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Posts from the Municipal Art Society of New York Category


MAS Survey: Bike/Ped Projects Popular; Many Neighborhoods Lag in Livability

Most New Yorkers spend a lot of time walking, so pedestrian infrastructure is bound to be popular. Image: Municipal Art Society

The Municipal Art Society’s second annual survey on livability, released today, provides still more opinion data showing that New Yorkers want to see more bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. They’re more conflicted, however, when it comes to new, large-scale development.

The MAS poll, a survey of 1,000 residents performed by the Marist Institute, found that a preponderance of New Yorkers think that both bike lanes and pedestrianized streets make their neighborhoods better places to live. Bike lanes proved more popular, with 56 percent saying they improved livability and only 17 percent opposing them. Even the bold proposal of closing streets entirely to traffic had a citywide approval rating of 42 percent to 29 percent. Previous polls have shown similarly sizable levels of support for bike lanes.

MAS found more conflicted feelings toward new, dense development. While 62 percent of those surveyed believed that “large real estate development” is a good idea, an equal number said that development should “maintain the character of the neighborhood.” Bronx residents were much more willing to embrace development while Staten Islanders and Manhattanites were the least.

As MAS found last year, New York City’s staggering levels of inequality are reflected in New Yorkers’ opinions towards their neighborhoods. “We continue to see some underlying discontent, especially among people living outside Manhattan and those with lower incomes,” said MAS president Vin Cipolla. “It’s clear that citywide organizations like MAS need to step up our individual and collective efforts and presence in neighborhoods and forge new partnerships with community-based organizations to address these issues.”


JSK: Plaza Program Will Expand; Gridlock Sam: Backlash Nothing New

Plans for a plaza at Fulton Street and Marcy Avenue, in the first phase of the plaza program. Image: NYC DOT

Last night’s Municipal Arts Society panel, “Shared Streets: Making It Work,” mainly covered familiar ground for those who have been following the city’s efforts to repurpose its streets over the last four years. Participants touted the improved bus speeds along Select Bus Service routes, the safety gains where protected bike lanes have been installed, and the economic boost of pedestrian plazas in Times and Herald Square. Two things jumped out at as noteworthy, though.

First, DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan announced that the department will be accepting applications for a fourth round of its plaza program. When you include both the plazas constructed through the city’s capital program and those built on a “temporary” basis with paint and planters, the latest round will bring the total number of plazas in the works up to 50.

Then, former Traffic Commissioner Sam Schwartz offered some perspective on the current media backlash against the DOT and the Prospect Park West lawsuit. “It’s been hard for as long as I can remember,” he said, “and that’s a very long time.” He said that he too got sued, in his case by the parking garage industry over a 1980 plan to charge single-occupant vehicles for entering the Manhattan central business district. He claimed that business leaders were marching on City Hall and taking out full-page ads in the newspapers that read “Commissioner Schwartz, stop fouling up New York.” The word “foul,” added Schwartz, was a replacement on the part of copy editors.

Schwartz also dismissed the particular strain of opposition that has tried to paint improvements to transit and bike and pedestrian infrastructure as elitist. When he was in office, he said, “it was just the opposite argument. It was the poor people that would be coming into the wealthy neighborhoods. So I think this too shall pass.”


MAS Survey: New York City Is Livable But Not Everyone Benefits Equally

The intersection of Northern Boulevard and 108th Street is dangerous enough that Mayor Bloomberg announced the city's Pedestrian Safety Plan there, but has Corona received the livable streets improvements found elsewhere in the city? Image: Google Street View.

The intersection of Northern Boulevard and 108th Street is dangerous enough that Mayor Bloomberg announced the city's Pedestrian Safety Study there, but has Corona received the livable streets improvements found elsewhere in the city? Image: Google Street View.

New Yorkers think their city is very livable, a new survey conducted by the Municipal Art Society shows, but livability isn’t equitably distributed across the five boroughs. To make the city truly livable, said panelists today at an MAS conference, New York needs to figure out how to bring its best features to all neighborhoods.

Overall, New Yorkers like their city: 84 percent of those surveyed said they were satisfied or very satisfied with living in New York City, and 82 percent said the same about their neighborhoods.

Perhaps part of that satisfaction comes from living in the American city least dominated by the automobile. The two neighborhood characteristics that New Yorkers were most satisfied with were access to transit (93 percent) and neighborhood walkability (85 percent).

However, the MAS survey showed huge disparities in the degree to which New Yorkers find their neighborhoods to be livable. Overall, while 22 percent of African-Americans and 29 percent of Latinos were dissatisfied with their neighborhoods, only nine percent of whites were. Only eight percent of whites disagreed that their neighborhood was a good place to walk, while 18 percent of African-Americans and 19 percent of Latinos disagreed.

In the words of MAS Urban Fellow Mary Rowe, “If you’re white, you’re male, you’re under 45, and you’re making more than 75K, the city’s working well for you. Duh.”

Read more…


Planners Tackle Big Questions About How to Shape NYC Development

planfornycbooks_web.jpgNew York City's unpassed 1969 comprehensive plan. Photo: Historic Districts Council

Though the Charter Revision Commission looks likely to take a pass at reforming the city's land use process this year, the door will remain open in the years to come to tackle the complex and controversial issues that surround planning and development in New York. The Municipal Art Society and Manhattan Community Board 1 held a conference yesterday to begin tackling some particularly thorny questions. The most difficult, perhaps, concern the roles of comprehensive planning and community-based planning in shaping the future of the city.

The lack of comprehensive planning is obvious if you look at the intersection of New York's transportation policy and land use decisions. Take a project like The New Domino, where the city's innovative Kent Avenue bike lane will run right alongside huge garages with 1,428 new parking spaces. The city's right hand is helping people get around without cars while the left hand gives them more incentive to drive. What is really the goal for the Williamsburg waterfront?

At the same time, local communities routinely feel powerless to shape their own neighborhoods. Brooklyn Community Board 1 called for significant reductions in the amount of parking at the New Domino, for instance, but only received a minor cut.

In practice, these two approaches often conflict. Comprehensive planning can help set broader targets but tends to centralize decision-making. Community-based planning can create grassroots momentum for big changes like the transformation of Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza. But the political units assumed to speak for neighborhood residents -- the city's 59 community boards -- often elevate parochial concerns that can thwart citywide goals, like creating safer streets and more sustainable development. (Most CBs are not as enlightened on parking policy as CB1.)

These are meaty issues, and ones worth thinking about. Here are some of the big questions and big ideas from yesterday's conference:


Driver’s Remorse: Tardy Brodsky Delayed by “Accident”

A tipster who attended last night's MAS event about Moynihan Station sent us this delicious tidbit, in which some small measure of justice is served for Westchester Assemblyman Richard Brodsky's contribution to the killing of congestion pricing:

Scheduled to appear at a panel discussion on the fate of Moynihan Station beginning at 6:30 pm Tuesday at the Municipal Art Society headquarters, congestion pricing foe Assemblyman Richard Brodsky arrived at 7:20 pm, more than halfway through the event. His empty seat prompted more than a few raised eyebrows. At one point, someone observed that Brodsky was "stuck in transit." Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for NYC, a congestion pricing advocate, riposted: "Stuck in traffic."

When Brodsky arrived, he was contrite. "There was an accident," he said. "This unintentional disrespect I deeply apologize for."


Does the U.S. Have a “Third World Transportation System”?

Funding shortfalls and logistical hurdles may be delaying plans to replace Penn Station, but the Municipal Art Society's campaign for Moynihan Station is not letting up. The MAS has been on a roll this spring, hosting a series of events related to the West Side project. This video, posted yesterday, features former Washington Post reporter Don Phillips and Metro-North lawyer Walter Zullig, Jr. discussing the project within the context of the national and regional rail networks. From the MAS recap:

Phillips provided a global overview of the transportation crisis and discussed how Europe, Asia, and even Mexico are placing massive investments in their infrastructure. France, for instance, is building rail tunnels “like crazy” for trains that, in some cases, will be carrying trucks. Iran is on a rail building boom. And Mexico is building a huge new port and rail network to compete with the Port of Los Angeles.

But “we have no vision at all,” said Phillips. “All we can say now is no new taxes.”

Rail enthusiasts jonesing for pictures of gorgeous new stations will get their fix in the first part of the video, which shows some recently completed projects -- in Europe, of course. If the Port Authority takes over the Moynihan Station project, might New York finally get a palatial new station of its own?

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Atlantic Yards or Atlantic Lots?

With development projects across the city threatened by an uncertain economy, critics of Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards project believe that a slowdown in construction could burden Prospect Heights with decades of blight. A slide show by the Municipal Art Society, called "Atlantic Yards or Atlantic Lots?," offers a bleak look into the future, like this rendering of neighborhood blocks destroyed for "temporary" surface lots that would accommodate some 1,400 cars.

MAS is calling on Governor David Paterson to suspend demolition in order to prepare an interim development plan, and has a link to a web form through which members of the public can contact Paterson directly.

Aerial photo by Jonathan Barkey.


Nasty Newsrack Photo Contest Finalists

The Municipal Art Society will be announcing the winner of its Nasty Newsrack Photo Competition tomorrow. 

MAS launched the "OUTRAGE!!! Nasty Newsrack Photo Competition" to highlight the rampant legal violations of newsracks in New York City, and received more than 200 submissions. MAS is currently is exploring new newsrack policies and designs that have been successful in other cities, such as Houston, Dallas and San Diego. Unlike New York, these cities limit the number of newsracks at any given corner, have strict criteria regulating their design, and allow only steel boxes; plastic boxes are prohibited.

Check out some of the finalists and wonder to yourself: Is New York a first-world city, or what?

SW corner of Grand and W. Broadway

SW corner of 3rd Ave. and 35th St.

SE corner of 79th St. and 1st Ave.

NW corner of Lafayette and Canal

And my personal favorite: SW corner of 1st Ave. and 51st St.


A Livable Streets Discussion and Happy Hour

Meet and mingle with other readers, activists, and supporters of a livable approach to transportation, development, and public spaces. Get to know the others who share your values about the kind of city we want to live in. Put faces behind the screen names online. And have a drink!

A Livable Streets Discussion and Happy Hour
Wednesday, March 28th, 6:30 pm @ The Tank
279 Church Street, downstairs

At 7 o'clock, leaders from a few organizations will introduce themselves and say a few brief words about their current activities:


What Went Wrong With “Atlantic Yards?”

An Interview With Kent Barwick, President of the Municipal Art Society


"There is disappointment, annoyance, and anger because there hasn't been any way for anyone to have a voice. Who is listening to the people living around Atlantic Yards?"

With the Pataki Adminstration scrambling to beat the buzzer and win approval for Forest City Enterprise's "Atlantic Yards" mega-project before the inauguration of Governor-Elect Eliot Spitzer, journalist Ezra Goldstein talks to Municipal Art Society President Kent Barwick about the problems that arise when communities are locked out of the development process in their own neighborhoods.

Municipal Art Society President Kent Barwick has been attacked for not condemning Forest City Enterprises plan to drop 17 high rises and a 19,000-seat basketball arena in the middle of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. He has also been criticized for being too concerned about process when, say his critics, the basic concepts behind the immense Atlantic Yards project are fatally flawed. To Barwick, however, process is paramount, and Atlantic Yards is the poster child for what goes wrong when process is ignored.

Barwick says that the people of Brooklyn and their elected representatives have been shut out of planning for Atlantic Yards and all major decisions have been made behind closed doors. The result is a poorly designed project that has polarized the community and that squanders both opportunity and public trust.

The project can be saved, he says, but only if people are given the chance not just to speak but to be heard. That would happen if the state recognizes that, properly, its client at Atlantic Yards is the citizens and government of New York City, not a private developer.

That is no radical notion, argues Barwick. It is law and policy embedded in regulations and the city charter, thanks in large part to agreements he and the MAS helped hammer out two decades ago after a prolonged battle with the Koch administration over the proposed sale to a private developer of publicly owned land on Columbus Circle.

The city, says Barwick, is obligated to solicit ideas from the public, develop a master plan, put out an RFP (a request for proposals) and then consider bids from several developers before it can give up a significant piece of land. More public hearings follow before construction is allowed to begin. It may be a cumbersome and imperfect process, Barwick admits, but in project after project, the end result has been far superior to the initial concept.

atlantic_yards2.jpgAt Atlantic Yards, a private company developed plans for the 22-acre site before Brooklyn's communities had a chance to say a word, and long before a token RFP was issued. The community boards, guaranteed participation in neighborhood planning in the 1975 and 1989 revisions to the city charter, were completely shut out of the process, as were Brooklyn's democratically elected City Council members. The developer never publicly asked the advice of the highly capable (and taxpayer funded) staff at the Department of City Planning which had just completed a major rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn adjacent to the project's footprint.

The first time Brooklyn residents heard that Forest City Ratner Companies intended to build 16 skyscrapers and an arena in the middle of their borough, it was presented largely as a fait accompli. That was allowed to happen because the city had ceded responsibility for the site to the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), and the ESDC, bluntly, operates above the law. The ESDC has the power to override New York City law and policy, and that is precisely what it has done.

The ESDC was established in the 1960s as the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) with the best of intentions, says Barwick. Its primary function was to get economically mixed housing built outside poor neighborhoods, and "Governor Rockefeller recognized that you couldn't integrate society if you didn't have a way to break through local zoning laws. The UDC act gave the state the mechanism when necessary to break local zoning codes to achieve a higher purpose."

But, Barwick says, "that has evolved now into a situation where virtually all major projects in the state use the UDC act, because it is virtually impervious to challenge. UDC projects don't have to conform to local zoning, or pay any attention to historic preservation, and they give the state the power of eminent domain."

UDC projects also "bypass virtually every opportunity there is for citizens to voice their opinion."