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Manhattan Institute

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N.Y.'s Primrose Path


N.Y.'s Primrose Path

September 25, 2002
Urban PolicyNYC

One of the Bloomberg administration's first initiatives was an effort to resolve quickly the various lawsuits against the city left over from the Giuliani years. But if the mayor's recent settlement concerning city-owned community gardens is any indication, the result is likely to be expensive policy defeats for New York.

Last week, the administration came to an agreement with environmentalists, community gardeners and state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to preserve as gardens hundreds of city-owned plots that Mayor Giuliani had sought to auction off for housing development. Much of this land wound up in local gardeners' hands during the Koch years, when the city took over hundreds of abandoned, garbage-strewn lots in neighborhoods where demand for new building was non-existent. The city gave some of the sites over to community groups for temporary use, until the housing market improved. At that point, New York would reassume control of the land.

It didn't work out that way. During the booming 1990s, when Gotham's population swelled and declines in crime made many neighborhoods more attractive, the Giuliani administration began trying to auction off the sites, hoping to spur production of thousands of units of housing, including much-needed units for the elderly.

Support for turning the land into housing came from across the political spectrum, including from former Bronx Borough president Fernando Ferrer and members of Community Board 10 in Harlem. But environmentalists and gardeners sued to stop the auctions. Spitzer joined the suits on the side of the community groups. Last week's decision keeps up to 400 plots in gardeners' hands, freeing only about 150.

In a city with a perpetual housing crisis, where the residential vacancy rate is under 5 percent and sale prices of apartments have continued rising even during the current recession, nothing justifies this settlement. It's a reminder to the consensus-seeking Bloomberg administration that compromise isn't always a good thing—sometimes, Mayor Giuliani's "my way or no way" attitude made sense. That was all the more true after a Manhattan judge gave the city a victory in April by turning aside one lawsuit by one of these advocacy groups. But if Bloomberg's policymakers are going to compromise just to distinguish themselves from Giuliani's hard-edged style, Gotham's scores of advocacy groups will take them to the cleaners.

The land deal was especially infuriating, because the Bloomberg administration has yet to articulate a housing strategy. There's no money in the budget for huge building subsidies, and Bloomberg's team has shown little interest in attacking the barriers that make building so difficult in the city. The gardens represented one of the few ways for city government to promote housing.

From, the Web site of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.