Bloomberg’s Final State of the City Captures the Contradictions of His Legacy

Michael Bloomberg’s twelfth and final State of the City address neatly encapsulated the internal contradictions of his transportation and planning policies. In his prepared remarks, the mayor called the impending launch of bike-share “the biggest change to our transportation network in ages,” but the speech was also peppered with boasts about stadium-related mega-projects that are going to generate torrents of traffic on city streets. Also in the mix: some references to the welcome push for transit-oriented density in Midtown East, and an electric-car incentive that we’ll be taking a closer look at in the days ahead.

A note to prospective mayors: There are many ways to differentiate yourself from Bloomberg’s legacy on the built environment that won’t totally alienate New Yorkers who want safer streets for walking and biking. The mayor’s prepared remarks today contained a few opportunities on that front.

Bloomberg delivered the address from the Barclays Center, the arena built over the Vanderbilt rail yards thanks to a sweetheart land deal with the MTA, copious public subsidies, and a whole lot of eminent domain. In an unintentionally fitting touch, the mayor compared the project to a highway tunnel that was thankfully never built:

Remember: after the courts stopped the Westway highway project in the early 1980s, you’d often hear people say that big projects like this were no longer possible in New York City. And for a long time, that certainly seemed to be largely true. But not anymore. Over the past 11 years, working with our partners in the City Council and in Albany, we have overcome the defeatists and shown that this big city of big dreams can still get big things done.

After subsidizing the Nets arena and new stadiums for the Mets and Yankees, including thousands of parking spaces, the Bloomberg administration is still treating stadium construction as an economic development strategy. The city is pushing for a new stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, and Bloomberg pledged today to “work with Major League Soccer to bring soccer back to our city for the first time since the Cosmos left in 1977.” The proposed stadium site is farther from the 7 train than the existing sports facilities by Willets Point, and neighborhood residents fear that new highway ramps will end up being part of the bargain.

One of the new proposals in today’s speech involves mandating that a certain number of new parking spaces are equipped for electric vehicle charging:

We’ll work with the City Council to amend the Building Code so that up to 20 percent of all new public parking spaces in private developments will be wired and ready for electric vehicles, creating up to 10,000 parking spots for electric vehicles over the next seven years.

We still need to flesh out the details of this proposal. To the extent that this helps electric vehicles replace internal combustion engines, that’s well and good. But if the EV wiring adds significantly to the cost of building housing, that’s just one more parking-related mandate making residences less affordable. That would be the case, for instance, if a developer who’s already forced to build a certain number of parking spaces for a residential development has to shell out extra to make some of those spaces EV-compatible. The mandate could also lead to less parking construction, however, since the average cost of building a parking space is going to increase. So the jury’s still out on this one.

In any case, the far simpler and can’t-miss strategy to green the New York City building code would be to end minimum parking requirements that drive up the cost of housing everywhere in the city outside the Manhattan core. Bloomberg and planning commissioner Amanda Burden have barely touched this issue in 11-plus years in office.

On to the good stuff. Bloomberg made a nice pitch for Midtown East rezoning to take advantage of expanding transit capacity on the East Side:

Right now, zoning regulations around Grand Central effectively prohibit development of even a few iconic new buildings — even though the area has the best mass transit links in the entire country. If we do nothing, the area will cease to be a world-class business district, and we’ll lose out on good jobs and tax revenues.

So this year, we’ll work with Borough President Stringer and Council Member Garodnick to rezone the area to allow for a select number of new buildings to rise in the decades ahead, while preserving its historic character. And the new buildings will pay into a mass transit fund so we can relieve some of the pedestrian bottlenecks and congestion in and around Grand Central.

And, of course, it’s great to see the mayor framing bike-share as a bigger deal than electric cars:

And the biggest change to our transportation network in ages is coming this summer: the largest bike share program in the country. I know Marty can’t wait. Bike share has been successful and popular in every city it’s been tried — and here, it will offer New Yorkers more options to get around town faster.

Word is that, despite the “coming this summer” in Bloomberg’s speech, the launch is still targeted for May. That’s three months away.

  • Good analysis…. worth noting that the arena’s built only *in part* over the Vanderbilt Yard, which occupies 8.5 acres of a 22-acre Atlantic Yards site. Hence the controversy over eminent domain, etc.
    Norman Oder
    Atlantic Yards Report

  • Bolwerk

    If you ask me, Bloomberg’s transportation failures are pretty glaring, if better than his immediate predecessors.  Bike lanes are great, but a subtle, low-impact change to the streetscape. That is, if you don’t use them, you scarcely notice them – which their (generally reactionary/stupid) critics don’t want to admit. Even with bike lanes, he didn’t seem to want to call off the pigs dogs on overbearing enforcement. This brings up a second, obvious failing: traffic enforcement is hardly great either under Bloomberg.

    He achieved mass transit expansion in Manhattan, but not outside where it arguably could do more good. He never confronted costs, even to draw attention to them. I’m not sure how much credit Bloomberg even deserves for SBS, but it’s another too-little-too-late improvement. He never advocated for surface LRT, which is probably the single biggest missing link in our transit system and one that buses can never fill. He’s not cheering low-hanging rail transit fruit like Rockaway Branch reactivation or Triboro RX either. Improving the bus network would be pretty low-cost and could be done relatively cheaply through normal attrition; think onboard TVMs, POP, red light preemption, etc..

    It would have been nice if he had picked some more good fights and lost them, as he did with congestion pricing.  His laudable successes like (JSK’s) ped spaces are only amazing if you never saw other places that already had them. All in all, he seems like an intelligent guy who mostly wasted 12 years.

  • Bolwerk

    I’d add, you can resolve most contradictions about Bloomberg if you simply consider his motivations. Moneyed yuppies want the things in Manhattan that he offered them: bike lanes, ped spaces, the 7 extension, arguably SBS. These are the people he wanted to draw to the city.

    The rest of the city, whether it needs or wants it or not, got the same kind of 20th century auto-centric planning that it always got.

  • AnxiouslyAwaitingBikeshare

    Hold on, are we really opposed to the Nets playing in Brooklyn rather than in Newark where far more % of people would drive to games and it makes new york far more attractive? And the NY Islanders are moving from the nearly transit impossible Nassau Coliseum (2 hours by LIRR and bus and walk across vast parking lot from midtown) in a couple years rendering brooklyn a far more attractive place to watch hockey from than car-centric long island suburbia.

    Could there have been lower or no parking minimums, yes.  Could the MTA have received like $100 million more, yes. Would it had been better if the developer didn’t go bankrupt, yes. but housing density in that area will rise and now nyc’s two arenas are both built over rail yards which if a fantastic way to use the space and move 15,000-18,000 people a night who will use the arena.

    Don’t let process stand in the way of pro-urban progress.

  • Anonymous

    “The city is pushing for a new stadium in Flushing Meadows Corona Park,
    and Bloomberg pledged today to “work with Major League Soccer to bring
    soccer back to our city for the first time since the Cosmos left in
    1977.””

    The region already has a soccer team playing a brand new stadium that’s just as transit-accessible from the urban core as one in Flushing Meadows Park would be, and one that was built by rehabilitating underused industrial space.  Let’s not take away park space to build another.

  • no-permits

    oder, the remainder of the 22 acre site will be built. stop trying to create confusion.

  • @8f0bb59a0b2c455b977785f0f316feef:disqus I’d rather focus on making Brooklyn a better place to live than a better place to watch hockey and basketball. A ton of housing could have been built on that site without seizing people’s property. Eminent domain to build a railroad is fine, but to build the Barclays Center? It stinks.
    I don’t think it’s “pro-urban” to settle for the corrupt process that has produced, for the foreseeable future, an arena and a bunch of surface parking.

  • @8f0bb59a0b2c455b977785f0f316feef:disqus I’d rather focus on making Brooklyn a better place to live than a better place to watch hockey and basketball. A ton of housing could have been built on that site without seizing people’s property. Eminent domain to build a railroad is fine, but to build the Barclays Center? It stinks.
    I don’t think it’s “pro-urban” to settle for the corrupt process that has produced, for the foreseeable future, an arena and a bunch of surface parking.

  • Joe R.

    @e022fdea653897e77dd613c84576950d:disqus You’re spot on with your analysis. I remember saying when the 2nd Avenue subway was being built that it’s nice, but Manhattan already has a ton of subways. You could have built many more route miles for the same money in the outer boroughs where subways are sorely needed. With more subways in the outer boroughs, Bloomberg could have made a great case for policies restricting auto use as there would be viable alternatives.
    As far as the overbearing enforcement on bikes goes, at least it didn’t go much beyond Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn. There would have been hell to pay if police were giving red light tickets in areas which didn’t at least get new bike infrastructure. I also take a somewhat skeptical view that perhaps the very reason for the bike lanes was to get more people riding so as to have another group to derive revenue from.

    In the next administration I feel the resulting transportation policies might be the result of the tail wagging the dog, rather than the other way around. A few things will likely come to a head in the next few years. Incomes will continue to drop, gas will continue to rise, and there will be less money for mass transit. In that context, bike lanes and even bike highways will be seen as a relatively low cost way to provide transportation to people who aren’t near mass transit, and can no longer afford a car. It may well be a case of the relatively few bike lane haters being told by City Hall that people have to get around, and this is the only viable way to do at this point given the city’s finances. My opinion is once a critical mass of people start using biking for day-to-day errands, there will be no going back. Cars will be seen as an expensive relic of another era which really never fit in all that well in a dense urban environment.

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