Gotham Gazette

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Corey Johnson: Master Planner?


City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

New York City doesn’t have a comprehensive plan for the future. There is no single guiding document that determines how housing will be built over the next decade, for example, overlaid with a strategy for meeting infrastructure needs like transit options and school seats, with unifying visions for social services and economic development. But such planning should exist, according to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is making several moves toward the type of planning that has mostly been eschewed by Mayor Bill de Blasio and other city leaders for decades.

Johnson, now in his third year as the leader of the 51-member legislative body, appears to have an eye on the future, including as one of the leading contenders in the 2021 mayoral race. Over the last year or so, he has taken the long-view on several issues of city governance, passing legislation and proposing policies that could have a structural impact well after he has left office, even if he wins the mayoralty and serves two terms. And there is more coming.

Johnson is no Robert Moses, but his burgeoning master-planner approach aims to transform the city’s streetscape, drastically reduce hunger and homelessness, build affordable housing, and create an overall blueprint for how the city changes over the coming decades. Some of his planning is already city law, like requiring a five-year “streets master plan” from the Department of Transportation and a 10-year food plan from the Office of Food Policy, while other aspects include a recently-released homelessness-reduction plan, an affordable housing plan that’s in development, and legislation to require comprehensive planning that’s being drafted. (He also recently jumped into the fray over the reconstruction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.)

It all could burnish his legacy as Council speaker and possibly serve him well in his mayoral campaign, where what he’s putting forth could influence if not set the terms of several essential policy debates sure to be central to the 2021 election.

His two main Democratic opponents at this time have their own defining approaches. Two-term City Comptroller Scott Stringer has developed individual plans for many issues, whether providing comprehensive child care to New Yorkers, creating more deeply affordable housing, or solving Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, also in his second term, wants to address issues in real time, bringing a data-based, CompStat-like paradigm – used by the NYPD to track and tackle crime – to City Hall and mayoral agencies. Adams has also made public health his signature issue.

In his first State of the City speech, in March of last year, Johnson focused solely on transit, calling for municipal control of the subways and buses, and promising the streets master plan to create a five-year template to build protected bike lanes, improve bus infrastructure, and add a million feet of new pedestrian space, while expanding accessibility at subway stations. By November, the bill had been signed into law by the mayor.

In August 2019, Johnson proposed a solution to the city’s severe hunger problem, pledging to eliminate food insecurity among the roughly 1 million New Yorkers who experience it. Over the last few weeks, a package of bills requiring the ten-year food policy plan and codifying the Office of Food Policy, among other initiatives, was passed by the Council.

And after attempts to include a comprehensive city plan in the City Charter failed to get the approval of the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission, Johnson decided to continue to pursue it through legislation, joining an effort pushed by Council Members Brad Lander and Antonio Reynoso and advocacy groups.

He also recently released the detailed proposal to address the city’s homelessness crisis, an albatross that has hung around de Blasio’s neck since he took office, with Johnson promising the complementary housing plan in the coming months, and arguing that he is putting forth those two sides of the same coin that should not be decoupled as de Blasio has done.

“One of the biggest gripes I hear from New Yorkers all the time is that city policy gets dictated to them on a block by block, development by development basis with no thoughts of an overall strategy,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “What happens on one street isn’t connected to what’s happening on the next few streets, and New Yorkers know this makes no sense. I think this is a big part of why we get bogged down on every single discussion of a bike lane or a bus lane or a new affordable housing proposal.”

He continued: “The city needs to be able to explain what’s happening in one community by providing the context of what the entire city needs. My Master Plan for city streets is going to revolutionize the way we get around our city, and hopefully it’s going to revolutionize the discourse around planning our streets too. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t use this approach for other aspects of city planning too.”

Many urban planning experts and advocates tend to agree. A formula for long-term and inclusive growth, they say, makes more sense than a reactionary approach to issues as they arise. On the other hand, some have argued that creating such a plan is unrealistic and that it will become outdated too quickly as needs and trends change.

“The challenges for the future of our city are long-term and government is not always good at dealing with long-term issues,” Lander said in a phone interview.

Part of the challenge presented by long-term issues is that city residents may not have the patience for long-term solutions while they expect short term fixes. “At most you’ve got the four-year mayoral cycle, and so often you have a much shorter news or Twitter cycle,” Lander added. “And so trying to plan for things like sea-level rise, for things like aging infrastructure, for the kinds of things where you really have to make some longer-term plans and longer-term investments, they don't always align well with mayoral politics. But we need to do it.”

“It's kind of like why you would always rather have a fatty, delicious meal,” Lander said, “rather than make a plan for how you're going to have a good healthy diet and exercise.”

But the lead-up to a mayoral race is an especially opportune time to put forth plans that make sense as both government proposals and campaign platforms, something Johnson, Stringer, and Adams are all showing they understand. (Other declared or exploring candidates for mayor include Dianne Morales, Loree Sutton, and Shaun Donovan.) The race for voting blocs and over visions for the city will be heating up each month until the all-important June 2021 primary.

While now is a time for thinking big for would-be mayors, the person who holds the top job in city government does have constraints. In the four years they have on the job, eight if they’re lucky or good at it, they’re constantly putting out fires, while also needing to show long-term vision and planning. They’re pressed to tackle issues like affordability, homelessness, crime, and schools, and criticized when they fail to show immediate results.

De Blasio’s predecessor (and current Democratic presidential candidate) Michael Bloomberg took some steps that suggested a long view. He created an Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability but its scope was not as wide as its name suggested and it mostly dealt with environmental protections and resilience initiatives. De Blasio later folded it into the Office of Environmental Coordination, which together became the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. Bloomberg’s housing policy did not take a holistic approach, but was largely based on unleashing market forces, while downzoning a number of whiter, outer-borough neighborhoods and upzoning many communities of color. He also showed more of an interest in big, splashy development projects than de Blasio has, including Atlantic Yards and Hudson Yards, for example.

De Blasio has faced similar questions and criticism about his approach to housing development. His affordable housing program, meant to create and preserve 300,000 units of rent-restricted housing over 12 years, has targeted low-income black and Latino communities for increased development and density, and he is constantly forced to defend its progress as New Yorkers complain of an increasingly unaffordable city. De Blasio has put forth other long-term plans that can't be completed until he's out of office, like the ten-year mission to close the Rikers Island jail complex and build four new local jails; efforts to combat climate change including through lowering building emissions; and a NYCHA rescue plan that is already behind schedule. De Blasio has yet to put forth a plan for integrating the city's deeply segregated public schools despite a task force he assembled putting forth a sweeping set of proposals in August of last year.

The mayor has faced significant pushback in recent attempts to rezone several communities of color as part of the effort to build more housing, including rent-regulated units, in part because residents don't see him asking wealthier, whiter neighborhoods to welcome the same new density and because fears of displacement seem to have only increased under de Blasio's tenure, despite his focus on equity and programs like free legal counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction.

Johnson's affordable housing plan is due soon. While he said at the press conference releasing his plan to tackle homelessness that the two issues should not be siloed -- he called for one deputy mayor to handle housing and homelessness, whereas they are now split under two -- it was somewhat ironic that he did not have his housing plan ready at the same time. It's in development, he said, and speaking with Gotham Gazette afterward he gave a slight preview, while also explaining how it will fit into the larger vision he's establishing.

Asked about his housing approach, he said "it needs to be responsible development" and "smart growth."

"[I]f you remember as part of my State of the City speech last year I said that we were looking at -- and I think we're close to being done with it -- a proposal that would give a density bonus for housing if it was near public transit," he continued. New housing needs to be targeted toward low- and extremely low-income New Yorkers, he said, but also middle-income people, and the planning needs to be tailored to different parts of the city. "We need to increase housing production, we aren't producing enough housing," Johnson said. "A lot of the housing that we are producing is luxury housing and it's not serving the needs of not just homeless New Yorkers, but middle-income people and low-income people."

"So one of the things we're looking at is a long-term comprehensive plan, and planning, in New York City," he said. "So I'm going to have the homelessness report, the affordable housing report, and the long-term planning report -- all of those things are kind of symbiotic with each other, and that's what we're looking at."

A comprehensive plan for housing and land use was a particular focus of the Thriving Communities coalition, made up of nonprofit advocates and experts who lobbied the 2019 Charter Revision Commission to consider a comprehensive planning amendment to the city’s governing document. The coalition included groups such as Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development (ANHD), Regional Plan Association (RPA), and others.

“It's pretty clear that there has been enough similar opposition in enough neighborhoods to the way that this administration has approached land use that there needs to be a fundamental shift,” said Emily Goldstein, director of organizing and advocacy at ANHD.

“I think in a lot of ways the problem isn't that this administration is doing something new, it's that they're doing more of the same,” she said. The mayor’s rhetoric of equity and fighting the 'Tale of Two Cities,' which elevated him to power, has mostly been a disappointment, she said, since “he's actually continued in a similar vein to some degree in his approach to the housing crisis, but even more so in an approach to land use and planning.”

Part of the complaint about that disparate and gradual approach, Goldstein said, is that it misses the forest for the trees. Even if the administration were to rezone several neighborhoods or even specific large-scale sites, for instance, to create more density and allow more mixed-income housing, there isn’t necessarily an assessment of how that will impact a borough or even the city. “There's really never a reckoning with the cumulative impact of all of those piecemeal actions,” she said.

“I think because this mayor has just sort of continued with planning the way things have always been done,” Goldstein continued. “It's left a little bit of a void that maybe other politicians would try to fill or step into.”

As its name implies, the Regional Plan Association, a research and advocacy organization that has worked on urban planning issues for more than 90 years, is especially focused on long-term planning and the health of the city and region. In 2017, the RPA released The Fourth Plan, a 25-year strategy document for the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut region. “We think long-term planning is necessary beyond the political cycle so that people understand how their communities are going to look and feel and they don't feel threatened by displacement,” said Kate Slevin, senior vice president of state programs and advocacy, in a phone interview.

“One strategy government can take is to lay out a long-term vision, and then have near-term goals in realizing that vision,” she added. “And the streets master plan is a very good example of that.”

Codified into law, the streets master plan and food policy plan will be harder for a future administration or Council to overturn or neglect. Though their effect may be hard to judge in the present, they may be models for tackling larger issues such as economic growth and more.

“All of these issues are so complex and so challenging that we can't really address them piecemeal and with one-off ideas,” said Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank. “They do require the full force of a big strategic plan.”

Dvorkin praised Johnson’s various initiatives, particularly the fact that they’re far from pie-in-the-sky ideas and are backed with concrete policy recommendations and implementation strategies. But he also noted that they may not have been possible without buy in from the de Blasio administration, made possible in part because “the rubber won’t really meet the road for another couple of years.” In that sense, he said, “in some ways, these are proposals for the next mayor more so than they are proposals in the short-term.”

The Council also doesn’t have to necessarily make the tough choices of how to fund these various programs in a government dynamic where the executive holds more power over the annual budget than the legislative branch, though the Council does negotiate and approve the budget.

But the fact that these will be issues for the next mayor to handle means that long-term strategies and who expresses them may play a role in deciding which candidate voters prefer in 2021.

“Transportation, environment, economic opportunity, all of these are going to be big issues in the next mayoral race,” said Slevin of RPA.

Lander said the commitments that candidates make on the campaign trail will also help inform how these plans are eventually formulated. “That's a great way for New Yorkers to get to see in concrete ways what the vision that a mayoral candidate would bring and a really good intervention to make in a mayoral election even before it becomes the actual plan itself,” he said.

Dvorkin said similarly, “I think it's clear at this point that the mayor isn't the only elected official considering his legacy right now. And unlike the mayor, obviously the speaker and others have their sights set on what's next. I don't fault them for that. On the contrary, I think having a real vision now that can actually get people excited about the kind of New York City that Speaker Johnson and other candidates for higher office envision, is a strategic necessity and it puts them in a good position.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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