NEW YORK CITY: The First Regional Government Still Cries for Planning The Case of Waste Management

by John McCrory 

Proponents of regional governance as a means of correcting disparities between central cities and their suburbs can find a real-world test of their theories in New York City, which became the nation’s first major regional government one hundred years ago. Manhattan’s consolidation with the four adjacent boroughs (Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island), which were mostly suburban and rural at the time, made regional governance and planning possible in the largest city in the United States. But what happened?

In 1898, there were grand visions of an efficient and rationally-planned metropolis. Then, as now, a key selling point of consolidating regional government was that poorer areas would be able to share in the region’s overall wealth. With access to Manhattan’s tax base, the other boroughs were promised the same level of services the central city enjoyed, from street-cleaning to parks to transit. Federal intervention has reversed this aspect of the relationship of central city to suburbs in most American metro areas, but contemporary regional governance proposals essentially make the same promise. The metropolitan region of New York has grown far beyond the city’s boundaries in recent decades. But, the city’s complex combination of central city and low- and high-density suburbs, its multiple employment and commercial centers, and its heterogeneous patterns of land use and population from district to district resemble the metropolitan regions of other parts of the U.S. closely enough that it can still provide a useful example for identifying some likely outcomes of regional governance.

Another promise of consolidation is greater efficiency, achieved by eliminating duplication and ensuring uniformity of service. But does uniformity of service delivery qualify as efficiency in a heterogeneous region – in which the service needs of different communities are not uniform? How can one-size-fits-all service be efficient when it provides too much service to some neighborhoods but too little to others? Efficient services are those provided in appropriate measure to a community’s needs – that is, provided equitably.

The fallacy that equity and efficiency are tradeoffs needlessly complicates discussions of regional governance and planning. The misguided notion that providing uniform service through centralized government leads to efficiency, however, has long been been the rationale for New York City’s consolidated government. Social equity and local control have been among the many victims of this century-long experience. Such shortcomings are evident in the story of how New York City handles its garbage – a citywide service every citizen relies on each day for which responsibility is centralized in a single agency, the Department of Sanitation (DOS), with an apparently simple mission.

A Neverending Game of Catch Up

In the year the City of Greater New York was created, Manhattan had begun achieving success with the most forward-looking waste management program of its time. During the previous four years, Streets Cleaning Commissioner Col. George Waring had stopped dumping the city’s garbage in the ocean, instead implementing a radical program that included recycling and composting. Diversion of reusable materials had significantly reduced the waste stream and solved a major regional environmental problem.

Consolidation, however, led to an unfortunate change in the political winds. By forging new coalitions in the outer boroughs, Tammany Hall recaptured the mayor’s office. The reformers were out after only a single term. The recycling program was soon scrapped and the city resumed ocean dumping.

As the city’s population and waste stream grew in coming decades, the city supplemented ocean dumping with landfills and incinerators. A successful federal lawsuit brought by a coalition of New Jersey coastal cities forced the city to end ocean dumping in 1935. Ambitious plans for new incinerators had to be scaled down during the Great Depression and World War II, so the city’s sanitation infrastructure continually lagged behind its needs. Most garbage ended up as landfill for public works projects like Robert Moses’ parks and highways. In an effort to stem the rising tide of garbage it handled, in 1957 the city stopped collecting commercial waste, instead requiring businesses to hire private companies to take their garbage away. This strategy succeeded in diverting some of the waste stream to incinerators and landfills outside the city. But this shift created a business that soon became a mafia cartel that inflated the cost of private garbage collection by up to ten times the reasonable market price. The mob controlled the business until just two years ago, when federal prosecutors finally succeeded in cracking the industry and sending the leading bosses to jail.

By the 1960s, the city was burning almost a third of its trash in its 22 municipal incinerators and over 17,000 apartment building incinerators. Since then, public awareness of the environmental costs of landfilling and incineration have gradually forced the city to shut down its old landfills and incinerators, including those in apartment houses. The last municipal incinerator closed in 1992, leaving only a single waste disposal option for the 14,000 tons of residential and public waste DOS collects each day. Sanitation trucks take the trash to the nearest of the city’s marine transfer stations and dump it in waiting barges that carry it across the harbor to the Fresh Kills Landfill.

Fresh Kills: You Can’t Fill a Bottomless Pit

Situated on the western shore of Staten Island, the Fresh Kills Landfill covers 2,100 acres, and is so large it can be seen with the naked eye from space. Its highest mound is only slightly shorter than the Washington Monument. First opened in 1947, today Fresh Kills is the largest landfill in the world. It is also of dubious legality. Operating under a series of federal consent orders, it is unlined and leaches thousands of pounds of toxics into nearby estuaries each day. Its odor reaches into neighborhoods on both sides of the Arthur Kill, which separates Staten Island from New Jersey. It will be a likely superfund candidate for the next century.

As early as the 1960s, there were predictions that Fresh Kills would soon run out of room. Federal and State estimates predicted it would be full by 2005. Technical changes required by the consent orders managed to extend its life a few years, and there are a some DOS engineers who privately believe they could find ways to keep it open forever. But DOS eventually conceded Fresh Kills would have to close by 2017, and began planning how to cover and cap the entire landfill after it closes. However, no thought was given to how the city would adapt its waste management infrastructure once Fresh Kills was no longer an option.

The consent orders and several federal lawsuits filed by local citizens groups and the Staten Island Borough President also made Fresh Kills’ future uncertain. Development following the opening of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in the 1960s had transformed the once sparsely populated Staten Island into a middle-class residential borough. For the residents in other boroughs, Fresh Kills was in that magical land called “Away,” but for Staten Islanders, the landfill’s odors and environmental problems were close at hand and became a top issue. The city still failed to plan ahead.

Ultimately, local citizens were more proactive than the city. Staten Island Citizens for Clean Air (SICCA) and Borough President Guy Molinari continued to press their separate lawsuits. SICCA’s Barbara Warren says that in late 1995, when their case was finally coming to trial, her group approached Molinari and the city to seek a settlement. SICCA believed they were going to win easily in court, forcing the landfill to close ahead of DOS’s plans. The city agreed, but instead of settling, quiet negotiations began between Molinari, DOS and the mayor. SICCA was kept at arm’s length.

Here Comes the Trash

Meanwhile, residents in Brooklyn and the Bronx were battling the unplanned results of one DOS strategy for keeping Fresh Kills from filling up too soon. Many of the city’s commercial haulers were depositing their garbage in Fresh Kills for a small “tipping fee.” At the end of their collection routes, their trucks would simply drive to Staten Island – a cheaper alternative to long distances out of state. In 1988, DOS raised its tipping fees to discourage the commercial haulers from using Fresh Kills. They succeeded.

Chris Boyd, an environmental policy assistant to Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden, explains that “almost overnight, dozens of waste transfer stations appeared [in low-income communities] in Brooklyn and the Bronx.” Queens was also afflicted to a lesser extent.

“You have to understand,” says Leslie Lowe of the New York City Environmen-tal Justice Alliance, “the people in these neighborhoods were already seeing a plague of illegal dumping [that began] in the 70s.” Now, it was being augmented by officially sanctioned garbage lots.

At a waste transfer station, private haulers deposit garbage in an open pile, where it waits to be loaded on larger trucks or railcars for long-distance shipping. Some of the major adverse impacts of waste transfer stations come from the noise, dust, and odors resulting from trucks carrying waste into a transfer facility, resultant truck traffic on nearby roads, noise, dust, and odors from waste compactors, and flies and rodents. As a result, many states, including New York, place authority for regulating waste facilities in their environmental laws. But regulation in New York City has been limited and lethargic, with no one taking the responsibility for enforcing the laws.

Despite such problems, even activists who are fighting waste transfer stations admit a single facility isn’t so terrible. Problems mount when several transfer stations concentrate in one neighborhood, which is exactly what has happened.

The Zoning Magnet

You might expect the City Planning Department would take note of this situation and use its planning and zoning powers to better locate and regulate waste facilities. But New York City’s zoning, which limits waste transfer stations to heavy industrial zones, is partly to blame for the concentration of these facilities.

When the city enacted its last large-scale rezoning in 1961, light- and heavy-industrial zones ended up being concentrated in waterfront neighborhoods that were actually mixed in character. According to Wilbur Woods, Director of Waterfront Planning for the Department of City Planning, the expectation was that the residential uses would gradually be replaced by manufacturing in both the light and heavy manufacturing zones.

Forty years later, a visitor to these districts will find that the residential uses have held on even while industry and middle-class residents have moved away. In areas like Greenpoint-Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, which has the largest percentage of manufacturing-zoned land of any district in the city, residential uses have thrived even while industry has declined. High proportions of home ownership, new immigration, and even some artist-led gentrification, along with a surprising amount of light manufacturing, have maintained the area’s mixed character.

Even though they retained their mix of residential and industrial uses, zoning and the lack of planning made these neighborhoods magnets for waste transfer stations. There are now almost 90 transfer stations in the city, and over half of them are located in a few low-income areas: Red Hook and Greenpoint-Williamsburg in Brooklyn; Hunter’s Point and South Jamaica in Queens; and the South Bronx. Greenpoint-Williamsburg has the highest concentration (26% of the city’s total), as well as the most noxious facilities, with almost 90% of the “permitted capacity” for putrescible waste – the mixed, wet garbage that gives off rotten odors that can be smelled for blocks around.

Neighborhoods Call for Fair Share

In 1990, New York City created a “Fair Share” rule that required consideration of the local impact of various new public facilities. The guidelines would ensure the benefits of needed services and burdens of unwanted uses were distributed equally among every district of the city. Community activists from neighborhoods with large concentrations of waste transfer stations scored a major victory when they managed to win a new law that required DOS to create siting regulations for waste transfer stations.

The Giuliani administration fought this specific provision in court, ultimately losing at each level. Last month, DOS finally drafted siting regulations. They are predictably toothless and riddled with exemptions, practically grandfathering existing transfer stations. Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty says he is unable to place limits on concentrations of transfer stations, claiming he is bound by the city’s zoning ordinances.

The latest developments at City Planning offer no hope in this regard. The department is currently engaged in rezoning parts of the city’s 581 miles of waterfront. Their new proposals improve the way residential and natural waterfront areas are regulated, but fail to correct the industrial zones that are actually mixed-use areas. Heavy industrial zones will continue to be confined to a few low-income areas of the city. This rezoning will effectively lock-in the existing problems of waste transfer stations for the near future.

SICCA Wins, Sort Of

In 1994, conservative Republican George Pataki won a narrow upset victory over Mario Cuomo in the race for Governor. Pataki had greatly benefitted from large turnouts in heavily Republican Staten Island, much as Republican Rudolph Giuliani did in the previous year’s mayoral election. For the first time in decades, Republicans held the most important executive position in both the state and the city. This unusual alignment of the political stars shined favorably on the borough, and Molinari – also a Republican – was not about to let the opportunity slip away. “You could say there was a political debt to pay,” says Molinari’s staff attorney Dan Master.

In late May of 1996, after several months of quiet negotiations, this Republican triumvirate held a surprise press conference to announce Fresh Kills would close in 2002. Two days later, a law to close the landfill was passed in the state legislature.

In theory, this long overdue decision gave the city an excellent opportunity to restructure waste management and adapt to the changing expectations the public placed on DOS. As long as the mission of DOS had remained straightforward and simple, it seemed to function quite well. Indeed, as recently as the mid-1980s, DOS was thought by many observers to be one of the best-run city agencies. But the department’s mission had gradually evolved over the years as the public’s increasing environmental awareness resulted in state, federal and local laws to regulate waste more strictly. In 1989, the department’s mission was even more fundamentally altered when the city passed the most ambitious recycling laws in the nation. Today, DOS is more commonly described as incompetent, demoralized, and frustrating to work with.

In practice, DOS has failed to adapt to new demands. Its recycling programs have been disappointments. Ideas for improving recycling are not in short supply among the city’s environmental advocates, but DOS has resisted change every step of the way. An unsupportive mayor hasn’t helped either: Giuliani cut funds to the recycling budget once he entered office, calling recycling “a fad.” (The budget was restored by the City Council last year.)

The decision to close the city’s last remaining landfill has not resulted in better planning, efficiency, or greater social equity. Indeed, the closing of Fresh Kills was not a planning decision. Rather, it was a back-room deal that did not involve SICCA, the citizen coalition that had fought for years to shut down the landfill, or any similar group. “It was purely a political decision,” says Brooklyn’s Boyd. “And like all purely political decisions, it was made without any forethought, without any planning.”

Instead of planning informing decisionmaking, decisionmaking was forcing a straitjacket on planning. After deciding the landfill would close, Giuliani appointed a task force of agency heads, staffers, and representatives of industry to work out a plan. Guy Molinari served as chair. Representatives from the other boroughs and environmentalists had been left out of the back-room dealmaking, and they were excluded again from the Mayor’s task force. Environmentalists were livid. How can you create a plan to close the city’s landfill without input from the very people who have been working to improve waste management and recycling, they asked? After several months of aggressive lobbying, the mayor finally appointed two environmentalists to the task force: SICCA’s Warren and Jim Tripp of the Environmental Defense Fund. Even then, Warren and Tripp were kept out of the decisionmaking loop. As Warren describes it, the rest of the task force would meet officially with them, asking them questions as though they were merely giving testimony, then adjourn the meeting and go off to discuss things by themselves. Warren tried to protest, but says she didn’t get much support, not even from Tripp.

Giuliani also called on the boroughs to prepare their own plans for adapting to the absence of Fresh Kills. The apparent reasoning was that the task force would sketch out a guideline and the boroughs would fill in the blanks. By the spring of 1997, the task force had released its report and the City Council was holding hearings to prepare its own response. The task force report was predictably short on details. It called for continued use of the city’s marine transfer stations: barges would still carry the garbage, just somewhere other than Fresh Kills.

There was also a suggested timeline of annual targets, diverting waste from Fresh Kills to phase it down gradually. Warren had managed to exact this concession in the final days before the report was released. “They were all ready to publish the report when I said, ‘wait, you’ve set the date for closing the landfill, but you haven’t said anything about how we’re going to get there'” she explained. The annual targets were the result.

This timeline would come to haunt the city’s other environmental advocates when DOS treated the targets as law and initiated interim plans to shift garbage from Fresh Kills-bound barges to land-based commercial waste transfer stations. More trash was now on its way to the already saturated neighborhoods of the South Bronx, Greenpoint-Williamsburg, and Red Hook.

In summer the borough reports were completed, and the City Council released its report in October. They all featured a number of suggestions for improving recycling and waste prevention – ideas DOS had either resisted or ignored since beginning recycling a decade ago. The City Council went a step further, demanding a moratorium on the siting of new transfer stations until acceptable siting regulations were approved.

But all of these reports are more notable for what they omit than what they include. None of them proposes any substantively new plan for phasing out the city’s reliance on Fresh Kills. None envisions any realignment of operations or authority around the new mission of maximizing waste prevention, recycling, and composting. None of them offers any specific proposal for deconcentrating the blight of transfer stations so the responsibility would be evenly shared by all parts of the city – i.e., “fair share” planning. In any case, since their release the reports have only gathered dust.

Contracts for Corporations

As the foregoing shows, the city is throwing away an historic opportunity to plan for a more efficient and equitable system of waste management, and to do it with citizen groups and neighborhoods. Instead, the mayor is using the opportunity to issue huge contracts to his business pals.

Last year DOS issued three Requests for Proposals (RFPs) soliciting bids from waste management companies for handling the city’s residential waste once it is diverted from the landfill. These RFPs are in effect the most important planning documents in the city – a sign that no serious planning is occurring. By their nature, RFPs result in technocratic ‘solutions.’ When an agency doesn’t know how to adapt to a new requirement, instead of involving the public to solicit ideas and to develop a comprehensive plan to handle the new demands, they typically hire professionals to give them a narrowly-defined answer that doesn’t address long-term problems. Professionals, eager to be chosen for future contracts, dare not offer any suggestions that might disturb the status quo. These RFPs are no exception, having been set up so only large corporations could meet the qualifications.

Furthermore, DOS – or any city agency for that matter – has a greater incentive to issue RFPs than undertake community-based planning and problem solving. Community-based programs tend to be funded through local politicians who can use them to increase their local power base. Contracts, on the other hand, can benefit the Mayor and his agency appointees; Funneled to large corporations, they can result in hefty campaign contributions and invite corruption at the highest levels of government, as occurred at the Parking Violations Bureau during the Koch Administration.

Centralized Decisionmaking and Fragmented Political Response

In the case of waste management, New York City’s centralized decisionmaking process has resulted in a one-size-fits all method of collection even though the composition of the waste stream is radically different from one neighborhood to the next.

DOS’s centralized authority has also proven susceptible to political influence that leads to an unequal distribution of the negative impacts of this citywide service. Although zoning is partly responsible, the heart of the waste transfer station problem is environmental injustice: the well-worn path of least resistance.

One hidden part of the original political deal for Fresh Kills has since come to light that demonstrates this reality. DOS was instructed to reject any proposals from companies that would create new waste facilities, including transfer stations, in Staten Island, a largely white, middle-income borough. Instead, white and ethnically diverse working-class neighborhoods in the other boroughs are the only available targets.

The unequal distribution of negative impacts fragments communities’ ability to respond by forcing officials and citizen groups in each borough and neighborhood to look out for their own interests. In Manhattan, for example, a borough advisory board is examining the possibility of combining residential and commercial collection and handling it all through the borough’s three municipal marine transfer stations. There are only a few commercial waste transfer stations in Manhattan, so most of the 8,000 daily tons of commercial waste currently gets trucked to transfer stations in Brooklyn. Clearly, if Manhattan succeeded in channeling all its garbage through the marine transfer stations, Brooklyn would benefit. But Brooklynites are so busy holding the line in their own communities that they have little time to follow what’s happening outside their borough.

Political leaders in the Bronx and Queens have been somewhat less active on the issue. In the Bronx, the problems of the city’s waste system have had to compete for attention in a packed field of environmental and economic inequities. In Queens, transfer stations generally cause less public concern. They tend to be smaller in size and more sensibly sited in areas that are truly industrial. The borough also produces less putrescible commercial waste, and only five of its twenty-two transfer stations handle this type of garbage.

Staten Islanders are still nervously waiting for the landfill to actually close and many say they’ll only believe it when they see it. Barbara Warren has been a vocal advocate on the waste transfer station problems of the other boroughs. But her concern is rare among Staten Islanders, who more commonly exhibit little sympathy for places like Greenpoint-Williamsburg and are still bitter over the failure of other boroughs to make closing Fresh Kills a priority in the past. Even within boroughs like Brooklyn, where the Borough President has been a leader in the fight against inequitable concentrations of waste transfer stations, the issue isn’t really on the radar screen of more affluent and politically connected neighborhoods. People in, say, Park Slope or Borough Park don’t see or smell waste transfer stations every day, so they are not out marching in the streets against them.

Differences in the character and politics of each borough, as well as the differing priorities of neighborhood and environmental advocates in each borough, lead to a fragmented approach and hinder the emergence of any citywide coordination or vision. The mayor and the centralized department are able to turn a deaf ear to neighborhood protests and free to ignore the complaints and suggestions of environmental watchdogs. Finally, most individuals and groups that have a broader planning focus, such as the Regional Planning Association, don’t appear very interested in the problems of managing New York City’s waste.

Imperial Government versus Regional Planning

The example of waste management in New York City shows that even when there is a single jurisdiction, thoughtful planning and social equity are no guarantee. In fact, the recent history of DOS demonstrates that centralizing authority for a large region of heterogeneous communities serves to divorce decisionmaking and accountability from local needs and input. The result is poor planning and incompetent service delivery that cannot be judged equitable or efficient by any measure.

Would it be any different if there were a single jurisdiction covering the entire New York metropolitan region, with its 19 million people and not just New York City’s 8 million? I doubt it, since at the grassroots, where the rubber meets the road in city politics, the diversity of opinions, needs and priorities is certain to make it more complicated.

The consolidation of New York City has not provided an easy solution to the problems of fragmentation. On the contrary, because of government’s shortcomings, New Yorkers saw it necessary to continually evolve an astounding number of intervening and overlapping layers of official and unofficial government: block associations, political clubs, interest groups, Business Improvement Districts, trade associations, community districts, city council districts, advisory boards, and school boards. Despite continuing attempts to consolidate authority, different levels of power have persisted along with a fragmented political structure for decision making.

It would be churlish to simply characterize this fragmentation as political infighting. Different neighborhoods with different populations, local economies, and patterns of land use naturally have different sets of interests and priorities. We must recognize their differences are legitimate. The ideas of consolidation and centralization appeal to the desire for rational efficiency, but maybe fragmentation is the more natural process. Of course, it is sensible to be wary of decentralization, since it can lead to great inequalities, but neither should we accept metropolitan governance or regional solutions uncritically. A middle way between the two must be found: one that places some real control and decision-making authority at the local level, but that also ensures a balance throughout the region. Each locality must contribute its fair share and bear its fair share of the region’s burdens. Sounds a lot like democracy, doesn’t it?

John McCrory is Editor of Planners Network and a graduate student in city and regional planning at Pratt Institute.

Return to Table of Contents

You May Also Like