Much of the debate surrounding Mayor de Blasio’s worthy and ambitious affordable housing goals has focused on levels of affordability. Yet community stakeholders on the ground in these neighborhoods have responded in a different way: their message is the mayor’s proposed upzonings do not exist in a vacuum.
Communities need significant infrastructure investments alongside new development to truly actualize a better quality of life for all. Residents care not just about having an affordable place to live, but also about things that are essential to making neighborhoods great: quality parks and open space, access to transit, well paved sidewalks with curb cuts for strollers and wheelchairs, adequate sewer and water pipes. Yes, even things as mundane as sewer and underground water pipes matter.
Recently, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito unveiled the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, which laid out a comprehensive approach to rezoning, a model that Mayor de Blasio should replicate with every rezoning proposal. East Harlem’s holistic, community-based planning process engaged residents and empowered them to advocate for more inclusive, affordable and livable communities. What we learned through this process is East Harlem is clamoring for energy independence and resiliency, improvements to air quality, quality open spaces, healthy foods, and transit upgrades.
As we seek to create "one city, built to last" community by community, we are losing a once-in-a-generation opportunity if we do not put the same level of energy into sustainability as we are putting into maximizing affordable housing opportunities. With over a dozen planned upzonings that have the potential to leverage billions of dollars of investment, sums unseen in these neighborhoods, we need to hold developers accountable implementing the latest green technologies. Not only will this help with our 80% x 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goal, but also with reducing particulate matter in the air, and lessening the significant environmental impacts of major construction projects.
Similarly, without upgrades to transportation, residents will have to deal with increased congestion and vehicles on the road, increased emissions, poorer air quality, and longer commutes. East Harlem in particular knows that solving this problem cannot simply rely on major MTA capital improvements such completing the Second Avenue Subway’s Third Phase. Street design is essential to improving conditions for pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders. It is something the city can do by itself at little cost and it must do so in conjunction with the rezonings, not years following them.
Strong, healthy, resilient communities need vibrant and abundant open spaces too. East Harlem, like many neighborhoods being considered under this plan, already has insufficient open space before adding tens of thousands of new residents. Open spaces are critical for recreation and public health, but they also boost resiliency by absorbing rainwater and reduce storm surges. The city has many tools at its disposal to leverage capital dollars for open spaces alongside new development. We hope to see them integrated into the final plan.
It is not acceptable for communities to be told that we will develop now and worry about everything else later. Now is the time when communities have the most leverage, and when their invaluable local knowledge can be best utilized and integrated to make a better plan for all.
So will the mayor's rezonings adequately address the infrastructure needs of each community? The de Blasio Administration did set aside a $1 billion Neighborhood Investment Fund, but it remains unclear how the pot will be divided among the 15 neighborhoods targeted for rezoning. To that end, each of these communities could make a case they need that entire sum to themselves.
We are so glad to see the mayor leading this critical conversation about what New York’s neighborhoods can and should look like in the 21st Century. With an added layer of neighborhood planning, we are confident that each of these rezonings will create greener, greater, and more livable communities.