Issue of the Week

Not In My Backyard

30 April 01

by Gail Robinson

Famed chef Daniel Boulud expects his patrons to drink wine with their dinners. So when he was planning his Restaurant Daniel on East 65th Street, he applied for a liquor license. This apparently inflamed some of his neighbors. They protested that the Upper East Side would be overtaken by alcoholic abandon, as well as double-parked limousines.

Also on the Upper East Side, Woody Allen and his neighbors have been fighting Citibank's plan for a residential tower above its Carnegie Hill branch, saying it would destroy the neighborhood's character - and a prime film set. Testifying before the community board, Allen said, "I've always filmed in Carnegie Hill because it's one of the great small neighborhoods." Citibank has scaled back its plans, but not enough to make it fit in with the filmmaker's next production; Woody Allen testified against the new plan in City Hall.

In Queens these days, it is neither new restaurants nor new residences that have been inspiring the most ire from community groups. It is new schools. Although Queens has the most overcrowded schools in the city, opponents are attacking one proposed new school because it would add to congestion and another because (surprise) it would attract kids.

It is called "Not In My Backyard," or, simply, NIMBY, and it is everywhere in New York. This is a city, says David Lutz, executive director of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, where "no good idea goes unopposed." And no bad idea either.

People fight facilities that, they say, should not be anywhere, such as sex-related businesses -- and facilities that they say should be everywhere (except on their block), such as schools. They oppose projects that are generally viewed as needed but undesirable, such as homeless shelters and methadone maintenance centers. But some have been fighting parks. The battles that have been getting the most attention lately are those over new power plants, and over new places for our thousands of tons of daily garbage.

No one would argue that every facility conceived by any developer or politician should be built. But many fear that the balance has tipped too far against change. City Councilman John Sabini, chair of the council's siting subcommittee, says that government officials are reluctant to propose anything new. "We are not rewarded for proposing change in our neighborhoods."

Politicians are caught between demands from competing groups of constituents -- parents clamoring for smaller classes versus homeowners who see teenagers as a threat to their quality of life. Caught in this quandary Queens Borough President Claire Shulman has virtually begged for help.

"I don't mind taking heat from a neighborhood that doesn't want a school," she told community leaders "But please support us, because it is difficult enough as it is."

NOT ONLY IN NEW YORK

Some say that NIMBY, as a phrase if not a movement, began throughout America in the 1960's, as communities moved to take mentally ill people out of institutions and place them in small group homes.

"Nobody wanted such a group home in their backyard," writes Brenda McCormick. "They didn't want this population around their children. And NIMBY - not in my backyard - was coined."

High land costs and community opposition have made it so difficult to site schools throughout the country that many districts place them on abandoned landfills and industrial sites or next to other polluting facilities, according to a recent report by a coalition of environmental groups.

Opposition to new development is blamed for shortages of affordable housing in many cities. On the Long Island Expressway, NIMBY objections to a public comfort station force many motorists to drive the 60 miles to Riverhead in discomfort if not distress.

But perhaps the most arresting example comes from North Hollywood, where some residents favor alcohol over academia. A proposed school, property owner Guy Weddington McCreary told the Los Angeles Times would be "a knife in the back of the business district. We won't be allowed to have a liquor license close to a school. That will kill our night life."

Given New York's diversity and lack of space, NIMBY thrives here. According to one article, naysayers gained strength with the development of community boards. Although the boards' votes are merely advisory, they have influence over other government agencies and the city councilmembers who appoint them. Then too, New York's maze of laws helps activists to use lawsuits to delay or block almost anything.

I AM NOT NIMBY

NIMBY is one of those terms people never use to describe themselves. Instead, opponents present altruistic arguments to bolster their positions. A high rise would alter the architectural character of the neighborhood. School children should not have to cross a busy thoroughfare to get to school.

However valid the arguments, the other side tries to shoot them down with an accusation of NIMBYism, which has become a common pejorative:

"This is the usual NIMBY stuff that you face in New York City," Mayor Rudy Giuliani said last year dismissing critics of a proposed minor league baseball stadium in Queens.

At a forum for candidates for Manhattan borough president in 1997, one candidate accused another of appointing a "notorious NIMBY." to a community board.

An organization promoting needle exchange has distributed leaflets telling its supporter "How to deal with NIMBY opposition."

The charge has been raised in a range of recent battles, fairly or not:

SCHOOLS
Although the city has been adding new classrooms, some 53 percent of the public schools remain overcrowded, according to a survey by the Public Advocate. The crowding is particularly bad in Queens where classes frequently have 35 to 40 students. Officials say solving the problem is a priority, but they face a number of obstacles: money, staff shortages and, sometimes, community opposition.

Last year, residents of Maspeth attempted to block the building of a school, with some going so far as to say they'd rather see a Staples store on the Grand Avenue site. "We have too many schools in the neighborhood," resident Ralph Carbone was quoted as telling a city council subcommittee. "When school gets out, the kids destroy the neighborhood, graffiti, everything."

Sabini, whose subcommittee has to vote on school sitings, has said such problems arise partly because "there are no good sites left in the city. They've been taken."

But observers note that they can also reveal generational and ethnic divides. People whose children are already grown don't want to see an influx of young people, many of whom are the children of immigrants, in their community. In fact, in opposing the Maspeth school, one resident wrote, "We do not wish to become immigration's roadkill."

The Maspeth school is being built, but other controversies continue. One involves Queens College's proposal for a permanent home for a school on its campus focused on math and science for kindergarten through eighth grade. The school currently uses mobile classrooms on the campus

Queens College spokesman Ron Cannava said the college has tried to mollify the naysayers. But, he said, there continues to be "a small group of people finding another reason and another reason to object." Some of these opponents, he thinks, simply "feel very comfortable with the status quo," while others are against "anything in their community that is not exclusively for members of their community." The school would accept youngsters from all over Queens.

Arthur Alex, president of the Kew Garden-North Homeowners Association, has said his group is committed to stopping the school from being built anywhere on the campus. Citing increased traffic from school buses, as well as a need for parking spaces for staff, Alex charges the school could bring "untold environmental problems" to the community.

"ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM"
The closing of Fresh Kills landfill has sent some 13,000 tons of residential garbage a day to 13 waste transfer stations. There the refuse is taken off sanitation trucks, compacted and loaded on to other trucks that will take it to landfills outside New York. Not surprisingly, it's a dirty business, with diesel fumes from the trucks mixing with foul odors from the garbage.

Mark Izeman of the Natural Resource Defense Council, an environmental group, says such facilities "are among the most detested and unwanted land uses in the city." And they are concentrated in a few neighborhoods, largely poor and minority areas of the Bronx and Brooklyn.

Many of these communities are also slated for power plants, leading to charges of environmental racism -- the concentration of polluting facilities in poor and minority communities. Rather, such critics say, neighborhoods throughout the city should receive their fair share of the goods and the bads.

Eddie Bautista, a lawyer representing Williamsburg groups fighting power plants, has said, "It's NIMBY when communities that are not overloaded environmentally don't want a facility that's polluting in their community because of property values. . . .There's a clear difference between that and areas where there is worse air quality and higher asthma rates."

In her article on siting waste facilities in New York, Juliana Maantay, an assistant professor of environmental and urban geography at Lehman College, argues the issue is not only which neighborhood should accept a dirty plant. Instead, she argues, solutions, such as improved technology, should eliminate or reduce "the need for these noxious uses. So, she says, "Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) must become 'Not in Anybody's Back Yard (NIABY).'"

PARKS
"I'm very surprised when people say 'we don't want a park in our neighborhood,'" says David Lutz of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition. But some people do.

Plans for a new Brooklyn Bridge Park are going ahead but not without drawing opposition from some Brooklyn Height residents who, wrote Julian Barnes, "fear the park will attract hordes of people from outside the neighborhood to the narrow streets of well-preserved brownstones." While some residents say they object to traffic and congestion, their critics argue that the Brooklyn Heights residents really fear less affluent blacks and Hispanics from elsewhere in Brooklyn.

In the Bronx some residents decided not to link to a greenway because says Lutz, "The community to the north is scared of the community to the south."

COMMERCIAL DEVELOPMENT
Proposals for huge retail "superstores" and multiplex theaters have spurred heated battles throughout the city. Toys 'R' Us lost a bid for a store at 80th Street and Third Avenue, Pathmark encountered opposition as it attempted to place a store in Harlem, and people in Brooklyn are already preparing for a showdown over a possible Ikea store near the Gowanus canal.

Tonier development has its opponents too. Soho residents have opposed a new, small hotel on Thompson Street, acting, Deride Shaw observed in the Observer, like "an army of Erin Brockoviches -- except they were lacking any pitiful tale."

Whether power plants or power bistros, toilets or toy stores, homeless shelters or elegant hotels, NIMBY was here.

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