CityViews: Housing Brings People, but Infrastructure Makes Neighborhoods

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A water main break in a subway tunnel last April. If the city adds tens of thousands of housing units without adequate attention to infrastructure needs, that new and larger city might not be sustainable.


A water main break in a subway tunnel last April. If the city adds tens of thousands of housing units without adequate attention to infrastructure needs, that new and larger city might not be sustainable.

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.

7 thoughts on “CityViews: Housing Brings People, but Infrastructure Makes Neighborhoods

  1. Agree whole heartedly, and as is becoming clear throughout the city, I’d add that livable communities also need full service, affordable supermarkets

    • Just a few weeks ago I was speaking to the manager of my local Stop-N-Shop on S.I. They’d love to expand but the city permitting requirements have made that too costly even for a large successful chain.

  2. Look at western Queens. It’s great that all those luxury high-rises are being built, but how are all those new residents going to squeeze onto the already-packed subways in that neighborhood? The MTA really has no practical way to add more service to the Queens subway lines. Even adding ‘short-turn’ runs isn’t practical because of switching requirements and limitations. For example the MTA could start/end some ‘7’ trains at Queensboro Plaza or 74 Street but that would require trains to sue the center track which would mean the end of ‘7’ express service. A little easier for ‘N’ trains to use Queensborough Plaza as a terminal but with the same delays.

  3. How about schools? or are we just building for senior citizens and hipsters? -Come to think of it, I recall reading an article about the difficulties encountered traveling in Williamsburg with a double-wide stroller…

    • The lack of schools was one of the main reasons for the 2005-06 Staten Island downzonings. That and a maxed out transportation infrastructure.

      • Those downzonings were aimed at the South Shore. Now we see that area essentially walled off from the new zoning initiatives to promote affordable housing, which concentrates all new development on the North Shore, which hasn’t seen infrastructure upgrades in ages (until recently, this area was viewed as, by-and-large, the wrong socio-economic demographic to merit the investment.)

        • The east & south shore downzonings involved more than the school seats. All of SI is only served by two water/sewer treatment facilities Port Richmond & Oawkood Beach), the non-street-grid road network is maxed out. No subway connection, we depend solely on the ferry and the express buses to get to Manhattan. Remember that any new post-Verrazano infrastructure was designed for a borough of 1 & 2 family homes. The east/south shores want to be walled off from deBlasio’s ‘affordable’ housing scheme. As for the north shore I wish them success with all these new developments. The area needs improving.

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