As we look forward to 2010, it seems that we are getting signals of more austerity ahead. Recently, the MTA approved a series of fairly drastic service cuts. There is a sense that Albany will add strain to the city’s public schools by forcing budget cuts in education on top of last year’s hiring freezes. Within the architecture and design fields, of course, new jobs are scarce and this situation may not improve any time soon. Yet there are opportunities to put professional skills to use in the interest of local communities and engage with public policy in this time of uncertainty. At the Center for Architecture this past Wednesday morning, Shaan Khan, of the Manhattan Borough President’s Office was on hand to promote awareness of community boards and to recruit architects to lend their expertise to the cause of good governance.
Across the five boroughs, there are a total of 59 community boards, each with 50 members who are appointed for staggered two year terms (Find your community board here). In 2010, half of the 2950 seats are open for new appointments. According to Mr. Khan and Margery Perlmutter, legislative director of the AIA New York Chapter, architects are sorely needed to fill some of those seats. When major projects such as the East River Waterfront Esplanade, or the construction of new buildings in historic districts are undertaken, the land use committees of community boards are consulted and often relied upon heavily for community input. Architects can play a very important role on these committees when forming recommendations for projects that are sometimes controversial and would affect the daily lives of many people. According to Ms. Perlmutter, the need for architects’ expertise and judgment in issues of zoning, landmarks, and design is needed throughout the city, but is even greater in the outer Boroughs.
Based on that statement, I decided to look up my community board, and find out the range of professional expertise among its members. When I spoke to Robert Perris, district manager of Brooklyn Community Board 2, he told me that there were no architects on the board. Not only that, there were no landscape architects, no engineers, and no artists or designers. In a district with double the citywide percentage of professionals and a large artist community, I found this surprising. It certainly speaks to the need for recruiting members of the design professions. The only qualifications to be eligible for a community board seat are residence in New York City, a “significant interest” in the community board to which the application is made (defined simply as living or working in the district), and some record of community involvement or engagement.
In addition to land use, community boards have an advisory role on issues of municipal services, city budget, as well as any other concerns regarding the welfare of the community. All members must serve in at least two committees as well as attend all executive committee meetings. It can be a time-consuming affair, but it can also provide a unique perspective on local events from the headline-grabbing to the mundane. For instance, land use committees meet to hold public hearings on certain proposed projects through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). There is often a great deal of controversy in this process, and the hearings can get very intense and very vocal. This is particularly true because of a common misunderstanding over the role of public comment in ULURP. According to the City Charter, the recommendations of the community board are strictly advisory. Neither the Borough President nor the City Planning Commission is obliged to follow them. In many cases, however, community opinion does sway the final outcome. There are also smaller items that most board hearings consist of, such as the addition of sidewalk cafes, the safety and lighting around parks, the frequency of garbage service, or a host of other issues that make up the life of a community.
This recruitment effort fits nicely into a new national focus this past year, on the theme of public service and a call to be more responsible citizens. I think of all the buildings that architects helped create over the last ten years, and how often we may have seen community boards as unyielding or obstructionist. Perhaps many of us saw their importance but simply did not have the time to commit to our communities. I have given presentations to community boards over the last ten years, seeking approvals for projects in other parts of the city, but I never considered joining my own. As the work slows down, and the needs of communities change from protecting their character to creating jobs, perhaps architects can use this time as an opportunity to join the discussion from a different point of view. After all, community boards are autonomous city agencies, and are the only city agency comprised of completely volunteer members. This makes them a unique democratic institution in our civic landscape, and one from which the voice of architects and design professionals should be heard.
Applications for Manhattan Community Boards are due in the Borough President’s Office by January 15, 2010. Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island are due at a later date.
For more information and applications contact:
Director of Community affairs and Constituent Services
Office of the Manhattan Borough President’s Office
Margery Perlmutter, Esq., AIA
Legislative Director, AIANY Chapter
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.