Thursday, June 9, 2011

Self-fulfilling prophecies at Willets Point

Adam Lisberg reports that lobbyist Richard Lipsky, disgraced by police allegations that he conspired with clients to bribe Senator Carl Kruger with at least $252,000, has quietly resumed at least some of his work. In particular, Lisberg reports that articles are being posted "in a style strongly reminiscent of Lipsky’s" to one of his biggest clients, Willets Point United.

Lisberg was able to recognize Lipsky's online style instantly, because Lipsky basically carries around a giant firehose of shit that he targets at any corporation or organization involved in city politics who hasn't hired him in the past six months or so, and at any government official who hasn't done him any favors recently. He has particular scorn for Our Billionaire Mayor, who can take it, and has recently targeted new State DOT Commissioner McDonald, who probably can too.

Lipsky seems to be incapable of recognizing a political ally who isn't currently paying him money, so he shoots off gratuitous broadsides at old enemies, like this one about bike lanes. Now it seems to me that if one of you're trying to stop a large highway project, you would naturally find common cause in advocates of non-motorized transportation, but Lipsky is so locked into his us-and-them mindset that it doesn't seem to occur to him that cyclists might support Bloomberg when he's doing something they like and oppose him when he's doing something they dislike. Lipsky's mercenary perspective also seems to prevent him from contemplating the possibility that someone might choose their alliances on principle.

Well, your Cap'n is a man of principle, and a strange bedfellow too. I think Bloomberg is a jerk, but I support him when he builds bike lanes and transit projects. I think Lipsky is a jerk, but I support him when he fights a highway project, which is what he did today.

So with that introduction, let me tell you about this Willets Point project. Here we have a functioning district of car repair and scrap metal shops that's located right between the stadium where the Mets play and downtown Flushing. It's right near LaGuardia airport, and lots of people pass it on the #7 train or on the highway. Somebody got the idea that the land is too well-situated to be left to a bunch of car mechanics, so they decided to declare it blighted, evict the owners through eminent domain, and build a mixed-use complex. Politicians left and right have signed on to the thing. The aerial rendering on the main page looks like your typical Corbusian yuck, but the street-level ones look more promising. There's a lot more detail in the DGEIS Executive Summary.

The problem is that all the people involved are convinced, as a former aide to the Mayor said to me, that "people in Queens, they love their cars," and everyone will drive to this new complex. Yes, it's right next to a large express subway station, but as Lipsky points out, even at its eastern terminus the #7 train is at capacity during rush hours, being fed by a network of buses. If people want to use transit, there's not really anywhere for them to go. So Lipsky and friends assume, just like the Economic Development Corporation, that they'll all drive. As a result, the city plans to construct between 6,000 and 8,250 new parking spaces, as well as new on-ramps to the Van Wyck Expressway. It's the on-ramps that Lipsky is challenging on behalf of his clients, hoping that the city will abandon the entire plan if they can't build them.

Honestly, it took me a while to see that there's a great big flaw in the logic that both Lipsky and the City are using to justify their conclusion that there will be 80,000 new car trips a day to and from this development. The highways, of course, are also at capacity. If anything, they're more clogged than the subways at rush hour. So it really seems to me that if you build transit at Willets Point you'll get people using transit, and if you build roads and parking garages you'll get people driving.

There are a number of things you could do to tie this development into the transit system better. You could build a spur off the #7 line, perhaps the beginning of the long-planned College Point Extension. You could build an AirTrain (elevated driverless metro system) from Jamaica to LaGuardia Airport. You could build at-grade physically separated light rail from the Mets train station east through Willets Point along Northern Boulevard. You could build a bus terminal connecting to the Mets train station, and redirect many of the lines that currently terminate in Flushing to the new terminal. You could increase the frequency and coverage on the Port Washington Branch of the Long Island Railroad so that it becomes more like a subway.

Yes, all those things are expensive, but think about it this way:

8,250 parking spaces at $28,000 a space = $231 million. Add the $55 million that the City wants to spend on the highway ramps, for a total of $286 million. That could build you 1.8 miles of AirTrain at $155 million a mile, or 4 miles of light rail at $75 million a mile.

My per-mile figures are probably off, so Alon Levy, o guru of per-mile construction costs, please enlighten if you have a chance.

Oh, and for those who are wondering why they should care: we're talking about 8,000 new households in the city, a tenth of one percent of the total. Do we want them identifying themselves and voting as drivers, or as transit riders?


Stephen Smith said...

Lemme guess – the property is currently zoned in such a way that car repair shops are the only thing allowed, and so they're declaring it blighted, taking it, and then handing it over to someone who will then be allowed to build more than car repair shops. I wonder if anyone ever advocated just rezoning the area and leaving it with its current owners...

- Stephen,

capt subway said...

First: WP Development is a bad idea. The place should remain a junk yard. But if it must happen:

With East Side Access abuilding your best bet for transit relief on the North Shore of Queens, the only way to appreciably increase capacity, is to add service to the Pt Wash branch of the LIRR. This really should be a no brainer. Even without the completed East Side Access service can be added to this branch right now, EXCEPT during the peak periods, when you are at or near feasible capacity in Penn Sta.

Indeed you could build a spur from the existing LIRR line, just east of the WP-Shea Station, over the ROW of the long defunct College Pt branch, with a new terminal stop adjacent to the WP development area.

Of course some arm twisting will be required to get the LIRR on board, as they have a long standing philosophy of NOT providing frequent, rapid transit type service in Queens.

City Native said...

As a longtime northwest Queens resident, the only way building 8,000+ new parking spaces would be acceptable was if they took an equal amount of space, in the southwestern corner the nearby Mets parking lot, and built a large school for the grossly overcrowded NYC School District 24.

Alon Levy said...

My comments on this:

1. The actual construction cost of the JFK AirTrain was $234 million per mile, and that was ten years ago. In today's money, it's about $300 million per mile. Light rail at $75 million per mile is reasonable, on the other hand.

2. At least when I ride the 7 - generally in the peak direction in the pm peak - it's not at capacity. Extra ridership at Willets Point is not going to cause problems.

3. Willets Point is within walking distance of the subway, so the important thing to do is to make the way more walkable. Narrow strips along Roosevelt and west of 126th should be zoned as commercial, possibly with residential overlay. Parking is not going to be a problem because it's amply provided behind those strips, and this can provide a pleasant street wall enabling Willets Point to be TOD.

4. On top of this, there are several existing developments in New York that need an intermediate-capacity subway connector more than Willets Point ever will. Coop City is the most pressing, but there are more.

5. Although the LIRR can and should provide good local service in Queens, and the city and the state should whip it into reforming, the effect on Willets Point could only be indirect. The subway is closer to Willets Point than the LIRR, and the walk to the LIRR passes through the subway station. (P.S. Penn Station has no capacity problems from the east - the East River Tunnels peak about 40 tph, including Amtrak, compared with a capacity of 25 per track pair as seen in the North River Tunnels.)