Oculus - Fall 2013 - (Page 18)
Retaking the Lead in Urban Reform
B Y A L E X A N DE R G A RVIN , H O N . A IA
ew York City used to be a cauldron of urban innovation,
proposing new ideas to improve the city and actually implementing them. The city initiated tenement regulation, public
housing, comprehensive zoning, and city-owned and -managed
public parks – and the nation followed suit. Today, with the
exception of public parks, we are no longer in the forefront of
urban reform. When a new idea is proposed, we are told we
can’t afford it, or that it will not survive public participation,
environmental review, or landmark requirements. So New Yorkers repeat the latest rage – initiated elsewhere – whether it be
sustainable, contextual, cutting-edge, or participatory design.
It used to be easy to bring new ideas to fruition in New York
because development costs were similar to those throughout the
country, and perhaps even lower. Now we are one of the most
expensive places in which to build. Getting projects approved
used to be no different here than in the rest of the country. Now,
New York City has requirements and procedures more torturous
than in most cities in the United States.
In New York, the brick-and-mortar cost of housing construction is double the cost of similar structures in Chicago. As a
result, housing is incredibly expensive. Young talent eager to
move to NYC cannot afford to settle here, immigrant families
have to crowd into a few small rooms, and native New Yorkers
remain glued to their rent-stabilized apartments or relocate to
We spend more than $8,000 per capita on our $70-billion city
government. I’ll never understand how that can be translated
into “there is no money for anything.” But since it is generally
accepted that there is no money, the government is unwilling to
experiment with new concepts or daring projects.
We used to be eager to try new ideas; we weren’t afraid of
failing or spending money on them, and we found ways to make
them successful. We can still do that today if we unshackle
architects, planners, developers, and government agencies by
appropriating enough money to design innovative projects and
eliminating the obsolete rules that restrict creativity.
The next mayor can do that by:
• Restoring the City Planning Commission’s pre-1975 role in
drafting an annual capital budget and five-year Capital Improvement Program.
• Instructing the City Planning Commission to prepare a list
of items it could not finance (given budgetary constraints),
estimate their cost, evaluate the additional private investments
these projects would induce, and prioritize those investments.
• Directing the Department of Transportation to propose alternative methods of providing a one-seat rail or subway ride to
LaGuardia and Kennedy airports.
• Requesting the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation
to propose a plan that would bring the Long Island Railroad
into the PATH Terminal.
• Initiating a study that would propose city action to make the
costs of constructing and operating apartment buildings in
NYC equal to costs in Chicago.
• Instructing the City Planning Commission to propose
changes to reduce the text of the Zoning Resolution to 200
pages, excluding zoning maps.
• Creating a small staff to propose elimination of out-of-date,
onerous, and expensive regulations. The staff should be given
six months to propose cutting the number of city regulations
• Directing the Department of Housing Preservation and
Development to consolidate all tax-exemption and abatement
programs into a single law that would apply throughout the
city to any property with an assessed value that was below a
threshold number for high-priced property.
Alexander Garvin, Hon. AIA, has combined a career in urban planning and real estate with teaching, architecture, and public
service. He is currently president and CEO of AGA Public Realm Strategists, adjunct professor of Urban Planning and Management
at Yale University, president of the Forum for Urban Design, and author of The Planning Game: Lessons from Great Cities.
Oculus Fall 2013
Politics = Architecture
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Oculus - Fall 2013
Letter from the President
A Word from the Editor
Center for Architecture
One Block Over
Opener: The City More Beautiful
Affordable Housing in 2013: Communities, Not Containers
The Future of Prefab
From Ports to Parks: New York’s Waterfront Wager
East River Magic
Shoring Up for the Future
FAR ROC Rocks!
Index to Advertisers
Oculus - Fall 2013