Build, Baby, Build

The city’s prescription for income inequality means taller buildings and more packed streets. But not all New Yorkers are ready.

By Brianna McGurran

Mayor Bill de Blasio has high hopes for creating more affordable housing in New York City—and he’s willing to build big to make it happen.

In a hotly anticipated report released May 5, de Blasio laid out his plans to create 80,000 new units of affordable housing and renovate another 120,000 units in the next decade. The proposal will cost the city $8.2 billion and will provide an additional 500,000 New Yorkers with below-market-rate apartments. The cornerstone of the plan is to encourage developers to build taller, more densely packed buildings that must include units for low- and middle-income residents. “It will change the face of the city forever,” de Blasio said.

Mayor de Blasio announcing his 10-year plan on May 5, 2014 .

But the push to build up in an already jam-packed city has prompted concerns among neighborhood groups and urban planners about congestion, pollution and strains on transit and social services.

Olive Freud

To Olive Freud, the city’s magic lies in its old buildings – not in soulless new towers that “take the sun away.”

Freud, a retired math teacher who organized the Recycled Building Exhibit in 1995 to promote the beauty of New York’s old buildings, has been living on the Upper West Side for 50 years and doesn’t like what has happened to her neighborhood and to the city as a whole.

Vision 2040: Infrastructure of the Future

Growing Pains

The city gained more than 231,000 residents between 2010 and 2013, almost 40 percent more than in the previous decade, and it’s expected to add another 1 million people in the next 20 years. Creating the type of dense urban landscape found in Hong Kong or Singapore could compromise New York’s livability and desirability, experts say, unless it’s done right.

“It can really destroy and damage the visual character and the historic character and the aesthetic quality of the neighborhood,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which has fought development projects in the West Village. “We don’t want to see that happen.”

The mayor’s plan said the city will rezone specific neighborhoods to allow for taller buildings, but it included no specifics about which neighborhoods would be transformed. It also proposes removing height restrictions on new buildings in already dense areas. In return, developers will be required to keep a certain number of units in new buildings affordable.

“It’s going to take a willingness to use height and density to the maximum feasible extent,” said de Blasio in a closed-door meeting with developers from the Real Estate Board of New York in February. “This is something I’ve said in our previous meetings I don’t have a hang-up about.”

Supporters had no qualms about the mayor’s vision of a more towering city. “Build, baby, build,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams at a news conference announcing the plan. “Build tall, build high. We don’t have more land, but we do have air rights.”

The proposal didn’t include details about what percentage of affordable units developers will have to include in their projects, saying the parameters will be worked out on a case-by-case basis. Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, some developers volunteered to set aside 20 percent of new units for lower-income residents in exchange for tax incentives. But de Blasio said that it would now be mandatory to include subsidized apartments in exchange for zoning allowances.

De Blasio pointed to the deal he struck with developers of the defunct Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg as a model for his mixed-income housing strategy.

In March, Two Trees Management agreed to add 40 more below-market apartments to the 2,300-unit Domino Sugar project. As a result, the city gave it the go-ahead to build another tower in Williamsburg higher than originally planned. The Domino Sugar development will now include 1,600 market-rate units and 700 affordable units.


Doubling Up to Pay the Rent


Yureca Martinez rents out space in every room of her four-room Bedford-Stuyvesant railroad apartment except for the bathroom and kitchen.

She needs the tenants to offset her rising rent – it leaps to $1,800 next month, a 50 percent increase from her first lease in 2005.

Flushing Grows Up

With two major development projects in construction, already packed Flushing is going to see more business, more people and more offices. While the focus on the construction boom in the outer boroughs has generally been in the neighborhoods one subway stop from Manhattan, this community at the end of the 7 is rapidly changing. The neighborhood has always been busy with activity said Rob MacKay of the Queens Economic Development Corp.

Teeming Transit

Teeming Transit
The strain is showing underground.

The Pros of Packed Living

The Pros of Packed Living
A Harvard economist says dense living will benefit New Yorkers.

Are New Yorkers Ready?

Residents of Greenpoint and Williamsburg have been on the front lines of the debate since the 2005 rezoning of the waterfront under Bloomberg. New regulations allowed for commercial and residential construction in the formerly industrial district, and almost 17,000 new residents were expected to move to the area afterward, according to a 2004 city assessment.

Nearly a decade of condominium construction has led to more traffic, more stress on the already troubled G subway line and hordes of people on the sidewalks, said Emily Gallagher, a member of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth.

“What good is housing a diverse group of people to live in if everyone there is miserable because of the impact of their very presence in that community?” she said.

Greenpoint, a traditionally middle-class neighborhood characterized by low-rise brick and vinyl townhouses, wasn’t ready for such swift change after the rezoning, said Gallagher. The glut of new residents attracted chain retailers that have pushed out small businesses, she said. And left unchecked, continued development will corrode the quality of life in the area, she argues.

“You need to have a commute to work that is not filled with waiting endlessly for trains, suffering through enormous crowds, worried that you’re going to be killed by a car,” she said.

But the buildup isn’t slowing down any time soon. Greenpoint Landing, a controversial development on the waterfront approved by the City Council in December, will include 10 residential towers of 30 to 40 stories, a school and a public park. In March, the project’s developer filed a permit for the first building in the development, a 93-unit, six-story residence with ground-floor commercial space. There’s more that needs to be done to accommodate all the new residents construction will bring in, said Gallagher.

“There should be more of a focus on creating better infrastructure to handle all of this housing,” she said. “Maybe we should stop putting the cart before the horse and actually plan.”


Robert Samuel
Robert Samuel

After he was laid off from a job at AT&T, Robert Samuel put an ad on Craigslist, offering to wait in line for the new iPhone 5 for $100. Eighteen hours later he had $325 in his pocket and an idea.

From there his business, Sold Inc. was born. Now, his team of more than 15 employees waits for “Saturday Night Live” tickets or the latest Nike Air Jordans for New Yorkers who don’t want to put up with the city’s maddening lines.

Towering Controversy in Midtown East

Midtown East Taller buildings are on the horizon not only for the places where tomorrow’s New Yorkers will live, but also for the places they will work — the office towers that have long led the city’s climb towards the sky. The fight over competing visions of a denser commercial city is playing out in Midtown East.

Light and Shadow in New York’s Man-Made Canyons

As the city approves taller and taller towers, New Yorkers are being forced to navigate the dark side of development. The issue is as old as the skyscrapers themselves — in 1915, a seven-acre shadow prompted the first comprehensive zoning resolution in the city’s history. The culprit? The 42-story Equitable Building in Lower Manhattan, a pip-squeak compared to today’s new and proposed developments.

In the century since, the issue has attracted attention from everyday residents to luminaries like Jackie Onassis. As some of the tallest buildings in the country go up, New Yorkers are navigating more skyscraper-induced shade than ever before.
— Jacob Naughton

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Short on Services in LIC

Long Island City, another neighborhood that’s undergone dramatically increased residential construction in the last decade, could have used more of those services during development, said Robert MacKay, director of tourism for the Queens Economic Development Corporation and a resident of nearby Sunnyside, Queens.

When his daughter was in kindergarten just seven years ago, P.S. 78 in Long Island City didn’t have enough students to fill its classes, he said.

“Now, even if you live in that zone, you’re not guaranteed a spot because it’s so popular,” said MacKay.

Court Square, 30 blocks of formerly industrial acreage in Long Island City, was rezoned in 2001. New residential skyscrapers rise over brick two-story homes, and new occupants have flooded to the area. The neighborhood used to have one hotel; now it has 23.

“It’s going to get too crowded eventually, it’s got to,” said MacKay. “It’s too crowded when you have to make reservations for restaurants, you can’t get on the subway, or there’s no parking.”

Another problem with adding density on valuable waterfront property is the eventual trade-off between industries that create blue-collar jobs and residences that house white-collar commuters, said John Shapiro, an urban planning professor at the Pratt Institute. Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Long Island City have all historically been home to manufacturing plants and warehouses. But as rezoning ushers in more condo development, those jobs are disappearing, Shapiro said.

“It’s one thing to say we’re going to add 200,000 units, but then take away 50,000 jobs,” he said.

Nick and Marissa Kohn

So long, hour-long commute, cramped housing and the constant sound of cars honking. After an 11-year wait, actor Nick Kohn and his wife Marissa finally moved into a high-rise sanctuary on West 43rd Street last month.

“It’s funny because all of those issues making me crazy every day have disappeared here,” Kohn said.

Battle for the Streets

Packed neighborhoods mean peril for pedestrians

Bearing the Wait

Bearing the Wait
Get in line behind 8.4 million other New Yorkers
Yes in My Back Yard

Whatever the consequences, building bigger is the best way to address the city’s increasing affordability problem, said Nikolai Fedak, who started the pro-development website (Yes in My Backyard) in 2011. Ramping up the number of available apartments will finally let the real estate market meet demand, he said, bringing down the cost of housing for everyone. The city’s past policy of setting aside 20 percent of new units for low-income residents, he said, only worked for the lucky few who won the notoriously competitive housing lotteries.

“For everyone else who’s stuck outside the system, it’s not affordable and things are just getting more expensive,” he said. “Which is why you need more density overall and not just stopgap measures.”

Fedak points to the Hudson Yards project on the West side of Manhattan as an example of good planning for development.

The multi-stage project is being built above Long Island Railroad train tracks in Midtown, near the Hudson River. The development area is bounded by West 30th Street to West 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue to the West Side Highway, and it was rezoned in 2005 to accommodate additional residential and commercial use. It will ultimately include 13,500 residences, including 4,000 affordable units.


Hsi-Pei Liao
His-Pei Liao

Hsi-Pei Liao always thought that bustling city streets and erratic traffic were just part of living in New York City – until his 4-year old-daughter was killed by a car.

Liao’s daughter, Allison, and 71-year-old mother were crossing the street in Flushing, Queens, on October 6 when a driver came barreling through the crosswalk, running over the child and and injuring her grandmother.


Noise is a fact of life in New York City—but that doesn’t mean residents have learned to live with it. The top quality-of-life complaint to 311 is noise. It’s difficult to get respite from rattling trains, screeching buses, sirens and conversations that are too loud to ignore.

In Soundscapes, take a trek into some of the city’s neighborhoods — from Chinatown to Williamsburg — and hear the everyday sounds in the city.
— Roxanne Scott & Julia Alsop

The jam-packed enclave of mostly Cantonese and Min speakers is dominated by tenement housing. The neighborhood has a plethora of banks, restaurants and jewelry stores and teems with tourists.

Times Square
About half a million people pass through Times Square every day. This tourist-heavy section of midtown has a low residential density, but also some of the city’s tallest office buildings and hotels.

Downtown Brooklyn
This area was rezoned in 2004, and high-priced condominiums are proliferating. With tens of thousands more residential units coming, Downtown Brooklyn may well be on its way to Manhattan-like levels of crowding.

Most residents live in single- or two-family homes in Rosedale and there are no subway stops nearby. Lawns, parking lots and low-slung buildings predominate, making it more similar to the suburbs than to Manhattan.

Jackson Heights
Jackson Heights
The northwestern Queens neighborhood is on the middle scale of packed neighborhoods with 75 to 99 people per acre.

Washington Heights
This upper Manhattan neighborhood is home to more than 150,000 people. It’s one of the most densely packed areas of the city.

Traditionally known for its enclaves of Puerto Rican, Italian and Jewish residents, the recently rezoned Brooklyn neighborhood is now a byword for hipsters.

Bedford Park
This residential northern Bronx neighborhood consists of mostly small apartment buildings and co-ops. Latinos dominate but Guyanese, Koreans and Albanians also live here.

Travel to the Towers

In 2006, the city and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority designed a $2 billion plan to extend the No. 7 subway line to West 34th Street and 11th Avenue to improve transit to the area. Subway service to 11th Avenue will begin later this year, far in advance of Hudson Yards’ completion. The extension will eventually include a new subway entrance on West 41st Street and 10th Avenue to serve residents of the new towers.

Adding public transportation or building along existing transit hubs is one of the central ways to accommodate additional development, said Fedak. It’s also one of the prerequisites for new construction under de Blasio’s plan. The city identified transit-heavy Atlantic Avenue and Fulton Street in Brooklyn as areas that could take on greater density. The administration will also add bike lanes and 13 new Select Bus Service routes to more populous neighborhoods.

Rachelle Anthony

Rachelle Anthony knows what it’s like to live in high-rise developments –and she doesn’t think they’re the best solution to the city’s housing needs.

Anthony, 48, lives in a townhouse in Co-op City, the Bronx, surrounded by 25 high-rises.

Read More

Visions of New York

For decades architects and city planners have created fantasy versions of a future New York. Here, a selection of images and excerpts of projects from the 1870s to the present day shows a city that never would be. A fan-powered subway, a dome covering midtown, a skyscraper farm: the projects examine real concerns like transportation, public health and food safety from a visionary perspective. — Meral Agish

The Benefits of Building Up
Advocates for higher density say that’s better for the environment than building miles of sprawling, low-rise housing. City dwellers who rely on public transportation have a smaller carbon footprint than suburbanites, according to a study released in January by the University of California, Berkeley. Residents of Syosset, Long Island, produce about 70 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, the study found, double the amount that residents of the Upper West Side produce.

People who live in tight spaces consume fewer resources, explained Gary Nickerson, spokesman for the Sierra Club’s New York chapter.

“The use of energy is more efficient if you’re heating a large building than if you’re heating a bunch of separate houses,” he said.

Compared with the rest of the country, densely packed New York is especially environmentally efficient. In a study of 66 U.S. metropolitan areas, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser found that New Yorkers used the least gasoline.

“Living in New York is one of the greenest places in the country to possibly live in,” Glaeser said.

A smaller impact on the environment isn’t the only reason to celebrate density, he said. As people live closer together, they tend to share ideas and engage in entrepreneurial activity. Doubling a city’s population density translates to a 6 percent increase in productivity, which could help create new jobs to make up for losses in industry and manufacturing, he said.

Efficient and thoughtful city policies, along with more property tax revenue, can help address the costs that come with greater development, Glaeser said.

“The downsides of density become more manageable as government gets better, and presumably if government is getting better then we can put up with more density,” he said.

But he cautions that we can’t forget to consider how more packed neighborhoods and hovering towers affect quality of life. “It’s always worthwhile fearing the danger of monumentalism, of thinking that what an architect thinks looks good is actually what people need,” he said.

Additional reporting by Oliver Morrison and Kayle Hope

Lindsay Franconi

Lindsay Franconi’s brown French bulldog is comfortable sitting quietly beneath her seat as she makes her commute from Brooklyn to midtown each morning.

“It’s funny how people react,” she said. “A lot of times people think he’s just a regular dog.”

But Henry is more than just a companion. He is a service dog trained to help Franconi with severe anxiety.

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Attractive and Affordable

David Baker, 65, is an architect based in San Francisco. His firm, David Baker Architects, has designed and built more than 8,000 affordable units in the San Francisco Bay Area and is known primarily for designing beautiful affordable housing projects.

Population Density (per acre) in NYC