Grand Vision

I’ve never voted for Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s ostensibly Republican mayor, now in his second term. In 2001, when he was first elected, I was living in exile in San Francisco; but had I been here I surely would have voted for his Democratic opponent. When he ran for a second term in 2005, I was back in New York, and I stood in the voting booth unwilling to choose Bloomberg’s rival but also unable to pull the lever (yes, we still have voting machines with levers in NYC) for Mayor Mike. Or, more accurately, I did pull the lever for him, but then I thought about the football stadium that his administration was planning to build atop the railyards on Manhattan’s far West Side, and I flipped the lever back.

I mention this because recently I witnessed Bloomberg deliver the best speech I’ve ever heard from a New York City mayor, and possibly the best speech I’ve ever heard from any politician. My first thought when he concluded was an entirely atypical (for me anyway), utterly uncritical “Wow!” Everyone around me gave the mayor a standing ovation, and so did I.

The mayor gave this speech, an outline of a document called “PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York,” at the annual assembly organized by the Regional Plan Association (RPA), an influential civic group. The premise of PlaNYC is that by 2030 the city will have grown from its current population of 8.2 million to 9 million. “We’ve got to begin to manage the growth that we can see coming,” Bloomberg declared. “Because if we don’t act now, that growth will be paralyzing.”

The RPA’s annual get-together is generally an information-rich, low-key affair, a few hundred policy wonks talking shop. This year was different. The theme—“A Bright and Green Future,” very au courant—drew a record 600 attendees. For the first time an RPA assembly was standing room only, overflowing with representatives of businesses and governments from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The Waldorf-Astoria’s Starlight Ball­room was elbow to elbow with blue suits, and every­one was talking green. Naturally, Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Portland, Oregon, was boasting about his city’s green initiatives, but so was Steve Bellone, town supervisor of Babylon, Long Island. Predictably, Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx was fulminating against the skyrocketing asthma rates in her borough. But then so was the mayor. I felt as though I were witnessing the exact moment when the environmental movement offi­cially moved from the activist fringe to the center of the mainstream.

If the RPA assembly was a graduation ceremony for the metropolitan area’s consciousness, then Mayor Bloomberg was its valedictorian. His speech was a swift, emphatic skim of the dense 157-page document produced by his newly formed Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. He touched on the highlights: transit-oriented development, preserving and enhancing open spaces, encouraging energy conservation and the development of green power, and “dramatically” reducing the city’s output of greenhouse gases. And he focused on the plan’s most controversial proposal, the imposition of “congestion pricing” on Manhat­tan. Taking a cue from London, we’d charge a fee to drivers entering much of Manhattan. The plan would ease traffic flow, reduce pollution, and generate revenue that would be used for mass transit.

PlaNYC is well worth reading. Available online , it is the most exuberant planning document I’ve ever read. Of course, it’s not a planning document at all. It’s a political statement, and it sometimes reads like a religious tract, one promoting belief in New York: “Moving to New York has always been an act of optimism. To come here you must have faith in a better future, and courage to seek it out; you must trust the city to give you a chance, and know that you’ll take advantage when it does. You must believe in investing in your future with hard work and ingenuity.”

What’s most interesting is that the plan is visionary, but without the usual trappings of visionary schemes—no snazzy renderings promising an Oz-like city of the future (the one I noticed was of Fresh Kills, the former garbage dump, dressed up as a park). Instead, there are lots of charts and maps. The plan is mostly about using the city’s resources strategically rather than building monuments. It does include a number of capital projects: the $7.2 billion Second Avenue Subway, a $450 million extension of the number 7 train to the far West Side, the $1 billion Moynihan Station, a few new power plants. But it is much more concerned with funding mechanisms for those projects than how they might someday look.

Unfortunately, the plan casts some of the administration’s existing policies, such as rebuilding the old industrial waterfront into glam new residential neighborhoods, as moral imperative: housing must be built on every available site. The argument is that increased supply will lead to affordability, but that equation doesn’t always work in this city. (To be fair, the plan promises 22,000 units of middle-class housing and strategies such as inclusionary zoning, which grants developers bonuses for building affordable units in or adjacent to market-rate properties.) Housing, the plan says, should also be built on sites that don’t currently exist. PlaNYC calls for methodically decking over rail yards and sunken highways to acquire large tracts. The theory is exciting, but in practice so far the approach has spawned Atlantic Yards, a gargantuan scheme conceived with indifference to surrounding communities. Among other things, PlaNYC suggests undoing the damage done to Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill when Robert Moses rammed a sunken section of the BQE between them by decking over the highway and building on top. Decks, however, are expensive, and land created by that method calls for a scale of development that might well rip the two neighborhoods asunder a second time.

Much of the report’s nitty-gritty, however, is fascinating and admirably unsexy. There’s a large section on coming up with funding for the cleanup and reuse of polluted industrial sites known as brownfields. Another section explains why the city’s sewage-treatment facilities overflow when it rains and how installing something called “high-level storm sewers” into new developments will help keep nasty effluvia out of the waters surrounding the city, as will green roofs and more street trees planted in better-designed beds. There’s even a suggestion that subway tunnel seepage be collected and used as gray-water for flushing the city’s toilets or providing steam heat. Oh, and we’re going to “reintroduce mollusk habitats” to help clean our water the natural way, starting with a colony of ribbed-mussel beds near Jamaica Bay. Much of PlaNYC is so brave and cheerfully geeky that it’s like a new-age Boy Scout manual.

Despite my qualms about some of the mayor’s schemes, I think this is a model document, even an inspirational one. Other cities would do well to emulate it. More important, it represents the sort of thinking that needs to emerge from Washington, D.C., if this country is to thrive in the coming decades—and if this planet is going to continue to sustain life. It’s hard to say how much Bloom­berg can accomplish in the two years he has left (term limits tend to get in the way of 23-year plans), but the mayor is smart, so I’m sure he’ll figure out how to build PlaNYC into an issue for the next set of mayoral contenders—and perhaps a political spring­board for himself. After all, I walked out of the Waldorf thinking that if I ever got another chance to pull a lever for the man, I surely would.

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