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There is such a sweaty scrum of bureaucracies (Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the Governor, the Mayor, Port Authority) downtown that it is unfair to blame Bloomberg, but the course of events is instructive. In Brooklyn, the Mayor has been fully behind Bruce Ratner (the aesthete who brought you Metrotech and Atlantic Center), whose proposal for a development centered around an arena in Prospect Heights fits quite nicely into the administration’s vision of the city as a tremendous sports complex. Neighborhood activists don’t like the plan, which includes 17 high-rises (ranging to 53 stories in height), and Ratner and Bloomberg have very cannily countered by proclaiming that 50 percent of the 4,500 apartments in the towers will be set aside for low- and middle-income tenants. Together with the beguiling sound of “the Brooklyn Nets,” such a move makes the development virtually unstoppable. Lefties like me end up sounding like effete Jane Jacobites wringing our hands about eminent domain abuse, violating the neighborhood’s scale, the lack of governmental transparency, and the gifting of tax dollars.
The same pattern of events transpired in Williamsburg. Community activists didn’t like the idea of 28 high rises lining the waterfront (some as high as 40 stories), so the city countered by upping the percentage of affordable housing. The result, however, will be essentially the same: a city best admired from the air or the developer’s balance sheet. As in the other developments, there was much talk of the marriage of private and public — the developers, in exchange for the privilege of building up, must also build public parkland on the waterfront. In Powerpoint speak, this sort of cooperation is called “synergy”; but bind the intractability of the profit motive to the paralyzing deliberation of government, and what you really have is a loping three-legged race that makes for a pathetic spectacle. You’ll get your bit of green when their bottom line is good and ready. And when it finally is built, the buildings will serve as a symbolic wall (visible from space) dividing the neighborhood from the park that supposedly belongs to it.
In other words, the job of transforming New York is messier than it used to be, but things are still proceeding as in the days of urban renewal. Community involvement is limited to demonstrating outside of pivotal meetings; yet the players continually proclaim how great these projects are for the community. Bloomberg even speaks of helping to usher in a Brooklyn “renaissance,” as if yesterday our streets were on fire and whites were running for the suburbs. This grandiosity is generally muted, and it’s easy to ignore the fanfare. Still, you may wonder what the hell happened in five years when you look up and see the fruit of today’s plans.
The only project on which Bloomberg has proved totally uncompromising has been the West Side stadium, and at the time of this writing, that battle remains unresolved. If the stadium doesn’t come through, New York’s already very slim chance of winning the Olympics will disappear, and quite possibly Bloomberg’s legacy along with it. Will Bloomberg’s model of large-scale, subsidized, private development continue to remake the city? Were Bloomberg to bring the Olympics to New York, he would undoubtedly steamroll his way to a second term, and considering how rough he’s played to strengthen the city’s bid for the Games, it’s not hard to imagine the Moses-like bullying he’ll deploy to ready the city for the real thing. Though his persona certainly is not one to regularly provoke awe, it’s quite possible that Bloomberg could loom as large in New York’s history as any other figure.