Bloomberg’s New York City

Michael Bloomberg has put an array of game-changing development projects at the forefront of his administration’s urban planning policy– and seen a lot of them through. As Bloomberg prepares to leave office at the end of his present term, The Architect’s Newspaper has put together a fascinating survey piece that describes many of the individual projects of the Bloomberg era, which together have reshaped the city in the most significant ways since the time of Robert Moses. (Thanks, Jon Goldman, for the tip!)

A new vision for Coney Island. Source: NYCEDC.

As a New Yorker (regionally, at least), I have very mixed feelings about Bloomberg’s planning legacy. On one hand, I now work in the city two or three days each week, and I have to say that I really enjoy the streetscaping changes that have been made to Broadway, in particular. Sometimes, when I feel like I need some exercise at the end of the day, I’ll walk up Broadway from the office in Gramercy Park to the PATH station at Greeley Square. The transformation of Broadway is palpable: Traffic lanes have been replaced with trees, bike lines, and outdoor seating. One day last week, a wedding was being performed in the middle of the street. With the reduction of motor-traffic, it became clear how much of the stress-inducing aggression that one expects to find in New York City is a direct result of having homicidal drivers competing for blacktop. Without them (or, even, with fewer of them), Broadway– in Midtown– has been transformed into a relatively quiet and peaceful setting. The redevelopment of Broadway is part of a wider administration focus on complete streets. No doubt that further reductions in vehicular traffic, as the Bloomberg administration has sought, would improve the ambience of the city, immeasurably.

On a much grander scale, I also really admire the ambition of a lot of the city’s signature projects, as highlighted in the Architect’s Newspaper article. The Hudson Yards Redevelopment Area, for example, will herald the most significant change to Manhattan’s geography since the 1920s: It will open an enormous new section of the city to Midtown-style development, supported by a  city-financed extension of the No. 7 subway (which is almost complete), and by the 2005 and 2009 upzonings of nearly 60 blocks on the Far West Side. Across town, in the middle of the East River, a new Cornell campus on Roosevelt Island will greatly increase the university’s footprint within the city limits. Downtown, the new World Trade Center is finally coming together, while Governor’s Island remains an empty canvas–but not for long. It’s an exciting time in New York City development. Forget about the numbers– the money to be made, the square footages to be built. Just look at the pictures in the above-mentioned article, and try to not be impressed by what’s happening.

On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that the city has become too managed, and too planned, on a human scale. It’s hard to characterize, exactly, what has been diminished over the last decade. But it feels as though the chaos and spontaneity that once made New York New York have been methodically reduced, and what we now have in New York is something more like a polished European capital, whose politically-connected denizens have shaped it to showcase their own riches and refinement, than like the crazy American city that we once loved. I still remember a city whose energy and danger seemed to promise that anything could happen here. What happened to that? The city of today is easier to deal with, in some ways. But it’s also become a preening, intolerant, and exclusive in-club, in ways that America’s largest city should never have been allowed to become. There’s something that I just find deeply dispiriting and stifling about much of New York now. It represents, I think, in all of its hair-splitting regulations, its commercialized hipness, and its matter-of-fact acceptance of locked doors, the decisive transformation of metropolitan America into a class-structured society whose boundaries are increasingly impenetrable to all but a select few. Its neatness is not something to celebrate.

It would be unfair, and perhaps too easy, given his personal characteristics, to lay most of the blame for this on Mayor Bloomberg. These changes have been coming for a generation, and many are the results of national and even global phenomena. Furthermore, to give credit where it’s due, the Bloomberg administration has probably done more to prioritize the development of affordable housing than any New York City mayor since the 1960s. Few things represent the narrowing of the city more starkly than its cost of living; and while Bloomberg’s willingness to tackle this may simply make good business sense, it also addresses an inequity that has been tolerated for far too long. At the same time, Bloomberg has had more than 10 years to leave his mark on the city, and it is what it is. There may be more affordable units in the pipeline as a result of his policies, but rest assured that their numbers will be very tightly controlled; and never will enough of them be permitted through the city’s land use policies to threaten the astronomical market equilibrium. Instead, the experience of living in New York City will become increasingly bureaucratized and contingent for those who are not rich: As Bloomberg once gloated, he believes the city is a “luxury product” for which people ought to expect to pay. And pay they do. His is not a vision of a city whose plans respond to the needs of its people; rather, it’s a city whose political players make room for the people they might need.