Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Land Use/Zoning
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Lessons From Seattle on Community Planning
(August '01) Twelve years after the New York City Charter was revised to give the city's 59 community boards explicit authority to prepare their own plans, only a handful have been completed and approved. City officials do not encourage or support community planning. They do not believe in it. They think that such a large and diverse city requires a central authority -- City Hall, the Department of City Planning -- that people in neighborhoods will simply fight to keep things from getting built.
But a growing number of cities throughout the country are showing us that community planning can be done without mayhem. These include Minneapolis, Houston, Rochester, and Baltimore. But one of the most interesting is Seattle. The experience explodes nearly every myth that New York officials hold so dear about neighborhood planning.
WON'T GET ANYTHING DONE?
Seattle is one of the more interesting cases because in only four years, from 1994 to 1998, they produced 38 neighborhood plans with neighborhood participation. That is about ten times the rate of New York City's plan production.
Seattle's elected officials have shown strong support for neighborhoods; the Seattle City Council approved all of the plans. The city has allocated millions of dollars in capital funds for implementation, and voters recently passed three tax levies backed by the neighborhoods to fund improvements in libraries, parks and community centers. Some agencies have changed the way they do business with neighborhoods.
Skeptics in New York City downplay the importance of neighborhood plans because they say they are too parochial. They say the really important issues are city-wide, not local.
But the Seattle City Council learned about city-wide problems based on common recommendations that came out of the individual community plans.
The city planners in New York City are afraid neighborhood plans will be anti-development and go against any new building at higher densities. But the result was just the opposite in Seattle. Seattle's community planning effort followed publication of the city's 20-year Comprehensive Plan in 1994. That plan included controversial recommendations to concentrate new devel opment in 37 "Urban Villages." While some people went into the planning process to stop development of these growth centers, what came out of the process were positive statements of what kind of development the communities want.
"The plans have given developers insight into the amenities people want in their projects," says Roger Valdez, one of six Neighborhood Development Managers in Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods whose job it is to help organize plan implementation. "People are more invested now in the future of their neighborhoods and better able to advocate for their needs," says Valdez, who advocates balanced growth.
A PUSH TO "DOWNZONE"?
New York City's Department of City Planning is leery of taking their cue for zoning changes from neighborhoods because they're afraid everyone will want to downzone (which reduces the amount of floor area that can be built). So the planners maintain a monopoly on zoning policy.
But in Seattle there was no massive downzoning. Among the 38 neighborhood plans, none lowered the growth targets set out in the comprehensive plan. Some neighborhoods proposed rezoning, but downzoning to decrease development potential in one location was usually balanced by upzoning to increase it in another location. Some neighborhoods, like Pioneer Square near downtown, called for substantial new growth. According to Ann Sutphin of Seattle's Strategic Planning Office, the city's overall planning agency, most of the projected growth for Seattle can be accommodated within the city's existing zoning. This is also true in New York City, where there are millions of square feet of excess building capacity. Thus, the rezonings simply redistribute potential development.
WHO CONTROLS THE PLANNING PROCESS?
New York City has hundreds of neighborhoods and the city's planners don't want to make any commitment that the city can realistically help all of them. They think it would take too much time and too many of the city's planners would be drawn away from more important, city-wide concerns.
But in Seattle, most of the planning was done by volunteers, who controlled and "owned" the planning process and the plan itself. True, according to Kent Kammerer of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, the city never clearly outlined a planning process with discrete steps that each neighborhood should take, which caused confusion, prolonged the process, and burned out community activists and staff.
But the city of Seattle did not want to come in and dictate to neighborhoods how they should plan or what they should do -- possibly a prescription for failure in a city with strong civic and community groups distrustful of city hall and city planners (sounds like New York City!). If Seattle had a neat one-size-fits-all recipe for planning it may not have worked in the diverse conditions of a large city. It could have been easily manipulated by the professionals and in the end have no legitimacy as a grassroots effort.
The city gave each neighborhood funds to hire their own professional planner.
HOW IT CAN BE A SUCCESS IN NYC
In the end, the success of neighborhood planning depends on two elements. First, civic and community leaders must be able to work together and fashion a coherent vision for their neighborhoods that includes concrete projects and programs. They need to have the freedom to follow their own path. Secondly, elected city officials and agency personnel must engage in a dialogue with the neighborhoods so that their plans are inclusive and realistic. If government officials approach this with a real willingness to be a partner and not a boss, they will find that their own work will be transformed, enriched and better serve the neighborhoods. Government should provide the resources for neighborhood planning -- a relatively modest investment in making government work more efficiently and more effectively. If nothing else, it will save on the enormous expenditures the city makes to confront and combat neighborhood opposition.
In sum, the basic prerequisite for neighborhood planning is the political will to do it. Government leaders must trust neighborhoods as partners. New York City has had 59 community boards since 1977, but they have only advisory powers, limited funds, and no control over the city's budget. They get no help in planning. As a result, too many community boards become narrow-minded nay-sayers. Give them no responsibilities, and they act irresponsibly, thereby justifying their continued irrelevance.
Seattle's commitment to neighborhoods appears to enjoy a political consensus. It has become institutionalized. Paul Schell, Seattle's current mayor, inherited 38 plans and has worked with the City Council to get them imple mented. Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods, run by seasoned organizer Jim Diers, is an established advocate for neighborhoods and provides funds to implement the plans. They are the vehicle for citizen involvement and control over the city's budget.
In this election year in New York City, my hope is that the successful candidate for mayor will heed the example of Seattle and, through the mayor's Community Assistance Unit or other mechanism, set in motion a cooperative planning effort with our neighborhoods. The political will has to come first. The constructive dialogue between City Hall and the neighborhoods will follow.
Sites For Beginners:
- How Zoning Works - An overview of zoning: its definition, purpose and implementation in NYS and NYC. This primer also explains who has authority to make which decisions, with accompanying laws and citations. Excellent.
- NYC Department of Planning - The official City site. Not frequently updated, but a good repository for official New York City Land Use documents. Find the complete text of the Zoning Resolution (a hard copy would run you $400+) and downloadable zoning maps. Find out which zone you live in!
- Regional Plan Association - The venerable and still influential pro-planning organization. Particularly good for information on big-item controversies, e.g. Governor's Island. Second Avenue subway, anti-sprawl legislation. Check out their MetroLink proposal and the Gowanus Tunnel Study.
- NY Metro APA - A small site for the local chapter of the national professional organization: American Planning Association.
- Municipal Arts Society - A great place for all things regarding New York planning, architecture and design. Most relevant: the just released Briefing Book of Community-Based Plans available to download, which offers for the first time ever a comprehensive look at the sometimes spotty, sometimes inspired plans for (and from) each neighborhood across the city, complete with maps and community contact information.
- NYU's Urban Planning Links Page - This page is chock full of great land use links which focus both on NYC and the USA.
- Air Rights - An old Gotham Gazette Issue of the Week, still relevant and interesting, though a slightly arcane Land Use topic.
- Tenant Net - A great source for NYC real estate, if slightly biased toward the leassee.
- "The Cultivator by Martin Filler" - A fascinatingly critical article about Fredrick Law Olmsted and what's wrong with Witold Rybczynski's new biography of him. From The New Republic.
- New York Landmarks Preservation - Packed with information on preservation and restoration of landmarked buildings.
- New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission - The Official City site for landmarks preservation.
- Pace Law School Center for Land Use - Excellent introduction to land use issues by a leading academic think tank. Check out the "Land Use for Local Leaders" section.
- Van Alen Institute - An immense amount of information on current and future NYC land use issues. Start with the well organized, user-friendly contents page and then zero in on your prime concern.
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