hausmann of 21st century New York. Now let's see if he's got the guts to do what's necessary to pay for it.