(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)
New Yorkers heading to the polls this fall have the opportunity to vote on amendments to New York City’s Charter – our city’s foundational governing document – that include changes to how we vote, police accountability, and budgeting. But one big topic will be missing: truly addressing our city’s broken land use system.
This didn’t have to be the case. When the City Council, then-Public Advocate Letitia James, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer came together to create this Charter Revision Commission in spring of 2018 there were high hopes for what it might accomplish. Unlike previous commissions charged with a narrow focus, Commission Chair Gail Benjamin announced, “This is a commission that received a broad mandate to overhaul the charter, which has not been done since 1989.” Instead of looking small, this commission would be going big.
Given the land use expertise of many of the appointed commissioners, including Chair Benjamin - and the expressed hopes of the elected officials who helped create the commission - advocates, New York City residents, and our elected representatives believed this broad mandate included the way our land use planning is done. During public hearings in all five boroughs, the commission heard more complaints about our broken land use process than any other issue.
The Thriving Communities Coalition formed in response to what we believed was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to overhaul our land use process, provide more access and accountability to average New Yorkers and address the needs of low-income communities and communities of color by working to end, rather than perpetuate, the legacy of historically racist planning.
As a coalition of grassroots organizing, advocacy, policy, and technical-assistance groups working across issue areas and neighborhoods, we knew first-hand the ways in which the planning process isn’t working: from the affordable housing and homelessness crisis - fueled in part by the rampant gentrification and displacement of formerly affordable communities - to the income and race inequalities that make us one of the most segregated and unequal cities in the country.
Throughout the charter reform process, the Thriving Communities Coalition fought for the commission to take up a comprehensive planning process that accounts for historical divestments from communities of color and a budget that equitably distributes resources - sharing our perspectives on the urgent need for real reform to empower disenfranchised communities and fight deeply entrenched racial and socio-economic inequality.
And yet in the end, the commission chose not to advance any meaningful land use reforms. Faced with the opportunity to make historic changes after hearing from a groundswell of folks about the urgent need, and after acknowledging in its preliminary report the “level of public disillusionment” with regards to land use and planning processes, the commission chose to settle, offering “tweaks” to the charter and rejecting calls for more transformational change.
Instead of comprehensive planning and the equitable distribution of resources, we have been offered an extended review period for Community Boards over the summer, and development plans being made public 30 days before the official public review starts. Instead of looking big, this commission went small.
We cannot wait another 30 years for a Charter Revision Commission that embraces its broad mandate to come along. Continuing the current land use process is unacceptable and unsustainable. While the status quo might work for developers and the powerful few, it does not work for most New Yorkers. Without meaningful changes, the processes we have now will only exacerbate inequality, segregation, and displacement. We will need more vision from our elected officials and leaders if we are to become a city where everyone has a chance to grow and thrive.
Chris Walters is the Rezoning Technical Assistance Coordinator at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development and a member of the Thriving Communities Coalition – a coalition of community-based and policy-oriented nonprofits focused on equitable land use and planning processes. On Twitter @ANHDNYC.