In October 2018, the Economic Development Corporation held its first public meeting on Sunnyside Yards at LaGuardia Community College. Opposition to the ill-fated Amazon deal was already mounting, and the EDC was fearful that a similar wave could scuttle plans for Sunnyside. With 375 people in attendance, however, the top concerns raised included lack of affordable housing, aging infrastructure, transit capacity, and overcrowded schools. Very few people thought that Sunnyside needed a massive infusion of luxury housing created by lidding over the yards to the tune of $19 billion.
Welcome to contentious New York City, where real estate rules, but residents engage in feisty, concerted, and highly underfunded opposition. While real estate interests have long called the shots in this town, the reign of global finance and development capital over the urban landscape is a product of the near collapse of the city into bankruptcy in the 1970s. Since then, every administration has had to show fealty to large developers, banks, and brokerage firms. Rudy Giuliani understood this, and over two terms as mayor (1994-2001) he vigorously prosecuted “quality of life” crimes to make the city safe for investment again. Michael Bloomberg lived this reality in his bones, and for 12 years (2002-2013) gave the keys to the store to his wealthy corporate classmates. Bill De Blasio talked a Progressive game in his run up to the mayoral elections in 2014, but quickly threw his supporters under the bus with his anemic, pro-developer housing policies.
Still, the EDC is quite right to be worried about its plans for Sunnyside Yards, particularly after the Amazon deal collapsed so spectacularly. After all, opposition is likely to take similar forms. In the case of Amazon, the company played dozens of localities against one another in a Game-of-Thrones competition for the ‘privilege’ of hosting their high-tech wondercampus. Planners and architects conjured a vision of a tech utopia with mid-rise and high-rise residential, commercial, and office buildings transected by green spaces. State and local officials placed billions of dollars of public subsidy on the table in exchange for vague promises of 25,000 jobs over 10 years.
But community residents, artists, activists, and Progressive unions formed a movement to oppose the backroom deal. No matter how much pro-developer interests try to paint the movement as a set of marching orders from Progressive Democrat politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the reality is that it was a concerted effort by residents and workers in Western Queens, lead by women of color. Over the last ten years, they have seen Long Island City transformed from a largely working-class neighborhood of homes, shops, artist studios, small businesses and industries to a high-rise luxury playscape. The Amazon campus would be the nail in the coffin, displacing people who had stuck with the neighborhood through thick and thin. These opponents dared raise the question of what $3 billion in subsidies earmarked for the world’s richest man could do to help small businesses, improve education, or expand community health care.
Signs abound that Sunnyside Yards could go down in a similar crush of opposition. And the signs equally abound that those pushing the development have learned little from the Amazon debacle. New York Times editors snarked that “anti-corporate activists got what they wanted at a great cost,” as if the Amazon project were simply an unalloyed good and opponents merely political drones rather than members of a broad-based community movement. More recently, in an interview with on-line magazine City Limits, the EDC’s lead consultant on the Sunnyside Yards project, architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, opined that opponents just want to “put up a ‘closed, we’re full’ sign.” These are, of course, preposterously reductive caricatures of opposition, and potentially critical underestimations of people’s motives and insights.
Skepticism about Sunnyside Yards is not simply a matter of NIMBYism, where people react reflexively to plans for increasing density in their neighborhood. Nor are all residents motivated by purely selfish interests; many people object less to density per se, but rather to bearing its burdens unequally or without consultation from the beginning. Indeed, New Yorkers are becoming increasingly frustrated by their city’s tendency to underwrite the prerogatives of developers and investors at the expense of communities. There are many good and informed reasons to oppose the current plans for redevelopment of Sunnyside Yards. As a matter of tactics alone, for actors such as Chakrabarti to dismiss opponents with such flippancy bodes ill for the clients he represents.
Obviously for the agencies tasked with making Sunnyside Yards a reality, resident opposition frustrates their best-laid plans. “People make this fundamental mistake with this topic,” Chakrabarti went on to tell City Limits. “They believe that if you do nothing, nothing will happen. That’s not the way a market economy works.” Perhaps Chakrabarti truly believes this, but personally I have never met a New Yorker who thinks that “if you do nothing, nothing will happen.” Nobody who lives in this rambunctious city could possibly imagine a static and unchanging urban landscape; they just want a say in how these changes unfold. And in any case, the fallback to pro-market rhetoric regurgitates the laziest developer’s nostrum about how the economy “works” (or is supposed to work, for them). They will have to do better.
Chakrabarti’s own “fundamental mistake” is thinking that urban land use is simply a matter of market allocation, when in the real world we inhabit a mixed economy, with multiple interests acting through a range of public and private institutions. Two centuries of case law have firmly established that the use of land is not sovereign to the owner; in our society, property is a bundle of rights and obligations. Developers and pro-growth fanatics tend to forget this. The various groups that oppose the current plans for Sunnyside Yards are merely asserting the public stake in land use, as is proper. Their opposition may be inchoate at the moment, but as in the case of Amazon, that will likely change. And the more that developers dismiss people’s concerns, the more they will return in angrier and more concerted forms.
Such dismissals, moreover, can no longer be cast in simplistic terms such as “pro-growth vs. anti-growth.” Growth is not the issue, and urban land use is not a zero-sum game. People want to see investment in their communities. They want to see small businesses open and thrive, and new housing opportunities expand for their children. They want to see improvements in infrastructure, transit, parks, and other amenities. The problem is that, in New York City, such changes typically arrive as stealth cover for large-scale redevelopment projects, upzoning, and gentrification, so that the improvements tend to benefit newcomers, while long-established communities enjoy them only temporarily, until they are uprooted. People are not opposing “growth” so much as how decisions for our urban future are made, who makes them, and who benefits.
Ultimately, then, the critical question we should be asking ourselves is not “what kind of city do developers want?” Nor is it “what kind of city will the de Blasio administration broker?” It’s not even “how can we get the most of the worst plans?” Such limited questions stunt our capacities for collective dreaming. Instead, we have to imagine a future for New York that includes everyone, not just the rich. We have to imagine a future for immigrants, students, artists, and working families, not just those who can afford skyrocketing housing costs. We have to imagine a future where investment in neighborhoods benefits those who live there rather than displacing them. We have to imagine a future where urban regeneration is no longer the prerogative of developers, but assumed as an opportunity for the exercise of the public good.
During the Amazon controversy, Governor Cuomo was quoted on the Brian Leher show admitting that in a perfect world States should not have to enter bidding wars over corporate projects, but that, at the end of the day, while “We pray for the perfect, we live in the real.” This is a deeply defeatist and cynical view of the world, and a borderline apology for injustice unworthy of one bearing the Cuomo name. Instead of shirking our duty of care under the shibboleth that we “live in the real,” we must embrace the fact that we MAKE the real. We make it in New York, in Paris, in Istanbul. We make it in London, Cairo, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Bangkok, and Mumbai. We make it by our actions or lack thereof, by our willingness or refusal to stand up to the self-serving schemes of the rich and powerful.
The critical question raised by the Amazon and Sunnyside Yards projects, then, is “what kind of urban future do we want?” And that is for all of us to decide.
Joseph Heathcott is a writer, photographer, and educator based in New York, where he teaches at The New School. He is currently teaching at Parsons Paris, and serving as a visting scholar in the École Urbaine at Sciences Po.