United States: Top 10 Infrastructure and Environmental Issues: A Checklist For New York City’s Next Mayor

Last Updated: October 30 2013
Article by Christopher Rizzo

Mayor Michael Bloomberg created a blizzard of new environmental and infrastructure initiatives in his 12 years in office. New York City's next mayor will face countless decisions about these initiatives, many of which are catalogued in the administration's 2007 sustainability plan, PlaNYC, and in progress reports published each year. Environmental attorney Christopher Rizzo lays out what he believes are the 10 most critical issues, in order of civic priority. Three of them—climate change resiliency, protection of the drinking water supply and creation of new and cleaner energy sources—are critical to the city's future, while seven other issues are still fundamentally important to the city's viability.

CLIMATE CHANGE RESILIENCY

Before Superstorm Sandy hit New York City a year ago, Mayor Bloomberg was already focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the city's contributions to climate change. Chief among his initiatives is PlaNYC's goal of reducing the city's emissions by 30 percent by 2030, which the city is well on its way to achieving. But the 2007 PlaNYC contained this eerie premonition of Sandy: "The sobering images of Hurricane Katrina still haunt us ... for many New Yorkers, the idea of a similar catastrophe affecting our own city is unthinkable." That kind of storm is, of course, now very "thinkable," and the city must focus not only reducing emissions but also on adaptation.

In June the Bloomberg administration released its 400-page report on renovating coastal areas to be more resilient to sea level rise and storms. The report contains a laundry list of improvements to buildings, utilities, gas supplies, transportation and social services during emergencies. But the most important and expensive recommendations relate to rebuilding shorelines. They include raising coastal elevations, reducing wave action and stopping storm surges through floodwalls, levees and surge barriers. The most comprehensive approach—three floodgates at the Arthur Kill, Narrows and Hell Gate—has been written off as too expensive and difficult. So the next mayor must figure out how to build dozens of smaller projects like levees around lower Manhattan, floodgates at South Brooklyn inlets and berms in the Rockaways. These will require complicated environmental reviews under laws that strongly discourage in-water construction. And they will require strategic decisions about the use of eminent domain.

DRINKING WATER

New York City's three reservoir systems (the Catskill, Croton and Delaware) have adequate capacity, especially if water efficiency continues to improve. But the city has been granted a filtration avoidance determination by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the Catskill and Delaware systems, one of few U.S. cities to receive one. In 2007 the EPA granted the city a 10-year waiver under the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act from filtering its drinking water in exchange for a commitment to aggressive protection of these two watersheds.

If the EPA were to revoke the filtration waiver in 2017, the city would need to construct large filtration plants at a cost of many billions of dollars. For example, the city is now completing a $3.2 billion water filtration plant for the Croton system, which supplies a mere 10 percent of the water supply and does not have a filtration waiver. The alternative for the next mayor will be to continue to buy and protect land in the watersheds and create innovate farming, forestry and sewage treatment practices for nearby residents. This effort must continue and expand alongside existing efforts to complete the third water tunnel (which is now operational in Manhattan), explore new sources of drinking water and restrict hydrofracking in the city's upstate watershed.

ENERGY

PlaNYC predicts that New York City's electricity demand will rise by 30 percent by 2030, requiring new sources of electricity. By contrast, in 2013 the New York Independent System Operator predicted adequate capacity through at least 2020. Regardless, the likely closure of aging and polluting oil-fired power plants and potential closure of the Indian Point nuclear power plant creates uncertainty that must be addressed. The city may need several new power plants by 2030 or equivalent capacity from outside the region. The state regulatory process to authorize these new power sources requires years of advance planning.

In 2011 the state Legislature passed a new Article X of the Public Service Law that gives the state Public Service Commission exclusive jurisdiction over the approval of virtually all new power plants. With most authority concentrated at the state level, the next mayor must continue to be a strong advocate in Albany at the commission's licensing proceedings that impact the city. He must advocate in Washington, D.C., for a renewal of a federal renewable energy tax credit, which provides a vital boost to renewable power generators but expires at the end of 2013. The city also needs modern and more resilient energy and communication infrastructure including cleaner electricity sources (e.g., solar); more access to natural gas; and a modern system of fiber optic cables that can resist inundation.

AFFORDABLE HOUSING

New York University's Furman Center estimated in a recent report that "well over half of New York City renters were rent burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their gross monthly income on rent and utilities." According to PlaNYC, 64 percent of New Yorkers who move away cite unaffordable housing as a factor. In order for the city to care for low-income residents and retain a middle class, the affordable housing problem must be solved. While there are many components of the affordable housing crisis in New York City, it is in large part a land use matter. There is limited developable land in the city, and what exists is often far from mass transit, in flood zones or not financially viable (at least in developers' eyes). The next mayor must be creative in solving this problem and focus on better financial incentives for affordable housing near transit and other amenities; reuse of vacant NYCHA and MTA land; remediation and reuse of contaminated urban properties; and creating flood-resilient housing in coastal areas like "Arverne by the Sea" in the Rockaways.

PARKS

The challenge with New York City's ample park system is in finding adequate funds for maintenance. Bloomberg leaves a great challenge for the next mayor because the park system is substantially larger than when he took office in 2002 and includes costly waterfront parks like Hudson River Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Governors Island and the East River Esplanade. While each of these parks is intended to be financially self-sufficient to one degree or another, the laws governing them create significant restrictions on revenue generation.

Although questioned by some candidates in the recent primary elections, public-private partnerships for parks are inherently legal and include conservancies, park improvement districts, transfers of development rights, tax-increment financing and park concessions. The next mayor must explore these ideas more aggressively while still finding maintenance funding in the traditional budget process.

NEIGHBORHOOD PRESERVATION

Zoning is a competition between protecting quality of life and creating land value. With 120 neighborhood rezonings in 12 years, the City Planning Commission has indisputably taken those themes to heart. Most of the rezonings focused on reducing permitted zoning density to protect community character. Combined with this effort, the Landmarks Preservation Commission created hundreds of new landmarks. Even with these unprecedented preservation efforts, however, residents want more zoning protections and landmarks. As the Real Estate Board of New York recently announced, developers want fewer. The next mayor must balance these two interests while planning for the anticipated 1 million new residents in the city by 2030.

TRANSIT AND DEVELOPMENT

With millions of square feet of new commercial space coming online at the World Trade Center, Hudson Yards and (possibly) East Midtown, the city's business districts will likely have enough space to accommodate near-term growth. And even if these business districts do not provide enough space, transportation hubs around the forthcoming Moynihan Station and existing Jamaica Station can, if developed to their potential, provide new opportunities.

But PlaNYC also seeks ways to direct new residential growth to transportation hubs in the outer boroughs. There are dozens of potential residential hubs that saw anemic redevelopment during the real estate boom. One departing deputy mayor lamented that the city's inability to direct redevelopment to these outer-borough locations was a big regret. These communities include Saint George, Staten Island; Jamaica, Queens; and the Number 1 subway line corridor in northern Manhattan and the Bronx. Transit-oriented development in these outer-borough locations will require transit renovations, park improvements, streetscape improvements, incentive-based zoning and the selective use of eminent domain. Because it is unlikely that Congress will approve a new transportation funding bill in the near future, the next mayor must identify state and local sources of capital funds, particularly for subway improvements.

SOLID WASTE

The state-approved solid waste management plan is intended to direct the city's policies through 2025. The next mayor will therefore not need to change the course of the city's policies, which focus on sharing the burden of waste management among neighborhoods and reducing the volume of waste through recycling. Solid waste will become a budget problem, however. The city now spends a billion dollars each year to manage its waste, and that figure does not include the money commercial property owners pay to manage their own waste. The costs will grow as out-of-state landfills close. As a result, expanded recycling and waste reduction will be critical. The city must also reconsider waste-to-energy facilities, which may finally be possible given the expanded scope of Article X.

ENERGY EFFICIENCY

Buildings account for 95 percent of electricity use in New York City. Reducing the need for new power plants therefore depends on reducing residential and commercial buildings' energy consumption. Local law 84 of 2009 required 50,000-square-foot and larger buildings, as well as smaller government buildings, to publish annual statistics on energy and water use. Local Law 87 of 2009 requires similarly sized buildings to assess HVAC equipment every 10 years, recommend corrections and carry them out. The City Council has also legislated a host of other zoning and building code changes that will allow for, although not require, more efficient buildings.

The Urban Green Council published recommendations for the next mayor in its early 2013 report, "Green Building Roadmap for NYC's Next Mayor," including several new laws to further reduce energy demand. A primary recommendation relates to expanding benchmarking, auditing and retro-commissioning requirements to smaller buildings. But large residential, commercial and government buildings account for two thirds of the current energy demand and are already covered by the existing laws. The next mayor's big challenge will therefore be figuring out how to help building owners act on the new information they must collect and translate it into reductions in the city's energy demands.

STREETSCAPE IMPROVEMENTS

The city's Department of Transportation has built new bikes lanes, public plazas and street geometries as part of its "World Class Streets" initiative. The changes, especially bike lanes, are not uniformly popular and continue to spawn a handful of unsuccessful lawsuits. But city statistics show that the improvements increase commercial activity, residents' use of their own streets and pedestrian safety. With the law and data in favor of the streetscape improvements, the next mayor must turn his attention to expanding improvements to outer-borough neighborhoods where moribund commercial districts need a boost.

Strong environmental laws at the city and state level are often blamed for the expense and slow pace of development and public works. But in reality, environmental reviews and compliance can be streamlined when necessary, as evidenced by a speedy one-year review process for the World Trade Center Memorial and Redevelopment Plan. The real challenge for the next mayor will be finding the money to tackle these issues and aligning the public and private interests at stake.

Originally published in City & State, October 21, 2013.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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