Atlantic Cities

New York's Double Standard on NIMBYism

New York's Double Standard on NIMBYism
Mike Licht/Flickr

There's a textbook case of urban NIMBYism at its finest, which is also to say its worst, unfolding on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

In early 2011, the tenants association of the Yorkshire Towers, a residential building on East 86th Street, sued the MTA over the placement of an entrance for the emerging 2nd Avenue subway line. (Transit blogger Benjamin Kabak of 2nd Ave. Sagas has tracked the story from the very start.) Yorkshire residents argued that placing the entrance near the building's circular driveway was arbitrary and injurious to tenants [PDF]:

Roughly the equivalent of an army regiment, nearly 3,600 passengers are projected to flood the sidewalk in front of Yorkshire Towers during the AM Peak Hour alone for entry and exit.

If riders can sack York, they can invade lower England!

To be fair, some of the elder Yorkshire tenants seem genuinely worried over the situation, and station accommodations have been made for some residential buildings along the line. At the same time, the 86th Street entrance could not be placed at the corner for structural reasons, and the stairs direct riders away from the building's driveway (below). In any event, a federal judge threw out the complaint in late 2011 because it had not been filed within the statute of limitations for an impact report.

Flash forward to April 2013, and Yorkshire had sued the MTA once again. The new suit was "remarkably similar" to the earlier one, writes Kabak, in every respect except the sub-paragraph of law under debate. But the attorney for the tenants unwisely tried to pass the complaint off as a fresh one, perhaps in an effort to put it before a different judge, which angered the court enough to threaten the attorney with sanctions.

Even then Yorkshire wouldn't admit defeat. The building hired a consultant who developed a plan to move the entrances to a sidewalk "bump-out" on 2nd Avenue. But the MTA wasn't having it; as a spokesman told DNA Info earlier this month, the transit authority "has no interest in delaying a project that will benefit hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers in order to appease the parochial self-interests of a select few."

In a sense this is what city residents should want from a private objection to a public project: a fair and open consideration of the claim, followed by a firm ruling in the greater interest when that claim proves frivolous or otherwise unfit. One would even hope that similar efforts to displace bike-share stations would meet similar fates. But as the New York Post reported on Sunday, the city has moved at least 10 bike-share stations in recent weeks — in many cases because that's what some bigshot wanted:

“I’ve been disappointed to see Citi Bike stations moved in wealthier neighborhoods,” said attorney Jim Walden. “You would think [the city] would want to avoid even the appearance that struggling artists would be treated differently than highfalutin financiers.”

Now it's worth reminding ourselves that community relations and political power are complicated arenas of urban life, and that transit planners make plenty mistakes of their own. But if the Post report is true, then whatever progress New York has made against transit NIMBYism seems compromised by its simultaneous concessions to elitism. Benefiting thousands instead of appeasing a select few should be the aim of every city — not benefiting one select few instead of another.

Top image: Mike Licht/Flickr

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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