Dumb urbanist idea #761: The Equalizer
Way back in 2004, I had this to say about the “privately owned public spaces” that dot New York City as a result of its 1961 Zoning Resolution, “all those interstitial spaces in Manhattan created when a real-estate developer has had to offer a public accommodation as a condition of being permitted development rights or floor-area bonuses: a plaza or a garden, a shaded alcove or even a simple bench”:
Most such spaces, it is true, are little more than unloved, non-revenue-generating voids in the cityscape, and treated as such by all; relatively few are understood as public amenities capable of spinning off benefits beyond the mere financial. But it’s hard to overstate how important it is to the life of a city to have copious amounts (and types) of space in which you can sit for free, unhassled by rentacop and barista alike, whether you’re there to enjoy a brown-bag lunch, write urban haiku, or simply watch the traffic go by.
I still believe that. But the fact is, the pace of vertical development being what it is hereabouts, Manhattan is replete with such spaces. Maybe we simply don’t need any more. But as it happens, there’s something else that developers might be able to provide that we do require, fairly acutely.
So I wanted to offer an idea I’ve been kicking around of late, a modification to the standard arrangement that might actually return to the island something much more useful to its future than yet another pocket park.
On the one hand, this idea is so stupidly simple that I can’t believe nobody’s proposed such a trade-off before, and on the other, what with my research skills being what they are, I’m not able to scare up any evidence that such a measure has in fact been mooted by anyone. (My more knowledgeable readers are invited to leave evidence of “prior art” in comments, as I simply cannot wrap my head around the idea that nobody’s had this brainstorm before, or one very much like it.) At any rate, here it is:
For every floor of commercial development permitted in excess of the ordinary statutory maximum, the developer must provide n,000 sq ft of affordable housing within one kilometer of the site of the proposed variance.
I’m obviously neither an attorney nor a housing-rights activist, so I’m sure the language could use some adjustment. It’s also true that what the measure is aiming to achieve hinges much too delicately on the precise definition of “affordable” – I can imagine the hyperpolitical, gloves-off wrangling even now. But there’s the gist of the idea: you get to build your corporate megashaft, and in return the city gets not merely housing options for people that would otherwise be forced to flee, but entire high-density mixed-use districts.
Is such an idea prima facie untenable (you’ll pardon the pun) in the current, developer-friendly climate? Oh, assuredly so. But only in the same way that other urban-improvement measures were once dismissed as unthinkable, impractical or uneconomic, from mandatory curbcuts to segregated bikeways. If we want this kind of thing badly enough to organize and agitate for it, it’s within reach.
Stated most nakedly: wouldn’t affordable housing, within walking distance of the jobs themselves, beat another few dozen wind-tunnel parklets all to hell? Or is that too sensible an idea by far to ever take wing?