Urban Land Use: Looking Beyond the Charter Commission

"Land Use and Local Voices: Is the City's Land Use Process in Need of Reform?"

Photo: Giles Ashford

Last Wednesday the Municipal Art Society partnered with Manhattan Community Board 1 (Lower Manhattan) to host a daylong discussion, “Land Use and Local Voices: Is the City’s Land Use Process in Need of Reform?”. The event was organized in response to the 2010 Charter Revision Commission created by Mayor Bloomberg in March 2010, whose recently released preliminary report does not propose major reforms to the land use review and planning processes.

With the category of land use relegated to the back pages of the commission report, the day turned into a discussion of the issues affecting development and the inadequacies of the current land use review process for development proposals in the city, especially with respect to the input of local stakeholders.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer began the discussion by highlighting two points that would recur throughout the day: the need for professional expertise on community boards (CBs) and the necessity of long-range planning. Stringer cited the Planning Fellowship Program he implemented to have a planning student assigned to each Manhattan CB. In addition, his discussion of long-range planning focused on the idea of making planning and development an “apolitical process.” The prospect and possibility of land use planning without politics was disputed throughout the rest of the day.

The first panel discussed what distinguishes the city’s land use process in relation to other cities and municipalities in the US. Sandy Hornick, Deputy Director of Strategic Planning at the NYC Department of City Planning, noted that after failed attempts in 1940 and 1969, the city still does not have a comprehensive long-term plan that addresses land use. David N. Kinsey, a New Jersey planner and Visiting Lecturer at Princeton University, echoed the need for comprehensive planning. He noted New York was unique among US cites with its site-specific ULURP process rather then a comprehensive master plan.

The question of participation also arose as moderator Ethel Sheffer, Principal at Insight Associates and Adjunct Professor at Columbia’s GSAPP, asked Sara Logan, Bronx Community Board 6 member, to elaborate on issues facing community participation. Logan noted that, despite many active community members, participation rates are lower in the outer boroughs. Later on in the day Adam Friedman, Director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, spoke to the necessity of engaging city residents and providing them with the necessary tools and attention – as they have “chosen to be New Yorkers.”

The questions of zoning and site-specific development were picked up by the second panel, “Time for Change? Perspectives on Planning in the Five Boroughs.” Josiah Madar, a Research Fellow at NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, presented a study of recent rezonings in the city (PDF). The study uses a lot-level analysis to demonstrate that the majority of rezonings between 2003 and 2007 were intended to preserve the existing residential character of neighborhoods with higher rates of homeownership and income level than the city’s average. Madar noted that while these rezonings help to “preserve the best,” there also needs to be more attention to zoning changes that help to “move the ball forward on ensuring housing affordability.”

Friedman stressed the “uncertainty” and “unpredictability” of ULURP. Yet in contrast to other speakers, Friedman did not suggest a comprehensive plan but rather the development of a land use matrix that would be used to understand how projects help city goals. Meanwhile, Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, addressed the 1989 City Charter Commission’s addition of ‘Fair Share’ and how its lack of enforcement follows in a pattern of well-intentioned requirements that are not met or enforced and are thus rendered useless.

Moderator Eugenie L. Birch, Professor of Urban Research and Chair of the Graduate Group of City Planning at University of Pennsylvania School of Design and Co-Director of Penn Institute for Urban Research, ended “Time for Change” by asking her panelists what “the city of the 21st century should look like?” For Bautista, the hope is for a a city “that doesn’t adhere to 1962 zoning standards.” For Brian Cook, Director of Land Use and Planning for Stringer, the hope is for an adaptable land use planning body removed from the political sphere.

Stringer and Cook’s call for “apolitical” planning concluded the morning, but the difficulty of avoiding the political began the afternoon with the final panel, “Looking Ahead: The Future of Community Benefit Agreements in NYC.” CBAs are private contracts between a developer and a group of organizations who purportedly represent the community without political input. Moderator Vicki Been, Boxer Family Professor of Law at NYU School of Law and Director of the Furman Center for Real Estate, began the discussion by questioning whether CBAs are apolitical in New York. She went on to provide some background to the longstanding issue of private agreements between developers and community groups, often characterized by a lack of transparency in the decisions leading up to the siting of development.

The uniqueness of CBAs in New York compared to the rest of the US was noted by Benjamin S. Beach, Staff Attorney at the Community Benefits Law Center, who spoke of the potential for successful CBAs to complement the public process and serve as an enforceable contract. Following up on Been, he noted the problem of public officials involved in the CBA process. David Reiss, Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, may have put it best when he said CBAs in New York “face legitimacy issues.”

The day finished with a conversation between Julie Menin, one of the hosts and Chair of Manhattan CB1, and Eric Lane, who served as the Executive Director/Counsel to the 1989 NYC Charter Revision Commission. Asked why the charter commission decided not to take on land use, Lane suggested the commission wants changes that “will get done” — changes that require less effort than the creation of a land use regime and a long-term plan — and that land use should be addressed by a commission that has been given time and thorough briefings. Lane ended his comments by stating the need for land use to be evaluated every ten years, because beyond best intentions “even the greatest expertise has politics associated with it.”

Jane Kelly is a Project Associate at Urban Omnibus. She attends Colgate University where she concentrates in Geography and Studio Art. She was born and raised in New York City.

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.

Jane Kelly is a Project Associate at Urban Omnibus. She attends Colgate University where she concentrates in Geography and Studio Art. She was born and raised in New York City.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.