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Max Touhey

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The trends that defined New York City in the 2010s

Supertalls on the skyline, parks along the waterfront, the threat of sea level rise, and more major trends of the past 10 years

The past decade was one of major changes in New York City. New buildings dramatically altered the skyline; entire neighborhoods rose where little existed before; the ways people got around shifted, for better and for worse; and two different mayors implemented policies aimed at combating long-simmering problems (the lack of affordable housing, homelessness, the climate crisis), with varying degrees of success.

It’s hard to say right now what the next 10 years will look like. Who could have predicted in 2010 that, for instance, bike-sharing would be a thing—and that it would help change the way we talk about street safety? In the next decade, policies like congestion pricing will go into effect; and the city will have to reckon even more urgently with the threat of climate change.

Even if the next decade bears little resemblance to this one, a look back at the last 10 years can inform policies around housing, transit, the city’s streets, and more as we move into the 2020s.

Hudson Yards.
Max Touhey

Major megaprojects reshaped the city

In parts of the city that weren’t remotely built up in 2009—the far west side of Manhattan, for instance, or waterfront stretches of Long Island City and Williamsburg—entire neighborhoods had risen by 2019, as megaprojects that had been in the works for years (sometimes decades!) finally came to fruition. The first phase of Hudson Yards, which opened in 2019, was the biggest in terms of cost ($25 billion) and chatter surrounding the project (not all of it good), but it was hardly the only neighborhood impacted by large-scale private development.

On the Lower East Side, Essex Crossing rose from the ashes of the once-doomed Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, transforming the area next to the Williamsburg Bridge with housing, retail, and office space. The former Domino sugar refinery in Williamsburg is now surrounded by residential buildings, and a mile north, a cluster of new towers is changing the once-sleepy industrial enclave of Greenpoint. In Long Island City, the Hunter’s Point South complex has added new apartments and a spectacular new park to the East River waterfront. And so on and so on.

Expect more large-scale transformations in the next decade, as the city works to build megaprojects in areas like the South Bronx, Sunnyside Yard, and Willets Point.

Billionaires’ Row.
Max Touhey

The rise of supertalls

At the start of 2010, there were just four supertall buildings (defined as ones standing 984 feet or taller) completed in New York City, two of which—the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building—had cemented their places as architectural icons decades prior. Fast forward to the end of 2019, and that number has risen to just about a dozen, and includes the glassy towers of the World Trade Center and Hudson Yards, as well as the oft-empty aeries of Billionaires’ Row. And even more are due to be completed within the next decade, leading a large-scale remaking of the Manhattan skyline. (And Brooklyn’s, too—the borough’s first supertall is slowly on the rise.)

These towers aren’t exactly popular; over the past few years, concerned New Yorkers and elected officials have tried to stop their rise, whether through public outcry over the so-called “accidental skyline” along Central Park South, or through legislation. Market forces, such as the glut of luxury apartments currently for sale, may also curb the number of extremely tall buildings that rise in the future; as one developer told The Real Deal in 2018, “[i]t’s becoming more and more difficult to go up that high.” Still, there are at least a dozen additional supertalls under construction or in the development phase, which will continue to transform the skyline in the decade to come.

Governors Island.
Max Touhey

Parks are transformed

The large-scale remaking of New York City’s green spaces began under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and continued under his successor, leading to a dramatic shift in thinking around what a city park can and should be.

The transformation was set in motion in 2009 when the first section of the High Line debuted, turning a dilapidated section of railway into a linear park; its immediate popularity proved that a park didn’t need to be traditional—with expansive lawns, rolling hills, or tons of trees—to resonate with New Yorkers. Other parks that have opened in the years since haven’t exactly copied the High Line’s singular design, but its reuse of urban infrastructure was influential. (Think of the artifacts from the Domino Sugar Refinery that have been incorporated into Domino Park, or the repurposed piers of Brooklyn Bridge Park.) And while the High Line’s creative team (James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro) didn’t invent the idea of adaptive reuse, the park popularized the concept and pushed landscape architects to approach open space in a new way.

If the High Line reinvented the urban park, Governors Island showed what’s possible outside of the confines of Manhattan’s street grid. Over the past 10 years, the former military base in New York Harbor has been transformed into a verdant destination, filled with rolling hills (manmade, and a feat of engineering), a grove of relaxing hammocks, and some of the best city views you’ll find in the five boroughs. Even as more people flock to the island in peak summer months, it’s remained a relatively serene, car-free oasis—one that we hope will remain that way as more development comes to the island.

Another huge shift occurred along the city’s coast, as new waterfront parks—Brooklyn Bridge Park, Hunter’s Point South Park, sections of Hudson River Park, Domino Park, and so on—transformed the shoreline and gave New Yorkers more access than ever before to the city’s various waterways.

Breezy Point, Queens, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Nathan Kensinger

Climate change became a deadly reality

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York on October 29, 2012, it inundated coastal communities with floodwaters, wiped out homes, killed 43 people, and even shut down the subway. It also made New Yorkers acutely aware of how vulnerable the city is to the effects of climate change.

In the years since, the warnings from scientists about the inevitable effects of climate change on cities like New York have only grown more dire. Sea levels will continue to rise, and by 2100, some waterfront neighborhoods—commerce hubs like the Financial District, or residential areas like the Lower East Side—could be wiped off the map entirely. And this year, the City Council declared a climate emergency, an acknowledgement (albeit largely symbolic) of the urgent need for more action to protect the city from rising tides.

After Sandy, two successive mayors put forth policies that aimed to safeguard the city against the looming climate crisis: Bloomberg’s administration tweaked its 2007 PlaNYC initiative to include 250 recommendations for increasing resiliency along the city’s coastline, many of which were enacted before he left office. And once de Blasio took office, his administration unveiled several additional climate-focused policies, including the recent Climate Mobilization Act, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030. The most ambitious is a $10 billion proposal to extend the lower Manhattan shoreline by several blocks, creating a network of flood barriers and other protections along the waterfront.

But will all of this be enough to safeguard New York City if the worst-case scenario climate change predictions come to pass? That’s the $10 billion question.

Incident On NYC’s Subway Snarls Morning Commute Into Manhattan
The NYC subway in 2018.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Transit took one step forward, two steps back

It was a big decade for transit developments in New York City, with long-planned projects—some decades in the making—coming to fruition. Nearly a century after it was proposed, the first section of the Second Avenue Subway finally welcomed riders. The 7 line extension created a new subway stop at Hudson Yards. The 14th Street busway, the city’s first transit-truck priority experiment on a major thoroughfare, launched. Every subway station is now equipped with countdown clocks and cell service. Select Bus Service rolled out along major thoroughfares (including 34th Street, 14th Street, and Fordham Road). The MTA took the first steps toward replacing the MetroCard with tap-to-pay technology. And New York state passed congestion pricing, which could help ease the city’s nightmarish traffic problem and provide funding for other transit projects.

But those transit wins were often overshadowed by bad news about the subway or the bus system. Years of disinvestment and lax maintenance finally caught up with the MTA in 2017, when the subway system experienced a seemingly never-ending series of delays and disruptive incidents (including a train derailment in June that injured 34 people). That so-called “summer of hell” led Gov. Andrew Cuomo to declare a state of emergency for the subway, and while it’s since recovered (slightly, and slowly), a long-term plan to modernize the system is still decades away from being fully realized.

Meanwhile, buses are bleeding riders: According to TransitCenter, bus ridership dropped by more than 20 percent between 2002 and 2017. The city and MTA have pledged to get buses moving faster, but there’s still much to do in order to get them running efficiently. Street redesigns like the 14th Street busway are a good start; City Council speaker Corey Johnson’s streets master plan will hopefully push improvements further in the next decade.

Buildings in lower Manhattan.
Max Touhey

The affordable housing crisis deepened

It’s impossible to pinpoint just one thing that led to the worsening affordable housing crisis of the past decade. You can blame rising rents, or the chronically low vacancy rate, or the fact that New York’s housing supply isn’t keeping up with the demand for new apartments, or long-entrenched policies that made it easy for landlords to exploit their tenants.

But the fact remains that it’s gotten harder for New Yorkers to find an apartment they can afford. Even though New York City has built an unprecedented number of affordable apartments since Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected, questions of who can actually afford them linger. The city has lost thousands of rent-regulated apartments due to laws that make it easier for landlords to take them out of regulation, while the cost of living has far outpaced residents’ incomes.

It remains to be seen what the next 10 years will hold for the city’s affordable housing stock, but this year, the state legislature took a major step toward protecting tenants who benefit from rent regulation across the state. The new rent laws, which went into effect this summer, strengthen laws that are already on the books, but also extend them to even more rent-burdened tenants across the state—and codify them permanently, rather than having the laws sunset every few years. It’s a start.

Citi Bike racks near Grand Central Terminal.
Max Touhey

Rethinking how New York City’s streets are used

The decade kicked off with the start of construction on the new Times Square pedestrian plaza, designed by Snøhetta with the goal of improving the pedestrian experience in one of the most traffic-choked sections of the city. The designers removed several lanes of traffic and added in new seating and, most importantly, wider spaces for pedestrians to easily move through. While it hasn’t made Times Square any less tourist-clogged, it has improved the experience of moving through the area—and helped kickstart a dialogue about what New York City’s streets can, and should, be used for.

Bikes also became a major part of that conversation in the 2010s, particularly after the launch of Citi Bike in 2013. For all of the naysaying and doomsday-predicting that preceded its launch, it has been one of the biggest, if not the biggest transportation success stories of the decade. In the past six years, the program has proven incredibly popular, with more than 60 million total rides taken since its inception. (It also sees more trips per day than Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pet ferry project.) While the system has encountered problems along the way—including the first fatality on one of its bikes in 2017—it’s become an essential part of the urban fabric.

The number of bike lanes has also grown exponentially in the past decade. Despite an initial backlash to projects like the Prospect Park West protected lane, or the path along Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, the city has moved forward with installing a network of bike lanes that’s now more than 1,000 miles strong.

Even as the number of cyclists and bike lanes has grown, there have been backslides; 2019 has been one of New York’s deadliest year for cyclists, leading to questions of whether de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative—enacted with the goal of eradicating cyclist and pedestrian deaths altogether—is working. The rise of ride-hailing apps is just one factor that’s led to ever-worsening congestion on city streets, a problem that congestion pricing will hopefully ameliorate in the next decade. But the fact that we’re having these conversations is a radical and welcome shift from the so-called “bike wars” of the start of the decade.

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