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Skylines and Streetscapes: How New York City Physically Changed in de Blasio Era

The view from Central Park, Dec. 23, 2021.
The view from Central Park, Dec. 23, 2021.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/ THE CITY

Nine neighborhoods have been rezoned for growth. Cars have given way to bus-only traffic on several major thoroughfares. Much public housing is under private management. Supertall towers have redefined the Manhattan skyline.

In Mayor Bill de Blasio’s two terms, the landscape of this town has shifted in a big way. Save for the skyscrapers, the mayor can take some credit for the above transformations, for better or worse.

In a place where the only constant is change, it may be hard to remember how the physical city has been recast in these past eight years.

Some of the biggest borough-altering projects, initiatives and happenings under de Blasio:

Dining and Living Room on the Street

It started as an emergency workaround when the COVID-19 pandemic began in the spring of 2020. Now, outdoor dining and the car-free Open Streets that flourished during this crisis (at least when it’s not absolutely freezing) may be here to stay.

The current emergency rules that allowed eateries to encroach upon sidewalks and streets are scheduled to remain in effect for at least another year. The city Department of Transportation has been considering regulations for a permanent program, but the Adams administration could go in a different direction.

Incoming DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez has said that he wants to “get right” rules for outdoor dining.

Community boards have fought it vigorously, and pushed the DOT for more input. At the same time, Open Streets has faced pushback in some neighborhoods while volunteers have struggled to maintain them.

Despite the back and forth, Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the Municipal Art Society — who lives next to the 34th Avenue Open Street in Jackson Heights — thinks those early-pandemic changes to the streetscape will remain in some form.

“COVID changed the way New Yorkers think about streets. Those of us who were here through the crisis lived in a city that was more silent,” she said. “The quiet of the street provided some solace for people. The fact that it wasn’t full of car noise gave us all a sense of what is possible here.”

Equity for Park Renovations

In the beginning of his mayoralty, de Blasio set out with a specific goal: doll out funding for parks renovations more evenly by pouring money into the neighborhoods that had been largely ignored in recent decades, as private parks conservancies — raking in millions in private donations — funded upgrades in wealthy areas.

To do that, the administration identified 67 green spaces where less than $250,000 had been spent by the city in the previous 20 years and put them on the list to get funding and a makeover. In comparison, the High Line spends millions to operate each year, and even a small public playground renovation can easily cost $1 million and up.

Eight years later, the Community Parks Initiative is nearly complete. The Mayor’s Office announced in October that 62 of those parks are completely renovated and open to the public.

Mayor Bill de Blasio launches the Community Parks Initiative.
Mayor Bill de Blasio launches the Community Parks Initiative.
Mayoral Photography Office/ Ed Reed

The initiative does not alter the skyline, or span a river. But it has changed dozens of neighborhoods, one brand-new jungle gym, water fountain and bench at a time.

To Maulin Mehta, New York director at the Regional Plan Association, it’s a clear win for government tackling “historical underinvestment issues” within infrastructure and major works.

“It’s a good example of a city agency really taking an equity lens to how they invest,” he said.

How We Move: Ferries, Busways, Bike Lanes and Cameras

With the subway under the state’s control and Albany intervention needed to institute a policy like congestion pricing, there are limits to how much a mayor can sway the way we get around.

But de Blasio’s administration has changed our streets and waterways in real ways. The ferry system — and its high per-ride cost — is all thanks to him. New bus-only lanes, too, are chugging along on seven roadways, including 14th and 181st streets in Manhattan and Archer and Jamaica avenues in Queens, because of de Blasio’s transportation department. And expanded bike lane and speed camera networks have arrived on streets all over the five boroughs.

Department of Transportation Commissioner Henry Gutman takes an inaugural ride over the newly opened Brooklyn Bridge bike lane, Sept. 14, 2021.
Department of Transportation Commissioner Henry Gutman takes an inaugural ride over the newly opened Brooklyn Bridge bike lane, Sept. 14, 2021.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Transit advocates often criticize the mayor for not doing enough to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe, especially because one of his signature goals, Vision Zero, aimed to eliminate traffic-related deaths over a decade.

The statistics were trending down since that 2014 announcement by the mayor. But since the pandemic began, both street fatalities and traffic have risen, said Mehta at RPA.

“COVID threw a wrench in everything that was done prior,” he said.

Rebuilding the Lower East Side

The mayor’s record on planning for climate change is mixed, but in Lower Manhattan, the administration undeniably hit a significant milestone: Getting shovels in the ground to reshape the Lower East Side waterfront.

The $1.4 billion East Side Coastal Resiliency plan — imperfect even to its supporters and loathsome to activists who have sued and been arrested to stop it — is not the city’s first resiliency project. (That’s the Rockaway boardwalk rebuild, with a $500 million price tag.) But it is the first at a scale designed to protect such a densely populated neighborhood against rising seas and stronger storms.

A construction site for the East Side Coastal Resiliency project. Dec. 17, 2021.
A construction site for the East Side Coastal Resiliency project. Dec. 17, 2021.

The project will remake Manhattan’s shore between East 25th to Montgomery streets, raising the water’s edge by eight feet. It entails burying and then rebuilding East River Park to create underground anti-flood measures and expanded sewage capacity.

Work began on the project in November 2020. Construction in East River Park, halted temporarily by court intervention, has been legally cleared to continue and workers have broken ground there. The segment north of East 15th Street is scheduled for completion in 2024, and East River Park will be rebuilt by 2026.

Up next: Other places in New York City that badly need flood protection, including in the Financial District — where the city has put out a plan that explores tearing down the FDR Drive — and in East Harlem, where the city studied ways to reshape the low-lying area, buried the report and has yet to move forward with resiliency measures there.

Private Renovations for Public Housing

Within New York’s vast public housing complexes, de Blasio’s administration has spurred a vast physical makeover nearly invisible to those outside their walls.

NYCHA in 2016 began the process of converting 62,000 housing authority apartments — about a third of its 171,000 units — to private management by 2028 under an Obama-era federal program called Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD.

The authority has promised the process of shifting to private management and refinancing will give tenants newly renovated apartments, better security and more responsive property managers. The move is a key part of NYCHA’s plan to tackle a $40 billion repair backlog.

But THE CITY has reported on tenants in converted buildings dealing with botched repairs by new managers, and being left in the dark by NYCHA as the management switch takes place. Yet, tenants at at least one complex on Manhattan’s west side chose to undergo a RAD conversion after weighing its options.

When the push for RAD conversions took place, Vic Bach, senior housing analyst at the Community Service Society, said it was “considered the only medicine for distressed public housing that Washington offered.”

“That was very much endorsed by the mayor at the time,” he said.

Now, NYCHA’s de Blasio-appointed chairperson, Gregory Russ, has endorsed another plan in addition to RAD, the NYCHA Preservation Trust, which needs state legislation. And a bit of hope has appeared in the form of federal infrastructure spending through the Build Back Better plan that could infuse NYCHA with at least $35 billion, “which takes it a long way towards meeting its $40 billion capital backlog,” Bach said.

Sen. Chuck Schumer is pushing for those funds for NYCHA. But what will happen in Congress is up in the air thanks to Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Meanwhile, RAD is chugging along in the city. More than 3,200 apartments have been converted already, and nearly 15,000 ongoing conversions will be completed by the end of the year, a NYCHA spokesperson said. Another 34,000 units are under construction or in the pipeline to be converted soon.

‘Affordable’ Housing in Rich Neighborhoods — Maybe

In eight years, the de Blasio administration has overseen nine neighborhood rezonings, including two approved just this month in Gowanus and SoHo.

Experts say it’s still a bit early to know how those early rezonings have shaken out. In East New York, locals are worried about failed promises on affordable housing and jobs, and developers are beginning to plan new buildings in Inwood.

Up until this year, every rezoning focused on low-income neighborhoods home to primarily Black and Latino New Yorkers, for which City Hall was “roundly criticized,” said Eric Kober, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the former housing and infrastructure planning director at the Department of City Planning.

A person walks past construction around the Gowanus Canal, July 10, 2020.
A person walks past construction around the Gowanus Canal, July 10, 2020.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Overall, affordable development has been concentrated in poor areas and de Blasio’s signature policy, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing — which requires set-asides of affordable apartments in rezoned areas — has not spurred enough low-cost housing, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams recently found.

As of the end of June of this year, the city says it has financed the creation and preservation of nearly 195,000 units of affordable housing on its way to a goal of creating and preserving 300,000 units by 2026.

An analysis by THE CITY found that of the newly constructed affordable apartments, 22% of them were set aside for “extremely low income” New Yorkers, defined as a family of three that makes less than $32,200.

The mayor’s legacy on housing may rest on the reaction to that early focus on low-income neighborhoods. Goldstein of Municipal Art Society highlighted a new city law requiring analysis of the racial impact of new rezonings — a policy pushed by critics of de Blasio’s housing approach.

“That’s going to make a huge amount of difference going forward,” she said.

Moses Gates, vice president for housing and neighborhood planning at Regional Plan Association, underscored that the city’s recent push to rezone Gowanus and SoHo “broke the logjam on the hands-off approach” to changing land use rules to allow more development — and, critically, more housing — in rich areas.

“Being able to get more mixed-income housing into a super wealthy, very, very privileged area was thought of as politically impossible for a long time,” he said. “And the upcoming mayor is now talking about doing more of that.”

Several Supertalls Sprouting

Since de Blasio’s first year in office, the city has seen a steady march of supertall skyscrapers. Billionaires’ Row started with bang in 2014 as One57 opened and 432 Park Ave. topped out.

Since then, the 984-feet-and-over towers have defined the skyline: soon came Hudson Yards, a slew of slender buildings south of Central Park, One Vanderbilt next to Grand Central Terminal and now Brooklyn’s first supertall, The Brooklyn Tower, rising on DeKalb Avenue.

Why are we seeing so much more now? Science. Modern engineering has made it easier to build a 1,400-foot-tall tower that’s only 50 feet wide, noted Kober, of the Manhattan Institute.

“They’re really artifacts of changes in technology,” he said.

A view of the Gowanus Canal and the new skyline seen from the Smith and Ninth Street subway station, August 02, 2021.
A view of the Gowanus Canal and the new skyline seen from the Smith and Ninth Street subway station, August 02, 2021.
Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

And barring a massive land use change, there is little any mayor could do to keep them at bay, even if they wanted to — which Kober argues they shouldn’t. The super-wealthy people who buy those units, he said, “often spend two weeks a year in their New York residences.”

“They pay taxes and they don’t ask for services. They’re not even here,” he said. “So, that seems to be a pretty good bargain.”

Taxes are precisely where a mayor could regulate supertalls, if he chooses. Right now, those uber-wealthy property owners do pay taxes — at a fraction of what middle-class homeowners elsewhere in the city do.

Gates said the city and state could have done more to restructure the tax code to make those properties pay “their fair share.”

“High-end condominiums are ridiculously under-taxed in New York City,” he said.

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