New York as a Model for Public Works? Hamptons Institute Panelists Weigh In

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In this era of budget fights and tepid growth, do the old models for building in the public realm still work? Or does the public-private, entrepreneurial, bootstraps model represented by New York City’s High Line represent the most viable way forward?

These are the kinds of questions we must resolve before we can take steps forward in our cities, and panelists at the Hamptons Institute grappled with them on Saturday. Paul Goldberger, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic and writer for Vanity Fair, hosted a panel with Robert Hammond, co-founder and executive director of Friends of the High Line, Leslie Koch, president of The Trust for Governors Island, and Joe Rose, partner of the Georgetown Group and former chairman of the New York City Planning Commission and director of the Department of City Planning under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

The impediments to the construction of truly public infrastructure in New York mirror those in the rest of the country. Rose pointed to the ongoing contraction in previously inflated industries like financial services as a major drain on tax revenue and to unfunded fiscal obligations such as pensions for retired city workers as the main forces suppressing New York’s capacity to spend on infrastructure. As in the rest of America, revenue is not going to suddenly rebound without major policy changes, and our political leaders are rightly hesitant to renege on pension commitments at a time when trust in government is already at perilous lows.

And yet New York has regenerated so much of its public realm in the last 35 years, an era that began with the city’s near-bankruptcy in 1975 and included existential challenges such as 9/11. During this time, New York has rediscovered its waterfront, reimagined Times Square and Columbus Circle as centers of commerce rather than seedy interchanges, and opened Governor’s Island as the city’s playground, to name just a few. The city has proven time and again that you don’t need massive surpluses — or even full control over your own budget — to undertake the kind of projects that keep a place great year after year. The current presidential administration could find inspiration for what is possible by looking to what the city has accomplished in spite of its constraints.

Entrepreneurs like panelist Robert Hammond can serve as inspiration for civic-minded Millennials. He identified a problem in his local community, the impending demolition of the old rail line running through Chelsea, learned about the issue and recruited allies by attending community board meetings, and then launched an innovative effort to save the rail line by transforming it into what we now know as the High Line. Rose opined that the traditional civic preservation groups could never have built the High Line. It took an out-of-the-box thinker and an out-of-the-box strategy to do it. This is the impetus behind programs like the Roosevelt Institute’s Pipeline. Since Millennials don’t have the same civic infrastructure that previous generations did, they have to build it themselves. Bringing together young potential entrepreneurs as Pipeline does is the best hope that the projects like the High Line will not be a flash in the pan, but rather a sustainable urban development strategy.

The High Line offers much to emulate, from its high profile launch to its design as an active space that pushes hordes of both residents and tourists not merely to observe but to interact. It stands out as the kind of innovative thinking and tenacious execution that America’s cities so desperately need. However, Rose argued that truly public works are still essential to solve the 21st century challenges the city faces, like a decaying public transit system. Simply put, no public-private partnership is ever going to build heavy rail in this country.

Panelist Leslie Koch offered hope that publicly funded projects can not only still get done, but be innovative game-changers for life in the city. As recently as 2006, there were only 7,000 people who visited Governor’s Island all year. On Saturday, when the panel began, there were 8,000 on the island. Moderator Paul Goldberger put the success of Governor’s Island in perspective, calling it “the most ambitious piece of pubic realm development that we will see in our lifetimes.” Ms. Koch explained that places like Governor’s Island were more essential than ever in contemporary New York City since the most creative people have been priced out of Manhattan. The city needs to create new places for them to congregate in order to reap the full benefits of having the highest density of creative people in the country.

The panelists discussed the challenges that lie ahead for the city, including the need to sustain immigration rates in order to provide the flows of intellectual and financial capital that are the city’s lifeblood. When asked if big public works could be next for New York, Mr. Rose suggested extending more public transit access to the city’s airports, Ms. Koch argued that maintaining the overall quality of the transit system in relation to other world cities’ was essential, and Mr. Hammond suggested expanding bike access throughout the city not only as a transit and environmental strategy, but also to continue to attract the young talent that could sustain the city’s greatness for the next generation.