A Look Back to the Future New York Thirty Years Ago

 Thirty years ago, Cats won the Tony Award for best musical, setting it off to  secure its place as the second longest running Broadway musical in history. New  York City streets were filled with women in torn sweatshirts and leg warmers  inspired by everyone’s favorite steel-welding, break dancing ballerina portrayed by Jennifer Beals in  Flashdance.  

 The city subways were rolling art galleries with graffiti covering nearly every  square inch of space inside and outside of the cars. MTV debuted the first  music video, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles and millions watched Michael Jackson perform the moonwalk for  the first time on live television. And a real slice of New York pizza was one  dollar (although you can still get a slice for a buck, it’s not the same.) George Lucas released Return of the Jedi, the final installation of the first Star Wars trilogy.  

 In the 1980s no one had any idea what the city would look like in thirty years.  Given the way the city was, many envisioned a 2013 New York to be an  apocalyptic wasteland,—the future of New York City seemed like it would more resemble John Carpenter’s vision from Escape from New York than it would Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.At the time, homelessness was endemic; entire neighborhoods resembled  war-ravaged bombed-out cities; the AIDS epidemic was beginning to decimate the  community; and drug abuse was a pandemic. Fortunately the future has been kind and after 30 years, New York has gone from  the place to avoid to the place to live once again. This month we look at some  of the unsung legal and regulatory changes that greatly contributed to New York  City progress.  

 Mean Streets to Clean Streets

 Perhaps the most iconic memory many of us who lived through the 1980's remembers  is that of Bernhard Goetz, the so-called “subway vigilante” surrendering to police in Concord, Massachusetts a week after he shot four  young men on a New York City subway believing they were about to mug him. Goetz  became a media superstar leaving the city deeply divided and widening the  city's already simmering racial tensions. This incident even today reflects how  many New Yorkers view the 1980s.  

 Sure, the Disneyfication of Times Square gets most of the anecdotal praise (or  blame) for the transformation of New York. But from a residential standpoint,  two smaller, much less publicized factors may have had an equal—if not larger—long-term impact on life in the Big Apple: the “Pooper Scooper Law” and the “Bottle Bill.”  

 The law commonly referred to as the "pooper-scooper law” is actually the city's Canine Waste Law, which forced New Yorkers to clean up  after their dogs, and first went into effect in August 1978. In the 1980’s, The Sanitation Department (DSNY) enforcement unit carefully trained officers  put them out on the streets with the mission of spotting and fining violators.  "If you've ever stepped in dog doo, you know how important it is to enforce the  canine waste law," said former Mayor Ed Koch in an anniversary report in 2004. “New Yorkers overwhelmingly do their duty and self-enforce.” By 2008, however, New Yorkers were not self-enforcing enough, and the pet waste  fine was raised from its longstanding $100 to $250. To be sure, people still  flout the law and leave pet mess on the sidewalks, but thanks to the Canine  Waste Law, walking down the street is a little less like an unhygienic obstacle  course than it was three decades ago.  

 The other unsung hero is the New York State Returnable Container Law also known  as the “Bottle Bill.” First implemented in July of 1983, the purpose of the law was to “reduce litter, ease burden on solid waste facilities and encourage recycling  activity.” Under the Bottle Bill, the metal, glass, paper, or plastic containers of  everything from soda to wine coolers required a deposit, which was returnable  for five cents at retail stores and redemption centers throughout the five  boroughs. More than just giving the homeless something to do, the Bottle Bill  had a slow but measurable positive effect on the amount of garbage cluttering  the city’s streets. In 2009, it was established that 80 percent of the unredeemed  deposits would go to the state’s General Fund and 20 percent retained by distributors, adding to some of the  city’s increasing need for resources at the time.  

 According to New York’s Public Interest Research Group’s (NYPIRG) Laura Haight, in the years after the implementation, the state of New  York collected over $120 million in unclaimed deposits from the expanded bottle  bill, placing it on target with the state’s budget projection of $118 million. These two laws in conjunction with later  stricter laws on recycling in 1989 and 2010 have contributed greatly to  cleaning up of the city’s streets—and in turn, its reputation.  

 A Tree Doesn’t Just Grow in Brooklyn Anymore  

 There was a joke back in the 1980s about Central Park, the comedian related  that, “It's springtime here in New York and my, isn't it pretty, I walked through the  park today...the tree was blooming and the bird was singing.”  

 Since then much has changed, the Central Park Conservancy has successfully  brought the park back from ruination. Along with these preservation projects,  community gardens have grown all around the city turning vacant lots into  neighborhood gathering places, the Hudson River Walk has transformed rotting  piers into parks and playgrounds, and thanks to environmental concerns more and  more roof gardens are springing to life. There are many more programs  endeavoring to bring natural beauty to the city.  

 In April 2007, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg introduced his 127-point plan for  greening the Big Apple, known as PlaNYC. The plan’s mission was to create and maintain a more environmentally-friendly New York  City, as well as improve housing and transportation, and by and large it has  been succeeding. MillionTreesNYC, one of these 127 steps to a better city, is  his program with the ambitious goal of planting 1,000,000 new trees throughout  the city by 2017.  

 At its inception, it was estimated that the organization would plant 220,000  street trees, 380,000 trees in parks and other public areas, and 400,000 on  private and community organization property. Homeowners were factored into the  last 40 percent and given the option to request a tree be planted on their  property through the MillionTreesNYC website (www.million treesnyc.org.) To  date, 645,804 trees have been planted throughout the five boroughs.  

 Trees are nature’s natural filters; they absorb toxins and release fresh oxygen into the air. In  a densely-populated city that relies heavily on fuel emitting vehicles for  transportation, trees are important in keeping the air clean and promoting  healthy living conditions. So in addition to cleaner streets, these trees  contribute to cleaner air. And this initiative adds favorably to the value of  the co-op and condo buildings throughout the city by helping to improve the  health for all New York residents.  

 More Environmentally Friendly

 In the 1980s “going green” meant no more than jogging over to Central Park (usually with a can of mace  stowed close at hand). Today, along with the marked decrease in crime, the city  has greatly increased its investment and interest in green technologies and  sustainability focused initiatives.  

 Often, when building boards or shareholders think about “going green” they become paralyzed by images of bamboo flooring, hemp drapes, or solar  panels on the roof. Many are still left feeling that because one lives in a  condo or other multifamily building, green upgrades are difficult and costly to  do. Fortunately, the truth is that there are plenty of things condos and condo  owners can do—and the New York City of today offers an array of ways to improve the energy  efficiency and durability of a community’s property.  

 According to the experts such as David Unger, CEO of U.S. Energy Group, based in  Fresh Meadows, “When you really start looking at what it takes to go green, you recognize that  it's all about cutting energy use. If I can use less oil, I'm going green by  virtue of the fact that I'm not dependent on oil.”  

 In April 2011, Mayor Bloomberg and Environmental Protection Commissioner Cas  Holloway tried to move the city forward by announcing a PlaNYC update. The  phase-out of the dirtiest fuel, No. 6 heating oil has begun, as the DEP is no  longer issuing permits for that grade, and will soon stop issuing permits for  No. 4 heating oil as well. Boilers must either use No. 2 heating oil,  biodiesel, natural gas or steam, instead.  

 The full phase-out of No. 6 oil is expected by mid-2015. By 2030, all buildings  must have converted to one of the cleaner fuels. Mayor Bloomberg stated, “To clean the air New Yorkers breathe we are going to gradually phase out the  dirtiest types of heating oil, by changing the type of oil we use, we will  reduce pollutants and spend less money on maintaining and operating our heating  systems. This helps our PlaNYC effort to fight asthma, prolong lives, lengthen  life spans and improve quality-of-life.”  

 Prices Went Up...Up...Up!

 According to Jonathan Miller, president of Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisers,  which was started in 1986, “In the ‘80s, which is when I started appraising, the ‘80s housing market was defined by rental to co-op conversion, so we had a  tremendous volume of co-ops traded out of the rental housing stock, and we had  a tremendous amount of new condos being constructed largely for investors. The  units that came into the housing stock in the ‘80s tended to be smaller-- studios, one bedroom, some two bedrooms.”  

 Miller points out that these conversions significantly reduced a sizable portion  of the rental stock, which is why in today's market we're not seeing much  conversion activity right now.  

 Another key housing change or trend over the last 30 years happened during the  1990s when, according to Miller, “We had the establishment of a new housing type, which were lofts. Lofts have  been around a long time but they became an alternative to Upper East and Upper  West Side large-size apartments. You were seeing people from Park Avenue move  to Soho or Tribeca. Luxury amenities were part of this and to this day this  trend continues.”  

 According to The New York Times'Susan Stellin, “The gap has been narrowing in recent decades.” Citing data gathered by Noah Rosenblatt, the founder of the real estate  analytics site UrbanDigs, Stellin reports the vast majority of the apartments  for sale in areas such as Battery Park City are condominiums. However, in areas  such as the Upper East Side, there were 942 co-ops on the market in early  October and 370 condos.  

 “The current development craze, started in the 1990s but continues to this day,” says Lawrence F. Kramer, vice president of V. Paulius & Associates, a real estate development firm that has built numerous projects in  New York. “New York City continues to be in a prolific phase of development. The 2008  housing crisis slowed things down, but now development is in high gear once  again. And this development craze is almost exclusively luxury or high-end  housing stock being added to the market, and almost exclusively condo, rather  than co-op.”  

 Miller agrees, “When I started working in the city back in the mid-80s, 85 percent of the  housing stock was co-op and only about 15 percent were condos. In the ‘90s it was about 80 percent co-op and 20 percent condo. In the past decade it's  about 25 percent of new development are condos, and the market is weighted  towards much larger apartments.”  

 What is most interesting, or depressing, depending on your point of view is the  vast differences in housing prices in thirty years. According to Miller, in the  first quarter of 1989 the average co-op cost $376,393, and the average condo  was $415,359. In the fourth quarter of 2012 the same co-op would cost  $1,190,450 and the same condo would cost $1,867,576. Quite a difference.  

 In April 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that co-op and condo prices reached an all-time high pointing to a pair  of duplex apartments on the 12th and 13th floors of 740 Park Ave., a luxury  limestone co-op building on the corner of East 71st Street which sold for a  combined price of about $52 million, making it the highest ever paid for a  Manhattan cooperative apartment. In January, the $88 million purchase by a Russian billionaire set a new record  for condo sales. With an annual maintenance listed at about $412,000 a year  (roughly the sale price of a typical Manhattan studio apartment) the Park  Avenue apartments consist of 30 rooms, including eight bedrooms, 10 bathrooms  and six terraces, and are linked together through two private elevator  landings.  

 Although these numbers refer to the “trophy” co-op and condo sales in the market, the numbers indicate that they still  affect the mid-level market as a whole. The current listing for a lower-floor  duplex at 740 Park is priced at $23 million. The combined trends of new luxury  construction and high end prices have returned New York City firmly back in its  former glory as the millionaire’s playground that it once held back in the turn of the 20th Century.  

 So Where Do We Stand Today?

 In the 1980s, New York was finally reaping the rewards of the legendary “I NY” campaign launched in 1977 to bring tourism back to the city. Ever since,  tourism had been on the rise and today New York City remains the number one  destination of overseas travelers to the United States.  

 By 2013, New York City had seen both the first African American mayor and  President of the United States. In the 1980s, those events were merely the  conjecture of fiction. And a futuristic society was only the stuff of Hollywood  movies. Although 21st Century New York does not have flying cars, (many  citizens do own hybrid electric) and we still don't have jet-packs, (darn it),  but New York City does boast the world’s largest fleet of hybrid electric buses in use for public transport.  

 With new eco-friendly buildings rising in all five boroughs, spiraling towers  reaching new heights, newly-designed tree-lined streets, skyrocketing rents and  trendsetting billionaire residents, it’s plain to see that when in it comes to New York City, reality is often better  than fiction.   

 J.M. Wilson is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.  

Related Articles

New York – The Year Ahead

Predicting Future Trends

Training New Board Members

Starting Out On the Right Foot

Roosevelt Island

A River Runs By It