September 24, 2003

Article at The New York Sun

In Praise of Density

When did we stop saying "skyscraper," suggesting exuberance and aspiration, and start saying "tower," suggesting looming intimidation? It was probably at that moment that New Yorkers decided that growth was bad - despite the city's legacy of wealth and power based on population density. New York has been suffering from the consequences ever since. The fact is that population density is good for New York, and dispersal is bad - and not just in terms of the tax base, important as that is, but in New Yorkers' everyday lives. Density provides critical mass. Density means good stores, good services, cafes, and restaurants. It also means doormen, and street life and round-the-clock activity - all of which mean safety. The city is safer these days not only because the New York Police Department tackled crime head on but because so many people are on the streets so many hours of the day.

When a new building was recently proposed for my West Side neighborhood, a gym friend groaned, "Oh no! Not more people." But she and I live happily within a few blocks of two different Equinox gyms because we live in a dense neighborhood that mixes large buildings on the main thoroughfares with brownstones on the side streets. You can pretty well map the city's booming neighborhoods by mapping the Equinox openings. Many lowrise neighborhoods are lovely, but an entirely low-rise New York would be a much poorer and slower New York.

And it's not just gyms. West Siders can get any known service or good delivered, precisely because there are so many of us. In the last few years, the West Side has attracted some excellent restaurants to what had been a dreary wasteland of mediocrity. It has chic new shops, an abundance of spas, plenty of dry cleaners, cineplexes, drug stores, delis, and caterers. Twenty years ago,many West Side streets were cheerless and forlorn. Today, the West Side has so many hip young tourists that its streets sometimes look like a rock concert just let out. In part this is because of newly constructed big buildings on Broadway and extensive rehabilitation of old tenements on Amsterdam and apartment houses on Columbus, which have brought thousands of new residents - and consumers - to the neighborhood.

Density is the key to New York's soul. It's one reason that New York City is exciting and Scarsdale isn't. It's also why we have a phenomenal public transportation system that delivers riders virtually door-to-door in dense neighborhoods. William Astor, to take one of New York's greatest landlords, developed some of his largest and most beautiful Renaissance palazzo buildings, like the Apthorp and the Belnord, on subway stops.

But here's the other thing: Density is the only way that New Yorkers can have it all. The city government has spent the last few decades passing laws and issuing regulations that were meant to protect New Yorkers but that often have had the effect of so severely restricting market development that far too little has been built. Thus the city has high real estate values, exorbitant rents, excessively low vacancy rates, and too little residential mobility in desirable neighborhoods. There are many actions that could be taken to ease these problems, but the first is to change public attitudes. New Yorkers have to stop worrying and learn to love density. Only then will new people, particularly youngsters, be able to move in.

New York is lucky, because at the moment it has city officials who understand this - and not just the forward-thinking economic development and planning officials downtown. The president of the Bronx, Adolfo Carrion Jr., the only elected official in the state trained as an urban planner, said, "Cities were meant to be dense. The whole notion of a city is to concentrate population and services." The population of the Bronx has grown since 1990, but not as it should have, or as it would have had the Bronx built dense housing rather than the tiny single-family, government-financed houses it did build near transportation hubs.

"My message to the development community and to policy makers," Mr. Carrion said, "is help us build apartment buildings, affordable housing broadly defined, for middle and moderate income families, using ownership models like condominiums and cooperative housing." The Bronx, known as the borough of parks, is host to some of the city's most magnificent though unoccupied waterfront and some of the prettiest blocks. Now emerging from decades of decline, newly energized by waves of immigrants and thoughtful leadership, it may become the city's next West Side.