When people want to knock New York — first of all you shouldn't be doing it, because you have a massive population there — but when you want to knock New York, you've got to go through me. New York is an amazing place with amazing people. — Donald Trump
On the surface, it seems like a disconnect: Donald Trump, a billionaire real estate mogul who literally lives the penthouse life at the center of liberal-leaning Manhattan, was pushed into the White House in large part by voting blocs that complain about the urban elite. Others can break down how identity politics played into this election. What seems more disconcerting, especially for those living in American cities, is that while Trump brandishes the brand and the business acumen he gained in New York City as a calling card, his policy proposals would do serious damage to the place that arguably made him.
Is this knee-jerk liberal paranoia? While someone who simply loves cities and living downtown has much less at stake with Tuesday’s election than, say, immigrants, people of color, women, or members of the LGBT community, Trump’s policies, and past practices, suggest urban dwellers have plenty to worry about as well. The president-elect and his party have a much different view of cities and urban transportation than his predecessor, and may enact concrete changes that would make a real difference in how they operate and function.
One of the biggest may be how we move (or don’t move) around our cities. The Republican platform calls for a radical shift in how transportation is funded, and consequently, how Americans commute to work. All federal funding for transit, walking, and biking programs would be slashed, since the Highway Trust Fund, a multi-billion dollar source of support for multiple forms of transportation, would be altered to focus solely on automobiles and road-building. The federal government currently plans to give $6.4 billion to New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority for capital programs; can you imagine the long-term damage that would be done to the subway system if that money disappeared? Any enactment of this agenda would freeze or push back plans for more pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets, and create gridlock on city roads.
Considering Trump’s real estate background, it should be no surprise that he also wants to free builders and developers from burdensome regulations. Rules, regulations, and executive orders such as Obama’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulations threaten to "socially engineer every community in the country," according to the Republican platform. Trump would likely get rid of these impediments and allow real estate developers a much freer hand, favoring a climate that would support his own extensive business interests.
According to The Wall Street Journal, this pro-development shift might include loosening rules around write-offs for developers such as himself, allowing them to deduct interest and immediately expense building and equipment costs. That would mean loss of city tax revenue, and as one tax expert put it, “would turn the tax code into a direct spending program for...debt-financed business investment.” Creating catalysts for investment are good, but creating a looser environment may lead to less social benefit from urban development (Trump’s past role as a landlord suggests he’s very amenable to ownership’s side of the story).
Local zoning laws obviously still have plenty of sway. But, taken together, this new regulatory environment may lead to a more unfocused style of development around the city. It begs the question: Do developers owe anything to the cities in which they’re working?
That may be a matter of philosophy, but one thing is clear: Donald Trump owes the city of New York, and it goes a lot further than some nostalgic connection to the place where he built his business empire. There’s also plenty of money involved. Trump’s first blockbuster project, the Grand Hyatt on 42nd Street, was built in 1980 with an “extraordinary” 40-year tax break, according to a New York Times report, one that has cost the city $360 million to date (he still has four years). The same story says he’s amassed at least $885 million in tax breaks from the city to date, and was first in line for benefits and write-offs.
He’s also happy to let the city help him out when he needs it, especially when it comes to using eminent domain to push out property owners in the way of his developments. According to law professor Ilya Somin, Trump “argued that it was ‘good’ to give government the power to forcibly displace homeowners and small businesses and transfer their property to influential developers on the theory that doing so might promote ‘economic development.’”
Perhaps all this points to Trump having more of a transactional love of the urban landscape, seeing it not as much a vital, vibrant place, but a space to make deals, create flashy buildings, and amass wealth, a chess board composed of high-rises and hotels, poised to move onto an empty square.
Does he appreciate the beauty of cities, or the profit potential? One of his original sins, according to many architecture critics and New Yorkers, was his stance on architectural preservation, and the value of preserving some of the city’s rich heritage. The construction of Trump Tower in 1980 came at the cost of the fabulous Bonwit Teller building, an Art Deco masterpiece built in 1929, and a pair of massive friezes that Trump had demolished (preserving them would have delayed work by two weeks).
These are just a small part of Trump’s policy agenda. While he has proposed a sweeping urban renewal program, including tax holidays and a micro-loan program, aimed and jump-starting development, it’s arguable that his actions on other issues—policing, immigration, and climate change, for instance—might also do serious damage to the social and cultural fabric of cities. But taken as a case study, Trump’s past record and proclamations suggest this man of the people may be too removed to realize the impact his policies would have on the streets of his hometown.