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How The Chief Architect Of 21st Century New York Envisions The Future Of Cities

Former N.Y.C. deputy mayor and current Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff talks to Co.Design about the challenges facing every city today.

After September 11, 2001, Lower Manhattan was a shell of its former self. New York City, deeply rattled by the attacks and mourning the thousands that died, was too. Just a few weeks later Michael Bloomberg was elected, and as his deputy mayor of economic development and rebuilding he appointed the investment banker Dan Doctoroff. His task? Repairing a city some thought would never again be a center of business or a desirable place to live.

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[Image: courtesy PublicAffairs]
Sixteen years later, New York is a changed city. Under Doctoroff’s leadership, the landscape of New York from Lower Manhattan to downtown Brooklyn has radically changed. During his six years in office, Doctoroff laid the groundwork for the High Line, now one of New York’s most popular tourist attractions, and Hudson Yards, an entire new neighborhood that will bring the city billions in tax revenue over the next decades. At the same time, the High Line is an example of how public space can usher in rapid and painful gentrification, and clever gerrymandering of foreign investor visa requirements means that often foreign developers have poured billions into the development of Hudson Yards–not to areas of the city that need it.

Doctoroff’s new book, Greater Than Ever: New York’s Big Comeback, documents every step of these now controversial development decisions, as well as the city’s 2012 Olympic bid and initiatives on economic recovery and affordable housing. But as he tells Co.Design, the problems facing cities now are far greater than they were 16 years ago, from the housing shortage to climate change.

Queens waterfront, after (2017). [Photo: Joe Woolhead]

Housing, The Universal Problem

One of Doctoroff’s major achievements was rezoning large chunks of the city to allow for new development, from the industrial warehouses of Long Island City to the old military barracks of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Though that process created the opportunity to build more affordable housing, there is still not enough–and lower income New Yorkers continue to be pushed farther into the outer boroughs, putting greater strain on an already stressed transportation system that doesn’t extend far enough to meet their needs.

Doctoroff grappled with the challenges of building affordable housing himself; subsidizing housing and encouraging development didn’t always go hand in hand. For instance, he had to decide whether to spend $900 million to achieve affordability in a set of rent-controlled buildings in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, or allow the buildings to be sold to the highest bidder, who would surely end the affordable rent protections. Ultimately, instead of continuing to subsidize the apartments, Doctoroff decided to spend that money on housing developments in Long Island City, across the river, and the Stuy Town buildings were sold off.

Reflecting upon the decision in the book, Doctoroff admits he doesn’t know if it was the right call. In our conversation, he frames it as a moral question. “If you can preserve a couple thousand units in Manhattan versus producing multiple times that across the river in Queens, what’s the right or moral thing to do?” he says. He went with the latter.

That’s just in New York. While Doctoroff says that it’s impossible to generalize when it comes to cities, he is willing to take a stand on the biggest challenge to come across the board: housing. “Housing in every place is a problem,” he says. “Doing it in a way that is affordable but also helps to build community in a way that reduces transportation problems, I think, lies at the core of the problem that every city has to grapple with in one way or another.”

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Hudson Yards 1, after. [Photo: Related Companies]

Climate Change, The Ticking Time Bomb

Many cities are already thinking seriously about climate change, but Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have brought the risks into even clearer focus.

Superstorm Sandy was catastrophic for the city (and the subway is still undergoing repair from the storm). It was a catalyst for change in New York City. But Doctoroff points to some of the preparations the city had made prior to the storm as a model for other cities. For instance, at least the development Arverne by the Sea in the Rockaways survived because of new building code that required stormwater management systems, which had been instituted before it was constructed.

It’s crucial that these kinds of resilience standards be implemented faster, and that will only be possible if the public believes they’re necessary. “Consensus is still building,” Doctoroff says. “With every Harvey, with every Irma, even though it’s hard to pin this completely on climate change, there’s some evidence, some hypothesis. The focus is going to intensify on the need to address it.”

Doctoroff thinks drastic measures like a carbon tax are inevitable as a response to climate change. While the Bloomberg administration advocated for a carbon tax in 2007 to no avail, it’s on the table again now–with Republican support, no less. Of course, it may be too little too late. “Sometimes, you need to get to the point of crisis before people take bold action,” Doctoroff says. “To be honest, I think the essence of leadership is that you don’t have to wait until a crisis.”

Williamsburg, after. [Photo: Joe Woolhead, 2017]

The Smart City, A Controversial Vision

Doctoroff’s career has shifted alongside the city itself. Today, he’s the CEO of Sidewalk Labs, a Google company focused on developing urban technology.

As cities get smarter and technology gets more embedded in public space, questions about data and privacy will be some of the most vital to answer in the coming years. Doctoroff is grappling with these questions directly at Sidewalk Labs. Take one big project the company played a role in, the LinkNYC public Wi-Fi stations (now infamous for how many people used them to watch porn). Doctoroff says he hammered out a privacy policy in conjunction with the city, airing on the side of being respectful of people’s privacy. While the kiosks’ privacy policy now states that no personally identifiable information is collected, it had to be strengthened after the New York Civil Liberties Union raised concerns about the data the kiosks were collecting. Many still are worried about what you’re giving up when you log on–and the question over who owns the data you provide when you use public Wi-Fi is one that still needs to be answered.

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Appropriately, Sidewalk Labs’ own office is now located in Hudson Yards, which calls itself the “first quantified community in the United States.” Upon completion, the neighborhood will have data measuring the number of pedestrians, traffic flow, air quality, energy use, weather data, and the activity level among residents and workers in the neighborhood. It’s like a mini smart city within New York City, and it’s evidence of the radical evolution of urban technology.

Doctoroff sees the smart city as a revolution that’s on its way, and Sidewalk Labs is likely play a role in shaping it. So while he’s no longer playing such a direct role in the city’s economic development in the public sector, his position with such a powerful private company means he’s still poised to have enormous influence over systems that will impact the city–and its populace.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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