Friday, March 6, 2009

The Answer to Our Question About NYC Density Destiny Is National News


(Image above from the print edition of Newsweek- click to enlarge.)

Noticing New York has been posing the question whether New York City is becoming too dense. (See: Thursday, December 11, 2008, Is NYC Becoming Too Dense? Who’s to Say?) We have also pointed out that eminent domain is being used to achieve levels of density that are greater than what was actually anticipated and achievable when the city’s zoning code provisions establishing controls over the level of density were put in place. In essence, the shoe-horning in of extra density through the use of eminent domain abruptly overrides those original expectations. (See: Sunday, January 11, 2009, Eminent Domain Is Density.)

Bloomberg’s Answer to Our Density Question

Now it seems that our question respecting whether “NYC Becoming Too Dense” has been answered by none other than Mayor Bloomberg himself. The answer is “Yes,” and it turns out that answer is national news.

To deal with escalating levels of congestion Bloomberg is planning to close down large portions of Broadway to vehicular traffic. Not only is this being reported in the city’s national paper, the New York Times, (In New York, Broadway as Great Walk Way, by William Neuman, Published: February 26, 2009); it has also made national news as a two-page spread in Newsweek (Where the Neon Lights Are Bright—And Drivers Are No Longer Welcome: Under Mayor Bloomberg, New York City is embracing a controversial theory: closing down streets can reduce traffic jams, by Nick Summers, Feb 27, 2009.)

(Graphic from the new York Times below)


Herald Square and Times Square, The Pedestrian Environment. Bloomberg Echos Noticing New York

Not surprisingly, the measures being undertaken are in large part an effort is to deal with the high levels of density in areas we have written about, Herald Square and, where eminent domain recently squeezed in extra density, Times Square. The Times’ writes:

Vehicles would be barred entirely from Broadway at public plazas in Times Square and Herald Square, and would share the thoroughfare with a bike lane and a promenade along the rest of the stretch from 59th Street to a new plaza at 23rd Street.

The city plans to start making the changes in late May, and more alterations are possible in the future.

Mr. Bloomberg said the plan would relieve traffic congestion and make more room for pedestrians, enhancing some of the city’s most popular public spaces. But it could also change the very nature of some of Manhattan’s busiest and most famous areas, including the theater district, Times Square, the fashion district and Macy’s front stoop.
In Noticing New York we also wrote about “Macy’s front stoop:”

I found myself asking the question of whether perhaps we might have reached a density limit one warm afternoon the fall of 2007 as I stood on one foot on a corner of 34th Street and Sixth Avenue at about 4:30. I was waiting for a space in the crowd to clear so I could put my other foot down to proceed in the general direction I wanted to go.
Bloomberg speaks of essentially the same indicator, pedestrians not having enough room to walk and being forced out into the streets. We think that whenever people are swarming into the streets it axiomatically means that density is overflowing. Again from that Times article:

“People avoid Times Square because the traffic is so terrible and people are getting pushed out into the streets — the sidewalks can’t handle it,” Mr. Bloomberg said at a news conference.
Newsweek’s article reports:

It's especially bad at Times Square, where drivers on Broadway and Seventh Avenue meet heavy crosstown traffic—along with 356,000 daily pedestrians.
And had the city traffic commissioner unfurling a map to point to:

the horrible intersection outside Macy's, at 34th
An Aside on Macy’s, Moynihan Station and Going Off-Track Due to Developer Ambitions for More Density-Producing Towers

(We should note that one of the things that sidetracked and held up the urgently desirable goal of the proposed new Moynihan Station replacing the currently fouled-up Penn Station.was that private developers took the project astray trying to figure out how they could acquire historic Macy’s to profit by building more density-producing towers in the area. See: Monday, February 23, 2009, Un-funny Valentines Arriving Late: Your Community Interests at Heart. Senator Schumer in recent statement is calling for more public funding for Moynihan Station expressing an understanding that the reliance on the private sector has been part of the unnecessary delay of this vital public transportation project. See: Tuesday, March 03, 2009, Schumer touts stimulus funds for Moynihan Station, waves off question on Atlantic Yards. In that vein, reporting on Schumer’s remarks, the Times noted that “Despite widespread support, the project has languished because of . . . political inertia . . . and the developers’ ambitions.” And quoting Schumer “The focus is now on the station, letting private development follow rather than the other way around.” The Times added, “Mr. Schumer’s proposal recognizes the inability of private developers in the current economic environment to advance the six office towers they had wanted to build as part of the train station project.” See: Schumer Seeks Federal Stimulus Funds to Jump-Start Moynihan Transit Project, by Charles V. Bagli, March 1, 2009.)

Shutting Down Streets and Avenues as an Escape Valve

As we have just pointed out, the shutting down of Broadway is in essence an answer to our question of whether New York is becoming too dense in that it is an implicit acknowledgment that the answer is “yes, the city is becoming too dense.” It is an acknowledgment because if the city had said ahead of time that it was going to shut down streets and avenues in order to build extra density, then it is not clear that the idea would have been readily embraced. The Times article points out that the city proposal “aroused a range of passionate reactions” reporting that “cabbies largely disliked the plan” and that “some in the theater industry also were wary of the plan.”

The shutting down of the street space is also “answer” to the density question in another sense: although it was likely not anticipated when more density was being created, it serves as an after-the-fact escape valve adjustment to deal with it. That raises the question in our mind: What will happen in those situations where we build to cram in maximum additional density and we don’t have extra streets and avenues to close down as an escape valve or way to adjust when it turns out that we get more congestion than we can otherwise handle? The question is urgent because cramming in maximum additional density is the new Bloombergian planning style.

We are thinking in particular of areas of the city that will experiment with combining superblocks with never before tried levels of density with FARs (zoning code parlance for “Floor to Area Ratio”i.e. “density”) that only become legally possible with such street closings. Ironically, important acknowledged urbanists like Jane Jacobs would call for more streets and avenues (particularly for pedestrians) as a means to cope with high density. Two examples of situations where we therefore may be building without the kind of escape valve option being used here are Atlantic Yards and, considered by the City Planning Commission only last Wednesday, construction of a dense new superblock of towers at what is now Fordham University’s midtown campus site.

(Proposed new Fordham University residential neighborhood below)


Times Square Hubbub Uniquely Desirable?

It should also be pointed out that while the density in Times Square is now so great that this escape valve seems needed, it is arguable that Times Square should be a unique example of an area where a “happy hubbub” of buffeting density is a desirable part of the experience. Times Square is an example of a situation where the city went counter to the general rule to specially zone for the amusement park fun of being assaulted by huge scale flashing animated billboards. The Times reports how the experience of hubbub in the area is valued by many:

“I like the happy hubbub,” said Melissa Gasparis, of Upper Saddle River, N.J., who was strolling through Times Square on Thursday. She said she was afraid the mayor’s plan would make the place less vibrant, because the sidewalks would be less crowded and the streets more free-flowing.

“I like to drive through Times Square,” Ms. Gasparis said. “It cheers me up. It’s big, bright and fun.”

Her mother, Aphrodite Kalonturos, of Delaware, said: “It’s the craziest place in the world. Why change it?”
But can the same thing be said about a crazy hubbub being desirable in the proposed new Fordham University residential area below classical Lincoln Center? And does it make sense interjecting such insane hubbub (and possible additional avenue closings) into the heart of residential brownstone Brooklyn as is proposed with Atlantic Yards?

(Atlantic Yards density proposed to be added to brownstone Brooklyn below)


Newsweek’s Car-Oriented Reporting: And a Not-So-New Traffic Theory

It is interesting that Newsweek’s reporting is much more from the standpoint of what the proposal means for vehicular traffic than for pedestrians. Maybe this is because Newsweek is a national news magazine and we are a nation of car drivers. We were intrigued that one way the Newsweek story shows up when you google it, (though we are not sure from where the goggled heading derives) is “New York City Embraces a Bold New Traffic Theory / Newsweek ...”
Newsweek reports on the concept that traffic congestion in the city will be reduced by the reduction of street space rather than additions to the street space:

These pilot projects fit in with a larger counterintuitive theory that's gaining traction with urban-planning wonks: that closing roads can reduce congestion. During the 1990s, a British transit engineer named Stephen Atkins read about how San Francisco congestion decreased, rather than increased, after an earthquake knocked out a key freeway. He observed the same phenomenon in other cities that closed roads, too. "In a lot of places, the traffic was not just displaced—a lot of it disappeared," he says.

Maybe it is all well and fine to hand out credit for groundbreaking thinking to urban traffic experts of a more recent generation, but this theory and its accompanying observations date back earlier than the 1990s. Jane Jacobs wrote about precisely this in painstaking and eloquent detail in her seminal 1961 book, the “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

The Argument About Making It Worse

In conclusion we want to say that Noticing New York considers that the proposal to shut down Broadway is probably a good idea, but we have more to say. We note that the Times article concludes with what we consider a challenge to argue from Bloomberg. It quotes Bloomberg thus:

“We all know that traffic in Midtown can be excruciatingly slow, . . .” he said, adding that it would be hard to argue that “we can do anything to make it worse.”
Noticing New York has no problem arguing that the Mayor can do a lot to make things worse. It only takes the Mayor’s continuing to move forward with his predilection for unthinking, pell mell and insufficiently planned additions to city density at every seeming opportunity.

Newsweek concludes its article with some complimentary statements about Bloomberg that indicates they have not caught up with the current turning of the tide in public opinion. (See: Monday, February 2, 2009, The Good News IS the Bad News: Thanks A lot for Mayor Bloomberg’s “Charity” (Part I)). They do say one thing with which we agree; he has a “love” of “risk-taking.” It is just that when he arrogantly joins such “risk- taking” with “big ideas” to which he has given insufficient thought and his reflexive love of accommodating big developers, the rest of us wind up with an unlivable city.

1 comment:

Vernon Malcolm said...

Inspect away Congestion! The city should toughen inspections for medical, psychiatric and vehicle reasons to cut down the number of congestion. This way, we will also get the voters against congestion pricing, who live in Bayside and Staten Island, to move away.