THE DANGER OF 'OUTSIDE INTERESTS', ESPECIALLY IN LAND USE

By Christine Quinn

2001 marks a year of unprecedented change in New York City government, which will be filled with new faces, and familiar faces in new positions. This will undoubtedly be an exciting and dynamic time: New blood is re-invigorating for any legislative body. But at the same time, a very real danger lies with term limits. What we stand to lose with the departure of so many Councilmembers -- and what we have to protect -- is the body's institutional history and knowledge.

Governing a city the size of New York│passing its laws, overseeing its numerous and large city agencies, controlling the land use process, and producing and managing the largest municipal budget in the nation│represents no easy task. And what I fear that we will lose in 2001--even while gaining new voices and ideas│is the sometimes intangible ability to navigate our legislative and budgetary powers and to use them as tools to better our city. One of the top challenges for myself, my fourteen returning colleagues, and our thirty six new colleagues will be maintaining an institutional continuity for the City Council.

Take for example the City Council's powers regarding land use. The city charter mandates that the Council review and approve a broad array of land use, zoning and franchise matters. From Special Permits that are required to change the use of a building, to massive rezonings of entire neighborhoods, to the granting of sidewalk caf˛ licenses, it is the City Council that oversees and approves much of how our City is shaped, built, and used. And, along with the budget process, this is where the Council has the strongest authority.

At the same time, however, land use review is also one of our most complicated powers -- with a labyrinthine zoning code that is several inches think, an Uniformed Land Use Review Process (ULURP) that can be at times very confusing, and an ever-changing real estate and development market. Often, it takes a land use attorney, and sometimes even a team of land use attorneys, even to understand the process, much less to affect it. Within the elaborate technicalities of land-use, it can be quite difficult for Councilmembers to be effective advocates for the communities they represent, insisting on appropriate development and the preservation of open space And without the decades of expertise and experience of my out-going colleagues and the council staff, we will certainly face a challenge to insure that one of our greatest responsibilities remains a positive mechanism for both change and preservation of our remarkable city.

The danger is that outside interests -- lobbyists for corporate entities, private development, or real estate moguls -- will have undue and inappropriate influence on a governmental landscape of novices and newcomers to the land use process. Without the technical knowledge and practical experience that can take years to foster, it will be critically important that the Council maintains this sort of institutional knowledge and expertise. Otherwise, these interests could potentially wield disproportionate influence in these critical and frequently complicated land-use decisions and processes. And this is merely one example. Certainly the complicated budget process will hold similar pitfalls for a Council without a strong grasp of how the system works│and how the system works best.

What, then, is the solution in the face of this unavoidable change? I believe that the huge shift in Councilmembers makes it essential that we preserve continuity and a body of institutional knowledge in other ways. For one, we must work to preserve the expertise of the Council staff. I for one have relied heavily upon the knowledge and wisdom of the City Council's Land Use Division, and I am hopeful that many of these remarkable and resourceful individuals will remain with the Council through this change. Likewise, it becomes of critical importance that advocacy groups like Citizen's Union remain an active force in City government, working to expand their base of knowledge and their ability to communicate this know how to Councilmembers and other elected officials. You will be needed desperately as thirty-six new Councilmembers cut their teeth on the stuff of city government. Citizens' can and must provide the support, training and advocacy that will allow us all to step into the big shoes that our colleagues leave behind and up to the challenges│and the remarkable possibilities│of our new city government.

Christine Quinn (D-WF) represents the third district in Manhattan, covering Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Clinton; parts of Soho, and Murray Hill

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