Regional Plan Association chief on 100 years of shaping NY’s urban planning

Tom Wright details the RPA’s work over the years as it unveils a new exhibit of its regional plans at Grand Central Terminal.

Tom Wright, president and CEO of the Regional Plan Association

Tom Wright, president and CEO of the Regional Plan Association Courtesy of Regional Plan Association

For the past 100 years, the Regional Plan Association has played an extremely significant role in shaping the urban planning for the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region. Per its website, the RPA is an independent non-profit civic organization that develops and promotes ideas to improve the economic health, environmental resilience and quality of life of the New York Metropolitan area. In fact, the RPA began its 100 year campaign by being one of the first to consider the tri-state area as an interconnected metropolitan area. In the span of those 100 years, the RPA released four seminal reports known as “Regional Plans” that provided decision-makers and power brokers with the long term guidance to develop and grow the tri-state area as we know it. The plans have spawned legendary projects such as the construction of the George Washington Bridge and the revitalization of downtown Brooklyn, Stamford, and Newark. 

Now, a century after the release of the first regional plan, City & State sat down with RPA’s President and CEO Tom Wright, to discuss the celebration of the organization’s centennial, which includes a special exhibition at Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal, from Oct. 7 to 24.     

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Well it's great to meet you. And I think we have some exciting things to talk about with the centennial. So just to start with a basic primer. Can you talk about the RPA’s mission, and how it came about 100 years ago?

Sure, I'm happy to. So in the spring of 1922, a group of civic business and political leaders came together to lead off this effort to create a regional plan for the New York metropolitan region. The driving force behind it was this man, Charles Dyer Norton, who had actually been the instigator of the famous Chicago plan, known as the Burnham Plan for Chicago in 1909. He had been a member of the commercial club, and had led that effort and gotten it off the ground. I have his copy of the Chicago Plan here in my office. When he moved to New York to run a bank, he realized that greater New York City also needed this kind of planning effort, but on an even larger scale, because of the commuter rail system and the connected communities of southwestern Connecticut, Long Island, northern New Jersey and the Hudson Valley were all part of this great metropolis. So they launched this effort really to try and look to do an empirical study about the trends, the conditions, that were shaping the future of this city and region. What technology was going to be needed with air travel and limited access highways and more automobiles. What kinds of industries were expected to emerge. Where people were going to live. How they were going to have access to open space and clean air and water. So it was a very, very ambitious undertaking, really. It was the first and in many ways is still considered the greatest and most ambitious regional plan ever undertaken. So they launched the effort in 1922. Seven years later, in 1929, they released that first plan. Very tragically, Mr. Norton did not survive to see the plan because he had passed away, nor the incorporated Regional Plan Association as a private nonprofit group to advocate for the implementation of the plan. 

To this day, we still kind of see our role as thinking about issues that shape the entire metropolitan region. We work across the political boundaries. We work across the silos of transportation and land use and environmental consideration. When I started doing this about 30 years ago, first as an intern at RPA while I was a graduate student at Columbia. regional planning was a kind of niche field that didn't have much emphasis behind it or, frankly, much agency. Over the last generation, we've seen more and more issues like climate change, and economic development and housing patterns really move in the direction that people understand that you have to have a regional perspective to really change what you're trying to change and to be effective. So at RPA we still create, once every generation, a regional plan. We've done four of them now in the last 100 years. We try to think not just in three, four or five year cycles, but in 10, 15, 20, 25 year cycles. What are the long term investments that are going to need to be made? What are the policies? We really try and shape things, get out ahead of the curve, and look around.

You said four plans since the original? 

Yes, well, four total. So in 1929, in the late 60s and early 70s, we released a series of reports that collectively were the second regional plan, although interestingly, at that time RPA was very caught up in the idea of advocacy planning and kind of “who are we to tell people what they should do.” So actually there was only a draft for discussion that summarized all the reports released and no final document. In 1996, we produced our third regional plan called the “Region at Risk,” which among other things, argued for building the Second Avenue subway, East Side Ave. access, a new tunnel under the Hudson River, and charging cars to drive into Manhattan to pay for the whole thing. And in 2017, we released our fourth regional plan, which really updated a lot of those recommendations. There are certain kinds of ideas running through all of the plans. First of all, I would say that the regional plans, they're studied by graduate students. Each of them is, in many ways, the kind of exemplar paradigm of what regional metropolitan planning means at the time that they came out. They kind of both reflect and shape that understanding, what society, what planners think a regional plan should mean. Certain ideas have carried throughout all of them. But there have also been some fairly large reversals. 

In 1929, the real concern was about creating more room for growth and allowing the region to grow further out because of the overcrowded conditions in Manhattan on the Lower East Side. By the late 1960s, we'd seen the seeds of that succeed devastatingly. In fact, we were then talking about how do we try and recenter growth in, if not New York City, what we call the constellation of centers, in what we would now call transit oriented development. So there have been some ideas that have changed over time. For 80 of our 100 years, I'd say our environmental work was mostly focused on trying to protect large landscapes: farmlands, watersheds, access to the water's edge to the shoreline and things. For the last 20 years, of course, we've shifted to really be focused on resiliency, climate change, renewable energy sources and things like that, too, without giving up our focus on landscape preservation.

How do you anticipate COVID-19 will impact your research as you work on the next regional plan? How do you factor in the aftermath of a global pandemic? 

That's a really good question. There are precedents for this, of course. In 1929, they released the plan in the spring, and then a couple months later, the stock market crashed and that wasn't foreseen at the time. In fact, that plan became, in many ways, the blueprint for federal funding. It didn't hurt that our chairman at the time was a guy named Frederick Delano, whose nephew occupied the White House. We tried to plan for a number of different outcomes in 2017, especially with climate change, but also growth rates. Would we be talking about continuing migration and population growth? Or a change in that, say prompted by changes in federal policy. But we did not forecast a global pandemic and what would happen with that, and we have certainly had to adjust our estimates and our projections based on that. We actually put out a report just a couple of months ago, looking at four different scenarios with high and low growth and high and low work-from-home futures. While getting through the pandemic has been extraordinarily challenging, in the mid- to long-term, a lot of what it's done is that it accelerated certain trends: ecommerce, remote work, other things like that. We expected those to proceed more slowly, but we kind of saw that we were moving in that direction. In other cases, I would say it simply hit a pause on some trends, but it's not going to change ultimately where we end up. In particular, transit, which is one of our bread and butter issues – thinking about the capacity, overall, of our transportation infrastructure and how people get around and what they do and what the conditions are like, we were projecting out over 25-plus-years what kind of needs we would need in the subway system and the bus system and the commuter rail system. We then were looking at the delivery of projects, and you could only conclude that looking at those two things back five years ago that we were going to fail miserably to provide the kind of capacity that the region was going to need to continue on the growth trajectory that it was on.

Our feeling now is that with COVID-19, we saw first almost a flatlining of transit ridership. But now we're somewhere between 60 and 70% pre-COVID ridership levels. I still think that it doesn't actually change the long-term. It just gives us more of an opportunity to catch up with demand that we already had. The truth is the Gateway project should have been built 10 years ago. And we've already seen a drag on the region's economy by the inability to travel effortlessly across the Hudson River. So we still need to build the Gateway project. We're still going to need the Inter Borough Express, which Gov. Hocul and the MTA are championing. It’s a new line in Brooklyn and Queens. We're still going to see that kind of growth. The one other thing I'll say, in addition to climate change and the after-effects of COVID that has really gotten measurably worse since we released that plan five years ago, is the whole housing issue and the housing crisis. We did forecast this, but we had hoped that we'd be further along in remedies on it. If we continue to fail to deliver enough and the right kinds of housing that this region needs, primarily smaller apartments closer to transit locations and other things. If we don't change our policies and allow that kind of housing production, we are simply going to be squeezing ourselves in our own economy, creating a greater imbalance between demand and supply, greater prices, and really kind of stifling prosperity in the future.

I am glad you brought all that up. I was gonna ask about the housing crisis. Is the recent influx of migrants, asylum seekers, significant enough to alter the growth trends that you try to forecast?

Look, being open to immigration has been one of the greatest, most successful policies in the New York metropolitan region over the last generation or two. In particular, in the 1970s, the deindustrialization and population loss would have been much, much worse if for the fact that for every two people that left there was one person coming in from somewhere else in the world. That's why New York didn't follow the path of Detroit. This has always been an important part of our economic success as being an open society. My sense is that the trends we're looking at right now are not enough to really move the needle noticeably in the short term. The question is whether or not in the long term – and this goes back more to national policy and federal policy than local –  but will we be a nation that still opens our arms to people and allows them to come in? And if we are, then we can expect that New York and the tri-state region will be a destination for many of them and we will continue to benefit from that kind of growth. Again, that comes back to the housing issue and making sure that we have room for them to live. But there's no question that our economy has room for them to take jobs and to become productive members of our society.

Do you have policy recommendations for the housing crisis that you can share?

Planners and policymakers have been coming together on these issues for the last couple of years. I think at last count there were 782 cities and towns in the tri state metropolitan region that we are looking at at RPA. One of them is New York City, and 781 are not. And housing policy, much of which comes down to land use and zoning is often done at the local level. So that's 781 small rural villages up to cities like Jersey City or Bridgeport, Connecticut, that are making their individual choices without thinking of the larger collective good. And that's not a good recipe for dealing with something like the housing crunch that we're seeing. So what we're talking about is really trying to get the state more actively involved in creating both the incentives and frankly, zoning. Zoning is a right that the towns are given by the states. New Jersey has been historically further ahead of New York and Connecticut with the Mount Laurel decision and builder's remedy. New Jersey has a history of really saying to towns and cities as you go about doing your zoning and planning, you cannot try to exclude poor people or keep all housing out entirely, and that's had a success rate that's pretty good. We think that there's further to go in New Jersey, and that New York and Connecticut need to be following up on that. We've kind of partnered with a local organization called Desegregate CT, that's been working at the grassroots in Connecticut to educate community based groups about the problems in the state, Much of this goes back to zoning codes that were written in the 1930s and 40s, that, frankly, are racist. They had racial undertones to them about excluding certain kinds of people, and they all promote single family housing. What we're looking at are strategies like making accessory dwelling units, as of right, much easier to do, saying that if you have a large house in the suburbs and it's larger than you really need, then make it easier to create that granny flat above your garage or to subdivide the house or to add a rental unit to it. Sometimes it requires construction. Sometimes it doesn't. We've estimated that we could create hundreds of thousands of new units in this region, just by allowing the market to respond. Sometimes people say, “Oh this is government intervention.” Actually, what we're trying to do is liberalize the laws, and get the government out of the decision-making and give homeowners greater property rights. Another one is what we call transit oriented development. Here, for instance, over $10 billion was invested in upgrades to the Long Island Railroad with the third track, which just opened, and East Side Access, which will open at the end of this year. RPA championed both of those investments. We're huge supporters of that work. But as the state, as the public, makes investments in infrastructure like that, it's really necessary for the towns to then take a look at their local zoning codes around their train stations with this increased capacity. Is it appropriate? In many cases, it's not. In particular, what they're doing is they're zoning low density, when they should be increasing density to create more affordability, more opportunity, greater mix of uses between housing and jobs and other things within those places. What we're going to do is encourage the state to play a more active role in those deliberations. Through some combination of a lot of carrots. The state can put money there. But I think sometimes the stick might be appropriate also, because there are towns that just refuse to do what they should be doing.

I like the way you characterized it as carrots and sticks.

I've been in this battle for a long time. I've testified at some of these zoning board hearings, not always, becoming very popular locally. I think a consensus is growing around these issues as we've educated communities about what's actually going on. People are often horrified to discover what their local zoning looks like.

What will the third track do to commuter traffic? 

There are precedents for this. In the 1990s, and early 2000s, New Jersey Transit did a series of projects that collectively are kind of similar in some ways to East Side Access. You could argue East Side Access is actually a bigger deal because it'll allow Long Island commuters to decide whether they want to go to Penn Station on the West Side or Grand Central in East Midtown. In New Jersey, they didn't have that kind of a benefit, but between what was called the Secaucus transfer, where the Lautenberg station was built, the Montclair connection, which kind of connected an old line into the Main and Essex lines, and the Kearney connection, which created Midtown direct service, you suddenly gave tens of thousands of commuters – but more important than that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of New Jersey residents a much faster one seat ride or easy transfer to get to Penn Station. And what we saw was at the same time that New Jersey Transit was investing in that, the state was changing its policies and its regulations to make it easier for towns to do redevelopment, creating incentives for towns to do redevelopment in their downtown areas. Many of the towns took advantage of those new rules and incentives. They started creating new housing in the downtown areas. And what that did was it meant that New Jersey was connected to the economic engine of New York City. I like to argue, New York, south of 60th street, is probably the greatest invention for prosperity that humankind has ever invented. It makes millions of people a lot of wealth. So, being connected to it makes a lot of sense. In New Jersey, the fastest growing and most profitable industry is called commuting to New York City. New Jersey has benefited and the numbers bear this out. By the way, when I was a kid growing up in the 1970s and 80s, for every 10 jobs created in the entire 31 county tri-state metropolitan region, one of them was in New York City and nine of them were outside the city. They were in southwestern Connecticut, with GE moving up there. You had the wealth belt of New Jersey with the pharmaceutical industries there. You had Nassau County in Long Island. Well, sometime in the early 2000s, that dynamic changed completely. From about 2005 to 2015 it wasn't just that the city suddenly caught up with the suburbs for a while. Nine out of every 10 jobs created in the region were suddenly in New York City, and not out in the suburbs. And guess what? Every time a job is created in the city, somebody that takes that job has to find somewhere to live. Basically, they're living in New York City or they're living in New Jersey, because Long Island and Connecticut and the Hudson Valley have not been building new housing. Right now, Hudson County in New Jersey is adding housing at about 10 times the rate per 1000 residents than Nassau County in New York is. If New York City is going to continue to grow, and I believe it is, then those people are going to have to live somewhere. Right now their options are somewhere else. Either they basically move into more overcrowded housing in the city or move to New Jersey. I think that they should have more options across the region. And we should take advantage of all that infrastructure we have. Getting back to the story of the NJ Transit piece: We saw property values go up. The closer a home was to the train station, the greater its value increased relative to the other homes in the community. That becomes more tax rateable to finance local government, it becomes an incentive for developers to build more multifamily housing. And a lot of those communities have really prospered and improved in that period. So I'd like to see that happen in Long Island.

Please detail how the third track and Eastside access will create a benefit for commuters.

What they do is they move the commuting line 15 minutes further out into Long Island for people who've been commuting, whose jobs are in East Midtown. They would take the train all the way to Penn Station, and then they would backtrack on the subway or a bike or walk to their job. Now they can get a one seat ride to Grand Central, and that's going to free up capacity at Penn Station for Metro North and Penn Access eventually to come in, which is terrific. But for those commuters, they'll save something on the order of 10 to 20 minutes every single day, and that adds up very, very quickly. What we've seen is real estate markets respond, communities respond, people respond and businesses respond to those kinds of changes. And I think it's going to be enormously beneficial to Long Island. But it's important now, to put those land use policies in place.

So, this brings me to the celebration of your centennial. You have an exhibition at Grand Central Terminal starting from Oct. 7 to the 24th. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?

If you're an urban planner, you studied planning in graduate school, you studied the regional plans. If you work in New York in transportation, real estate, architecture, urban design, you know about RPA. But that still leaves a lot of people who've never heard of us or have any idea about what we do. I liken it to friends who will come to me, and they'll say, “I just found this book, “The Power Broker,” and it's amazing. Who knew that there was this history.” You know they kind of just think New York sprung up whole, without any of the history behind it. But New Yorkers love that history and they're always fascinated to learn about that. Regional Plan Association has been deeply embedded in that history for the last 100 years. We've had this treasure trove in our archives, of artwork that was produced for the different regional plans and stories about working with and then against Robert Moses, and then with Jane Jacobs, and other other things like that. And we've wanted to share them with a broader public for a long time. I think my entire board of directors has felt we're kind of the best kept secret in New York City. It would be nice to let some more people in on the secret. So we decided for our centennial to go big. I was thrilled to talk with James Sanders, a brilliant curator, who has done work there before and written books with Rick Burns on New York City. James is a friend. He and I were talking over drinks about what we should do and he said, “Go big, go Grand Central Terminal, let's do a great thing together.” So we're going to be taking iconic artwork and blowing it up large scale. We're going to be sharing videos from the 30s 40s 50s that talk about the future of the city that are just fabulous. For the next three weeks, we're gonna be able to share this with the public. I hope that everybody has a chance to stop by and look at the images and read about them and watch some of the videos, and then share their own ideas with us. A key thing about RPA is we have absolutely zero public law weight behind us. We are a private nonprofit organization. There's no mandate for us, no charter, nothing that requires the city or the state or the MTA or Port Authority to pay attention to anything we do. We've been doing this for 100 years, and have had a lot of influence. We wanted to share that story with people, and then ask them what they think the future should be like. That's why we picked as a name for the exhibit – The Constant Future, because that's what RPA is always looking at. We're constantly thinking about what the future will be. I hope that this will be a way to engage the public of the entire region, and even the nation, in a discussion about what the future of this metropolitan region should be.