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MAS Survey on Livability: people say they're satisfied, but dismay regarding (over)development seeps out

Though a Municipal Art Society (MAS) survey on livability released yesterday garnered headlines for its seemingly counter-intuitive conclusion that most New Yorkers are happy and find the city livable, it also contains signs of significant discontent regarding development.

And that wariness--72 percent seemingly oppose new housing or housing beyond existing scale in their neighborhoods--suggests a tension between those who like neighborhood scale and the Bloomberg administration's expectation of another 1 million people here by 2030.

Results of this initial poll were not particularly subtle--it would be important to understand attitudes toward development teased out by type of neighborhood, zoning, and transportation options, because the key question is fitting increased density to neighborhoods that can handle it.

(That has not been done consistently, as NYU's Furman Center for Real Eastate & Urban Policy described in March.)

News coverage

The New York Times's CityRoom coverage was headlined Surprise: Most New Yorkers Say They Like the City.

AM New York had it as Surprise! We really love New York!.

DNAInfo headlined its piece Get Outta Here! New Yorkers Are Mostly Happy, Survey Finds.

Some coverage noted the discussion of solutions to the not inconsiderable discontent. Crain's headlined its article Officials eye more pedestrian-friendly city.

Streetsblog, which offered the summary headline MAS Survey: New York City Is Livable But Not Everyone Benefits Equally, pointed to the importance of bringing public space and transit improvements to the outer boroughs.

The New York Daily News, with its sensitivity to outer-borough readers, headlined its coverage Tale of two cities after poll shows Manhattan residents living it up, but borough residents disagree. Actually, the article, which highlights the disparities between Manhattan and the Bronx, shows Bronx residents saying "they love their borough, but know there's room for improvement."

The housing issue

The press release offered the summary sentence:
Nearly 4 in 10 (37%) New Yorkers oppose more housing development in their communities but 42% support the development of small businesses that fit into their neighborhoods.
There's a lot more nuance, so let's tease out the summary sentence on Housing Development:
Overall, when it comes to housing in their neighborhoods, 21% of New Yorkers feel the priority should be to preserve and restore existing buildings; 14% say to build new housing but only in the style of existing housing; 28% to build new housing which is affordable regardless of the style; and 37% of New Yorkers say there shouldn't be any more housing development in their neighborhoods.
So that's 51% who say no new housing beyond the current style. And another 21% say the priority is preservation and restoration of existing buildings--which could be seen as saying no new housing.

Affordable housing a priority

At least according to the way the question was worded, only 28% of respondents prioritize affordable housing over scale

It would be very helpful to see the results in a more granular fashion, segmented, for example, by neighborhood. With such results, we could understand how residents might feel about transitional neighborhoods such as the northwest segment of Prospect Heights, with both manufacturing and residential buildings and near transit.

Instead, we get results by borough and Brooklynites-- not surprisingly, given the demand for housing--are more amenable to making affordable housing a priority.

Some 38% of Brooklynites prioritize affordable housing, as opposed to 28% overall. Regarding preservation and housing only at the same scale, the results for Brooklynites are 22% and 12%. That leaves 28% favoring no more housing at all. (See p. 30 of the data analysis here.)

Housing over infrastructure

At a press conference yesterday, I asked MAS President Vin Cipolla about the tension between the poll results and the city's expected growth.

People see buildings going up, Cipolla responded, but they don't see related investment in infrastructure. Yes, "transit-centered development" is a start, but too often people don't see the transit enhanced.

(While the Atlantic Yards plan would add a new subway entrance, significantly to serve the arena, but also to serve the neighborhood, it wouldn't enhance service.)

People have to think the additional housing has added to the quality of life, he said. "The answer is: it hasn't."

One example of a selling point: in Williamsburg, it was mentioned later, the new development (such as the New Domino plan) is supposed to add access to the waterfront.

Drilling down into the poll

Those surveyed were asked:
Overall, are you very satisfied, satisfied, not very satisfied, or not at all satisfied with New York City?
Some 57% said they were satisfied and 27% said they were very satisfied.

They were also asked "Overall, in your life, would you say you are... " and 57% said they were happy and 34% very happy. That obviously depends on factors beyond city efforts at livability, such as family.

Some commenters on the CityRoom site were surprised:
Surprising to hear so many were positive about NYC.

As a native New Yorker, I and many of my friends, find NYC incredibly grim and depressing. NYC has turned into a playground of the rich and entitled.

The income inequality is appalling, the bus and subway system is expensive and deteriorating, there is too much development, neighborhood shops disappear and are replaced by chains, the infrastructure is falling apart, and there are more homeless people all over.

— Kate


  1. I think community opposition to NYU's development of it's tower-in-the-park superblocks in Greenwich Village provides some interesting insights into the issue of so-called "over" development.

    Here is a location that is easily accessible to all of the city's subways lines, etc.; a site that with lots of underutilized, vacuous, suburban-style open space; a site that is less densely developed than surrounding areas; a site where the construction of new buildings would not require offsite relocation of tenants; and so on -- and yet there are still many residents of the area who are still opposed to pretty much any new additional development for the site.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Fri., Oct. 22, 2010, 8:10 p.m.


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