The Streetcar Hustle

We need bold new transit projects. But Bill de Blasio’s streetcar plan shows we won't get them by catering to private developers.

Big changes are coming to one stretch of the New York City waterfront. In his recent State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced an ambitious plan for a new streetcar system that would connect the city’s most populous borough, Brooklyn, to its largest, Queens. Citing “explosive growth on the waterfront in Brooklyn and Queens,” the mayor proclaimed: “Today, we take the next great step in connecting New Yorkers to the heart of our new economy for New York.”

The new sixteen-mile, street-level system would link Astoria to Sunset Park, with stops along the way in Long Island City, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, the Navy Yard, DUMBO, Downtown Brooklyn, and Red Hook. Trains would travel at around 11.3 miles per hour alongside automobiles, and connect with several existing bus and rail lines, as well as the new ferry lines the mayor proposed in his last State of the City address. In addition to several commercial clusters, the line could service 45,000 public housing residents who live along the proposed route.

The plan’s price tag currently stands at $2.5 billion. Some of that cost would be borne by riders, whose fares would be pegged to the cost of a subway swipe, but most of it would be paid for through gentrification. According to the New York Times, “administration officials believe the system’s cost can be offset by tax revenue siphoned from an expected rise in property values along the route.” Seen from this vantage point, the streetcar proposal seems less a transportation plan than a real estate stimulus.

This is not exactly a surprise. As historians like Robert Fitch and Kim Moody have described, real estate barons have long manipulated New York City’s planning apparatus, often through their chosen “nonprofit” advocates. Entire subway lines, for example, were rerouted to correspond to the Rockefeller family’s particular real estate holdings.

Nor is this link between public investment and private gain a secret. In fact, planners are often taught to see the two as mutually reinforcing. New York University’s Mitchell Moss enthused that the streetcar system “is going to do more to encourage more housing than any other transit improvement currently underway.” Alex Garvin, a well-known planner and member of the group “Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector,” argued that “by creating a new light rail line in those neighborhoods, we could create an enormous opportunity for new investment.”

De Blasio highlights these benefits to property owners, but he also frames the plan as a gift to New York City’s poorest residents, many of whom have long been underserved by the city’s mass transit network. Brooklyn and Queens are home to millions of working-class people, many of whom could no doubt use an easier way to travel between those boroughs.

But the existing plan is inseparable from a longstanding project to remake the waterfront, and must be seen as part of a larger process of state-enabled gentrification and displacement.

On the Waterfront

Gentrification is, among other things, a spatial fix for capital — a way to turn cyclical crises into new accumulation strategies. Investment flows into, out of, and between spaces over time, creating a landscape of uneven development in which cities and suburbs trade off as the primary sites for making money out of land. The history of the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront provides a vivid demonstration of this dynamic.

In New York City’s early days, the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront was largely pastoral, a sharp contrast to the densely packed industrial agglomeration taking shape across the East River in lower Manhattan.

As Brooklyn, and later Queens, urbanized, their waterfronts were built up for mostly commercial purposes: piers, docks, warehouses, and freight carriage infrastructure sprouted up along the river, with customs offices, waterfront businesses, and workforce housing trailing quickly behind. Its scattershot construction reflected less a plan than the needs created by the opening of the Erie Canal upstate, which situated the city as the central hub in a new international shipping route.

Subways were not a part of the waterfront’s development. This was primarily for geological reasons — it is hard to dig so close to the coast — but it also reflected the priorities of the private developers who built the city’s original rail lines. Rail barons were more interested in constructing lines that connected the still-rural inlands of Queens and Brooklyn to Manhattan’s Central Business Districts than with providing transportation options to dockworkers.

In the postwar era, a broad governmental, planning, and business consensus was reached that New York no longer needed its waterfronts in the ways it once had. Its historic piers were not suited for containerized shipping, its heavy industry was moving southward in search of cheaper and non-unionized labor, and its waterways were thoroughly polluted.

The future of the city, municipal functionaries and real estate interests believed, lay with fast-traveling automobiles and non-labor-intensive industries. Planning officials in cities like New York came to view their borderlands as ideal sites for highway construction, laying down wide belts of asphalt around shuttered docklands.

Next to these highways, on land considered increasingly marginal and undesirable (and therefore cheap), the city placed much of its social infrastructure: public housing, nursing homes, medical centers, and the like. This did not reflect the city’s desire to make these amenities convenient, but rather its low regard for the waterfront and those who would make use of it.

At the same time, banks were redlining these once-industrial neighborhoods, denying home loans to people of color who might transform these areas into lively residential outposts and condemning properties to years of abandonment and decline.

In the 1970s, the city began experimenting with “planned shrinkage,” a program of deliberate neglect that diverted public money away from places like the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront in order to force undesired residents and business out, and left poor and largely non-white neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Long Island City to burn.

Over time, the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront came to epitomize urban disinvestment: its industry was gone, its infrastructure was underfunded, its population was deeply segregated and impoverished, and there was a great deal of vacant and abandoned property.

This kind of capital flight is the precondition for gentrification. As capital flows out of spaces, it creates opportunities for reinvention through reinvestment. Throughout the late twentieth century, in cities throughout the United States, this process was steered by government bodies at municipal, state, and national levels.

In 1993, New York City initiated a comprehensive waterfront rezoning, which paved the way for the construction of high-rise residential and commercial towers, and ushered in the transformation of industrial districts into upscale playgrounds for urban professionals. With the sweep of a pen, the city’s planners created vast amounts of private wealth out of thin air, turning nearly worthless properties into hot commodities and expelling working-class communities from the water’s edge.

Many waterfront neighborhoods were rezoned once again under the Bloomberg administration to allow even more construction. In 2005, 180 blocks of Williamsburg and Greenpoint were approved for high-rise luxury residential development. Just north a few blocks and past the heavily polluted Newtown Creek, similar changes were initiated in Queens’ Long Island City, where a combination of tax breaks and land use legislations brought the tallest building in the outer boroughs, Citicorp’s fifty-story blue glass tower, along with a number of ostentatious condominiums.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard and its surrounding areas were rezoned and pumped with generous subsidies to lure the tech companies that would form a modern-day “makerspace.” Even waterfront public housing developments came to be seen as targets for private investment, with both Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio proposing plans to salt them with privately owned towers containing apartments priced for middle- and high-income tenants.

In the fall of 2012, however, Hurricane Sandy hit the city harder than any storm in decades, causing severe damage to the city’s waterfront neighborhoods, and forcing even the most enthusiastic boosters to question the wisdom of such aggressive riverside development. Areas like Red Hook and Sunset Park were deluged by rising tides and overflow from inadequate sewers.

The city had rebuilt and expanded its waterfront only to see it newly imperiled. Instead of rethinking planning priorities, officials initiated a new round of investment to protect the private money tied up in highly vulnerable neighborhoods.

A Streetcar Solution?

With all this new development along the waterfront, many residents and workers began clamoring for better transit options. This call was not unique to waterfront dwellers — just about everyone wants more reliable links between Queens and Brooklyn, and better outer borough mass transit in general.

Jobs in New York are increasingly found outside the old hubs in Midtown and downtown Manhattan. In 2008, 160,000 people were commuting between Queens and Brooklyn every day, a 32 percent increase since 1990. New York’s subway system is no longer fulfilling its central function of efficiently delivering workers to work.

Until the 1950s, New York, like many other cities, had an extensive streetcar network that covered a vast swath of the city. Trolleys and cable cars ran above ground, and fares were long capped at a nickel.

Thanks largely to lobbying and buyouts from General Motors, Standard Oil, and Firestone Tires, these rails were torn from the streets in order to make room for more cars and speed the flow of automobile traffic. Many of the streetcar routes were replaced by buses, which do a pretty good job of moving New Yorkers across county lines but are dramatically slowed by the city’s failure to provide dedicated bus lanes or otherwise curtail car traffic.

The return of the streetcar, then, is a dream shared by many transportation planners and outer borough residents. Plans for new rail development have been bandied about for years, but so far none have come to fruition. A trolley enthusiast named Bob Diamond even managed to buy a bunch of old streetcars and lay tracks in Red Hook, but the city shut it down in 2003.

In 2014, the New York Times published a column by architecture critic Michael Kimmelman calling for a Brooklyn-Queens streetcar, heavily influenced by Alex Garvin’s earlier proposal for a waterfront light rail. Inverting urban planners’ preference for “transit-oriented development,” or increased density near mass transit nodes, Kimmelman called his plan “development-oriented transit,” explicitly premised on providing better service to gentrifying neighborhoods and new luxury towers.

As influential transit blogger Benjamin Kabak described it, this plan was “a solution looking for a problem.” Using some basic mapping applications, Kabak plotted the route Kimmelman and Garvin proposed, and checked it against existing subway stops. He found three isolated areas — Red Hook, the Navy Yard, and parts of Astoria — but the rest of the route was relatively well-served.

Rather than run a line up the entire waterfront, he suggested the city simply provide better services in those particular areas. As an experiment, Kabak then mapped an alternate route from south Brooklyn to East New York to eastern Queens. He found it would serve far more transit-starved New Yorkers than the glitzier waterfront route.

More recently, Ben Fried at Streetsblog dug up the New York City Department of Transportation’s own transit desert maps, which show nine areas with far more subway-starved residents than the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, including the Webster/ Third Avenue area in the Bronx, East Elmhurst in Queens, and Utica Avenue in Brooklyn.

All of those neighborhoods have significantly lower median incomes and significantly more people of color and recent immigrants than most of those along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront. But, as Kabak mildly put it, “no one seems interested in solving that problem though.”

Why There, Why Now?

Given the location of existing subway lines and the danger implicit in post-Sandy waterfront development, it seems fairly clear that de Blasio’s waterfront route is neither the most logical nor the most sustainable choice. So why build it there, and why propose it now?

The Brooklyn Queens Connector links not only the old waterfront neighborhoods, but a number of luxury mega-developments that have cropped up along its shores. The primary financial and organizing force behind “Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector,” the nonprofit front backing the new system, is Jed Walentas, one of the principals at Two Trees Management Company.

Two Trees owns much of the neighborhood now known as “DUMBO,” and has been the primary beneficiary of its gentrification. The company also own large properties in Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn, and is turning the eleven acres around Williamsburg’s Domino Sugar refinery into a new mixed-use luxury enclave. The Brooklyn Queens Connector snakes past nearly every one of its holdings.

Walentas, however, is not acting alone. Other “Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector” include:

  • Helena Durst of the Durst Organization, which is not only building “Hallets Point,” a 7-building, 2,400-unit luxury complex on the Astoria waterfront, but runs New York Water Taxi, a private ferry service that shuttles riders between lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn waterfront;
  • Andrew Kimball of Jamestown Properties, which purchased Sunset Park’s Industry City in 2013 and is using public subsidies to transform it into an elite tech industry production space;
  • Tucker Reed of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, the powerful “Business Improvement District” that helped transform Downtown Brooklyn from a hub of black-owned businesses to a cluster of extravagant high-rises;
  • Doug Steiner of Steiner Studios, the film and television studio that anchors the newly renovated Brooklyn Navy Yard;
  • and Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, a venture capital firm that is, among other things, investing a crowdsourced real estate purchasing platform.

The group’s study was conducted by HR&A investors, a real estate consultancy with deep ties to the de Blasio administration: First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, New York City Housing Authority chair Shola Olatoye, and City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod are all former high-ranking employees.

The “Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector” are, for the most part, friends of higher waterfront property values, seeking public insurance for their private investments in the form of infrastructure development. The line they are proposing is a redistribution of public wealth toward a few of the city’s most powerful actors.

Can’t We Have Nice Things?

Large-scale public investment in mass transit infrastructure is like catnip to socialists and urban progressives. From the environmental benefits to the public service jobs to the urban agglomeration effects to the aesthetic appeal of trains, there are a lot of reasons why many would cheer a new program of streetcar construction. So can’t we just be happy that the mayor of America’s largest city is proposing such a move?

The answer, unfortunately, is no. De Blasio’s streetcar proposal is a perfect demonstration of the limits of public planning in the context of private land ownership. Whatever planners intend, they can generally only regulate the actions of capitalists in pursuit of profit. The money planners have to implement their proposals is principally derived from taxes on those profits, an arrangement that incentivizes developer-friendly policies and dramatically restricts the land available for truly public provisions.

Imagine what a publicly spirited urban transit program might look like: rail and bus lines where they are needed most; roadways reserved for buses and streetcars and restricted for private automobiles; and public ownership of not just transit infrastructure, but the land surrounding it as well.

This kind of real planning is more or less impossible under capitalism, in which any provision of public goods is at least compromised by private interests, and at worst completely subverted by them. In New York, a city in which land is often more valuable than anything that might be built on it, every public good becomes predicated on rentier profits.

Residents are repeatedly told that in order to get affordable housing, we need to build way more luxury condominiums. In order to require environmental remediation measures, the prescription is the same (as in the case of Gowanus or Staten Island’s North Shore). Now we are told that if we want better inter-borough mass transit, the way forward is . . . even more luxury condominiums.

The waterfront streetcar plan is based less on a community’s need for service than a group of well-connected developers’ desire for profit. This is the norm, not an exception, in contemporary urban planning practice.

If we want to have nice things for our cities, urban planning as such is not enough: we need to transform the way we allocate our land. Until land is democratically controlled — expropriated from private owners and placed in the public’s hands — our planning priorities can only be shaped by those who possess property, capital, and access to power, and our public benefits will continue to be apportioned in ways that further alienate and impoverish urban workers.

The way forward, then, is not through planning, which is not capable of serving genuine needs due to political conditions today. Nor is it against planning, since planning is what will ultimately be required to create equitable urban environments. Rather, the way forward can be found both below and above planning.

We must transform the political realities on the ground through grassroots organizing, and in so doing, transform the institutions that govern planning processes and priorities. Then, perhaps, all of us can have nice things like streetcars.