Editorial: Ambition First, As Usual

Editorial: Ambition First, As Usual

On June 25, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that the city had acquired a 30-acre spit of land in Queens to build the largest middle-income housing complex since Starrett City in 1974. Situated where Newtown Creek empties into the East River, the Hunter’s Point South project sounded like the best of all possible worlds: a school, 3,000 units of affordable housing for true blue New Yorkers—those cops, firefighters, and schoolteachers that everyone roots for in movies but otherwise ignores—and an 11-acre waterfront park. As usual, however, it was hard not to be cynical.

That great mascot of American independent spirit, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote that every soul must learn from making its own mistakes. But that hardly seems like a game plan where the collaborative business of making cities is concerned. New York is currently glutted with grand plans gone awry, dead in the water, or compromised beyond recognition: Atlantic Yards, Hudson Yards, Moynihan Station, ground zero. They do not inspire confidence that this one will fare any better. Apparently, past errors in judgment—May we cut you another deal, Mr. Ratner?—have only served to fuel a determination to repeat until bankrupt.

The mayor’s press release made no mention of the hurdles and controversies looming at Hunter’s Point South. Even Wikipedia knows that Newtown Creek is one of the most polluted industrial sites in the country, flowing with an “estimated 30 million gallons of spilled oil and raw sewage.” A clean-up plan was not mentioned.

Nor was it disclosed that this largest subsidized project in the city in 35 years is based on creating a specious nonprofit by which developers would be paid in federal tax-exempt bonds rather than municipal bonds, thus avoiding the requirement to include 20 percent low-income housing in the project. (Originally, years before the site was to be the Olympic Village of the failed NYC2012 bid and was called Queens West, it was all going to be low-income housing, a plan that would have paid off nicely right about now.)

But the real purpose of Hunter’s Point South seems to boil down to the mayor’s need to get a move on his $7.5 billion New Housing Marketplace Plan and its promise of 165,000 affordable housing units. Now, 68 percent of those are supposed to be low income, but none of them, it seems, will be at Hunter’s Point South, where the 3,000 units of middle-income housing will be rounded out with 2,000 market-rate apartments.

The mayor did toss in this bone: 3,000 permanently low-income units will be built someplace else in Queens “over the next 10 years,” and an adjacent site will be rezoned to allow for at least 330 low-income units. That’s not much comfort to local residents who have been complaining for years that no one consulted with them about the project, and that the housing qualification of a $55,000 to $158,000 household income is way over their own heads. Once again, city leaders have projected their ambitions on what they see as a blank slate but others know to be an existing and needful community.

In Urban Design (Minnesota Press, 2009), an excellent collection of persuasive essays rehashing the hits and misses in the field, Michael Sorkin describes post-Moses urban planning in New York as “the ongoing willed incapacity to think comprehensively.” To which one might add: “or to learn from one’s own mistakes.”

A version of this article appeared in AN 12_07.08.2009.