More lenient marijuana policing, more charter schools and an ambitious expansion of the city's recycling program were on the agenda Mayor Bloomberg detailed in an elaborately staged “state of the city” address at the Barclays Center on Thursday.
With the Brooklyn Nets dancers serving as a warm-up act, and a costumed flag-bearer waving an enormous city tricolor as the mayor shook hands on his way to the stage, Bloomberg celebrated his 71st birthday with an event that was as much a tribute to his past accomplishments as it was a to-do list for the final 320 days of his 12-year tenure.
Much of the talk was vintage Bloomberg. Whether on charter school co-location or East Midtown rezoning, opponents of the mayor were cast as "special interests" or "obstructionists," and a recurring theme of the speech was the familiar notion that Bloomberg alone is equipped to make wise decisions for New York. "The special interests and campaign donors have never had less power than they've had over the past 11 years," he declared at one point, later adding that, "given all the politics and special interests, if we don't do it this year, it may never get done. And we can't let that happen."
Not surprisingly, the mayor who stressed metrics more than any predecessor was not stingy with the numbers: 16 percent fewer carbon emissions, 100,000 new classroom seats, 750 acres of new parkland and—the administration's new favorite number—a dramatically lower incarceration rate.
The fact that the city's poverty rate has risen in each of the last four years was somehow transformed into the sound-bite, "We've gone from having the sixth highest poverty rate among the 20 largest cities to having the eighth lowest." The rise in the city's homeless shelter population—pegged at 49,000 on Monday night—was not mentioned.
As expected, the mayor defended the massive numbers of "stop-and-frisk" encounters conducted by the NYPD, which he very broadly characterized as affecting "people who are acting suspiciously or who fit the description of a suspect."
But there were also signs of evolution. Early in Bloomberg's tenure the NYPD set records for arrests on the lowest-level marijuana charge. Today, the mayor called for a change: People busted with small amounts of pot, now routinely held in custody overnight, will be released with desk appearance tickets, starting in March.
Bloomberg's final-year agenda emphasized the policy areas that have been his main focus since 2002: development, the environment and schools.
The mayor highlighted forthcoming projects like an art space at Hudson Yards, the Greenpoint Landing waterfront community and development at Seward Park and South Street Seaport. The top priority though, is the East Midtown rezoning, which some have said is too big and complex a task to undertake in the final year of his term, but the mayor contends is "too important" to wait.
Bloomberg called for a ban on polystyrene foam food containers, for efforts to recycle food waste and for broader plastic recycling to include yogurt containers and CD cases. Bloomberg said he'll also push for more charging stations for electric vehicles, and pledged to work with the state on a program to preserve wetlands "while also enabling more efficient economic development along our city’s waterfront."
The mayor wants 26 new charter schools open by September and more slated for 2014, as well as three new high schools aimed at training students for the healthcare, engineering and energy industries, respectively.
He'll give $1 million to nonprofits who'll place 1,000 jobless people in hurricane recovery jobs, and his administration will by the end of May "deliver a report on how we can better protect our city from extreme weather events" as well as improve disaster planning to get lights back on faster after the next storm—a reflection of lessons learned from Sandy.
Other new programs would connect juvenile offenders to jobs, expand Wi-Fi in Business Improvement Districts, have cops and mental health providers work together to help domestic violence victims and permit the establishment of youth hostels to attract a new group of tourists.
'Here we are'
Both for fans and critics of the mayor, the Barclays Center site—at the center of the controversial Atlantic Yards development—was a fitting place for the final Bloomberg State of the City.
To the mayor, the Nets arena is an emblem of his triumph over doubters and the status quo. "Against all the odds, despite all the legal challengers, despite all the naysayers and NIMBYers, here we are," Bloomberg declared to applause. "And as we speak, the first residential tower at Atlantic Yards is rising and it will have nearly 200 affordable apartments."
As naysayers and others have pointed out, those apartments are targeted to relatively high income groups. Much of the affordable housing promised during the promotion of the heavily subsidized project may never fully be realized.
But the speech also framed an essential truth about the Bloomberg mayoralty, namely its hunger to accomplish huge things. Some of those initiatives have achieved more success than others; the mayor's 2006 pledge to effect a significant reduction in poverty was not fulfilled, the West Side stadium was stopped at the outset. Other endeavors that were brought to fruition—like the sweeping rezoning and repeated reorganizations of the schools—have had effects that are still debated. Some huge problems, like income inequality, escaped the mayor's ambition.
But, whether you like the smoking ban or love bike lanes or not, it's hard to argue that Bloomberg has been some kind of small-government minimalist, especially when it comes to the city's physical shape.
"For the first time La Guardia was mayor and FDR created the WPA, we're not only conceiving big plans that fundamentally change the landscape of our city, we're achieving them," Bloomberg said. "We're taking a city built mostly before World War II and renewing it for the needs of New Yorkers today and tomorrow. But we still have plenty of unfinished business in all five boroughs."