The Suburbs will Save the City – and the Region

New York Daily News, Thursday, July 20. 2017 | The iconic New Yorker magazine cover depicts a New York City-centric world in which a detailed Manhattan dominates, while the rest of the country recedes into a compressed horizon. Across the Hudson lies a brown strip labeled “Jersey.”

As a parody of the city’s sometimes insular mind-set, the cover is brilliant. As a guide to what should matter to city residents, not so much. For, in reality, both the problems and opportunities of the region’s urban core are profoundly interconnected with those of surrounding communities.

To compete effectively for jobs and investment, the New York region will have to accommodate 3.7 million new residents over the next 20 years, the Regional Plan Association projects. Do nothing and our metro area will stagnate, losing out to domestic hotspots like Austin, Tex., and global competitors from Shanghai to Berlin.

Yet alarmingly, our ability to meet this challenge is in grave doubt, because of stunting forces in and outside New York City.
In the city, the problem is not an inability to attract talent, but an embarrassment of riches. Between 2010 and 2014, the city’s population grew by more than 316,000 people or 3.9%, while its housing supply grew by less than 1%. With this gap between supply and demand, it is no wonder we have an acute affordability crisis. Today, the median city household cannot afford the median city rent.

In the suburbs, the problem is almost the exact opposite. There, our region is struggling to grow. This is especially true of young people, many of whom want urban lifestyles — which boil down to diversity, walkability and cultural dynamism. Between 1980 and 2013, while the population of 18-to-34-year-olds in the city grew by 250,000, it declined by 216,000 in the region outside the city.
This is bad news for the suburbs, because younger people help attract and retain industries that strengthen the tax base. Without this youthful job magnet, taxes increase on everyone else.

But once we understand that the seemingly distinct problems facing the city and suburbs are in fact two sides of the same coin, the solution comes into clear focus: Instead of packing everyone who wants an urban lifestyle into the five boroughs, we must create vibrant islands of urban life at transit nodes regionwide — simultaneously reducing upward price pressure in the city, while spurring economic growth and enhancing quality of life in communities outside the city.

And it can be done. In Westchester County, New Rochelle has launched a downtown partnership between local government and a joint venture of RXR Realty and Renaissance Downtowns. It started with an inclusive process of community engagement, in which the development team spent time listening to local hopes and fears before making proposals.

The plan, approved unanimously by New Rochelle’s City Council, includes expedited environmental review; height bonuses to developers for providing community benefit s, such as open space, affordable housing and historic preservation, and a fund , paid for by developers, that will support municipal services and infrastructure.

The plan enables more than 11 million square feet of development and aims to create a vibrant city center, walkable to New Rochelle’s Metro-North station, that will attract new residents, stimulate business, promote sustainability, deliver amenities and generate new tax revenue.

Last year, RXR broke ground on a 28-story tower containing 280 rental units and 15,000 square feet of retail. A performance space will anchor New Rochelle’s new cultural district. More than a dozen additional projects are in the pipeline, planned by developers attracted to new opportunities in the city.

New Rochelle’s example can be replicated elsewhere, because the essential qualities that make it ripe for growth exist in many area suburbs. It is a particularly useful model for Westchester, as the county looks to emerge from longstanding disputes with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and to implement a housing strategy that can benefit all residents. Let’s stop thinking parochially and begin thinking of New York as a unified region that will rise or fall together.

New Rochelle’s innovative example shows that the suburbs have the practical tools to do their part and that by forging robust public-private partnerships and working with one another in concert, communities can chart a sustainable and equitable path to growth and prosperity.

Following this path, all New Yorkers — urban and suburban — will be better off . . . and the New Yorker can work on a new cover.
Bramson is mayor of New Rochelle. Pinsky is an executive with RXR Realty.
Send a Letter to the Editor

2017-08-29T20:24:03+00:00