» The federal government must ensure that its investments in housing and transportation align. The newly cooperative Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development may improve that prospect.
Roosevelt Island lies in the middle of the East River, a 2-mile-long stick of an island between Manhattan and Queens. Even before its first apartments opened in 1973, New York City officials for years understood the place’s potential — its amazing views and fantastic location would have made it a business bonanza had its land been sold off to private developers. Unlike many of the neighborhoods that had been bulldozed by urban renewal programs in the preceding years, it was virtually empty in the early 1970s, meaning there would be little citizen opposition to new construction.
Under the leadership of Governor Nelson Rockefeller and planner Ed Logue, the state’s Urban Development Corporation coordinated a campaign beginning in 1968 to build up the island as a mixed-use, mixed-income “new-town-in-town” using federal and state funds. The 1968 Federal Housing Act, which capped President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, provided specific funds and planning tools for this type of development under the assumption that money from Washington could play an important role in creating new types of diverse, livable communities.
In many ways, the project succeeded: Roosevelt Island remains incredibly diverse both economically and ethnically, despite its inclusion of thousands of units of public housing. Federal funds and state planning had produced a neighborhood that achieved the ideal of mixity promoted by the government. Federal urban policy of the late 1960s, despite what you may have heard, was not all crash and burn.
But transportation was always the island’s sticky point. Despite the fact that in 1965 New York’s Board of Estimate, led by Mayor Robert Wagner, approved final plans for a new subway line under the island to be built by 1975 in time for most of the island’s early redevelopment, the IND 63rd Street Line (F train) project was only partially completed in 1989 — and finally connected to the Queens Boulevard line only in 2001, almost thirty years late. Because of the problems getting from Roosevelt Island to Manhattan (the Queensboro Bridge, which soars above, had an elevator connection that was demolished), the Urban Development Corporation had to cobble together a makeshift aerial tramway by 1976 to ensure that the island’s inhabitants could get to their jobs.
In other words, though the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development was providing aid for the completion of the project, the Department of Transportation was sitting on its hands. The lack of coordination had its negative consequences.
Development on Roosevelt Island stood at a virtual stand-still after 1975, partially because of the Nixon Administration’s decision to cut aid to public housing programs but also because of the lack of an efficient subway. It is not a coincidence that Manhattan Park, the second stage of island development paid for mostly by private money, unlike the early buildings, didn’t open for business until 1989. For years, this kept the island from becoming the exciting, dense community planners first imagined decades ago.
I bring up Roosevelt Island not because it’s a specifically important case but rather because I’ve studied it extensively and its successes and failures exemplify the problems caused by a lack of unified transportation and land use planning within American federal policy.
Though New York’s Urban Development Corporation received millions of dollars in aid from Washington to construct affordable housing on the island, the similarly state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority was for years not provided federal grants for new line construction — ultimately slowing down the completion of the subway to the island as the city and state underwent significant financial difficulties. The lack of subway service meant limited accessibility to the island and little interest from developers to complete development there. Only when the line opened for service did building resume.
Decision-makers in Washington clearly have case studies like Roosevelt Island in mind considering yesterday’s announcement by the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. Though it’s a minor first step, the DOT will coordinate its distribution of $600 million in TIGER II grants based on HUD’s involvement in supplying $40 million in its own money for land use aid. The TIGER program is a series of grants handed out by discretion of the Transportation Secretary after a competitive process.
This is the second major step towards integrating the government’s transportation and urban policy. Last year, the departments announced a joint sustainable communities initiative which provided HUD $150 million for neighborhood development designed with alternative transportation in mind. Meanwhile, the Federal Transit Administration is promoting its vision of spending transportation dollars on programs that stimulate the creation of affordable housing in mixed-income communities.
It’s a refreshing reflection on the fact that land use and transportation are directly linked — each affects the other, and federal policy should treat the two as a single issue, not two separate policy matters.
Nonetheless, it’s just a start — the FTA supplies more than two billion dollars in new transit line construction programs (New Start) every year, and HUD spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually on the Hope VI program, which is designed to refashion public housing complexes into mixed-income communities. These programs should be linked directly; federally-sponsored inner-city housing should by definition include efficient public transportation links, while major new investments in rail or bus lines should spur the construction of associated development, some of which should be affordable housing and financed through HUD.
The FTA has not been uniformly competent in distributing transit funds to projects that emphasize the creation of better neighborhoods around transit stations; though the New Starts guidelines require localities to develop conducive land use rules, this has never been the priority and cities have repeatedly gotten away with very limited development plans. Moreover, the FTA does not have the funds to ensure that there will be money for affordable housing around stations: that’s HUD’s role. Plenty of that agency’s grants go to projects located far from good transit.
As the Roosevelt Island example demonstrates, there are major advantages to spending harmoniously on housing and transit. These are complementary, not competing, efforts.
Part of the problem, of course, is the fact that the DOT and HUD are distinct federal entities: Each submits its own budget every year, each has its own leader, each has its own goals. It’s hard to imagine how federal urban policy could be truly unified without bringing the two departments together. Nonetheless, coordinated grant distribution is the best way to work towards a unified aim within a disjointed system.
Image above: New York’s Roosevelt Island, from Flickr user WordIslandInfo.com (cc)