Band-Aid Solutions

A plan to get post-pandemic New York back on track lacks imagination.

A Post-it Note or two could easily contain the substance of the 159-page document called “New New York: Making New York Work for Everyone,” issued jointly in December by New York City mayor Eric Adams and New York State governor Kathy Hochul:

  • Change zoning (and state law) to allow increasingly vacant Midtown office buildings to be reused as housing or non-office workspaces, or torn down and replaced with new housing.
  • Midtown Manhattan more pedestrian friendly (which is funny if you think about it)
  • Fix the subway, for God’s sake! And while we’re at it, make the subway and suburban systems like Metro-North work as if they were part of a single, interconnected transportation system.
  • Make New York City a more equitable place by improving access to education and day care.

But I felt compelled to read, or at least peruse, the whole thing because I was waiting for the showstopper—what home makeover shows call “the reveal”—the moment when the report pulled back the curtain on something jaw-dropping.

As I was going through page after repetitive page, I was reminded of a morning I spent at the Toronto Reference Library while working on a postmortem of the “smart city” concept. I was making my way through the 1,524-page, four-book boxed set known as the Master Innovation and Development Plan for a failed technology-driven neighborhood called Quayside. The boxed set was issued by Sidewalk Labs, an offshoot of Google run by New York’s own Daniel Doctoroff to advance the argument that his team should be developing not just the twelve-acre site that they’d been awarded but an additional 190 acres to the south and east.

The content of this lavishly illustrated doorstop was shockingly thin. It repeatedly championed “stoas,” indoor/outdoor spaces intended to liven up the base of newly constructed buildings. And it promoted a “light rail extension,” a “vast network” of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure,” “new mobility services such as ride-hail, bike-share, electric vehicle share, and e-scooters…” Good stuff, but nothing any reasonably astute city, including Toronto, didn’t already offer or plan to offer.

As it was explained to me, the Sidewalk Labs debacle—which ended in May of 2020 when Doctoroff and company walked away from the scheme—began as a gauzy Silicon Valley dream, when a bunch of hothouse creatives at the Googleplex told then CEO Larry Page, “We wanna do something in the urban space.”

Page thought this was a fine idea, but that it would require “adult supervision.” After some headhunting, a suitable adult was found in Doctoroff, who had once been Michael Bloomberg’s deputy in charge of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center and the reshaping of Manhattan’s Far West Side. Then this loosey-goosey bunch of utopians relocated from Mountain View to Hudson Yards, gaining insight into New York power politics, but sacrificing any chance of creating something truly innovative.

I imagine something similar happened with the New New York. Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul are both new to their respective positions, and neither is regarded as a deep thinker on urban design and development issues. So they brought in adult supervision. Doctoroff was coaxed out of a self-imposed retirement to cochair a study with Richard R. Buery Jr., a deputy mayor in the de Blasio administration, and a diverse, opinionated panel of fifty-seven other “civic leaders and industry experts.” Then all these disparate voices were distilled into something repetitive, tediously platitudinous, and as oddly uninspiring as that fat Toronto plan.

Which, of course, is governmental thinking in a nutshell. If the plan were pithy, readable, and made New York anew in a way that wasn’t largely driven by the bottomless hunger of the real estate industry, it wouldn’t be adequately adult. And if it took genuine risks, it wouldn’t be…authoritative.

The hyper-plaza-fication of Manhattan—it’s the Bloomberg administration’s favorite amenity on steroids—is low-hanging fruit. Housing and transit are more complicated to address, more crucial also, but make for less seductive illustrations.

The plan’s stated goal is to restore New York City’s tax base, more than half of which had been, pre-pandemic, derived from businesses in Midtown and the Financial District. Thus, the plan’s purpose to “make New York the best place to work in the world” is repeated like a mantra. The idea that this might somehow hinge on making New York the best place to live doesn’t come up. (Although, on page 49, the plan acknowledges that “to truly establish New York as the world’s best place to work, we need to make New York the best place period.”)

Maybe the most impactful thing the plan does is give an imprimatur to the obvious: that obsolete and increasingly vacant Midtown office towers should be converted to housing and/or less conventional, more loftlike workspaces. And that we need to make regulatory changes to enable such adaptive reuse. Also, myriad maps and charts quantify what every New Yorker knows to be true: the restaurants, stores, and other businesses that best weathered Covid serve the neighborhoods where people actually live. Meanwhile, Midtown still has 23 percent less foot traffic than it did in 2019 and under 60 percent of pre-pandemic ridership levels at its subway stations. So initiative number one in the plan, “make Midtown and other business districts more live-work-play,” is entirely logical. And—have I used this word already?—obvious.

And if that requires some rezoning, so be it. Updating zoning to increase the supply of supportive housing is also a fine idea. As is the goal of building half a million units of housing in the next decade, a “moonshot” in the parlance of the plan. (Details, scarce in this document, can be found in the much pithier “Office Adaptive Reuse Study” released by the Department of City Planning in January.)

The seemingly reasonable suggestion that floor area ratio limits in Midtown be revised to allow some old office buildings to be torn down and replaced with “modern construction better suited to residential housing” would be more compelling—and more equitable—if it came with a provision that the bulk of these new units be affordable to the essential workers, the people who New York City has, so far, repaid for their tireless efforts at the height of the pandemic with a parade, a sweet gesture that has largely been forgotten. Do you remember it? Didn’t think so.

The politics of the plan are hard to handicap. On the one hand, having a New York City mayor and a New York State governor working in apparent harmony is refreshing. The customary potshot-taking relationship between the state’s two most central public officials has always seemed unnecessary and counterproductive. On the other hand, it’s hard to know precisely what either is up to. Hochul is at her best when taking her cues from the Regional Plan Association, like her push for the Interborough Express light rail line that will someday run from Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to Jackson Heights, Queens. And she’s at her most troubling when you notice that some of those RPA-endorsed plans, like the Penn Station makeover she has promised from day one, benefit the same developers who contributed heavily last year to her $21.6 million campaign war chest. (The rebuilding of Penn Station, in particular, will be funded by giving one developer, Vornado, over a billion dollars in tax breaks. Vornado will then wedge ten new office towers—future occupants unknown—into the area surrounding the station and make “payments in lieu of taxes” that will serve as the underpinning for a massive bond issue.) Adams, too, is a wild card. When he says he wants to “get stuff built,” he sounds sincere, but a can-do attitude minus any particulars becomes a cover for evasion. So the New New York can be read less as a plan and more as a compendium of “stuff,” a backstop for whatever the governor and mayor endeavor to do next.

The plan’s purpose to “make New York the best place to work in the world” is repeated like a mantra. The idea that this might somehow hinge on making New York the best place to live doesn’t come up.

Much of the plan’s content comes across as narrowly topical, a product of this very moment rather than something with depth and foresight. For instance, it promotes the notion that Midtown is inherently hostile to pedestrians. We have somehow forgotten that, before Covid, it was full of them, race-walking from meeting to meeting. But then, our notions of what good urban streetscapes look like and how they function have evolved in recent years. And, true to the zeitgeist, the plan calls for fewer trucks and cars, more bikes, bus lanes and small-scale cargo vehicles, and lots more…sauntering. The cover image of the report, for example, shows Herald Square and Greeley Square as oases filled with trees, shrubbery, and carefree pedestrians.

Indeed, the report’s biggest idea—or, at least, the one that’s most credibly fleshed out—is to morph Midtown into a network of parks, including turning Park Avenue into a linear park where “people could stroll through the canyons of buildings along grassy fields and settle next to bright riots of tulips with a book and a picnic.”

The Adams administration followed the release of the report with an announcement that it would soon begin “Transforming Fifth Avenue between Bryant Park and Central Park into an innovative pedestrian-focused space for the public to enjoy…” I’m a believer in redistributing the pavement: more for bikes and pedestrians and less for cars is a good thing. But as a Band-Aid for more systemic problems, it may be one of those interventions, like those office tower plazas of the 1960s, that have less than their desired impact. This hyper-plaza-fication of Manhattan—it’s the Bloomberg administration’s favorite amenity on steroids—is low-hanging fruit. Housing and transit are more complicated to address, more crucial also, but make for less seductive illustrations.

While I may be selling Doctoroff’s collaborator Buery short (or giving him too much credit), it’s the strong aroma of Bloomberg that makes me feel this plan is Doctoroff’s doing. Yes, there are some Doctoroff-specific moments, like a plug for the Sidewalk Labs–owned LinkNYC and a pitch to complete Hudson Yards’ “signature park,” but the authors’ unwillingness or inability to come up with anything truly inspiring brings to mind that befuddling morning in Toronto (and, for that matter, the years in which Doctoroff was trying his damnedest to get a football stadium built on Manhattan’s Far West Side). Simply put, the New New York isn’t all that new.

I confess that my jaw did drop once while working my way through the plan. I was on Initiative #30: “Accelerate modernization of libraries to support remote work across the city.” That in itself is not so surprising. Every public library already does that by supplying anyone who needs it with Wi-Fi, quiet workspace, and easy access to every possible form of knowledge. And with increased funding, libraries can be even better at all the things they do, including supporting remote work.

The jaw-dropping part is that this modest vision is in direct contradiction to reality; the Adams administration intends to cut library budgets by $13.6 million in the current fiscal year and over $20 million in each of the following two years. Not a problem: in the New New York we will rely even more heavily on private development to “modernize old and under-resourced libraries.” The first suggestion on the list of library initiatives is “granting developers ground leases for mixed-use development on public library land.” Admittedly, this strategy worked well for the Brooklyn Heights library, which was rebuilt and now sits at the base of a condo tower. Still, it seems deeply wrongheaded to, as a matter of policy, offload our most cherished public resources to private interests. But so it goes in the best place to work in the world.

has been writing about cities and other human habitats long enough to know: It’s not what they say, it’s what they build.