Post-Covid New York and the Rebirth of the Regional City
It may take a while, but the end of the pandemic appears to be in sight. Still, more and more people are wondering if New York City can recover. It will—but, sadly, in the hands of the same people and their elected replacements who have been responsible for homogenizing a once-vibrant urbanistic city, the same ones who helped make it too expensive for anyone but the wealthy, and who made it continually dependent on tourists and foreign investments.
For urbanists, however, there may be a positive development: the enhanced rebirth of smaller cities in the region—New York places such as Kingston, Beacon, Hudson, Troy, Millerton, and Saratoga, as well as Great Barrington, Massachusetts. These are cities where the authentic urban personality is not being dumbed down or erased, where Covid evacuees have discovered adaptable historic buildings, a real sense of place, community, and culture, all at an affordable price. Many of those downtowns are reaping the benefits of the nearby closed malls that undermined them decades ago.
Etsy, which was born on a Brooklyn waterfront pier, is now headquartered in Hudson. A magnificently restored 1903 Hudson school house, called The Riverhouse Project, welcomes cutting-edge filmmakers. A dressmaker in a Millerton storefront moved up from the city and is now flourishing. New creatives are populating architecturally interesting old buildings in Troy. The creatives priced out of New York City, and then further scattered by Covid, are planting seeds elsewhere. Coffee shops, the obligatory amenity for vibrant downtowns, are popping up in all of these places.
New York City just can’t learn the lessons of its own self-imposed diminishment. Real estate development still reigns supreme, but that’s not what lies at the heart of authentic, evolutionary urbanism.
Meanwhile, New York City just can’t learn the lessons of its own self-imposed diminishment. Real estate development still reigns supreme, but that’s not what lies at the heart of authentic, evolutionary urbanism. Cities are developed, nourished, made strong first by people. Real estate development follows. That is the tried-and-true process. “You can’t build the ovens and expect the loaves to jump in,” Jane Jacobs used to say.
The supertalls are hemorrhaging money—and tenants. At least one, 432 Park, has leaks, faulty elevators, and creaking walls. Tenants are suing for big bucks; some are trying to leave. Others, who invested with ill-gotten gains, remain hidden behind phantom corporations that keep their identities secret. More complaints and lawsuits will surely follow.
Hudson Yards, the largest private development in the country, is losing retail tenants in its mall and is saddled with an endless number of empty high-end apartments in a city already saturated with unsold luxury dwellings. With at least $6 billion invested by the city in tax breaks and other classic handouts, Related, the developer, now has the audacity to seek a new $2 billion loan from the Federal government to build the platform necessary for the second phase of Hudson Yards, which was what was promised in return for the city’s initial investment: a school and more apartments, supposedly “affordable” apartments (at least for the upper middle class).
At the same time, somewhat insanely, the proliferation of suburban-style shopping malls continues unabated, making one wonder what businesses will ever want to return to streetside storefronts. Perhaps the largest mall is at the World Trade Center site, the $4 billion white-ribbed Oculus, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, with its three floors of shops masquerading as a transit hub. Some people consider it beautiful, even cathedral-like, but it’s worth remembering: many poisonous snakes are beautiful, but their bites kill. Yet another mall, Brookfield Place, sits just across the highway; Fulton Mall is further up Broadway, with the Manhattan Mall (former Gimbels) at 33rd Street, the shops at Moynihan Train Hall nearby, Time Warner at 59th Street, and more coming. And that’s just Manhattan. All of this in a world steadily being taken over by Amazon.
Millions of square feet of office space sit empty as Covid-shy employees work from home. Restaurants dependent on foot traffic are closed for good. And who knows how long it will take for live audiences to return to Broadway? Is it any wonder that people question whether New York City can recover?
The city will recover, and returning Covid escapees might even find some positive changes to their liking. Approximately 15,000 parking spaces have been replaced by sidewalk restaurants. Streets adjusted for better accommodation of pedestrians have multiplied. Bike lanes have been added at many long-desired places. And it will be years before the overwhelming hordes of tourists return, who in recent years mobbed our museums, inflated theater prices, and made midtown sidewalks impossible to walk along.
And yet the people in control of the post-Covid city have learned nothing from the disheartening record of the past few decades. A real city is not a collection of supertall residential towers minimally occupied by foreign buyers, sheltering their ill-gotten gains. Nor is it a collection of inhumanly tall office towers. A banal collection of suburban malls will not make up for the loss of storefronts and the urban habit of shopping on the street. New York will recover, but in a much diminished way, like an actor who has not mastered the real personality of the character he’s supposed to be portraying. The city will play some lesser version of itself.
The real estate-dominated political class of this city will continue to ignore the reasons some neighborhoods previously recovered and flourished. They will continue to undermine the historic neighborhoods that revived in recent decades in the gradual, locally driven way that real urban neighborhoods rebound. They will rezone historic districts—the ones whose landmark designation they vehemently opposed—to permit neighborhood-killing supertalls and malls that will transform them into another dull Manhattan outpost for the absentee rich.
They will do this first in SoHo, where the proposal to upzone the area is moving forward. Hypocritically, they will do it in the name of increased “affordable” housing, which will not be affordable to anyone in the working or middle classes. That already-expensive neighborhood will become more expensive. And this rezoning will do nothing to meet the desperate need for low-income housing, which could be at least in part by alleviated by legalizing and aiding basement apartments and other secondary units currently outlawed.
New York has a global draw that is not easily erased, even if the attraction is increasingly more myth than reality. This constant churn of newcomers, often young, has long been a source of renewal for the city, and it will be again. But that energy always had a foundation of authentic urbanism, an urban DNA, that in recent years has been systematically eroded by thoughtless developers and their willing political servants. Not surprisingly, that new energy is found today mostly in Brooklyn, a borough that renewed itself in traditional urban ways, largely without the help of the developers who are now trying to find places to impose their anti-urban projects.
So, yes, New York will survive, but it will not recapture the magic of a truly urban city. But there is a silver lining: The region’s secondary cities will be the ones that revive and flourish in authentically urban ways.
Featured image: Troy, New York, via Walkscore.