Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1646 Sun, 22 Jul 2018 03:15:16 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Community Boards and Land Use http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7749:mayoral-charter-revision-commission-hears-expert-testimony-on-community-boards-and-land-use http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7749:mayoral-charter-revision-commission-hears-expert-testimony-on-community-boards-and-land-use corey jo comm board 2

A community board meeting (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The mayor’s Charter Revision Commission met on Tuesday at the Pratt Institute for the third of its four expert advisory issue forums, this time discussing potential changes to community boards and the city’s land use process. The first meeting, held last Tuesday, focused on voting and election reform, while the second, held last Thursday, focused on campaign finance reform.

The commission, consisting of 15 members appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, including Chair Cesar Perales, will finalize a list of proposed changes to the city charter by early September that will then appear on the general election ballot in November for voters to approve or disapprove.

Stakeholders and experts such as City Comptroller Scott Stringer, community board members, academics, and advocates provided commentary and recommendations for the commission regarding the issues of community boards and land use; on some issues, the panelists and the commissioners all seemed to be in broad consensus, while on others there was evident discord.

One area of relative cohesion was a recommendation that all community boards have a full time expert on urban planning as a paid staff member, though it is unclear that this would rise to the level of being charter-mandated (there has been City Council legislation introduced to make such a requirement for each community board, which, if passed, would become a part of the city’s administrative code, not the charter). Most community boards are said to be understaffed and rely on volunteers to do important work; board members are all volunteers, which can both tilt the demography of the boards in certain directions, like wealthier than the represented area, and lends itself to a general lack of intimate knowledge of planning.

Stringer, who noted that he became the youngest ever appointee to a community board in 1977 at the age of 16, made his position clear, saying “what is truly needed” is “a full time urban planner on the staff of every community board.”

“The sole responsibility of this planner would be to support the board’s analysis in the development of recommendations on land use matters and to coordinate community based planning activities,” he continued. “Expertise of the urban planner would better enable community boards to conduct comprehensive community planning.” Stringer said the urban planner should have a degree in urban planning, architecture, real estate development, public policy, “or similar disciplines,” and that the city must “include the necessary budget appropriations to fund this position.”

“A community planner would be a game-changer in communities that are experiencing extraordinary land use applications, and quite frankly, they don’t have the expertise and they’re at a tremendous disadvantage,” Stringer said.

Kyle Bragg, a charter revision commissioner and secretary-treasurer of labor union 32BJ SEIU, questioned whether all community boards would need a land use professional, saying that land use applications (ULURPs) are not constantly being considered in a community board like Far Rockaway as much as in Midtown Manhattan. Stringer disagreed, saying that development is occurring all over the city and that “gentrification knows no bounds.”

Stringer also recommended that the city provide training on issues of land use to members of community boards on a periodic basis, something that Stringer said he prioritized as Manhattan Borough President (borough presidents appoint most community board members in their respective boroughs).

Stringer did not, however, endorse community board member term limits, breaking with some of his fellow testifiers. “When you have term limits, you also have a lame duck status that sets in,” he said. “We’re gonna see that with people now in their fifth year wondering what office they’re gonna run for next, and I dare say you’re gonna see a lot of musical chairs and people thinking about the future, not necessarily the job in front of them. And that’s just the reality of elected term limits,” he said, in apparent reference to the dozens of City Council members, five borough presidents, and three citywide officials who are all term-limited at the end of the current term. Instead, he endorsed a process undertaken during his borough presidency of periodic reviews of board members, reappointing those doing a good job and sacking those who weren’t.

Community board members who testified did not offer unequivocal support to term limits.

“I think it takes a couple of years to try to figure out how to write a resolution, how to understand city government,” said Shah Ally, chair of Manhattan Community Board 12. “But I also don’t think you need to be on the board 30 years, either.”

Rachel Bloom of government reform group Citizens Union, meanwhile, took an unambiguous stance in favor of term limits.

“Community board members should be term-limited, serving [up to] five consecutive two-year terms,” she said, while noting that the term limits should be phased in gradually to “ensure there is not a mass exodus of institutional knowledge from the boards.”

Stringer claimed that community boards have deviated significantly from their ancestral origin in 1951, at the impetus of Manhattan Borough President Robert Wagner, as Community Planning Boards. The comptroller said that, with numerous elected officials maintaining district offices, the use of community boards for constituent services draws resources away from the more integral tenet of land use.

During the portion of the commission hearing focused on land use, two general themes played out among the speakers: that the land use process does not adequately facilitate community input and that the process is more geared toward short-term zoning concerns and less toward long-term community planning.

“The symptom of the conflict, the neighborhood-city conflict, throughout much of the ULURP process that can both stop good things from happening and also not give communities power over unneeded or unwanted uses, is a sense that there is no ability to proactively community plan,” said Moses Gates, the vice president of housing and neighborhood planning at the Regional Plan Association. “That unless you’re able to put forth a positive vision that has some oomph behind it, and some ability to be recognized, that the only option you’re left with is an option of obstruction, or an option of essentially trying to go through the process and make the best of what might be perceived as a bad deal.”

Gates recommended the creation of an “Office of Community-Based Planning” to assist communities, and community boards, in land use and planning. Gates also recommended a charter codification of a “fair share” program, wherein communities shoulder burdens of ill-desired land uses, like a sewage treatment plant for instance, equally, instead of being shouldered disproportionately by communities without the political and social capital to fight those land uses.

“Planning is more than land use,” said Elena Conte, director of policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development. “It properly considers the systems and the structures into which land use fits. It’s about the social, environmental, and economic wellbeing, and land use is not planning. And so I think we are asking the wrong questions of our land use procedures, right? Both government, stakeholders, developers, and communities feel as though too much is being lumped onto the process unfairly.”

Others, such as Hunter College professor Tom Angotti, said that the important decisions are often made unaccountably in the “pre-ULURP” process, meaning a period before the city’s official Uniform Land Use Review Process that takes land use decisions from developers or the City Planning Department to community boards to the Borough President and Borough Board to the City Planning Commission and, finally, to the City Council.

“All those discussions that go on, side discussions, agreements that get made behind closed doors, are part of the undemocratic process that precedes ULURP,” said Angotti. “And it’s followed by a series of public hearings, at the community level, at the borough president level, at the City Planning Commission level, at the City Council level, which are more theater than true democracy. Why? Because we’re stuck in a method for participation that is bankrupt.” Angotti noted that concerned citizens are often forced to wait hours in order to testify for three minutes to a few sleepy-eyed bureaucrats.

Angotti also recommended that ULURP decisions be made based on preordained “197-a” plans submitted by community boards, rather than on an ad hoc basis. Since the 1989 charter revision that established 197-a plans considerable by the City Planning Commission, only 17 community plans have been submitted to the city.

“The biggest single reform could be a charter requirement that every ULURP action be consistent with a 197-a plan,” forcing both community boards to submit such plans and the City Planning Commission to take them seriously and not simply shelve them.

Commision Chair Perales, however, criticized the land use panel of testifiers as failing to clearly present their recommendations in a digestible manner.

“We are supposed to put something clear and concrete before the voters,” Perales said. “We’re not decision-makers here. We’re here to determine what it is the issues that you think should be addressed in a revision of the city charter. And if you have the opportunity, or are so inclined, maybe go back and send us something that will help us to digest, better understand, what your positions are on what we can do about land use with what are gonna be relatively minor changes in the city charter.”

“Remember,” he continued, “you don’t want to go into the voting booth and have to review a three page referendum that this planning commission put before you, so we have a tough job, and while we have been persuaded by many of your comments, I’m not so sure we understand how to put it before the voters.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Community Boards and Land Use Wed, 20 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
On Land Use, Johnson Promises 'Deference' to Members But 'No Veto' http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7530:on-land-use-johnson-promises-deference-to-members-but-no-veto http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7530:on-land-use-johnson-promises-deference-to-members-but-no-veto Johnson Rodriguez City Council

Speaker Johnson, center, & CM Rodriguez, right (photo: William Alatriste)


City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said Thursday that the elected Council members of the body he leads will get “deference” but “no veto” on land use matters.

Even before he was officially elected the new speaker of the Council, Johnson had already begun to define how he would approach the job. In clear breaks from his predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Johnson promised greater independence from the mayor, expanded oversight over city agencies, and a more active role in land use decisions, which is one of the most significant roles played by the 51-member legislative body.

Promising to bolster the Council’s land use division with more resources and staff, Johnson seemed to want a heavier hand in local development projects, or land use applications, where the previous speaker tended to almost completely defer to the local Council member’s sentiments and negotiations. Johnson, however, has implied that he won’t allow the same kind of leeway that Mark-Viverito gave to members to oppose or reject proposals in their districts, which, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, include a number of neighborhood rezonings that can shape the landscape and character of neighborhoods for generations.

At an event Thursday, hosted by the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Johnson explained his approach, saying that he would involve himself in land use applications if a local Council member requested it, but at the same time, would not allow any single member to act as an obstacle to a worthwhile project with benefits for a community.

When asked about the ongoing land use process for a proposed rezoning in Inwood in Uptown Manhattan, Johnson first admitted that he knew little about the ins-and-outs of the particular plan. “On the Inwood rezoning, this is not me in any way shirking, but I honestly, I haven’t been briefed on it,” he said, when panellist Debralee Santos from the Manhattan Times asked him about his general approach to land use issues and specifically two rezonings, a recently completed one in the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx and the ongoing one in Inwood in Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez’s district.

“I’ve been so crazy dealing with so many other things across the city,” Johnson added. “I see people tweet at me about it, and I’ve read some articles about it, but I have not had the opportunity to sit down with Councilman Rodriguez or the other elected officials and have a conversation about it.”

In the past few years, the City Council and the de Blasio administration have come face-to-face with the fact that even with rezonings that invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a neighborhood, that have gone through months of negotiations and received hundreds of hours of testimony and feedback from communities, there are inevitably those who remain dissatisfied. In some cases, Council members capitulate to community backlash, killing a project, but often they do not.

For instance, in 2015 East New York became home to the administration’s first successful neighborhood rezoning. Despite Council Member Rafael Espinal negotiating commitments of more than $260 million in investments from the city as well as a slew of other community benefits -- besides the affordable housing and economic development that undergirded the rezoning -- a segment of housing advocates argued that the rezoning would continue, and exacerbate, the nascent gentrification of the district. (The advocates even threatened to organize a challenge to Espinal’s 2017 reelection bid but did not follow through.) Espinal approved the project in the end, claiming advocates did not recognize the quality of the deal coming to the long-ignored community.

But, in 2016, owing to vocal community resentment, Council Member Rodriguez announced his opposition to a proposed development, also in Inwood, the day before it was scheduled to be voted on by the Council’s land use committee. The project was unanimously rejected by the committee based on Rodriguez’s verdict.

It was different, however, for Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who faced widespread criticism for vacillating on the proposed redevelopment of the Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights. Eventually, faced with angry residents and a strong primary challenger, Cumbo rejected the proposal before her, which forced the city to amend its plans to later have them approved.

On Thursday at CUNY, Santos pointed to the Inwood Library as one controversial aspect of the larger rezoning, where residents of the neighborhood have called for an entirely separate land-use application for the building. “That’s a local institution that people believe should merit its own process altogether, its own ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure],” Santos pointed out.

“So I don’t know anything about it,” Johnson conceded. “But I’m happy to work with the stakeholders involved and find a solution. My general principle is, unless the rezoning or the land use action that’s proposed is totally off-the-wall and doesn’t make any sense or if there is no community buy-in, which it may be this case in Inwood from what I’m seeing, I try to get to a place of ‘yes.’”

Johnson recounted his own experience with the rezoning of Pier 40 in his Manhattan district in 2016, where in the end, he managed to extract $100 million worth of investments from the city while creating affordable housing and senior housing. “I worked on it for two-and-a-half years. There were many places where I wanted to walk away from that rezoning, it was frustrating me so much that I didn’t think I’d be able to close the deal. But in the end, I always work to get to a place of ‘yes,’” he said.

Would he get similarly involved in the Inwood rezoning, Santos asked.

“If I’m asked by the local elected official,” Johnson said. It’s unclear to what extent Johnson will assert himself if asked by other parties in a negotiation, such as the mayor’s office or real estate developers.

And though he noted that most rezonings go through a negotiated process, and most of them are approved, he said he will not allow a local Council member to determine the fate of any single land-use process that he deems worthy. “One thing I said is, is there member deference involved? Of course, there’s member deference involved,” he said. “But there’s no veto. No one gets a veto. There’s a difference between deference and a veto. If someone is opposing a project or asking for things that are totally unreasonable, someone needs to step in and say, ‘that doesn’t make any sense.’”

Though Johnson said he was not up to speed on the Inwood rezoning, in a statement to Gotham Gazette, Council Member Rodriguez indicated he is pleased with the speaker’s support thus far in the process.

“Speaker Johnson and the Land Use Committee staff have been very supportive throughout the rezoning,” Rodriguez said. “Land Use has taken the time to understand the needs of the community the council members share. They understand council members have the best knowledge of the whole population in their districts and are seeking an optimal outcome.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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On Land Use, Johnson Promises 'Deference' to Members But 'No Veto' Fri, 09 Mar 2018 05:00:00 +0000
‘Done Deal Democrats’ Push Misguided Land Grab http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6662:done-deal-democrats-push-misguided-land-grab http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6662:done-deal-democrats-push-misguided-land-grab friends of roosevelt park

photo: Friends of Roosevelt Park


New York City is ruled by political elite, based in the Democratic Party. Elected officials regularly run unopposed or win re-election by margins that approach those of one-party regimes. They nominate and appoint community board members. They endorse each other’s re-election. They co-sponsor bills, attend party fundraisers, and work together to restrict the citizenry’s right to be heard and influence policy. Nowhere is this anti-democratic approach clearer than in the case of the American Museum of Natural History’s planned annexation in Margaret Mead Green and Teddy Roosevelt Park.

The museum, a private institution, wants to erect a giant, gas-fueled building in a public park. And, its “done deal” allies in government are all-too-willing to help them. For a year, the Manhattan borough president, the local City Council member, the community board chair, the city comptroller, the local Assembly member, and the city parks commissioner have told everyone that the project was, “a done deal.” Without a public hearing, before any community board dialogue, these “representatives” spread the word that the annexation was a forgone fact.

However, park preservationists, environmentalists, educators and neighbors have objected. They describe the plan as toxic, because, well, the museum wants to build on top of a toxic waste site and because it would spew millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air. More than 4,000 people have picketed and signed petitions arguing against this eco-cide. They’ve pointed out that the neighborhood is already glutted with cultural institutions (e.g. Lincoln Center, the Historical Society, the Manhattan Children’s Museum) while other neighborhoods suffer a lack of cultural resources (The Bronx has only two museums for a borough of 1.5 million people.).

Those who live closest to the site worry about an additional 800,000 people each year flooding the tiny park’s pathways to gain access to a new gift shop, restaurant, and event space. Finally, everyone became outraged when a local journalist revealed that the Done Deal Democrats had appropriated nearly $100 million of taxes for this project.

Opponents of the plan went to Community Board 7 to urge its neutrality and to request that information from both sides of the issue be placed on the board’s website. Instead, the only material that appeared was provided by the museum, which wrote glowingly about its own proposal. For nine months, opponents of the plan asked the board to hold a public hearing before the city budget was approved and millions more allocated. Instead, the board officially joined a “working group” organized by and at the museum, so it could work out the kinks of the plan’s implementation.

And, when the community board finally got around to holding a hearing on the plan, the museum was allotted 45 minutes to make its case while opponents were given one minute each.

How has the museum been able to secure such enthusiastic support for this project from these public servants? Why have all these government officials been so generous with our tax dollars? In a word, lobbyists.

The museum has hired at least half-a-dozen lobbying firms to ply millions from our state and local treasuries. Seems surreal but true: public servants giving a private institution an enormous sum of our money to plunder our public asset, Teddy Roosevelt Park. The process is well-documented on the website of the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and OpenSecrets.org. One firm is hired to influence the borough president, the mayor, the comptroller and the City Council. Another is hired to lobby government officials at the state level. And, yet a third set of influence-peddlers work on the federal level.

In an age when cities around the world are striving to reduce greenhouse gases, our city is indulging this fossil foolishness of the museum’s expansion. In an era when citizens are manifesting a gross distrust of government, New York City is operating like an autocracy. And, in a neighborhood rife with segregation and inequality, these Done Deal Democrats are reinforcing those disparities.
In the names of Teddy Roosevelt and Margaret Mead, we can do better.

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Dr. Cary Goodman has lived on the Upper West Side for four decades and has been active in the community throughout.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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‘Done Deal Democrats’ Push Misguided Land Grab Mon, 12 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Bill Would Require City Planner at Each Community Board http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5662:bill-would-require-city-planner-at-each-community-board-kallos http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5662:bill-would-require-city-planner-at-each-community-board-kallos kallos ops hearing

CM Kallos at a committee hearing (photo: William Alatriste)


New York City Council Member Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, will introduce a bill Tuesday to provide a professional urban planner to each of the 59 community boards in the city.

The bill, Kallos said, is a move to empower communities in the city's land use process. Speaking exclusively to Gotham Gazette, Kallos said, "The City has two main powers. The first is over budget and the community boards have a say in that. They make their budget priorities known. The other is land use. In order to give community boards power and a voice in that land use process, they need skilled technical help."

Kallos' bill would create a planning department in each of the five borough president offices which would staff at least one planner for each community board. There are 12 boards in Manhattan, 12 in the Bronx, 14 in Queens, 18 in Brooklyn and three in Staten Island.

The council member cited a number of concerns which prompted the bill, including lack of support from the City Planning Commission and the proposed rezoning of East Midtown. "This is the age of the super-scraper," Kallos said. "I'll be getting a 900 foot tall building in my district soon. Development is running rampant. Developers are making billions off new buildings and communities don't really have a say. The idea is to put planning back in 'community planning board' as it once was and empower the community boards."

Currently, community boards only play an advisory role in any zoning or planning issues. Land use deals that need City Council approval typically hinge on the decision of the council member whose district is home to the project. The City's Planning Department falls under the mayor and community boards that disagree with the administration may not get the planning support they need, Kallos said. Changes in the city's zoning laws proposed last month by Mayor Bill de Blasio will affect the entire city and Kallos believes the community boards may not necessarily have the expertise required to deal with them. The law would require the City to appropriate funding through each borough president's office and the borough presidents would have a say in the new hires, as they do with community board member appointment.

Kallos will introduce the bill at Tuesday's full-body Stated Meeting of the City Council and it will head to the governmental operations committee, which he chairs.

The demand for technical help already exists. At a recent hearing of the governmental operations committee, representatives of Manhattan community boards called for an increased budget for professional hires, although not specifically for planners. "This law is in line with that," said Kallos.

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by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid

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Bill Would Require City Planner at Each Community Board Mon, 30 Mar 2015 18:52:44 +0000