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Changes in the organization of global economic activity – in particular, the ascendance of services over manufacturing in global cities – have had a profound impact on labor, consumer, and real estate markets in New York City. New growth in service sectors has generated spectacular new wealth, and the city has firmly re-established itself as a capital of commerce and culture, after being ravaged by disinvestment and fiscal crisis in the 1960s and 70s. New York City's contemporary economy is a vibrant one in many ways, but it is also a highly unequal one – one in which residents who are not part of the professional class (disproportionately immigrants and people of color) face increasing challenges.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration has wholeheartedly embraced the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial economy, launching ground-level redevelopment strategies in over 20 neighborhoods (many tied to the proposal for the 2012 Olympics), which add up to a transformation of the physical city. These plans seek to open the city up for new commercial office and luxury housing development – through a mix of rezonings, subsidies, and infrastructure investments in public transportation, open space, culture, and spectacle. The public sector resources on which these plans lay claim are substantial – an estimated $20 billion in capital spending. The development that would result from these plans offers many benefits for the city's future, including new jobs, a higher capture rate of high-end commercial and residential users, increased tax revenues, and enhanced public transportation and open space.
The Bloomberg vision for New York City's future is compelling in many respects: its focus on livability and public space, its high design standards, its acknowledgement that adaptation to a largely post-industrial economy is needed in land use planning, workforce development and economic development policy. But the vision also implies several assumptions with which we disagree. First, it equates real estate development with economic development. Second, it posits a future city that exists primarily for its most privileged residents, with too few real benefits of growth reaching the less-wealthy 80% of the population.
The plans emanating from the current administration's bold vision for New York are likely to amplify the inequalities embedded in the service-intensive economy and further drive up real estate values. As a result, they will displace additional low-income housing (thus increasing segregation) and additional viable manufacturing (thus reducing blue-collar job opportunities). Few corresponding gains (e.g. affordable housing, living wage jobs) are being offered for low- or moderate-income families. In addition, the environmental burdens of growth in an increasingly polarized city will continue to be borne disproportionately by low-income communities of color.
Fortunately, the choice is not between inequitable growth and no growth. There are innovative strategies for utilizing planning and redevelopment tools – without abandoning most of the current plans – not only to generate prosperity, but to share it more equitably and to produce it more sustainably. Housing advocates, community organizations, labor unions, business groups, environmental/environmental justice groups, and advocacy/smart growth planners around the country are experimenting with new tools. Smartly applied, in combination, many of these tools could reshape proposed redevelopment plans to create more shared and sustainable prosperity in New York City.
Date Posted: 28 April 2008