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Dan "Robert Moses" Doctoroff Speaks

by Worldchanging NYC local blogger, Bonnie Hulkower:

On a late April spring evening, Dan Doctoroff joined with others for an evening discussion about PlaNYC, sponsored by The New York Times. Doctoroff, the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding, is a key architect of this plan for a "greener, greater NYC."

Moderated by Carolyn Curiel of the editorial board of The Times, the evening, mbegan in a tone of congeniality. To polite applause, Curiel introduced Douglas Durst, the co-president of the Durst Foundation, describing him as a pioneer in green building; Durst lifted his pantslegs to display his bright green socks. Next, Marcia Bystryn, the executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters, described the local environmental community as a whole "widely enthusiastic and supportive" of PlaNYC, and commended the planners on proposing measures within a broadly framed economic development context that deals not only with environmental issues, but affordable housing as well.

Durst described how he got into green building nearly 20 years ago: looking at his foundation's portfolio, he began retrofitting the air and lighting systems. In 1996, when Durst had the opportunity to influence the construction of the new Bank of America building, he said he was compelled to build it green.

Doctoroff praised Durst for doing green building, saying it takes "risk and guts," adding that as the greatest use of energy takes place within buildings, green building will be an important element of what the city does in the future to be more sustainable. Doctoroff said the city would offer incentives to build green, but that the focus needed to be on existing buildings, since 85 percent of the building stock that will exist in 2030 already exists today. He added that simply doing an energy audit without embarking on large scale retrofitting can still bring significant reductions in energy usage.

Doctoroff assured the audience that although there are not any green building mandates in the current plan, green building will be incorporated into regulations in the future. Starrett City, he asserted, will not be sold to private interests, since both the mayor and Senator Schumer are against the sale. He further added that that the only reason Stuy Town was sold was that the cost of keeping affordable housing there would have been many times the cost of building new middle-class housing across the river in Queens. (He did not, though, mention the Stuy Town tenants' counter-offer.)

Once Doctoroff got to the showpiece of the evening, PlaNYC's proposal for congestion pricing, the atmosphere in the room started to perk up. Although arguably the most contentious of the plan's 127 measures, the notion of congestion pricing has been around for a long time; Columbia University professor [and Nobel prize winning economist - Ed.] William Vickrey came up with the notion of congestion pricing back in the 1950s. Support for CP gained momentum under the current city administration once Mayor Bloomberg was persuaded by the success of the existing pricing plan in London in reducing jams; it was a major change of opinion for Bloomberg.

Doctoroff, who prefers to call congestion pricing a "user fee," urged the audience to consider that 95 percent of New Yorkers -- the vast majority of commuters -- take public transit to work, and these riders will benefit tremendously from the plan.

Anthony Weiner, a congressman for Queens and Brooklyn opposed to CP (who was not at the meeting), recently caught a lot of flack for calling congestion pricing a "middle class tax." The LCV's Bystryn called Weiner's criticisms of the plan "parochial and short-sighted," saying the League of Conservation Voters would ask candidates what their own visions for sustainability were, and threatening that Weiner's carping "may come back to haunt him" come election time.

Audience members questioned why the target of PlaNYC was set 23 years out and why more wasn't being implemented immediately, mentioning that Al Gore and the UN International Panel on Climate Change stress that action in the next ten years is urgent.

An elderly woman suggested that the city already has anti-idling and parking laws that do not require new plans, simply better enforcement. Doctoroff attempted to reassure her that the city is increasing its traffic enforcement measures as a part of the plan, and that the majority of traffic problems are caused by people trying to avoid the toll roads, by those seeking parking. But the woman wasn't having it, and the audience voiced their agreement that the idling and double parking in Manhattan is causing much of the air pollution problem and could be addressed immediately.

Others questioned the seeming omission of recycling from PlaNYC. Doctoroff answered that it was because the city had just come out with a solid waste management plan; but Bystryn noted that the city needs to work harder in this arena.

An agitated audience member asked why quality of life hasn't been stressed more in planning for NYC's future, and questioned whether we need overdevelopment when the majority of complaints called in to the city's 311 line are noise-related complaints due to construction. At this point, Doctoroff lost his composure a bit and interrupted, saying that he reviews the 311 data all the time; though no one likes living near construction, he continued, the 311 noise complaints are actually most often caused by noisy neighbors. But the woman who'd voiced the critique begged to differ; had Doctoroff ever tried to leave a noise complaint with 311? The deputy mayor admitted he had not, but said that didn't change anything, stressing to the audience that the number-one reason people cite for leaving New York is the lack of affordable housing, and that without new development there will continue not to be enough affordable housing.

Bystryn, for her part, assured the questioner that Doctoroff would call 311 in the near future.

The final question of the evenings was why NYC does not push harder for electric cars. London's CP plan encourages use of these low-emissions autos by allowing them to enter the congestion-priced zone free of charge. New York City is not ready for electric cars, said Doctoroff, but added that PlaNYC does eliminate the sales tax for hybrid car purchases. He conceded that electric vehicles might be a part of the plan that was overlooked and that could possibly be included in the future.

Towards the end of the evening, Bystryn praised PlaNYC again, calling it the single most comprehensive sustainability plan that a city in the US has developed. Her one "mild critique": while there are plenty of good ideas in PlaNYC, they be translated into regulations.

Doctoroff said that implementation of PlaNYC's measures would not depend heavily on state or federal regulation; two-thirds of the plan can be implemented by the city alone.

I hope so. NYC came in sixth last year in Sustainlane's US city rankings, behind not only obviously green cities like Portland, Ore., but also Chicago and Oakland. But PlaNYC 2030 could be the bold new step NYC needs to rise to the top of the sustainabiliy heap.

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First, let me say that I consider PlaNYC 2030 a huge step forward, particularly in its advocacy of congestion pricing, a good idea that technology has finally caught up with.
A couple of things Mr. Doctoroff said call for corrections.
First, the classic argument that without greater supply of housing, there will be no affordable housing. This sounds like an economic argument. Given a free land market, there are no affordable housing problems because supply meets demand. New York, like everywhere else in the United States and most places in the world, does not have a free land market because land taxes are too low and thus land prices are too high. High land prices drive housing prices up and discourage healthy urban development, leading to sprawl and skyscrapers. New York mayoral candidate Henry George figured this out over a hundred years ago, and I find it disturbing to read that a major New York City official is so baldly misinformed about how land markets and affordable housing work.
Second, the statement that New York is not ready for electric cars. As shown in Europe, by Zap, and by the recent documentary Who Killed the Electric Car, there is enormous demand for electric cars in urban areas, where the distance limitations are no limitation and the cleanliness and quiet are a major asset. New York City is potentially the best place in the world for electric cars, with its fabulous density and affluence. Chris Luebkeman from ARUP likes to show an old car advertisement that offers the same model in gas or electric, since each offers major benefits for different drivers. Giving hybrids and electrics a break seems reasonable, especially since London has already established an effective system for doing so.
Those important points aside, I am delighted with the progress that New York City is making and hope others will follow.

Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 5 May 07



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