The Manhattan Institute’s
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the city’s planning, housing, and development
A Monthly Newsletter by Julia Vitullo-Martin, MI Senior Fellow

Thinking about Desolate Neighborhoods & Environmental Reviews

Julia Vitullo-Martin, October 2004

Does any other major American city have a huge swath of prime land as underutilized and desolate-looking as the 360-acre section of Manhattan now called Hudson Yards? The 59 blocks extending from 28th Street to 43rd, bordered by Eighth Avenue on the East and the Hudson River on the West, have been ripe for development for years. Yet even as rival cities like Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Miami have cleaned up and revitalized their waterfronts and inland areas, attracting new enterprises and residents and replacing poverty with wealth, New York has permitted its Western gateway to sink further into gloomy decay.

How can this situation continue while every other neighborhood in New York seems to be rejuvenating itself? The Far West Side's basic problem is that it has long been improperly zoned. It is still largely zoned for manufacturing, which has been fleeing since the O’Dwyer administration. And it has very little provision for residential development, which is the market driving most neighborhood comebacks.

Further, the Far West Side has the remnants of its industrial past on view for everyone to see—ugly railyards, morose warehouses, junky small buildings, and parking lots—and almost no public services to attract people. Virtually no parks, no schools, no public transportation. This is all correctable. A major rezoning could attract private investment, which would in turn spur public investment. But here's the hitch, and it's a big one: rezoning triggers the state- and city-mandated environmental review process. And environmental reviews have become the weapons of choice for disgruntled citizens who want to halt development, whether private or public.

Take the Jacob Javits Convention Center, which lies at the heart of Hudson Yards. It was obsolete and undersized the day it opened in 1986 in part because its planners had made a series of bad decisions in response to alleged environmental problems, such as parking. New Yorkers were in an anti-automobile mood in the late 1970s, so the Convention Center's planners said they would not rely on private cars nor would they need a parking garage, which was regarded by Mayor Koch's City Hall as a deal breaker. Instead, people would come and go by taxis alone.

Traffic engineer Sam Schwartz, who was the assistant commissioner for traffic in the city's Department of Transportation in 1980, recalls that the Environmental Impact Statement correctly pointed out that no good public transit existed to the Convention Center. (This is ironic since, as City Planning Chair Amanda Burden recently noted, "Every train track comes through this area.") But the EIS then went blithely on to state that taxis would be able to handle most of the transit burden. "The EIS assumed that 1800 taxis would arrive empty during the afternoon peak hour to pick up those who wanted to leave," recalls Schwartz. "We all knew this wasn't going to happen. The EIS process is often just a series of calculations based on a series of assumptions that may have no basis in reality." The Javits Convention Center has been trying to make up for some of those faulty assumptions ever since. Nonetheless, it has steadily lost ground and today ranks only 18th in size in the country.

Mayor Bloomberg's City Hall is, for better or worse, trying to solve all the planning problems on the West Side in one fell swoop. City planners hope to push through a major rezoning to allow 28 million square feet of commercial and 12.5 million square feet of residential space, a $1.4 billion football stadium, a $2-billion extension to the No. 7 subway line, and a $1.4 billion expansion to Javits all at one time. Each item by itself would require a major EIS. Put them together and the result is an EIS of over 7 volumes and 6,000 pages.

LITIGATION TO HALT THE PROJECT

Yet 6,000 pages isn't enough, argued a suit filed in late August, claiming that the city authored an incomplete EIS that would stifle public input.

The plaintiffs, including Madison Square Garden, the Hell's Kitchen Neighborhood Association, and several neighborhood businesses and residents, sought an injunction in New York State Supreme Court to halt the city's land use review procedure. Plaintiffs argued that missing or incomplete elements include analysis of traffic conditions under "reasonable worst-case analysis periods," assessment of incremental demand on the sewer system, effects of incremental demand on water supply, a "detailed air-quality analysis," and detailed analyses of existing and anticipated noise levels. All of these are treated in the EIS, but not sufficiently, say the plaintiffs.

Trying to halt the public review process in the name of protecting the public was an odd approach. In late September New York State Supreme Court Justice Herman Cahn denied the injunction and ruled that public hearings could proceed. The point of the litigation was clearly to halt the project. But that's what the public review process (and democracy) is about—giving citizens the opportunity to come forward to express their views. As the Municipal Art Society has pointed out, City Planning's commitment to making the plan clearer to the public has been evidenced by its staff’s accessibility and by its continuing willingness to make modifications to improve the plan. Indeed, in response to Community Board 4, City Planning shifted office density to the southern portion of the site and residential density to the north. Further, the draft EIS is on-line, letting every New Yorker decide the issues on the merits.

Zoning lawyer Shelly Friedman points out correctly that the environmental review process has become a game of offense/defense between development and anti-development forces. Insofar as defense means perfect data—which is what the plaintiffs are insisting on for the Hudson Yards—the only antidote becomes exhaustive data, which is both impossible and counterproductive. If anything, the city’s draft EIS is too dense and too complicated now for most citizens.

The real reform would be to head in the other direction, with the city and state reconsidering the scope of what must be reviewed, reducing the number of substantive areas, and focusing on the few things that really matter to neighborhoods, such as traffic. The EIS becomes a convenient tool for litigation because the data demands are so onerous that they can always be challenged on the grounds of incompleteness.

New York City has already lost to New Jersey some 60,000 jobs that could have been retained in Manhattan, according to Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of the Manhattan Office of the Department of City Planning. He calls this a "breakthrough moment for the city." The Manhattan market is so strong that, in exchange for being able to build higher and denser, developers will be willing to pay into a district improvement bonus fund to construct the missing infrastructure.

New York needs this rezoning. It probably doesn't need every component supported by the Bloomberg administration. But that’s what ULURP is for. Let's debate the merits.

WHAT’S NEXT

The clock on the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure started on June 21, when the City Planning Commission certified the zoning text for Hudson Yards. On September 24, the Planning Commission held its first public hearing, an all-day event at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Chairwoman Burden and 12 commissioners heard testimony from more than 150 speakers in front of an audience of some 700 people. With 60 days from the first hearing to incorporate public concerns into a final plan, the commission is expected to vote on any revisions on November 22. The new plan, which will become the final environmental impact statement, will be sent to the City Council, which then has 50 days to review and act.


October 2004
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NEWSLETTER ARCHIVE
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LINKS OF THE MONTH
Department of City Planning’s Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement
Prior Planning Studies on Hudson Yards
DGEIS can be purchased for $2 at Map & Bookstore
Manhattan Community Board 4 on Hudson Yards
Jacob Javits Convention Center expansion plans
Municipal Art Society on Far West Side
Pei Cobb Freed & Partners
Channel 13’s New York Voices: West Side Story
The Architect’s Newspaper: "How the Far West Side Will Be Won"
Hell’s Kitchen OnLine
Field of Schemes
Comptroller Thompson: "The Mayor’s West Side Risk"
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“We have to find ways to plan for our future. We have to provide areas where our customers, the tax-paying, job-creating entities that occupy office space, can find places they want to go. Even assuming a slower growth rate in the market for office space over the next 20 to 25 years, in the region as a whole there will be a need for roughly 110 million square feet of office space between 2005 and 2025. For New York City to capture its fair share and its market share, it will need roughly 68 million square feet of new space. The Hudson Yards, particularly for those customers who want a midtown location, is the only place we can fulfill that long-term demand.”
Deputy Mayor Daniel L. Doctoroff
 
“The community is already developing on its own. What the area lacks is parks and public space. Expand Javits in a reasonable way, and build housing. If you are going to play around in the neighborhood, do it in a way that will help New Yorkers.”
Chad Marlow, Village Independent Democrats