Thursday, November 18, 2010

Extension of the Number 7 Subway Line to New Jersey: An Exciting Infrastructure Idea (With Only One Hidden Big Oops)

(Above, form the New York Times: A map drawn by Steve Lanset and Ralph Braskett showing their plan for an extension of the No. 7 subway line to Secaucus, also available on their website.)

Just out is the news that the Bloomberg administration is considering a further extension of the Number 7 subway sine all the way to New Jersey as a replacement for the proposed trans-Hudson ARC railway tunnel that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie just killed. Christie killed the ARC tunnel theoretically to save money even though:
. . . the ARC tunnel is a mass transit project that represents the creation of the kind of critical big-scale regional connections (like the Erie Canal) that have been an essential factor in the growth of our metropolis. The Times also writes about how the project was supposed to “provide jobs for 6,000 construction workers” and “raise property values for suburban homeowners.” In other words the ARC tunnel is the kind of mass transit infrastructure project that equitably confers benefit widely and stimulates development throughout the territory.
(See: Friday, October 8, 2010, Putting It Together: Who Should Be Selling Green Cards?)

Secaucus 7?

Extension of the Number 7 subway line to New Jersey is an exciting idea to think about although its serious contemplation is so new that it has not yet received the vetting of valuable, nay essential, public debate. The key to making it attractive is that it would be cheaper (it’s hoped) than the ARC tunnel. That’s because starting at 11th Avenue and going west from there, (rather than the Penn Station/Macy’s location between 7th and 8th Avenues) it would avoid “the costly proposition of boring a tunnel under Manhattan to Herald Square.” * (See: Mayor Bloomberg Explores Extending Subway to New Jersey, November 16, 2010, by Andrea Bernstein.) Further: “The line would also instantly take riders to Grand Central station, a holy grail of the ARC project” though commuters would have to switch trains in Secausus. The switch means there will be time lost in what will not be a “one-seat ride.”

(* At about “half the cost,” $5.3 billion, according to a supposedly “closely guarded,” (?)- now widely quoted- four-page Hudson Yards Development Corporation memorandum to which New York Times reporters got access.)

Extension of An Extension

For those who are not following closely, service on the Number 7 line currently goes as far west as Broadway and 7th Avenue at Times Square but, partly in preparation for the development of the far West Side and Hudson Yards, new tunnels extending it are in place all the way to 11th Avenue and considerably south from there. Those tunnels are expected to be put into service fairly soon in infrastructure-time terms. (See image from the New York Times on side: Click to enlarge.)

Official Acceptance of an Idea Taken Out of The Gift-Wrapped Box Community Activists Presented It In

It would be particularly thrilling to see the idea implemented because, according to a story in today’s New York Times, this idea, like the creation of the High Line, was one that officialdom first rejected and ignored when it was identified and promoted by grassroots members of the community. (See: Extend a Subway Line Under the Hudson? For Two Men, It’s Hardly a New Idea, by Patrick Mcgeehan, November 17, 2010.)

The Times reports about how two collaborators, Steve Lanset and Ralph Braskett, had set up a website (Subway to Secaucus) to promote the idea of such a subway line extension for which they received a lot of “abuse” and “very little praise.” Now, according to the Times:
On Wednesday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg attributed the idea to recent “thinking totally out of the box” by Robert Steel, his new deputy mayor for economic development.
We gather from this that in the Bloomberg administration “thinking totally out of the box” constitutes listening to community suggestions. Paging Jane Jacobs: She would have gotten such a good guffaw over this one. What is it about the far West Side? Where does it get its mojo that initially rejected suggestions by community activists would finally have been listened to twice in such quick succession: First the suggestion to create the High Line, and now this extension?

They Could Do It Again

If the Bloomberg administration wants to listen there are plenty more community activists willing to offer “thinking” that is “totally out” of the Bloomberg administration’s “box.” The Coney Island community is suggesting that many more amusement area acres be preserved at Coney Island* along with historic buildings that define the area’s heritage. And wouldn’t it be nice, as activists suggest, to see the sun and feel the sea breeze when arriving at the Coney subway station? Then there is the community’s UNITY plan for development of Vanderbilt Yards where, instead, the Bloomberg administration is allowing free rein (free reign?) to the developer-centric notions of Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner that he should have a 30-acre, 40-year mega-monopoly. Among other things the UNITY plan calls for the development of this area to be split up and properly bid out to multiple developers. Back to this thought momentarily.

(* If more acres were preserved maybe historic boardwalk businesses would not now be getting evicted. In our eyes, recent Coney evictions proclaim that the amusement district was made too small, given that there is no space to share with authentic Coney Island history. And what sense does it make in terms of “economic development” to throw out time-tested and resilient businesses in the middle of an economic recession? A petition on the subject available here.)

Secaucus 7 or The Big Chill?

Some cold water is being thrown on the idea of the extension. It is put forth mainly in terms of whether the kind of federal funds mustered for the ARC tunnel could be redirected to such an extension. (See: Experts say plans to extend 7 line subway to New Jersey are a dead end, feds won't fund it, by Adam Lisberg and Pete Donohue, Daily News Staff Writers, November 18th 2010.) That criticism seems potentially surmountable while not addressing either the basic practicality of the suggestion or the essence of its merit. It might also be wondered whether the highway lobby would like people to believe that these funds can’t be redirected this way because they would prefer that funds be rerouted into automobile-related subsidies.

If, ultimately, upon debate and reflection the idea remains a good one and can be effected, it appeals to us on principle. Noticing New York favors an “infrastructure first” investment in mass transit. In particular, because of the broad benefit it affords and development it encourages, investment in infrastructure is to be favored as an approach to stimulating development that is superior to direct subsidies to private developers for projects they will privately own . . .

. . . There is just one big Oops associated with the proposed new plan for this subway extension and that is not with respect to what the city envisions doing going forward: It is with respect to what the city has already done. It has to do with the inadvisability of mega-developments.

The Inadvisability of Hudson Yards (and Other Development) as Mega-development

We have written before about reasons it was ill-advised to develop Hudson Yards as a one-developer mega-development. The principles also apply to other proposed mega-developments such as the 30-acre, 40-year Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly and the approximately 75-acre Willets Point single developer concept.

For more on this refer to what we wrote about Hudson Yards in this post (Monday, February 23, 2009, Un-funny Valentines Arriving Late: Your Community Interests at Heart) which points were extracted by Atlantic Yards Report in (Wednesday, February 25, 2009, Noticing New York's critique of major projects, and the path not taken of site preparation (at Hudson Yards and AY)). See also what wrote about the benefit of multiple developers versus mega-monoply development here: Monday, October 19, 2009, Thompson’s Advocated Multiple Parcels (a la Battery Park City) vs. Single-Developer Mega-monopolies Should Boost Developers’ Bids.

In summary form the points we raised were:
• Multiple parcels enable and speed development

• “Retailing” parcels increases developer bids, increasing funds the public will collect

• The absence of economies of scale for megadevelopment

• Avoidance of the four “M”s: Megadevelopment, (Mega-) Monopoly, Monoculture and Monotony

• The benefits of keeping the role of government and developers distinct when it comes to the provision of infrastructure (it should be the government’s job), particularly as it relates to working within economic cycles and the investment of stimulus to spur the economy in bad times.
Taking the last point first, it was easy to point out with respect to Hudson Yards:
If the government (as opposed to a private developer) was preparing the site it would not be necessary to postpone the site’s preparation at this time. Site preparation during the current economic downturn might even be cheaper. As it would be a public work, it would arguably be in the running for funding through federal stimulus, an important part of that being that the prepared parcels would later be bid out. But stimulus money cannot be given to a private developer already signed onto the deal because it would totally change the equation based upon which the developer bid to pay the public a low amount for the site. Used that way, the money would eliminate the risk developer assumed and constitute an award of enormous private benefit to the developer without bid.
In other words, if the city hadn’t farmed out all of Hudson Yards as a 26-acre mega-deal (which the city had to restructure for the developer’s benefit, see: Tuesday, April 27, 2010, Surprised? MTA Restructures the Hudson Yards Deal; Developer Cherry Picks More Benefit While Public Keeps the Risk) the city would have maintained substantially more latitude to deal fluidly with the economic crisis. Further, if the city had then stepped in to invest in the infrastructure associated with developing Hudson Yards, then New York citizens would have recouped a much greater amount upon a retail selling off individual parcels to multiple developers. Conversely, doing what it did- giving up its rights to the acreage first-, the city set itself up for a problem: If the city invested in infrastructure after already having sold these 26 acres to a single developer it would, as we wrote, “constitute an award of enormous private benefit to the developer without bid.”

Adding An "Extension" to the Concept Just Expressed

What we didn’t foresee when we wrote about there being an “enormous private benefit to the developer without bid” if the city invested in infrastructure after having already sold these 26 acres to a single developer was this new proposal to extend the Number 7 line.

This proposed extension is just such an investment in infrastructure, and guess what?: The developers love it.

How joyously are developers about embracing the concept of this new infrastructure? The rather developer-oriented Crains had a whole story devoted to it. We provide quotes below, beginning with its first paragraph:
A proposed expansion of the No. 7 subway line into New Jersey would be a boon for New York City real estate developers.

* * * *

“Every developer I've spoken to thinks it's a terrific, simple idea,” said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York. “They all think it will be wonderful.”
(See: November 17, 2010, NY landlords embrace 7-line extension to NJ: Proposed project's lower cost and fewer disruptions seen as big plusses; gives fresh hope for West 41st Street subway stop—and area property owners, By Marine Cole.)

This was part of the Times article announcing the idea (emphasis added):
And the project would almost certainly serve as a boon for the planned $15 billion Hudson Yards residential and office development, to be built on platforms over the West Side railyards. That project has been stymied by the recession and an absence of demand for new residential and commercial space.
(Take the No. 7 to Secaucus? That’s a Plan, by Charles V. Bagli and Nicholas Confessore, November 16, 2010.)

The embrace by developers of the idea’s obvious benefit to them was also being discussed by
WNYC reporter Andrea Bernstein (and director of the Transportation Nation blog) on Brian Lehrer yesterday. Available at: The Brian Lehrer Show, Subway to Secaucus, Wednesday, November 17, 2010.)

The Big Oops on the Extension

What does all this developer enthusiasm about the extension of the Number 7 line mean? It means that in a world where this potentially ingenious plan goes forward there would be one more very significant reason why the city and the MTA could have gotten a lot more money and a lot better deal had the 26-acre Hudson Yards property been retained and sold to multiple developers as individual development parcels after the area’s infrastructure improvements were made. That option is now precluded because the Bloomberg administration, as is its bias, elected instead for a mega-development, mega-monopoly transfer of the property.

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