Bloomberg trumpets “bigger is better” but ignores quality of city life

Commentary | By Craig Gurian |

As such, we shouldn’t be surprised that “too tall” is not in the mayor’s vocabulary either. Bloomberg is pushing to overhaul zoning “so that buildings in Midtown Manhattan can soar as high” as those in other world capitals like Tokyo, repeatedly emphasizing the importance of meeting “the needs of globe-trotting corporate tenants.”

Exceptions to the rule

There have been circumstances where the Bloomberg administration has “downzoned” (zoned for less permissible density) for what it has called “preserving neighborhood character.”

Those downzonings have been in parts of Staten Island and Queens that feature environmentally unsustainable low-rise, one- and two-family housing.

These neighborhoods also tend to be racially segregated, so that downzonings that make the construction of affordable multi-family housing financially unfeasible act to perpetuate that

I’m sure there are some things about Tokyo that it would be well for New York to emulate. But its density of super-high-rise towers and a population of more than 13 million should not be among them. We can’t just measure the health of a city by how much per square foot a real estate broker can charge for the most expensive office space. We need to take seriously how much New Yorkers rely on the presence of low-rise and mid-rise structures to maintain their own internal balance.

It really is quite striking: this globe-trotting mayor has seemingly never thought about (let alone has caused to be studied) the public health consequences of a growing New York City population. Nor has he examined any alternatives to his vision: How could a stable population not only sustain New York City, but also help it thrive for more of its residents than it has in the past? How could smaller be better? How could we cooperate with neighboring jurisdictions instead of just beating our chest as the biggest and best?

And he has apparently failed to do so even though he often does take a public health perspective in other contexts. The Bloomberg administration, for example, recently unveiled a new public education campaign targeting teen pregnancy, and defended that controversial but factually accurate campaign on the grounds that it sends an important message that “teen pregnancy has consequences — and those consequences are extremely negative, life-altering, and most often disproportionately borne by young women.”

Broader population trends, too, can be extremely negative, city altering, and disproportionately borne by those with the least resources.

Which three boroughs were home to fewer people in 2010 than in 1940?

The Bronx (but only by about 9,000 people); Brooklyn (by almost 200,000 people); and Manhattan (by slightly more than 300,000 people).

By contrast, Staten Island’s population is larger by almost 300,000 people, and the population of Queens is larger by more than 900,000 people.

Housing patterns are complex phenomena, though, and one needs to take care before one concludes that Manhattan, for example, could easily return to its larger, 1940 population. Today, there are more and smaller households than there were back then. Indeed, though Manhattan had 300,000 more people in 1940 in 2010, it had 230,000 more housing units in 2010 than it did in 1940.


Send a letter to the editor