The mood was decidedly anti-Wall Street among the crowd who gathered on April 28 for the final lecture in Access Restricted, a series sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council exploring the relationship between finance and city design. We were packed into one of the Street’s oldest strongholds: 48 Wall St., the site where Alexander Hamilton established the country’s first bank in 1789, though the current building dates from 1928. As the sun set, we were told we would be taken up to the cupola for a rare view of “twilight on Wall Street,” prompting one audience member to call out, “Is that metaphorical?” to widespread titters.
Delivering the culminating lecture was Tom Angotti, professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College and author of the recent book New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate. He opened with harsh words for the financial sector bonuses that inflate New York’s real estate market, not only because of the macroeconomic instability that creates, he said, but also because it drives poorer residents out of their neighborhoods. The result is a city divided by race and class, and what he jokingly referred to as the real three principles of real estate: “Dislocation, dislocation, dislocation.”
Angotti was only slightly easier on the city government, whom he indicted for their passive approach to planning. “The city planning department doesn’t believe in planning. Right now, as far as I can tell, they believe in zoning,” he said. “But zoning is mostly a reactive tool. It reacts to development.” Communities themselves have tried to fill that void There have been over 70 plans submitted by New York City communities, and they tend to come from neighborhoods with two features, a strong real estate market and a large poor and minority population.
Despite the stereotype of community members as knee-jerk NIMBYs, the plans don’t all follow the narrative of Community vs. High-Rises. One of the most well-planned proposals, according to Angotti, was drafted by residents of the “blighted” South Bronx in 1993 when the city announced its intention to fill their neighborhood with plots for one- and two-family homes. Apartment buildings were more familiar and in character with the neighborhood, the community argued.
But out of those 70-plus community plans, only 10 have successfully emerged from the wringer of the community boards, borough president, City Planning Commission, and City Council. And even making it through that lengthy process of approvals is far from a victory, Angotti said. The city council frequently ignores or even undermines the community plans that they officially approve. “I think there’s a lawsuit in the works,” he warned.