A Tale Of Two Mayors: New York City’s Development Under Bloomberg Vs. De Blasio

Alexander McQuilkin Alexander McQuilkin

In the waning days of his mayoralty last month, Michael Bloomberg took the maiden ride of the 7 line subway extension to the new 34th Street Hudson Yards station that will open to the public this summer. The first subway extension paid for by the city since 1950, the new 7 line stop is at the heart of one of Bloomberg’s biggest legacy projects. Boasting six million square feet of office space, a 750,000-square-foot mall, 5,000 apartment units and something called a culture shed, Hudson Yards is the city’s biggest building exercise in a generation.

Hudson Yards is the type of big idea project that defined Bloomberg’s 12 years in office. With the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, three new sports stadiums, and plans for a ground-up tech campus on Roosevelt Island, Bloomberg is proud to have left behind a string of landmark megaprojects. Bloomberg has said that Daniel Doctoroff, his deputy mayor for economic development, has “had a greater impact on this city, I think, than Robert Moses.” Bloomberg’s economic development agenda has created thousands of jobs and helped New York City retain its claim as the global capital of finance and business.

Bloomberg speaking at the new 34th Street 7 line station, part of one of his biggest legacies, Hudson Yards. Photo Credit: MTA

Less clear is incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio’s approach to the built environment, and how his policies over at least the next four years will shape the city. But there are clues. During his years as a City Council Member from Brooklyn’s 39th District, de Blasio’s urban planning agenda was clear: affordable housing, affordable housing, affordable housing. In 2011, as the city’s Public Advocate, de Blasio made a list of “New York City’s Worst Landlords,” ranking landlords by number of building infractions. De Blasio’s run for mayor was marked by his “tale of two cities” narrative about inequality, in which affordable housing was the core of his development plan. De Blasio cruised to a landslide victory by painting himself as a populist antidote to Bloomberg’s development-at-all-costs doctrine, but closer inspection shows New York’s big building spree may not be over quite yet.

As a City Council member representing parts of Park Slope and Cobble Hill between 2001 and 2009, de Blasio consistently supported Bloomberg’s rezoning proposals and property tax reforms, but always with the condition that they go further to develop and preserve affordable housing. In 2003 he backed a proposal to rezone over 100 blocks in Park Slope to help preserve the neighborhood’s leafy, low-slung character and establish a relatively high-rise corridor of new housing along Fourth Avenue, with the condition that it include incentives to build affordable housing. In 2006, he conditionally supported a plan to expand the parts of the city where it is mandatory to build new affordable housing for developers taking advantage of the 421-a program, a 1970s era incentive that allows developers of new units to delay property tax payments for up to 25 years.

De Blasio opposes a Bloomberg plan to lease open spaces at NYCHA properties to market-rate developers. Photo Credit: Madamechaotica via Wikimedia Commons

Architecture critics have bemoaned the glass towers sprouting up along the Brooklyn waterfront and in Manhattan as uninspired and monotonous. Bloomberg’s pro-development angle has at times been reduced to a development-at-all-costs philosophy, de-prioritizing not only affordability and community input but good design as well. But Bloomberg has fostered close working relationships with smart, urban-minded advisors like city planning commissioner Amanda Burden and transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

Janette Sadik-Khan has presided over the largest reshaping of the city’s streetscape in recent memory. The Department of Transportation’s 39 acres of public plazas and 350 miles of new bike lanes have been hotly contested, but popular among a majority of New Yorkers. De Blasio stood behind a highly publicized crusade against a new bike lane installed along Propsect Park West in Brooklyn, but according to his campaign website, he now supports the expansion of the DOT’s bike lane program. Brad Lander, de Blasio’s successor to Brooklyn’s 39th City Council District, has said that de Blasio has come a long way on supporting progressive projects like these, because he listens to people. This is encouraging, assuming he appoints a cabinet of intelligent professionals.

De Blasio initially opposed a new bike lane for Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, but has apparently since come around. Photo Credit: Kyle Gradinger

Amanda Burden and Bloomberg co-piloted the rezoning of nearly 40% of the city’s land area—often converting dated, low-rise manufacturing districts to high-density residential ones. But Burden has proven to be an exacting design critic. In 2009, she made waves by demanding that Jean Nouvel chop 200 feet off the top of his design for a condo tower on 53rd Street. In Burden’s opinion, the tower’s design simply wasn’t up to the aesthetic standards to compete in height with icons like the Empire State Building. Nicolai Ouroussoff, the New York Times architecture critic at the time, called the bureaucratic meddling in the skyline “disturbing.” Fast forward to 2013, and the current Times critic, Michael Kimmelman, calls the new raft of Midtown supertall towers “what we should be able to prevent.”

Amid the excitement generated by de Blasio’s campaign against rising inequality, Bloomberg stood by his belief that cities like New York are right to court billionaire taxpayers, as they subsidize lower income residents. The Bloomberg plan that was decried as his most blatant pro-big business move, the rezoning of 73 blocks of Midtown East to allow taller office towers, was killed by the City Council in November. De Blasio immediately applauded the move to shelve the project.

One57 represents the kind of billionaire-friendliness crafted by the Bloomberg administration. Photo Credit: Flickr user Dumbo711

Some projects, like Hudson Yards, are so far along that there is little the new administration can do to alter or reverse them. That will not be the case for the $12 billion worth of projects Bloomberg’s administration hurried to approve last month, including the Ferris wheel/outlet mall proposal on Staten Island, the Kingsbridge Armory ice skating rink in the Bronx and the 11-acre Domino Sugar development in Williamsburg. In particular, De Blasio has expressed “serious concerns” about a $350 million soccer stadium slated to go up next to Yankee Stadium, citing costly tax exemptions for a soccer team backed by a wealthy Middle East oilman. Incoming mayors rarely do much to reverse the last-minute legacy projects of their predecessors. But if he wanted to, de Blasio could slow approval of construction permits for projects he disapproves of or delay the disbursal of government funds.

Rendering of the proposed Ferris wheel on Staten Island via nycmayorsoffice‘s flickr

Rending of the Domino Sugar Refinery redevelopment via SHoP Architects

Until de Blasio names some key department heads, there is not much else we can use to speculate about his development and design plans. Bloomberg bucked tradition by recruiting heavily from the private sector, a move that, at the very least, brought some fresh perspective to the administration. De Blasio’s contacts are mainly in government. Alicia Glen, de Blasio’s pick for deputy mayor for economic development and housing, has pledged to oversee de Blasio’s vision to construct and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, “not just focusing on the large-scale projects that have been front and center over the past decade, but focusing on a comprehensive approach to neighborhood revitalization.” If Bloomberg’s economic development deputy sought a comparison with Robert Moses, perhaps de Blasio is seeking one with Jane Jacobs.

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