At times, New York City has trailblazed urban solutions of astonishing foresight; at other times, it has had to be dragged to confronting urban exigencies by imminent disaster; in either case, New York has been in a constant state of innovation and remaking over the last century, confirmed a panel at the ULI Fall Meeting.

After its growth to its current size by 1898, New York built an astonishing infrastructure of highways, parks, bridges, tunnels, subways, public sewerage and water systems, airports, and a litany of other urban accomplishments.

Alexander Garvin, president and chief executive officer of AGA Public Realm Strategists and former deputy commissioner of housing at the New York Planning Commission, pointed to one early urban accomplishment—Eastern Parkway, a street that provides a strong sense of place, a “19th-century street that doesn’t exist only for the movement of vehicles or the delivery of goods or people.” He noted the singular accomplishment of the city’s park system, in its sheer size and accessibility, that “within a five-minute walk there is a park for most New Yorkers.”

Kenneth T. Jackson, Jacques Barzun professor of history and social sciences at Columbia University, said, “We built the best public transit system in the world before 1940—in 1940 there was no second place.” The New York area boasts three airports, said Jackson, with a combined traffic volume that would dwarf that of any other American airport. This early burst of glory did not last, however, as urban decline set in during the late 1950s, and the city began losing manufacturing jobs, corporate headquarters, urban vitality, and population. “In the 1970s, Brooklyn and the Bronx each lost more people than Detroit.”

Sometimes haltingly, but frequently with great efficacy, as Garvin noted, “we invested in new ways of management” in a variety of realms, delivering subway systems, park systems, crime policy, and a variety of other public concerns back to vitality. This in itself—and especially as it touched upon private enterprise—was rarely an entirely neat process.

John E. Zuccotti, cochairman of Brookfield Office Properties and former chairman of the New York City Planning Commission, spoke to the tangled history of public/private development in New York, through which the physical landscape of New York has so frequently changed. He noted recalling actual trains on the High Line, actual meatpacking in the meatpacking district, and an age in which the Hudson waterfront was given over to industrial pursuits. The evolution from this Hudson of yesteryear to that of today is a tale of “bitter political struggle” and “bitter financial struggle.” Repeatedly, government plans would evolve and morph. Rockefeller plans for Battery Park City first tangled with Lindsay administration plans for an East River development, Manhattan Landing. Once constructed, Battery Park City waited at length for a private developer.

Westway was an ambitious plan to transform much of the Hudson waterfront, according to Zuccotti, “a plan that caused a furor of political opposition from Washington to the side streets around the project.” Its failure left a planning gap, but one in which Hudson development—spurred by a variety of private actors—eventually accelerated along the length of the corridor. “Westway itself failed, and yet piecemeal we have been doing many of the things that Westway tried to do,” said Zucotti. The role of government was repeatedly vital, but subsequent actions by private developers often salvaged staggered efforts. Recent New York history has witnessed endless cycles of “opportunistic reaction by private developers to sensible, practical economic solutions given the taste of government direction.”

In the last half-century, as Jackson observed, “Manhattan in the 1940s is the wedding cake, everything is in the central spine, and then it goes off to the edges,” where it contained tenement housing or industry. “Now it’s the edges where the action is.” This has produced a shift in the city’s practical needs. As he observed, “We need more subway lines, more tunnels.”

There are again many practical requirements of existing infrastructure. As Garvin commented, “We have the best water system in the world, but the pipes are 100 years old. The way we find out they aren’t working is that the streets collapse.” New York roads, similarly, “are the worst in Christendom.” The question of affordability remains a pressing question, on a scale broader than ever. As Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for the New York Times, pointed out, it is now a question of “not just the poor and NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority residents], it’s also the middle class that feels constrained.” This, unlike an empty development parcel, is not a situation where “if government is broken, somehow private interest would make up.”

Panelists lamented the decline of national attention to housing policy in the 1940s and 1950s, and the need for continued efforts to ensure housing affordability. A considerable problem, Garvin noted, is simply anemic construction levels compared with those of other locations, noting that over the last decade, “Houston built enough housing to house all of the people who migrated there—a quarter of a million—and the price of housing did not go up.” He also noted that housing affordability concerns might best be addressed in places like Queens that remain, by and large, affordable to the middle classes.