The following was published on New Geography on 11/11/2014. You can find the piece here. The piece was adapted from my recent LIBN piece “Elephants in the Room”.
Long Island is the birthplace of suburbia, from colonial-period Brooklyn to Levittown and beyond, and its economy has survived booms and busts since the 1950s. As stagnant as it may be, if it’s anything, it is resilient. Today, its problems mirror those of many older suburban areas scattered across the country, and, like many other suburbs, its problems cannot be solved by simply shoehorning in more development – and more tax revenue. Are policymakers addressing the true thorns in the region’s side: Affordable housing, cost-of-living, taxes, racism and fear of change? Planners nationwide could learn much from Long Island if they looked closely at its successes and its failures, and how both evolved.
In the push to expand housing after WWII, Long Island’s potato fields became subdivisions that, with the passage of time, became increasingly monochromatic, as well as increasingly expensive. The planners of yesteryear crafted strategies that set national precedents in farmland and open space preservation, while simultaneously working to manage unprecedented residential and commercial expansion. During these boom years, planners urged municipalities to protect open space, resulting in yet another set of national benchmarks in regard to groundwater protection.
Yet the recommendations for an overtly aggressive open space acquisition program were pared down and never fully capitalized upon. Few, if any, of other recommendations leapt from the leather-bound pages of the academic planning texts to become fully implemented. Planning had its moment in the sun on Long Island, but it was quickly eclipsed by special interests with money to spend and projects to greenlight. Today,the academic approach of the previous decades is mostly gone, with the Island’s growth being managed by development firms and nonprofit stakeholder groups. Our current long-term strategies lack a detached professionalism that is unhindered by political forces and agenda-driven ideas.
The solution being currently proposed is a call for more “responsible” growth. The question is, if growth got Long Island into this mess, how can it eventually get us out? Multifamily units are being proposed under the umbrella of responsible growth, as is the placement of additional sewers. With the arrival of sewers, it is said that growth will be allowed to flourish, helping to keep the wealthy Millennials, stop the cries of “brain drain” and subsequent regional death, and generate jobs.
At last month’s Destination LI conference (#LIREDI hashtag on Twitter), a group of Millennials spoke about the need for sewers as well as the need for additional growth of multifamily-type units. It was nice to see a new generation become interested and invested in Long Island, and even go so far as to say that this next generation will “fight” to stay in the region. But there was little mention of the fact that there has been an overall 89% increase of units from 1989 to present, or that groundwater quality is compromised as a direct link to overdevelopment, or about the region’s sole source aquifer that dictates appropriate density levels.
What are the realities of building truly affordable housing in suburban Long Island’s aging suburbs? How can costs be pared down so developers are enticed to build without relying on density to generate profit?
Planners by trade have to be optimistic, but they must also be realistic when assessing a region’s needs and growth strategies. The current approach by developers and stakeholders is fueled by optimism, but studies the issues on a shallow level instead of working to solve our long-established problems.
The biggest one? In each town and village hall across Long Island, and in our Nassau-Suffolk region, municipalities often grant density in places where it is simply not appropriate. If an area has a comprehensive plan in place, development should follow the usage that was already determined. But, more often than not, local government awards variances that drastically increase density under the guise of “responsible growth”. These variances add up to a high density sprawl that is worse than the traditional sprawl that they were meant to replace in the first place. They fly in the face of the professional planning efforts undertaken on Long Island over the previous decades. We need a return to professionalism if we are going to create legitimate and workable solutions.
Urban planning is not merely saying that development is “responsible,” it’s assessing our regions needs by quantifying market trends, environmental data and resident feedback. Planning for our future should not be about catering to one age demographic, but rather, about addressing the needs of all Long Islanders over the course of the future decades. Instead of planning sessions focused on urging downtown development to attract jobs, planners should be justifying why development should be placed in a given downtown, or anywhere else.
Many tout the expansion of transit, but few address the marked lack of population density that’s necessary to drive the demand and fiscal support of such expansions, or discuss the MTA’s frequent capital budget shortfalls. Planning should be crafted from a scientific and methodological approach, not from buzzwords, faulty surveys or ideal conditions that are neatly summed up on a PowerPoint slide.
Saying we need affordable housing is easy. Execution of the concept on Long Island has been extremely difficult for decades. Yet this uncomfortable reality is not discussed on panels. Our regional problems require us to confront our balkanized districts, dissect the unbalanced economics of our real estate development, and deal with a heritage of racism furthered by exclusionary municipal jurisdictions.
Sheer density won’t change sixty years of racial division, jumpstart our stagnant economy , or upgrade our infrastructure to 21st century standards. And, despite what county officials and a myriad of developers are saying, more sewers alone will not solve our woes. We need a sewer plan that works in conjunction with a robust open space plan, which in turn works to complement our approaches to economic development.
In other words, we need true regional planning.
To execute our plans, we need professionals. In recent years, municipalities have cut planning staff, and outsourced critically important planning functions to politically-connected boards and stakeholder groups. In Suffolk, the County merged a once nationally-acclaimed department of planning with the economic development department. Despite what anyone says to the contrary, crafting strategies for economic development is not planning. It is a piece of the puzzle, but there are important distinctions that have been forgotten in recent years.
The convenient narratives of ‘brain drain’, downtown revitalization, and smart growth make it easy to stand behind a podium and tout the benefits of pure, unhindered economic development. But the elephant-sized problem in the room remains. Only this time, instead of being in a single-family home, the elephant’s room will be in in a shiny, new multi-family complex.
Richard Murdocco regularly writes on land use and policy issues. A collection of his published work can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org, and you can follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.