Often it is challenging to assign numerical values to quality, and decisions made without an idea of qualitative statistics can backfire. More so in the United States than anywhere else have massive developments risen, only to bring about a community’s disapproval. Perhaps the most tangible examples of controversial developments are in the region of New York City, one of the world’s hottest markets for economic development and a dreamscape for developers. With real estate at a prime and developers eager to build on any land available, negative impacts on the public can rise as a byproduct of not thinking ahead.

Consequence of the automotive age: heavy traffic at Rutgers' College Avenue Campus. While the car was seen as the pinnacle of freedom, the unforeseen byproduct of traffic jams has harmed suburban quality-of-life.

Consequence of the automotive age: heavy traffic at Rutgers’ College Avenue Campus. While the car was seen as the pinnacle of freedom, the unforeseen byproduct of traffic jams has harmed suburban quality-of-life.

I was recently disappointed to hear that “the pit” – the stretch of railway open to the sky between the Hudson River tunnels and New York Penn Station – was completely built over and is now only a memory. I always liked seeing light at the end of the tunnel and the picturesque surrounding skyline before coming into the dingy natural-light-lacking Penn Station. Now it’s as if once a train enters the tunnel, one will not see the light until they are frantically shuffling between human gridlock on the streets of West Midtown. Only time will tell how long this “dark age” will last until arriving trains are greeted by light again, whether at a station or in a pit. This quality-of-life statistic is difficult to measure numerically, but nonetheless disappoints passengers and train crews. In the United States more than anywhere else, there tends to be a pattern that railroads in big cities are built on top of, leaving trains in undesirable darkness without natural light.

Only a memory: "the pit" outside New Penn Station greeting passengers with natural light, since built atop of.

Only a memory: “the pit” outside New Penn Station greeting passengers with natural light, since built atop of. Photographer unknown.

Possibly the most dramatic example of this “tunnel vision” in the United States was the decision to build the Madison Square Garden sports arena on top of the platforms of New York Penn Station, which occurred at a time when rail companies were struggling and automobiles were the ultimate method of mobility. A gorgeous rail terminal open to the sky lost the war to a sports arena, as business for ridership struggled. But as I mentioned in my blog post “Grand Central Zeitgeist,” many people including myself find the demolition of the 1910 Penn Station to be one of the biggest mistakes in the history of New York City. This “biggest mistake” status is a classic unforeseen consequence of economic development.

The 1910-built New York Penn Station had meticulous architecture letting in swaths of natural light. This terminal was demolished in 1963 when cities and railroads struggled for business.

The 1910-built New York Penn Station had meticulous architecture letting in swaths of natural light. This terminal was demolished in 1963 when cities and railroads struggled for business. Courtesy of Pennsylvania Railroad.

Nowadays, times have changed to a more urban-centered society with less automotive dependence. In the fall term of 2013, I took a class at Rutgers University’s called “The Urban World,” which studied the 21st century great migration towards cities. This migration is a global phenomenon, driven by more of Generation Y (born circa 1982-2000) than previous generations choosing an urban lifestyle, as energy costs have risen and lessening impact on global climate change has become an issue. A study done by Rutgers Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy found that in only three years from 2010-2013, the exurban and rural outer counties in the region around New York have dwindled in population, while higher-density urban core counties have grown excessively. (Hughes, J. and Seneca, J. at Rutgers University, September 2014). With a population shift comes a shift in the jobs market, and regional train ridership has reflected this pattern. New Jersey Transit Market Analysis director Al Tillotson is quoted as saying: “The strength of New York employment is reflected in the growth at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Penn Station (New York). New York Penn Station travel is up 6 percent.” (L. Higgs at nj.com, October 2014). In another classic situation of unforeseen consequences, odds have turned against the once-booming sprawl suburbs, which many developers did not see coming.

Twelve exurban or suburban counties in the greater New York region lost population. On the contrary, the urban core counties gained population startlingly, with Brooklyn gaining over 82,000 residents. All in only three years.

Twelve exurban or suburban counties in the greater New York region lost population. On the contrary, the urban core counties gained population startlingly, with Brooklyn gaining over 82,000 residents. All in only three post-recession years. Courtesy of Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

There is no doubt that economic real-estate developers have achieved world-class measures over the years, from the cities to suburbs and beyond. More developments than not are enjoyed by their customers, while simultaneously fitting supply with demand in the economy. The worldwide urban great migration serves as a major opportunity for developers to build for the coming demand. But like Penn Station and suburban sprawl, unpredictable consequences are likely to backfire, especially in the United States. Time after time, a development that is right one day is wrong another, and may do more damage than benefit in the long run. Like a lesson of wisdom, quantitative gain can lead to qualitative damage, and has universally done so in countless contexts. This “life lesson” may just continue to unfold.

-Adam DiSarro

Appendix:

Ridership growth: http://www.nj.com/traffic/index.ssf/2014/10/nj_transit_ridership_up_by_nearly_1_million_people_last_year.html

Urban migration Bloustein study: http://policy.rutgers.edu/reports/rrr/RRR37sept14.pdf

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