Planning to Rebuild: The Issues Ahead

By Tom Angotti

The attacks on the World Trade Center brought horror, fear, death and anger to many New Yorkers. In the weeks after the attacks, government at all levels and many brave volunteers took care of the urgent tasks of relief and the search for victims.

As things begin to get back to something close to normal, government faces the new issues and challenges of planning for reconstruction. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has already asked displaced businesses what the city can do to help them rebuild and relocate in Manhattan. The Mayor and City Council Speaker announced plans to form a special commission responsible for rebuilding in lower Manhattan. The new commission could manage $20 billion in federal relief funds, and could have bonding authority that would allow it to finance reconstruction efforts, though this authority would have to be conferred by the state legislature. Developers are already lining up to feed.

In this election year, the issues to be faced by the new mayor and city council are profound and have implications beyond lower Manhattan. They will affect the future of the city, the metropolitan region and cities throughout the country. Those charged with planning for reconstruction will have to balance concerns about public safety with the need to protect New York City’s vibrant and open street life, mobility and access to public places, and its great social diversity.

· Concentration or sprawl? To what extent will the disaster in New York City affect the national debates on Smart Growth? New York City is one of the most densely populated cities in the country and Wall Street has a very dense daytime population. Federal policy for the last half century has favored low-density, sprawled suburban development by subsidizing the interstate highway program and guaranteeing mortgage financing for single-family homes. The interstate highway program was originally named the Defense Highway System and one of its explicit purposes was to disperse the U.S. population and industry and make them less vulnerable to attack from abroad. In recent years over fifteen states have passed Smart Growth legislation to encourage greater concentration, recognizing the economic, environmental and public health problems due to auto-dependency and suburban sprawl. Congress and the White House seemed to be moving towards greater support for such efforts. Will they now see an attempt by New York City to retain its higher density as foolish, unsafe, and unworthy of support? Will September 11 kick off a new anti-urban wave in Washington?

Within New York City, the question has already arisen about the wisdom of rebuilding on the World Trade Center site. Should federal, state and city governments invest extremely large sums to restore the infrastructure and density at the southern tip of Manhattan when the limited resources could have a greater impact and satisfy greater needs elsewhere? Would this be the most efficient and equitable solution given the enormous deficits in public expenditures throughout the city? Would it not make more sense to create public open spaces and low-density mixed-use buildings on the WTC site and surrounding properties? A greater mixture of commercial and residential uses could further diversify lower Manhattan, which is still primarily a ghost town after business hours. How can development rights and opportunities for displaced businesses be created elsewhere in the city where they can stimulate and reinforce growing business districts in less affluent neighborhoods?

· Auto access to downtown. In the weeks after September 11 authorities curtailed traffic in Manhattan for security reasons and to facilitate rescue operations. Given the greater potential security problems that come with large numbers of private automobiles in Manhattan, city government has an excellent opportunity to promote alternative means of transportation. This makes sense for security purposes, but it will also improve commerce and the environment, and keep people coming to the city. Measures that have been proposed by city planners for years but which now should be put back on the planning agenda include: 1) putting tolls on the East River bridges and using congestion pricing; 2) severely limiting on-street and off-street parking by revising parking requirements and increasing parking fees; 3) restricting times for daily deliveries by trucks; and 4) creating more auto-free zones.

Limiting auto access would create opportunities to improve the infrastructure for mass transit, pedestrians and bicycles, which together move millions more people every day than do autos. Will the city work more closely with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to expand bus service and create exclusive rights-of-way (and bus stops) for buses so they can operate on schedule? Will support grow for the Second Avenue subway line and extension of the #7 line to the west side of Manhattan? Will the city now widen more sidewalks, improve crosswalks, and slow vehicular traffic in areas with large pedestrian volumes? Will it make biking to work less risky for the more than 100,000 riders who currently use this superb clean-air travel mode, and encourage more bike commuters by building safe bicycle ways and parking racks throughout the city?

· Public places. New York City’s streets are the backbone of its exciting network of public places. How can the vitality of its streets, parks and open spaces be preserved? Limiting auto use can create a more secure environment, but limiting access to public spaces by pedestrians can create dangerous and insecure places. No one likes an abandoned street or park. In the past, government’s most important partners in making vibrant public places have been people who live and work in the city’s neighborhoods. From block associations to business improvement districts, there is a vast network of civic and neighborhood groups concerned with issues of access, transportation and auto use. They know where the dangers are. Will the city work with these groups to improve public places? Or will the new security concerns lead to changes dictated by security-minded engineers that make public places desolate and uninviting, and ultimately more dangerous?

In facing these questions, there will be a strong draw toward technological fixes for the security problem: more sophisticated surveillance of public places by video cameras, more metal detectors, more barriers. By themselves, these do not make public places safer.

One of the greatest assets of New York City, the advantage it enjoys over the sprawl and malls in the suburbs, is its rich, diverse and open environment. This is what has made it attractive to businesses, residents and tourists from all over the world. Ultimately it’s the people, both in the business districts and the neighborhoods, that will guarantee a safe and livable environment. One would hope that the city’s new commission and administration will work with all citizen groups as well as businesses to engage the public in an eminently public endeavor. Destruction of our great public life would be a second major blow to the open society.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of New York, and Editor of Planners Network.

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