Big town or small, the problem is the same: Politicians will boast about the jobs, tax dollars and civic prestige they create when they approve big developments, but downplay the long-term costs. It happens with many kinds of projects: exurbs created in parched rural areas; waterfront hotels vulnerable to hurricanes; and now, office towers near Grand Central Station in New York City. Building big creates excitement; maintaining an adequate infrastructure is boring and requires telling people they have to pay taxes.
This week, The New York Times editorial page urged passage of a re-zoning that would allow significantly taller buildings in an eighteen-block-long stretch of Manhattan’s East Midtown, which includes Grand Central. It would add some 6.5 million square feet in office space--like adding a building the size of the Pentagon, but without the parking lot. Meanwhile, the Times reported on page one the same day that overcrowding on the city’s subways is leading to the cancellation of dozens of scheduled trips each day, especially on the lines running through the same Grand Central Station.
What this juxtaposition told me was that A) it’s really true that the Times maintains a wall between its editorial board and its news operation so that neither knows what the other is doing and B) that the city’s establishment—whether in editorial boards, government, business or labor— is unwilling to face the fact that a good part of New York’s current transit mess results from its own push to overbuild in Manhattan. (We might add religion to these sectors, since sale of air rights for St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church and the Central Synagogue would bring millions of dollars to their owners through the re-zoning.)
City Council members took time out from railing against poor subway service to vote, 42-0, in favor of the re-zoning on Aug. 9. But even Manhattan can’t handle too much Manhattanization, the term applied to clusters of high-rise construction in places as varied as San Francisco, Dubai, Toronto, Las Vegas, and Miami. The approval of one skyscraper after another has meant that the subways are physically incapable of carrying the massive number of people traveling into and out of Manhattan during rush hours. (There are 5.6 million subway passengers on a weekday.) As the Times reporters pointed out, it doesn’t help that much of the signal system in place dates to the 1930s, meaning it can’t be depended on to run trains closer together.