Monday, November 08, 2010

Clearing the Air on Bloomberg's Sustainability Posturing

We have been commenting on-exposing might be a better word-Mike Bloomberg's claims to be an advocate of reducing NYC's carbon footprint. Put simply, the mayor's economic development policies dramatically exacerbate carbon emissions-and directly contradict the notion that his grand PLaNYC2030 is leading the city into an era of sustainability.

The linchpin of this contradiction is an economic strategy that consciously promotes large real estate developments that include a permissive siting of big box retailers that threaten the viability of neighborhood shopping and local quality of life. As we pointed out in August: "And what has Mayor Mike been doing for the past nine years-while at the same time huckstering about something "sustainable," and environmentally friendly, called PlaNYC 2030? He has been directly aggravating this situation by building auto dependent malls and other developments contiguous to these highways-most famously, the Gateway Mall built right along, "asthma alley," in the South Bronx. And if he had his way, another such mall would have been injected right into the middle of the crowded Kingsbridge Heights neighborhood of the Bronx as well."

Why is this so significant? It is so, precisely because the concomitant destruction of neighborhood quality of life that devolves from the promotion of this kind of economic growth. The work of Stacy Mitchell at the Institute of Local Self reliance has underscored this phenomenon-and her, "New Rules Project," has highlighted the connection between neighborhoods, local retail, and the fight against global warming:

"So far, the public debate about cars and climate change has been dominated by fuel economy. But driving has been growing at such a rapid pace—total miles driven in the U.S. rose 60 percent between 1987 and 2007—that even a big advance in fuel economy is likely to be wiped out by ever more miles on the road. According to calculations by Steve Winkelman of the Center for Clean Air Policy, even if we achieve a major improvement in fuel economy (new vehicles averaging 55 mpg), cut the carbon content of fuel by 15 percent, and slow the growth rate for driving significantly, by 2030 greenhouse-gas emissions from transportation will be only slightly below 1990 levels. That’s nowhere near the 60-80 percent reductions we need by mid-century to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Perhaps electric cars will come online fast enough to close the gap, but we would do well to hedge our bets by also finding ways to make daily life not require quite so much driving. This is where local stores come in. Academics who study travel behavior say that the presence of neighborhood businesses is a major factor in how much we drive. Dozens of studies have found that people who live near small stores walk more for errands and, when they do drive, their trips are shorter. And that’s not all: a more surprising research finding is that small retailers influence how likely people are to take public transit to work. (emphasis added)

But is precisely this neighborhood retail that the Bloomberg administration has ignored; and there is an unconscionable silence about the need to preserve local community quality of life in the mayor's magnum opus planning document on sustainability-not surprising for someone who sees himself as a citizen of the world. But the studies done on the relationship between neighborhood shopping
and sustainability, demonstrate clearly that the exclusion of neighborhood preservation is a major omission in the attempt to make the city more sustainable.

"One study, led by Susan Handy, an expert on travel behavior at the University of California-Davis, examined eight neighborhoods and found that how often people walked for errands closely tracked both the number and proximity of stores. In the neighborhood with the most businesses, where homes were on average only one-fifth of a mile from the nearest store, 87 percent of residents regularly ran errands on foot, averaging 6.3 shopping trips on foot per month. In the neighborhood where the nearest store was an average of three-fifths of a mile away, only one-third of residents reported walking to a store in the previous month and averaged only 1.4 errands on foot per month. Another study by Handy found that residents of an Austin, Texas, neighborhood that has numerous small stores within a half-mile radius made 20 percent of their food shopping trips on foot and logged 42 percent fewer miles driving to supermarkets than residents of two Austin suburbs that lacked neighborhood stores."

Mitchell underscores this issue elsewhere-demonstrating that, if the mayor is serious about reducing the city's carbon footprint, he's going to have to dramatically change his current economic policy course: "While suburbanization accounts for much of the general growth in driving, it does not explain why the number of miles households drive for errands grew so much faster. As I've argued elsewhere, the probable culprit is the rise of big-box stores. Where once a gallon of milk, a prescription, or a piece of hardware was available at a neighborhood store only a few blocks or short drive away, many of those small, local businesses are now gone. They've been replaced by a much smaller number of giant superstores, each of which serves a much larger region. As a result, the average trip to a store is now about three miles longer than it was in 1990. That adds up to a lot of additional miles when multiplied across 113 million households that make an average of 470 trips to stores each year."

There couldn't be any clearer demonstration that the Bloomberg administration, at least when it comes to sustainability, has literally failed to walk the walk-funneling people into cars by large scale malling; along with an anti-small business tax and regulatory policy that make it more difficult to survive, let alone thrive, as a retailer in the neighborhood.

This is the context in which, and precisely why, the Willets Point development (along with scores of contiguous developments in that Queens area) is so egregious-as we have pointed out: "But the worst of all of these environmental threats is taking place in Queens where not only the Willets Point development (80,000 vehicle trips a day right along the Van Wyck), but 70 or more auto dependent projects are spewing forth carbon dioxide into already gridlocked streets and highways. The latest crackpot example of this environmental assault is the promotion and city council approval of Flushing Commons. Just where are all of the enviros in this challenge to clean air?"

Yes, where is the NYC League of Conservation Voters and the Environmental Defense Fund? Taking the mayor's money has consequences-and the most significant one is the loss of both autonomy and integrity. We have made this point before, but it bears repeating. While the NRDC and the Sierra Club remain independent of the mayor's generosity, these other two groups have been reduced to shills:

"Which brings us to the charade of the mayor's PLaNYC 2030. You can't be promoting all of this auto and truck dependent development while, at the same time, claiming the mantle of Kermit the Mayor. But while the NRDC and the Sierra Club are alive to the mayor's rampant hypocrisy, the NY League of Conservation Voters-along with the Environmental Defense Fund-suffers from a Benjamin-induced lockjaw when it comes to taking any stand that exposes the mayor's double talk.

As far as the NYLCV is concerned it is, as the Marxists say, no accident. In May of this year the mayor was the League's keynote speaker-a reward for the group's supine response to the assault of the Bloomberg economic development team on the city's air quality-and we could find no public comment from League director Marcia Bystryn about the alarming DOH air quality study this past summer.

But the League has been played by Bloomberg for awhile, and it would be interesting for the press to track the money trail from the mayor's sources. This is still a, "not for nothing," city-and there are enough things that the Bloombergistas have done for an independent environmental group to criticize. And, of course the League's and EDF's complicity in the Willets Point development is a blatant signal that their speech isn't as free as it should be."
It is now past time for the city council to bell this hypocritical cat-and place a moratorium on this type of anti-environment policy making. As we pointed out last year in a commentary on the idea that Willets Point, once redeveloped, could be transformed into a "green" neighborhood:

"Green neighborhood? This assertion would turn Kermit the Frog red faced. The Willets Point Plan, a 9 million square foot multi-use development proposed to be squeezed into 61 acres of land surrounding by the Whitestone, Van Wyck and Long Island Expressways and the Grand Central Parkway—freeways that are already at capacity for much of the time. It will attract 80,000 cars and trucks daily, 365 days a year. Motor vehicle travel associated with this monster development will produce about 70,000 tons per year of CO2 emissions.

So isn't it time to cry out about how naked our emperor really is-particularly on the issue of climate change and sustainability nonsense. Bloomberg wants to have it both ways. He wants to poster on the world stage as a climate change maven, while doing his damnedest to aggrandize his real estate friends with developments that will stymie all of his efforts to reduce CO2 emissions in NYC."

And, as long as we're talking about CO2 emissions, our traffic and environmental maven Brian Ketcham has estimated that in his nine year rule, Mike Bloomberg's real estate aggrandizement policy has added 1,725,864, 926 lbs of this pollutant into the NYC air!-no wonder the DOH has found that the city's air quality is so bad.

All of this brings us, in a rather circuitous but necessary manner, to the issue of the Wal-Mart expansion move into New York City. Big Wally, as the Small Business Congress' Steve Barrison calls is, is the quintessential big box swindler. It's addition to the expanded Gateway Estates mall will thoroughly decimate local shopping strips in a two mile radius of the proposed site-driving thousands of daily shoppers off of the neighborhood shopping strip and into their cars.

The NYC Council needs to recognize that the city's environment cannot sustain itself in the face of the Walmartization of NY-and it needs to devise a mechanism that will put the brakes on this clean air calamity. Put simply, when it comes to the environment, the legislature needs to erect a more stringent barrier to entry for box stores like Wal-Mart that erode neighborhood shopping and make the goals that the mayor has articulated in PlaNYC2030 quite simply illusory.