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If you are interested in urban planning, architecture, or real estate, The Stamford Review is a great read. It's a scholarly journal that deals with a lot of those issues, published in NYC and Stamford, CT. We got a copy of their spring issue (available as a free download at StamfordReview.com, which contained many intriguing pieces about the limits of growth in our city, and what is going to happen next. Larry Sicular, the editor and publisher of the review, and Jonathan Miller, one of the contributors, were nice enough to answer some of our questions.

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1. New York is already Overcrowded-- in this issue of the Stamford Review one of the authors writes that Flushing is more dense than San Francisco, and Staten Island is as dense as Seattle. What's the most overcrowded part of the city?

Your citation is from Frank Braconi’s “New York Confronts the Limits of Growth” Frank is executive director of the well known Citizens Housing and Planning Council of New York, and he describes these areas as already highly urbanized places which nevertheless are alternatives to Manhattan’s “hype-urbanization”. The densest parts of Manhattan are not specifically mentioned in his article, but the neighborhoods north of midtown, in the East 60’s and West 60’s near Lincoln Center are probably our densest residential neighborhoods. But this is not the picture of residential living that many New Yorker’s wish to see.

2. The article also says that developable land is running out. Since new building starts are accelerating, and new people are immigrating to the city every day, what happens when the land runs out?

Frank points out that only about 7 percent of developable land in the city is vacant. At current rates of growth, the city’s population will reach capacity within seven to ten years. Some selective upzoning might allow the city’s resident population to approach nine million, but this is the approximate limit without radical redevelopment at much higher densities. If New Yorkers wish to preserve their existing residential neighborhoods, then immigration and economic growth must be accommodated by improved regional transportation and housing development. Some of the region’s smaller cities, such as Newark, Trenton and New Haven are well below their former population peaks and would welcome redevelopment. At the same time, if the city wishes to preserve access to a low and moderately paid work force then it will have to shift its thinking to more effective preservation of affordable housing.

In this regard, Peter Beck’s article on the city’s inclusionary housing policy is particularly important. At present this policy requires that affordable housing be provided in new developments West of Manhattan’s midtown and along the Brooklyn waterfront. But high-rise housing in these locations is very expensive to provide and will only benefit about 4,000 households. Might not more families benefit from less expensive housing elsewhere in the outer boroughs? Both Peter Beck and Julia Vitullo Martin, of the Manhattan Institute, point to the Bronx as a more affordable and feasible alternative.

2006_3_sr2.jpg3. Rich people will obviously be able to afford apartments no matter how expensive they get-- but where will all the poor people go? And should NYC be doing anything to protect them?

It is not at all clear to me that rich people are always able to afford suitable apartments. The limited supply of luxury housing has resulted in very large price increases over the past several years, so that increasingly only the very, very rich retain the unlimited options you indicate. You would be surprised how modestly the merely rich often live, not so much in the amenities that their apartments contain, as in the relatively modest spaces they can afford. As a consequence, the merely rich are also moving further from the center of the city, not only to the suburbs, but also to formerly unacceptable neighborhoods in Manhattan or in Brooklyn. Jonathan Miller addresses this at length in “The Gentrification of Manhattan”. Specifically he discusses the focus on larger apartments and lesser locations. While this is not a phenomenon that deserves public subsidy, retaining our affluent population does require providing public transportation, clean streets, and adequate police protection. If we wish to retain the economic contribution of the rich and their tax payments, it is important to remember that they are mobile and can more easily live elsewhere.

5. What neighborhoods are going to be targets for this massive redevelopment?

Kimberly Miller, a planner at the Municipal Art Society and Mark Alexander, a developer, write about the city’s extensive and recent re-zonings in “The City Builds Where There is No Room to Grow”. They focus on the planned transformation of the Hudson Yards, west of Midtown Manhattan, West Chelsea with it High Line, the downtown Brooklyn business district, and the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront.

6. In many neighborhoods, like Red Hook, we're seeing historic buildings get torn down and replaced by big box stores and ugly new residential developments. Is that an inevitable consequence of the city's growth?

Your question is addressed by Lisa Kersavage of the Municipal Art Society in her article entitled “Erasing a Historic Past: What Went Wrong with the Brooklyn Waterfront Plans” The loss of historic resources is not at all inevitable, but due to a lack of regard for their significance. Both national legislation and the city’s planning process require consideration of historic resources in the planning process. Unfortunately, in Brooklyn, many significant buildings were ignored. And the Municipal Art Society proposed alternative plans for the Ikea development in Red Hook that would have preserved significant buildings and a historic graving dock. However, to date, these have also been ignored.

Alex Washburn, an architect with expertise in waterfront development, writes “The Red Hook, Brooklyn Waterfront: Will Ikea See the Light?” in our winter 2005 issue, portrays much more interesting redevelopment opportunities in Red Hook, which would preserve historic buildings and encourage development of mixed use housing, retail and office, waterfront parks, etc.

7. What's the deal with Governor's Island? Should the city be using that for housing?

According to Robert Pirani, of the Regional Plan Association, Governor’s Island was transferred to the city and the state subject to an agreement that it be reserved for public benefit uses. Housing development is specifically prohibited. However other exciting public uses are encouraged including hospitality, tourism and education. Attracting private investment for these uses, however, requires clearer public commitments and infrastructure investment. The National Parks Service has taken over operation of two historic forts, Fort Jay and Castle Williams. There is a striking photograph of Castle Willliams in his article.

8. People in their late 20s and early 30s are facing a pretty tough situation with very high housing prices-- do they have a prayer of seeing things improve, or are we going to soon face a situation like Tokyo's, where middle-class families of four live in 500 sqft or less?

Before that happens, you will see people move to rentals. However, despite concerns, affordability is greater today than it was 15 to 20 years ago because mortgage rates are at a much lower level. In 1989, the 30 year fixed rate was about 11.5%. It is all about the payment, not the price. As mortgage rates rise, demand dampens and provides a drag on housing appreciation. In addition, the additional supply being added to the market as well as recent upzoning in Manhattan and Brooklyn may help keep prices in check.

9. If you had to pick three neighborhoods that offered the best value for a new couple purchasing their first home, what would they be?

Harlem, Inwood and The Lower East Side.

10. What are the biggest misnomers and bad ideas about today's housing market?

That idea that national housing statistics apply specifically to New York City and that property flipping is a sure bet. In addition, 1-rear adjustable rate mortgages are not such a great idea for first time buyers who only would qualify for financing with this type of loan product. Yet, the media has given the impression that all adjustable rate products are a high risk and will cause the downfall of the housing market. It all depends on the length of time you plan on staying in your property and how large your mortgage payment is relative to your income.