Gotham Gazette Thu, 22 Apr 2021 23:03:53 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) The Pandemic Slowed Housing Construction in New York City; What's Next? 2 how pandemic impact

Mayor de Blasio at a housing construction site (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Last year, as the pandemic crushed the economy and public life, annual new housing construction in New York City dropped by 4,600 units to 20,200, the lowest since 2015, according to the city Department of City Planning. While new affordable housing kept pace with previous years and overall housing production picked up in the latter half of 2020, building permits remain relatively low in the first several months of this year, portending an uncertain future for the city's housing stock.

New York has faced a housing emergency for years before the onset of the pandemic, with low vacancy rates and a large portion of residents rent-burdened. The number of units on the rental market more than tripled last summer and remains more than double what it was pre-pandemic. But the ratio of new jobs to housing has remained high since the Great Recession and there is broad agreement among city planners and developers, among others, that more housing is a critical need in the near- and long-term.

“New housing, especially affordable housing, is key to an equitable recovery. Since construction resumed last year, New York’s housing production has been resilient, with ongoing significant levels of development, permits issued and a large amount of housing in the pipeline," wrote Joe Marvilli, a Department of City Planning (DCP) spokesperson, in an email. "DCP will continue to prioritize affordable housing, economic development, health and other facilities that meet community needs.”

A number of factors contributed to the dip in new housing, including an economy in freefall and a statewide construction halt on market-rate housing last spring. While the freeze on construction was lifted and economic conditions are improving, the fate of tax abatements in Albany and the attitude of incoming city lawmakers'  toward development could make the difference between a slow ramp-up to pre-pandemic levels and an explosion of housing production.

"Maintaining this average rate of production in the teeth of the pandemic is, in one sense, very good – perhaps, even surprising – news," said Carl Weisbrod, an urban development consultant and former head of the Department of City Planning and City Planning Commission, in response to the latest housing construction figures. "On the other hand, if New York City is to significantly address its housing shortage, it must up the game on housing production."

While low compared to recent years, the number of new housing built in 2020 was buoyed by ongoing affordable housing production, especially in the Bronx, which continued through the construction freeze (from March 30 to June 8) thanks to an exemption for "essential" projects. New housing in the Bronx was stable between 2019 and 2020, with roughly 4,400 units completed each year, according to the Department of City Planning, while Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan saw completion numbers dip. Seventy percent of the new housing in the Bronx was considered affordable.

East New York, the first neighborhood to be rezoned under Mayor Bill de Blasio's signature affordable housing initiative, Housing New York, had the most units finished of any neighborhood in 2020 at around 1,000, due largely to the completion of several fully-affordable buildings on Fountain Avenue.

The city is advancing rezonings in the SoHo-Noho section of Manhattan and in Gowanus, Brooklyn, to allow new housing construction and residential conversions in more affluent, amenity-rich neighborhoods. Under legislation enacted in 2016 known as Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH), a certain percentage of new units in the rezoned areas would be required to be affordable (there are different ratios of market-rate to rent-regulated units that can be applied depending on affordability levels). A number of other neighborhoods and swaths of the city have been discussed for such rezonings to foster more housing and community improvements under the next administration.

"We came up with a target of about 25,000 units a year...and that's what we've been able to do despite the pandemic," said Jeremy House, a spokesperson for the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). In 2020, HPD financed the construction or preservation of roughly 29,500 units, more than the 26,260 the year before. He said the city is on pace to reach 300,000 affordable units by 2026, Housing New York's twelve-year goal. To date, the city has financed almost 178,000 apartments, according to HPD's website. The full scope of changes to the affordable housing landscape is hard to determine because HPD does not track how many units exited affordability.

There were about 3.5 million housing units citywide in 2017, according to the HPD's latest available Housing and Vacancy Survey

On top of the unhalted affordable housing construction, "[w]e have made real progress on affordable housing during the de Blasio administration in large measure due to the allocation of substantially more capital dollars to affordable housing, in part due to [Mandatory Inclusionary Housing]," said Weisbrod, referring to the 2016 legislation that requires a certain level of affordability when rezonings for more housing are approved, whether for a single plot of land or a larger area. Other programs like legal services for tenants facing eviction "have also helped reduce the number of affordable units falling out of the affordable housing stock – a not insignificant data point,” Weisbrod added.

As the city continues to finance affordable housing under the mayor’s plan, key questions include how much overall housing will be produced in the city in the near-term and beyond, and whether city government can help encourage a building boom that may contribute to a more affordable city with space for everyone who wants to live in it.

"It was wise for government officials to recognize the critical need for affordable housing by ensuring those projects could continue moving forward last year," said Basha Gerhards, senior vice president for planning at the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), the city's largest association of developers. "We absolutely need more affordable housing. However, it’s important to understand that we also need more housing overall and we need City and State policies that can practically facilitate efforts to increase the number of below market rate units as part of that housing growth.”

According to the Real Estate Board of New York, since the end of the 2008 recession, the city added over 858,000 jobs but only 125,000 newly constructed units, a rate of .15 new units per job. Pre-pandemic, the population was expected to grow by over half a million by 2040.

In the last decade, New York has trailed behind 17 other major U.S. cities in terms of housing units permitted per resident (25.3 units per 1,000 residents), according to an analysis from Citizens Budget Commission. The city added 206,000 units to the housing stock in the last decade, just over 20,000 per year. In this year’s mayoral election, former federal and city housing secretary Shaun Donovan, has said the city should be building about 50,000 units of housing per year, the largest number cited by any candidate.

The need for affordable housing has increased in the past two decades. From 2002 to 2017 median rents increased 37%, while renter income grew only 20%, according to a presentation from DCP and HPD. While the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) accounts for 8% of the city's housing stock, it makes up 79% of rentals under $500 per month. Close to 50,000 individuals stay in city Department of Homeless Services shelters each night, with tens of thousands more in other shelters or types of temporary housing.

Coming out of the first year of the pandemic, encouraging employment figures and businesses reopening mean the landscape is ripe for new housing growth, experts say. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, New York City's seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate dropped below 12% in March for the first time since March 2020. Last month, private-sector employment topped 3.5 million, an increase of about 42,000 from the month prior, according to a recent report from city Comptroller Scott Stringer's office. "Private employment remains 578,000 below pre-pandemic highs of February 2020, but has grown by 324,000 since the shutdown of April 2020," according to the report.

While after an early-pandemic dip median asking rent has been relatively stable since last fall, the number of available units has dropped, which the comptroller's report suggests indicates "a stabilizing market." The number of available rentals fell to 55,000 in February, far greater than pre-pandemic levels but significantly lower than the decade-high of 75,000 reached in August. "Some of the decline may be due to landlords pulling apartments from the market in anticipation of a stronger demand in the future," the report warns.

With robust vaccination efforts, businesses reopening, and jobs increasing, the city is poised to begin increasing housing production. But whether and when it will reach pre-pandemic levels depends on more than just improving macroeconomic factors.

"There is going to be a slow and steady ramp up, it's not going to be like this one 'aha' moment," said Alicia Glen, a former Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development who spearheaded the Housing New York plan, in an interview.

"But I also think because of a bunch of regulatory things that are happening -- the...expiration of 421a -- and the very, very toxic anti-development politics which have taken root, you're going to see an overall slowdown in production," she added.

By the end of 2020, the number of units with active permits issued in any year was around 89,000, roughly the same as previous years, according to the Department of City Planning, though Glen believes much of that could evaporate before units are completed. "People could have filed for lots of plans but nothing counts until you have foundation permits and it's real. There's a big fall off between what DCP will have and what will actually happen, generally speaking."

In the current fiscal year (FY21) through March, the number of new housing units permitted, either in new construction or alterations to existing buildings, stood at roughly 21,400, a 10,000-unit drop in permitted units from the year prior and the lowest it's been since at least fiscal year 2018, according to the city Department of Buildings. Foundation permits in 2020 dropped by about 500 to roughly 1,300 from the year before.

“Of course developers want to advance new projects that will deliver more housing, including affordable housing," said Gerhards of REBNY. "But we need to remember that even before the pandemic created new economic challenges, virtually all below market rate housing construction in New York City relied on both private sector financing and some form of property tax benefit to address immense construction costs and the City’s inequitable property tax system that disincentives the creation of rental housing. It’s going to be crucial for elected officials and policymakers to keep that in mind as we move forward."

Also on the table are proposals to convert distressed hotels and office buildings into housing, to legalize and advance ways to create livable basement housing ("accessory dwelling units"), and more.

Developers are concerned about the expiration of the 421-a tax abatement program, which is set to lapse in June 2022 and provides incentives for building affordable housing, though it has been questioned for its efficiency. At least one leading candidate in this year’s race for mayor, Comptroller Stringer, has called for an end to the program.

"Not sending signals that that is going to be renewed is having a real deterrent effect," Glen said. Critics of the program have called it a give-away to developers, who they say would build the housing anyway, and that it often does not lead to housing that is affordable enough for New Yorkers with the lowest incomes. But, according to Gerhards of REBNY, the last time 421-a expired there was a massive drop in permit filings until there was a new program.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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The Pandemic Slowed Housing Construction in New York City; What's Next? Tue, 20 Apr 2021 04:00:00 +0000
WATCH: Experts Discuss What's Next for New York City, Including Help from Washington 1 unveils vision airport

Joe Biden in New York (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)

On a new episode of CUNY TV, host Bob Liff talks with four expert panelists -- former City Planning leader Carl Weisbrod, Assemblymember Amanda Septimo, Laura Nahmias of the Daily News Editorial Board, and Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max -- about what's next for New York City's recovery, including what the city may expect from the Biden administration and Democratic Congress. Watch:

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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WATCH: Experts Discuss What's Next for New York City, Including Help from Washington Wed, 03 Mar 2021 05:00:00 +0000
What's The [DATA] Point? 5, The 2019 Charter Revision Questions on Your Ballot whats the data point

What's The [Data] Point? Episode 82 -- 5, The 2019 Charter Revision Questions on Your Ballot, with Gail Benjamin and Carl Weisbroad of the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

wtdp 82There are 19 proposals to change city government and elections in five "yes" or "no" questions on this year's ballot in New York City. They were put on the ballot by a Charter Revision Commission. The chair of the commission, Gail Benjamin, and one of the commissioners, Carl Weisbrod, joined the podcast to discuss the commission's work and the proposals voters can approve or disapprove over the next few weeks.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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What's The [DATA] Point? 5, The 2019 Charter Revision Questions on Your Ballot Wed, 16 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
There are NYPD Oversight Measures on the Ballot - How Significant are They? police academ gra

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

New York City may soon take several steps toward strengthening the power of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB, the agency responsible for investigating misconduct allegations against police officers.

Voters have the opportunity to approve or reject a package of CCRB-related measures on this fall’s ballot, just months after the Board played a consequential role in the high-profile trial of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, resulting in his firing by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill.

The 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission has placed five “yes” or “no” questions on this fall’s ballot, one of which includes five proposed CCRB reforms. Perhaps the most controversial of the five is expanding the jurisdiction of the Board to include investigating some instances of suspected lying by police officers. It is a step police reform advocates say is important but which has limitations that illustrate the city’s caution toward tightening the reins on police misconduct.

The ballot question, which will be the second of the five presented to voters during early voting or on Election Day, also includes expanding the size of the Board and changing certain appointment processes; giving the CCRB a budget large enough to hire staff of a certain size relative to that of the NYPD force; providing the CCRB executive director subpoena power; and requiring that the police commissioner provides written explanation to the CCRB when the commissioner “intends to depart or has departed from discipline recommended by the CCRB” or by one of the NYPD’s top internal trials officials.

The proposals, which will pass or fail together, could significantly impact the performance of the Board in its work to hold officers accountable in cases of alleged excessive force, abuse of authority, and other specifically-outlined examples of possible misconduct. They are being put before voters, along with other changes to city elections and governance, during what is expected to be a very low-turnout election and amid heightened attention, both in New York City and nationally, toward police misconduct, transparency, and consequences for officers who break their pledge to protect and serve the public.

In sum, the reforms amount to changes that CCRB officials and police accountability watchdogs believe would help the board operate more efficiently and independently.

“I think on the whole they are good for the agency and will help to advance civilian oversight of certain disciplinary aspects of the NYPD, those that fall within our jurisdiction,” said Fred Davie, the chair of the CCRB appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

The CCRB is a police oversight agency made up of civilians that falls outside the NYPD but is part of the disciplinary framework for officers accused of certain kinds of misconduct. Agency staff and the Board it reports to are empowered by the City Charter to investigate complaints of officers using unnecessary force or abusing their authority as police and recommend discipline to the police commissioner.

Davie said there has not necessarily been a proliferation of false statements made by officers during the course of the Board’s investigations, “but where there might be, we should be able to investigate that and then work out the appropriate discipline to recommend to the police commissioner.” That power is currently beyond the Board’s reach.

The false official statements provision is the only one that actually expands the Board’s jurisdiction. The rest have to do with CCRB operations, though they also have the potential for significant impact.

On the proposal related to guaranteeing a CCRB budget tied to NYPD headcount, Davie said it will provide a baseline in budget negotiations and “increase the agency’s stability and effectiveness.”

The proposed changes to the size of the Board and structure of appointments to it would limit the influence of the mayor -- who also appoints the police commissioner -- and give the City Council far more power in selecting appointees, including the chair. It would also add an appointee by the public advocate.

The Charter Revision Commission this year was chaired by an appointee of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and was balanced with other appointments made by the mayor, public advocate, comptroller, and borough presidents, with no one authority having a majority (though all but one are Democrats). It tackled a wider range of charter issues in its public hearings than previous commissions appointed by mayors, including some targets that have never before been touched.

The commission ultimately came up with 19 proposals in the form of five ballot questions dealing with elections, the CCRB, ethics, the city budget, and land use, all of which are expected to be approved by voters. There has been little public push for or against any of the five sets of reforms, other than a coalition organized to seek passage of ranked-choice voting for certain city elections, which will be question one on the ballot.

The potential changes to police oversight, many of which have long been supported by reformers, are modest enough to have avoided a concerted public effort to defeat the proposals, particularly from the labor unions representing NYPD officers. The Police Benevolent Association, the largest police officer union, did not return a request for comment for this article.

False Official Statements
“The proposed reform related to the CCRB obtaining authority to prosecute officers who lie during the investigation process is by far the most important charter amendment for voters to look for this [fall],” said Cynthia Conti-Cook, an attorney at Legal Aid Society with experience litigating police transparency matters.

The CCRB was established in its current all-civilian form (former NYPD officers are regularly appointed by the police commissioner) in 1993 to investigate complaints made against officers from outside the NYPD. Over the years its budget has increased and its authority expanded to allow it to prosecute substantiated cases in a police trial setting.

Its jurisdiction is restricted to “FADO” -- unnecessary force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, and offensive language -- complaints, which must be made by civilians in order to be investigated. The charter amendments would, among other things, expand that jurisdiction to include lying to CCRB investigators.

But the reform does have significant limits. It applies only to the police officer(s) originally under investigation and not to any other officers who may provide false testimony related to the inquiry. Even if the CCRB has proof that an officer lied to its investigators, it has no ability to initiate a new case on the matter.

This means that police witnesses who lie to protect a colleague under investigation or to shield their own behavior, when not the subject of an ongoing investigation themselves, can do so without recourse from the CCRB.

Currently, when the CCRB has evidence of an officer lying, it refers the case to the NYPD’s internal affairs bureau where it gets dealt with out of public view. Because of a provision in the state’s Civil Rights Law known as Section 50-a, any discipline issued by the police department, including any action against dishonest officers, is sealed.

Limits of CCRB Proposals
Gail Benjamin, the chair of the Charter Revision Commission that created the ballot proposals, told Gotham Gazette the body was limited in how much it could expand the authority of the CCRB to investigate misconduct because of a catch-22 involving the complaint-initiated nature of the agency’s mandate.

“Because the CCRB can only investigate based on a complaint and a complainant, if there are other officers, somebody else would have to complain about them in order for the CCRB to have jurisdiction. Their jurisdiction, as I said, is only over FADO and other officers would be outside of that," she said in an interview.

A State Supreme Court ruling from February determined that the City Charter barred the CCRB from initiating an investigation or gathering evidence without first receiving a complaint. But because this is an issue of the City Charter and not state law, the Charter Revision Commission had the authority to deal with it.

“To the extent that that is a limitation of the Charter then the Charter Revision Commission could have looked at altering those provisions in order to expand the CCRB’s mandate, but didn’t in this case,” said Michael Sisitzky, lead policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), in an interview. He said he is not aware of any state law that would prevent the CCRB from beginning an investigation without a civilian complaint.

“I can't say that that was an issue that came up. What came up was how to affect the greatest change. I'm not sure what would have happened if it had,” said Benjamin.

“I'm not sure we would even have the jurisdiction,” she added. “It's a very complicated question to change and pull out one thing."

“I think to me the emphasis was on materiality,” Carl Weisbrod, a commissioner appointed by de Blasio, told Gotham Gazette in a brief interview. “The person who is being looked at at the CCRB is the officer who is under investigation, and that I think was the rationale.”

‘We haven’t seen that willingness’
The commission’s relatively narrow expansion of the CCRB’s jurisdiction is in some ways characteristic of the history of resistance to bringing police oversight outside of the purview of the police department itself.

From the early days of investigating civilian complaints in the mid-1960s when the powerful Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association fought to keep the function within the NYPD, to earlier this year when Gotham Gazette reported on the secret effort by de Blasio administration officials to lobby commissioners to scuttle the provision related to officer lying -- attempts to create a police accountability framework independent of the NYPD has met resistance. Only after a second vote and a change of heart this year did the commissioners move to place false official statements on the ballot in its circumscribed form.

Other measures sought by police reformers never made it onto the ballot. Things like bringing school safety agents and other peace officers under the jurisdiction of the CCRB were proposed but never taken up. High on the list for reform advocates was codifying the CCRB’s administrative prosecutorial unit (APU), through which the CCRB prosecutes cases of misconduct when the Board is seeking the highest forms of discipline.

Currently governed by a memorandum of understanding, the CCRB’s APU provides a layer of oversight that can have large consequences. It was the APU that brought charges against Officer Pantaleo for Garner’s death, which led to a guilty verdict by the NYPD trial judge and Commissioner O’Neill to dismiss Pantaleo from the force this summer.

Only one provision in the APU agreement was picked up by the Charter Revision Commission to be codified in the Charter despite advocates pushing for more. Under the proposed amendments, the police commissioner will be required to explain in writing to the CCRB in any instance when deviating from a disciplinary recommendation, as is currently required under the memorandum of understanding.

“I think it’s disappointing on the one hand that we haven’t seen that willingness to take on expanding the CCRB’s mandate,” said Sisitzky, especially on the issue of peace officers and on strengthening the board’s “ability to actually make discipline stick.”

“But I don’t want that to take away from the fact that there are important changes being proposed to the CCRB as part of this ballot measure that we support and want to see enacted,” he said.

Layers of Accountability
To reform advocates, the changes made to give the CCRB greater sway in the Sity Charter are important but limited in their impact because state law gives the police commissioner the ultimate authority to discipline members of the force.

“The CCRB is ultimately not given more teeth in terms of being able to enforce penalties, but allowing an independent agency to conduct investigations into false statements made to that agency is still an important way for the agency to have increased authority to hold officers accountable,” said Sisitzky.

NYPD officials have expressed concerns about the package of amendments and said that the system of referring cases of misconduct to the department’s internal affairs team works well, especially in instances of false official statements. “Currently, the CCRB has been integrated into this framework and makes referrals to Internal Affairs when it suspects an officer has made a false statement during its investigation,” wrote Al Baker, the NYPD’s director of media relations, in an email.

“Going forward, it is imperative for the integrity of our criminal justice system that a uniform standard remain in place when assessing the serious issue of officer credibility," Baker added.

According to police reform advocates, however, the current system is not doing enough to curtail police lying to the CCRB. “The fact that false statements made it into the ballot is incredibly important because false statements are given in almost every police killing and misconduct case our members have worked on,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, director of the advocacy coalition Communities United for Police Reform, in an interview.

Over 130 cases of police making false official statements to CCRB investigators were referred to the NYPD between 2014 and 2018 (nearly half of which occurred in 2015 alone), according to a report provided by the CCRB. That figure includes only the cases where the CCRB had enough evidence to prove an officer lied without initiating a separate investigation into the matter.

Officer credibility is also a concern for New York City prosecutors, who often rely on police testimony at trial. WNYC reported in April that district attorneys in all five boroughs kept files of police dishonesty and Bronx DA Darcel Clark recently released a large portion of her office’s files to Gothamist following a Freedom of Information request.

City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Republican representing parts of Staten Island and a candidate this fall for New York City Public Advocate, is opposed to expanding the authority of the CCRB in many ways, saying he’s voted against giving the agency the power to prosecute misconduct and supports limiting the scope of “what it can do unilaterally against police officers.” Borelli told Gotham Gazette he would be voting against the CCRB ballot proposals.

But he backs the measure to allow the CCRB to pursue cases of police lying, he said. “If that was a stand-alone bill I’d probably support that,” he said in an interview.

“Because what is the point of having a court if you can’t validate a statement people make while they are swearing...before it. That to me is not a problem,” he said.

Layers of Obfuscation
In the interview, Borelli ruminated on whether police witness testimony in CCRB investigations was that important. “With all the video evidence we have now of most incidents with body cameras, usually the fact pattern is pretty established,” he said.

But establishing the facts through video evidence is a difficult task for the CCRB, Board representatives have said, and one that has led agency officials to push for other reforms on the ballot.

CCRB Executive Director Jonathan Darche testified before the Charter Revision Commission in March about the need for the agency’s highest ranking staff to have subpoena power. Currently, the CCRB chair can sign subpoenas after a vote of the Board, at times creating a period during which material evidence may be lost.

Many of the subpoenas the Board issues are to government agencies or businesses for evidence, especially video surveillance, which don’t necessarily have a system for preserving recordings, according to Davie, the Board’s chair. The Charter Revision Commission proposal will allow the CCRB to delegate its subpoena power to the executive director so the agency can more quickly respond to and acquire potential evidence.

The CCRB also has trouble obtaining body-worn camera footage from the police department, noted CCRB communications director Colleen Roache, despite the Charter-mandated duty to cooperate with the Board’s investigations. Since the complete rollout of body-worn cameras to NYPD patrol officers in March, month-to-month between 29 and 37 percent of CCRB investigations have pending footage requests with the NYPD. Roughly 13 percent of cases are pending for more than 90 days. The NYPD has not put forth publicly any formal policy for releasing body camera footage to the CCRB or the public at large.

“The step that has been taken helps,” Davie told Gotham Gazette, referring to the false statements ballot proposal. “It’s a step in the right direction, and if expanding it makes our ability to do our job better then of course we would not be opposed to that.”

Another layer of obfuscation is Section 50-a, the part of state law that prevents public disclosure of police disciplinary records, which the Charter Revision Commission does not have the power to suggest changing via ballot referendum. Because of Section 50-a, the public has no ability to see the outcome of CCRB investigations, even when it substantiates complaints of misconduct.

“If we should ever be able to repeal 50-a, [the false official statements amendment] might even add a little more transparency,” said Davie. Davie has never taken a public position on Section 50-a “other than recognizing the challenges it poses to the agency,” according to a CCRB spokesperson, but he will be testifying at a State Senate hearing on a bill that would repeal the law taking place in Manhattan on Thursday.

Amending the City Charter to allow the CCRB to go after officers under investigation who lie, he believes, will enhance the agency’s abilities to serve its mandate. “I think that it adds integrity to the process. It adds another level of accountability,” he said of what the commission has proposed.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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There are NYPD Oversight Measures on the Ballot - How Significant are They? Mon, 14 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
2019 Charter Revision Commission Seeks to 'Tweak,' Not Upend City Balance of Power abny better

Carl Weisbrod, left, and Gail Benjamin

A series of proposals on the ballot before New Yorkers this fall is meant to revisit city political power dynamics established after the 1989 Charter Revision Commission, which 30 years ago reshaped New York City government into its current form. That is what Gail Benjamin and Carl Weisbrod, two leaders of the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, said during a Wednesday morning discussion hosted by the Association for a Better New York and Citizens Union at the New School.

From the early voting period of October 26 through November 3 and on Election Day, November 5, New York City voters will be able to vote “yes” or “no” on five ballot questions that include 19 potential New York City Charter changes, such as instituting ranked-choice voting in some elections; sharpening the teeth of the city’s police oversight board; protecting the annual budgets of several elected officials; giving community boards more warning about land use changes; and more.

Benjamin and Weisbrod stressed that they want to educate the public on the new proposals and push people to go to the polls to vote in what most acknowledge will be a very low turnout election. There are few electoral races on the ballot this fall.

Most charter revision commissions have been created and appointed entirely by the mayor to examine and revise the powers, structures, and processes outlined in the city’s central governing document, often with the outcome of making narrow changes that conform to the mayor’s agenda.

The 2019 Charter Revision Commission is different. It is the first charter commission formed by the City Council, not the mayor, with the authority to select commissioners shared among the Council, mayor, public advocate, comptroller, and borough presidents, leaving no one entity with a majority of appointments.

The result, Benjamin and Weisbrod believe, is a set of proposals that, if approved by voters, will helpfully refine -- but not significantly upend -- the balance of powers between the executive and legislative branches of city government, and give the City Council and other city offices like the public advocate more authority, especially in the areas of budgeting and appointments.

“The fundamental question before the commission was, ‘Fundamentally, is the balance of power between the executive branch and legislative branch correct,’” Weisbrod said.

Considering the proposals that came before the commission this year, “a lot of them would have radically altered that balance of power” in the city, Weisbrod said. “I think the proposals you see before you are in some respects a tweaking of that balance of power, but not really a fundamental change in that balance of power.”

The commission did not, for example, propose to voters that community boards get veto power in the land use review process, that the City Council get more say in designing the annual municipal budget, or that members of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) become popularly-elected.

“I think that what we’ve done will redound to the credit of each one of the citizens of the city, and will help organize and stabilize the city going forward for the next 30 years until there is another major charter commission,” Benjamin, who chaired the 2019 commission, told the audience.

Charter revision commissions modify the City Charter by putting proposed amendments on the ballot in the form of referenda for voters to approve (or not). According to the law, charter commissions are supposed to be independent of the officials who appoint them, and are mandated to examine every chapter of the Charter, soliciting input from the public and experts.

The 15 commissioners of the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, including Benjamin and Weisbrod, heard over a thousand proposals before staff whittled the list down to 45, of which the commission took up 19. Those 19 proposed charter amendments will appear on the ballot in the form of five questions covering: elections; the Civilian Complaint Review Board; ethics and governance; city budget; and land use.

The 1989 commission was empanelled to deal with the redistribution of power necessitated by the abolition of the Board of Estimate, which the Supreme Court had found unconstitutional for violating the principle of one-person-one-vote. The 1989 commission established a strong executive branch, while the City Council gained powers over land use and some budget authority, and the mayor controlled most of the other powers that had been held by the Board of Estimate, including a great deal of influence over the size and details of the city budget, according to Benjamin.

“We wanted to look at how that was working after 30 years and after changes that were not foreseen,” Benjamin said. Chief among those unforeseen changes were term limits for city elected officials, especially members of the City Council.

In 1993 and again in 1996, voters approved two-term limits on the mayor, City Council, and other elected offices. In 2008, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and collaborators in the Council passed a law extending term limits to three terms, which was later reversed in a subsequent referendum in 2010.

“I believe that, having worked at the Council in particular, the term limits of the Council led to a body that could not easily be an effective balance against the mayor,” said Benjamin, who was appointed chair of the commission by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. Because “we already have a strong mayoral system,” she added, “it is important and significant, therefore, to spread power out overall so that other voices are heard.”

Two guiding principles of the 2019 commission, the two commissioners told the audience Wednesday morning, was not to take up issues that could be addressed through Council legislation or the mayor’s rulemaking, and not to take up charter amendments recently addressed by voters. The body left term limits aside and went after more granular adjustments to empower the Council.

Some of these ‘tweaks’ deal with the city budget, addressing concerns about a mayor using budget power to target political opponents rather than advance a fiduciary cause. The 2019 commission is proposing guaranteed budgets for the public advocate and borough presidents, two categories of elected office that often serve as a foil to the mayoralty. Another 'tweak' would require the mayor to submit revenue estimates to the City Council earlier in the fiscal year and budget modifications within 30 days of updating the city’s financial plan.

The budget proposals “are an effort to redress that possibility without fundamentally damaging the power of the executive to determine what the overall size of the budget should be -- what the revenue estimates are -- without changing the Council’s role in appropriations,” Weisbrod said.

The 2019 Charter Revision Commission also adjusted the method for appointing the Corporation Counsel, the city’s lawyer, to give the City Council advice and consent power. “The Corporation Counsel doesn’t represent the mayor; the Corporation Counsel represents the city,” said Weisbrod, explaining why the proposal makes sense, though he expressed reservations about it.

Expanding the powers of the CCRB proved to be one of the most contentious issues, unfolding before the 2019 commission against the backdrop of high-profile disciplinary proceedings for Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who in 2014 used the forbidden chokehold that led to Eric Garner’s death on Staten Island.

The CCRB is an independent oversight agency charged with investigating and prosecuting certain cases of police misconduct. Among the charter commission’s proposals are one that would give the CCRB the authority to investigate false official statements made by an officer under investigation. Currently, the agency can only refer their suspicions that an officer is lying to the police department to be dealt with internally.

That proposal was the only ones recommended by the commission’s staff that was not initially taken up by the commission, in part because of a clandestine effort by de Blasio administration officials to lobby commissioners. After a change of heart, the commissioners reversed their decision and voted to place it on the ballot.

“I think that was by far the most heated issue we’ve dealt with,” Weisbrod, an appointee of de Blasio, said Wednesday. “I guess land use, which we felt was too complicated and inappropriate in many ways to deal with in the charter was another,” he added.

“I think that’s the only life and death issue that we’re dealing with here,” Commissioner Sateesh Nori told Gotham Gazette in June. Nori, an appointee of then-Public Advocate Letitia James, was not part of Wednesday’s panel.

For Weisbrod, the most impactful proposal before voters is not related to police, but to city elections. “At least in my view, the most consequential recommendation that the [charter commission] has come up with is ranked-choice voting,” he said Wednesday.

The method, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, rather than selecting just one, “will fundamentally, in my view, change the way we go about electing our local representatives,” said Weisbrod. Supporters of ranked choice voting, like Weisbrod and Benjamin, believe it will change the way campaigns are run in the city by forcing candidates to reach constituents beyond their base of support and eliminate the need for costly runoff elections in primaries.

The five questions containing the 19 proposed Charter amendments will appear on one page of the ballot in 7.5 point font, according to Benjamin. Voters will have the opportunity to vote on the ballot proposals on Election Day, November 5, and at their designated early voting site between October 26 and November 3.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

2019 Charter Revision Commission Seeks to 'Tweak,' Not Upend City Balance of Power Wed, 25 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Experts Point to Anxiety, Short-Sightedness and Political Climate in Amazon Deal Demise Amazon deal New York announcement

Announcing the Amazon deal that later fell apart (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Current and former city officials and veteran city planners met Monday night to discuss the interplay of politics and policy in the notorious demise of the plan to site an Amazon campus in Long Island City.

A central theme of the panel discussion, hosted by the Urban Land Institute in midtown Manhattan, was the balance the city must strike between articulating and acting on its long-term need for growth and the experiences of people immediately impacted by development.

How the dynamics of those relationships played out in the lifecycle of the Amazon deal was the source of regret and reflection amongst the panel participants, all of whom presented views in support of the tech giant’s migration to New York.

Entitled “Does Amazon Signal the End of a Pro-Growth Political Climate in NYC?,” the discussion occurred before an audience of many urbanists, developers, and architects; and featured James Patchett, president and CEO of the city’s Economic Development Corporation; Carl Weisbrod, former chair of the City Planning Commission; Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect who oversaw the Manhattan office of the Department of City Planning in the early 2000s; and Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, who served as moderator.

The conversation had an air of familiarity -- the result, for the most part, of decades working at the center of New York City development efforts. While all four participants agreed that continued growth is a necessity and the Amazon campus was a lost opportunity, there were nuanced opinions on whether growth is inevitable in a city as big and diverse as New York, and what the political climate has to do with it.

As they agreed on the need for growth, the panelists also agreed populist opposition to economic development projects around the city has shown that the city needs to do a better job communicating the benefits of those projects to the city as a whole.

“We do have a process problem,” Chakrabarti said. “Process is important and I think that people needed to feel like things weren’t happening in some backroom deal.”

Shortly before Amazon announced its plan to move to Queens last November, Crain’s reported that the state intended to circumvent the city’s land use review process, which gives deference to local City Council members and incorporates a lengthy public process. Days later, Amazon announced it would come to New York, triggering a backlash to the project, expressed largely by a core of progressive politicians and advocates expressing a range of criticisms about Amazon as a company, as well as the deal and the process that led to it.

“I think it's less what we -- we meaning the city and state governments -- did wrong than the times that we are in, in New York,” said Weisbrod, who after decades mostly in city government is now a consultant. “And I do think we all know we're in a period, on one hand, of extraordinary success in New York, and at the same time that success has created a lot of anxiety among a lot of people.”

Patchett, who was intimately involved in wooing Amazon to the city, expanded on the idea of an emerging psychology of anxiety around growth as opposed to stagnation, remarking that the city is experiencing “a moment in time when we're having a lot of growth -- we're not in a recession. So it feels like what we have today, we don't need to be as worried about what we might have tomorrow.”

“We have a youngish population who has experienced brutal housing prices and a congested subway system, who really have no memory or inkling of a time when this city was against the ropes,” added Chakrabarti, who helped lead post-9/11 economic recovery efforts, a bit later in the program. “And it's really hard to explain to people that that could and will happen again, probably at some point for some shock we don't know about sitting here today, and that those 25,000 jobs and the multiplier effects it would have had would help insulate us against that future shock.”

For Weisbrod, who has been a fixture in New York City urban development projects since the 1970s, this represents a “fundamental change” in the conversation. “We've always been a city that has, irrespective of political ideology, sort of implicitly if not explicitly recognized that we have to grow, not only for growth's sake, but because we are a city that provides more in the way of social benefits to our residents than any other city in the country.”

Because of the particularities of New York City -- it’s incorporation of five counties rather than being a part of a single one, its commitment to providing broad social services, and the lack of federal contributions to the tax base -- “we are increasingly dependent on our own ability to generate revenue,” Weisbrod added.

Another shift in the public dialogue, revealed by opposition to Amazon moving to a so-called outer borough, has to do with location.

“For 50 years at least...the city has had an economic development strategy of diversifying and dispersing jobs outside of the Manhattan core,” said Weisbrod. “And the irony is that this resistance to 25,000 jobs, however narrow-minded that resistance was, is the kind of resistance that took place because this was an effort to further the city's economic development policy, not simply in terms of tech, but also in terms of geography.”

Wylde challenged the panel to consider whether the problem had as much to do with the city’s approach to the deal -- especially its ability to engage with community stakeholders -- as the evening’s conversation suggested.

“Do we really think that this would have happened if it wasn't the biggest corporation, run by the richest man in the world, after the 2018 primary election?” she asked, with apparent reference to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over Joe Crowley in last year’s congressional primary, representing a Queens and Bronx district.

For Chakrabarti, it is a combination of the political moment’s hostility toward “big corporate” and local anxieties Weisbrod referred to. “It's really hard to extricate that because people were taking advantage of those anxieties in order to make their political point,” he said.

During a question-and-answer session, one audience member disagreed with the thrust of the conversation. The spectator told the panel, “I'm a little disturbed by the attitude that I hear from the EDC and also the Mayor that the primary problems involved in this were around communication, Amazon not being willing to work with the city, the national climate, and not really lending a lot of credence to people's opposition, that either for a large number of people this would negatively impact their lives or at very least they have very few mechanisms for pushing back at the way the city is transforming around them.”

According to Patchett, of the EDC, two-thirds of New Yorkers thought the Amazon deal would be good for the city, including more than 70 percent of Queens residents. “But that is not to undermine the very legitimate concerns that people had about this case” and about growth in general, he told the audience. “That's not just a feeling, that's a reality for a lot of people.”

But for the panel of city planners and economic development experts with pro-growth lenses, the look back at the Amazon deal was more of a post-mortem than an assessment of local concerns.

“I sort of have a sense like I’m at a memorial service here,” Weisbrod said at the outset.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Experts Point to Anxiety, Short-Sightedness and Political Climate in Amazon Deal Demise Tue, 14 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Doesn’t Have a Comprehensive Plan; Does It Need One? De Blasio city planning

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

New York City is the only major city in the country that has never had a comprehensive development plan, according to Tom Angotti, professor of urban policy at Hunter College.

Facing major, city-wide challenges now and into the coming decades, the city’s approach to development and planning is byzantine, narrow, and somewhat haphazard. The vast, diverse city of 8.5 million residents and millions more visitors every day is often looked at by neighborhood, legislative district, or borough. At the same time, infrastructure investment decisions and project implementation lack transparency and efficiency.

City government has no coherent, overarching plan for growth and the challenges that come with it -- housing, transportation, climate resiliency, school seats, garbage collection, and more -- and city officials don’t believe that one is necessary.

As the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio continues to implement a 12-year affordable housing plan and a 10-year jobs plan, it is also adding to its transportation agenda in piecemeal fashion, and adjusting a wide variety of other policies in at least partial silos of agency planning. The administration is slowly moving down its list of neighborhood rezonings in an effort to create more affordable housing and improve community services, which include infrastructure investments, job training programs, and more -- but they do not fit into a larger connected vision of where the city is heading, leaving those invested in the city’s future with little more than projected numbers of new housing units and jobs, among other numerical goals like lifting hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty and reducing carbon emissions, and largely disparate local projects.

The Department of City Planning, which helps craft the neighborhood rezoning plans, would be the logical place for the creation of a city plan, but none is being drafted there, and top City Planning officials dismiss the notion that one is needed.

In its efforts, DCP works with the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), a city-run nonprofit, the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the City Council, community boards, and other agencies and entities, including elected officials like borough presidents and City Council members. While some current and former city officials believe the ongoing approach is more than adequate, other experts believe the city should and could be doing better planning that is more coherent, inclusive, and transparent.

On a recent episode of What’s The [Data] Point?, a podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission, guest Anita Laremont, the general counsel and chief data officer at the Department of City Planning, was asked about the lack of a comprehensive city plan. “We are charged by state law that we must have a well-considered land use plan,” Laremont said, “and what we have maintained historically is that the city zoning framework at any given time is the city’s well-considered plan.”

Laremont was referring to the city’s land use rules, its zoning regulations that, generally speaking, dictate what types of building are allowed to be built where, and to what size. For example, whether an area of the city is zoned for commercial, residential, or manufacturing use, and how big the buildings can be, from small homes to large apartment buildings, for instance. The city’s 100-year-old zoning text has been amended many times, including in sweeping fashion during de Blasio’s first term in order to mandate affordable housing when a developer receives permission to build more densely on a plot of land or during a neighborhood-wide change to the land use rules that allows more height.

According to Laremont, this approach offers a pragmatic, incremental strategy that suits the city. “This is such a dynamic city, in terms of where people live, where they work, we actually believe that it would not be productive to try to sit down and come up with a plan, because that dynamism really leads to a need to be responsive and nimble,” she said when asked why the city doesn’t have a comprehensive master plan.

“The other thing is that our process --...ULURP -- is ultimately a very political process, and we have, I think, at City Planning, some of the smartest people that work in city government, but we don’t have the ability to implement just what we think is appropriate,” Larement continued. “You know there are pushes and pulls and other considerations that go into ultimately what is the land use and zoning resolutions.”

A Regional Plan
Meanwhile, the Regional Planning Association (RPA), a non-profit planning association founded in 1922, recently released its fourth regional plan, which cites significant difficulties currently or soon to be faced by the tri-state region encompassing New York City, and recommends a long series of ambitious infrastructure investments, institutional reforms, and policies. What the RPA produces every generation may be as close as there is to a master plan for the New York City area, but it takes a much wider lens and is not something that city officials endorse, though many of its recommendations are likely to influence government decision-making.

RPA’s new plan aims to combat forces that could undermine the growth and health of the region, including overwhelming population additions, wealth inequality, climate change, crumbling infrastructure, and inadequate public institutions.

It reports a number of alarming figures about the future of the area: based on current trends, the tri-state region is expected to gain 1.8 million inhabitants but only 850,000 more jobs by 2040; for the bottom three-fifths of households, incomes have stagnated since 2000, and more people live in poverty today than a generation ago; in the NY-NJ-CT metropolitan region, a total of 46% of households spend more than 30% of their incomes on rent; and, today, more than a million people and 650,000 jobs are at risk from flooding, along with critical infrastructure such as power plants, rail yards, and water-treatment facilities.

How well prepared the region and, specifically, New York City, are to deal with these difficulties remains an open question.

The latest RPA plan includes recommendations from expanding the subway in New York City to implementing congestion pricing to unclog Manhattan streets to increasing access to healthy, affordable food in every community.

When asked about the feasibility of RPA’s fourth regional plan, Laremont of DCP replied, “I wouldn’t say that it’s not realistic. I would say those kinds of things are very aspirational, and they have the luxury of not having to be responsive to the realpolitik that we live within...we welcome those sort of thought exercises that people do and they give us food for thought.”

City Planning, But No City Plan
The city’s Zoning Resolution was first adopted in 1916 to limit the bulk of skyscrapers because of widespread anxieties that they would block air and light from the streets below. Over the last century, it has been incrementally altered, in part to respond to population growth, technological advancements, and changing industries and trends. Its text establishes the zoning districts for the city and the regulations governing land use and development. Any change to the zoning resolution has to be ratified by the City Council as well as the City Planning Commission, a 13-member body, with seven members appointed by the mayor, five appointed by the borough presidents, and one by the public advocate. The commission is different from the Department of City Planning, though they interact constantly, with the commission voting on many proposals that originate with or come through DCP.

Among other tasks, DCP is responsible for making sure that new development conforms to the Zoning Resolution, reviewing applications for land use, and producing Environmental Impact Reviews to assess how development might affect its surroundings. These represent the first stages of the Uniform Land Use Process (ULURP), which is triggered on a variety of circumstances including significant proposed changes to a plot of land or neighborhood. While local community boards and the borough presidents have formal opportunities to publish recommendations on land-use decisions in their districts, they are only advisory, and the City Planning Commission ultimately has the power to approve or deny each new development, followed by the City Council, which has final say on land use matters. As City Limits reported in 2017, the City Planning Commission rarely stops major developments.

Carl Weisbrod was chair of the City Planning Commission and Director of the Department of City Planning from 2014 to 2017, as appointed by Mayor de Blasio. Like Laremont, who worked for Weisbrod before he retired from city government, Weisbrod told Gotham Gazette that a city-wide plan is undesirable. He pointed out that such a plan would be a lengthy and costly exercise, and discussed the last time the city tried to make such a plan, the 1969 Plan for New York City, which was never adopted. Weisbrod said the proposed plan took so long to complete that it was outdated by the time it was finished.

Under Weisbrod DCP made a number of reforms: including adding the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy to the zoning code; creating the Department of Regional Planning, directed by Carolyn Grossman Meagher, in order to connect New York City’s planning process to the wider region; creating a capital budget division to establish cooperation between DCP and the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget; and creating a $1 billion neighborhood development fund to support growth with public investments in parks, transportation, streets and sidewalks, and other improvements.

Weisbrod stressed that a city-wide development plan would be incompatible with the city’s dynamic economy. The problem with making such a plan, he said, is that “the market has to wait to see what the plan is going to be, or it will go in a different direction,” thus disrupting the plan. Laremont said similarly on the podcast. “If, for example, the city were going to get Amazon[‘s second headquarters], anything we were thinking previously about what might be appropriate in various places might be proven completely wrong,” she said, in reference to the notion that big plans can quickly become obsolete.

The city’s approach to development has been to “react to market forces and take advantage of market forces,” said Weisbrod. When asked, he added that the city doesn’t just wait for opportunities presented to it, but also takes a proactive role in shaping development. He pointed to planning initiatives at Hudson Yards, Times Square, Battery Park City, and Willets Point as examples of successful interventions.

A master plan, he said, “suggests a top-down approach to neighborhood development, and it ought to be a bottom-up process...that has been the approach of the de Blasio administration.” Weisbrod stressed that the city’s planning efforts were done with close attention to communities. DCP uses a wealth of detailed information about the demographics of neighborhoods, consults local stakeholders, and collaborates with other governmental entities, such as the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the New York Housing Authority, in order to make planning decisions. “It may seem chaotic from the outside, but planning is a very thoughtful process,” Weisbrod said.

Who’s Really Doing the Planning - And Where
Some community advocates do not share Weisbrod’s confidence in the process. The de Blasio administration, like others before it, has been criticized for not being proactive enough in engaging communities where significant change is being eyed, for not taking enough community input into consideration, and for implementing policies that enhance negative effects of gentrification rather than ameliorate them. Michelle de la Uz -- appointed to the City Planning Commission by de Blasio when he was public advocate, and reappointed by current Public Advocate Letitia James -- has become one of the de Blasio administration’s most ardent critics, often voting against the city’s housing and development proposals because she believes they do more harm than good and that the housing is not at the levels of affordability it should be.

It is a sentiment shared by Chris Walters, the Rezoning Technical Assistance Coordinator for the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development (ANHD), an umbrella organization of around 100 non-profit affordable housing and economic development groups serving low- and moderate-income New Yorkers. Walters has been involved with some of the campaigns opposing the recent neighborhood rezonings, for example the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision, providing technical assistance and helping draft policy counter-proposals to those offered by City Planning.

As Gotham Gazette has reported, the rezonings that have passed -- in East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx -- will create more residential districts and allow for higher-density development, a crucial part of de Blasio’s plan to create or preserve 300,000 affordable housing units by 2026. As part of the rezoning plans, these neighborhoods are also slated to receive substantial infrastructure investments in public housing, transit, parks, schools, and other community benefits. However, community advocacy groups and some elected officials and outside experts have expressed frustration at the fact that the rezoned neighborhoods are primarily low- and moderate-income communities of color, that these neighborhoods have had to accept higher density in order to receive investment, and they have voiced concerns that the rezonings will spur displacement.

DCP maintains that the neighborhoods, often led by the local City Council member, volunteered for the rezonings, with Laremont saying that each rezoning is a “collaborative process between the city, members of the City Council, and neighborhoods, in terms of neighborhoods themselves raising their hands and saying, ‘we would welcome a rezoning,’ because they thought there were opportunities in that.” Ultimately, the City Council as a body does defer to the local member, and, after negotiations, each local member has proudly ushered through the neighborhood rezonings that have passed.

But Walters criticized the city’s process for choosing which neighborhoods to rezone as being opportunistic, saying there “was no rationale as to why these neighborhoods have been chosen.” Walters pointed out that neighborhoods like Forest Hills and Bay Ridge are similarly low-density and have good transit access -- reasons given by DCP for rezoning neighborhoods.

“If you had a comprehensive plan, which included projections of population increase and the amount of new housing needed, saying, ‘this is what the future will look like,’” Walters said, “[the rezoning process] would be more accountable.” Advocacy groups have not focused on the issue of a city-wide development plan, he said, because “pragmatically, that’s not where groups want to put their energy,” given that there are more pressing matters on their agenda.

Walters’ main criticism is that the planning process is not adequately inclusive. He pointed out that members of community boards (CB) are not elected, but are appointed by the borough president and by the City Council, and that they disproportionately represent homeowners and business-owners, who don’t necessarily live in the neighborhood. Community boards do have some influence, drafting a “need statement” for the community, which is then examined by DCP to help it draft plans, and it has an advisory vote in ULURP. Walters said that, despite outreach efforts by DCP, people feel as if plans are already determined before they are presented to the community.

He also criticized the methodology of Environmental Impact Reviews. For example, Walters is skeptical of the figures published in the Jerome Avenue rezoning construction report: in the “Reasonable Worst-Case Development Scenario,” the report estimates that 3,228 new dwelling units will be added to the neighborhood. However, Walters said this estimate was arrived at by using the city’s classic lot size of 2,500 square feet, but lots are commonly 5,000 square feet around Jerome Avenue. He also takes issue with the report claiming that the development enabled by the rezoning will not contribute to any rise in rents, on the grounds that market pressures were already driving rent costs up in the area. The executive summary (p. 52) says that, “The Proposed Actions’ contributions to rent pressures in the study areas would be limited by the supply of market-rate and affordable housing resulting from the Proposed Actions, which could serve to offset existing housing demand and rent pressures.”

“The point is often made in communities that they are not saying ‘no’ to increased density, but they are saying ‘no’ to an unregulated market rate that is going to drive displacement,” Walters argued.

From PlaNYC to OneNYC
While the city’s land-use decisions are mediated through ULURP and the zoning resolution, the past two mayoral administrations have published a version of a long-term strategic plan. On Earth Day in 2007, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg released “PlaNYC,” which aimed to address climate change and the city’s fast-growing population, putting in one place a series of strategies, but not forming a comprehensive city plan. Mayor de Blasio has since rebranded it as OneNYC, adding equity to the list of major concerns.

Weisbrod stressed that OneNYC, which he helped write, is not a development plan, but rather “a set of longer-term strategic priorities - a strategic plan.”

Angotti, the urban policy and planning professor at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center, has mixed feelings about these plans. On the one hand, he has seen them as a welcome step towards a more coherent approach to the city’s long-term development, and he praised both Bloomberg for having brought up climate change and de Blasio for having raised equity as primary policy concerns.

OneNYC reports that the city has committed to spending $20 billion on a city-wide resiliency program, which includes helping local businesses prepare for flooding risks, helping building-owners with flood-insurance, and addressing risks to infrastructure. Moreover, following Hurricane Sandy, the city introduced a flood resilience zoning update to the zoning resolution, which allowed for development of flood-resistant construction to occur in areas deemed at risk of flooding.

However, Angotti is critical of the way in which PlaNYC was drafted and said that OneNYC shared the same flaws. He expressed frustration at the speed with which the plans were drawn up, saying that the discussions with local communities were not adequately participatory and “flawed.” Bloomberg hired McKinsey, the international consulting firm, to carry out much of the plan’s analysis. (Angotti has previously written several critiques of PlaNYC for Gotham Gazette, summarized here.)

OneNYC’s original plan, as well as the 2017 Progress Report, show much of it is a summary of various initiatives and achievements of de Blasio’s administration, organized around the themes of growth, equity, resiliency, and sustainability.

The OneNYC website refers the reader to the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and the Mayor’s Office for Recovery and Resiliency. Angotti remarked that “the plan is not known by the vast majority of the public, including most politically active people. Perhaps it’s a guidance document used inside City Hall but it’s not a public plan.”

Calls for Broader Planning
City Council Member Brad Lander of Brooklyn (de Blasio’s successor in the City Council) is an unequivocal advocate for a city-wide development plan and a trained urban planner himself. Lander contributed an essay titled “Rediscovering City Planning and Community Development, Together,” to the volume, Toward a Twenty First Century For All (2013), a compilation of policy recommendations for the incoming mayoral administration. Lander said that it was still relevant, as “not much has changed.”

With regards to Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, Lander pointed out that Bloomberg had initially hired urban planner Alex Garvin to analyze the city’s future population growth and propose appropriate measures. When Garvin’s report found that the city’s population would reach 9 million by 2030, if not sooner, Bloomberg dropped Garvin from the process, fearing the controversy such a number would provoke, Lander said. The report was leaked to Streetsblog before Garvin was dismissed.

Of the lack of a comprehensive plan, Lander said, “I think it is a major failing in the city’s planning process. You can’t connect long-term infrastructure planning, managing the city’s growth, and community equity without a plan.” Lander thinks of “a city-wide plan as being in favor of growth, with equity and sustainability.”

He remarked that NIMBYism -- or people not wanting to see significant development in their communities -- represents an almost inevitable obstacle, saying that, “in the vast majority of neighborhoods, people like their neighborhoods, and they don’t want them to change.” In his essay, Lander writes that planning and development in the city are made more difficult by assumptions that people have about the planning process:

“Developers and administration officials generally believe neighborhoods will oppose  development, so they gird for battle. Rather than creating space for dialogue about shaping  growth or the infrastructure necessary to support it early in the process, they grit their teeth, fight  through opposition, and negotiate concessions at the last minute.
“With good reason, communities believe that the City will ultimately approve plans with little attention to their core concerns about neighborhood preservation, quality of life, amenities,  or infrastructure – so they oppose proposals with a fatalist fervor.”

Lander understands these adversarial assumptions as a cause and a symptom of the flaws of the planning process.

The essay also included a quote from Hope Cohen, an urban planner working at the Manhattan Institute think tank, delivering a harsh indictment of DCP’s environmental review process:

“[it] has lost its connection to good planning. Instead it has become an expensive and time-consuming annoyance to large projects, and a potentially project-ending burden to small ones. Environmental review today is a wide-ranging effort to identify “impacts” for the purpose of legal disclosure only. It is not the planning activity that people commonly assume it to be, nor is it the one that New York desperately needs as its aging infrastructure struggles to meet the demands of an ever-increasing population and citizens move into previously underdeveloped areas of the city - areas that require new access to transportation, sewage treatment, electricity, and schools” (2007)

In his essay, Lander proposes a host of reforms that are aimed at promoting community planning in conjunction with city-wide planning. During the recent interview with Gotham Gazette, Lander highlighted that he supports reforms to community boards, as well as reforms to the city’s “fair share” system, which is supposed to distribute helpful services and infrastructural burdens evenly across the city. Last year the City Council released a report with recommendations for reform of the fair share system. Several of Lander’s preferred reforms would require a change in the city’s charter. There will soon be two charter revision commissions preparing to recommend changes to the charter for approval or disapproval by voters: one is sponsored by the mayor, with recommendations due this fall, and the other by the City Council in partnership with Public Advocate James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, with proposals due in 2019.

Lander said that one “tension in planning is balancing the needs of the city with the needs of a neighborhood,” but that “it needs to be a system which yields to our shared needs.” He expressed his reservations about the fact that under the current system, “we trust the DCP and the Mayor’s Office to represent those needs,” referring to infrastructural needs such as schools or preparations to mitigate the risks of climate change. But in his view, in the current process, “you can’t see the direct connection between our long-term infrastructure planning and our land-use planning.”

Separate from its fourth regional plan, the Regional Plan Association (RPA) in January published a report, "Inclusive City: Strategies to achieve more equitable and predictable land use in New York City."

The report, put together after meetings of a working group that included dozens of individuals from inside and outside government, is focused less on broader planning and more on changing the ways in which the mayoral administration is doing its planning now to make sure that more stakeholders are involved and that community input is more central to the planning process, especially for the neighborhood rezonings that are being proposed and implemented.

However, of the four central recommendations in the report, the first is "dramatically increase the amount o proactive planning in New York City." Noting that "the public remains in the dark" about why certain neighborhoods have been chosen for rezonings and the major changes therein, the report calls for "a comprehensive citywide planning framework" that does not currently exist.

"PlaNYC and OneNYC demonstrate the City’s ability to think long term and holistically, and a citywide comprehensive planning framework would go a step further by including community district level targets, including those for housing creation and public facilities," the report states. "A comprehensive planning framework would greatly ease public concerns around disproportionate impacts by ensuring proposed zoning changes and other actions analyze and disclose how they further or undermine adherence to the comprehensive planning framework, which would in turn have been produced with strong, meaningful public participation."

Capital Spending and Planning
The city’s infrastructure spending is determined by the capital budget, which is drafted by the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The City Council has to vote to approve this budget as well as the annual expense or operating budget. According to the OMB website, the city’s capital budget in the current fiscal year, FY2018, is $16.2 billion, which is funded through a variety of sources, including from the New York City Municipal Water Finance Authority, the New York City Transitional Finance Authority, grants from federal, state, and private sources, and city general obligation bonds. The city’s capital expenditures for the current year and the next three years are programmed in the Capital Commitment Plan, and longer-term capital expenditures are scheduled by the Ten-Year Capital Plan, which outlines $95.8 billion in spending, according to the 2017 plan.

Prior to 1975, the Ten-Year Capital Plan was jointly published by DCP and OMB. Following the fiscal crisis of 1975, the City Charter was changed and OMB became solely responsible for drafting the Ten-Year Capital Plan. Under Carl Weisbrod, however, DCP created a Capital Planning Division, whose website is still in “beta,” in order to once again give DCP more say in how the city determines its infrastructure spending. The most recent plan, published in 2017, was co-signed by Marisa Lago, the director of DCP, who succeeded Weisbrod when he decided to leave city government.

Maria Doulis, vice president of Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), a non-profit fiscal watchdog, said the current process for deciding the capital budget is misguided.

Primarily, Doulis is concerned about the lack of transparency around the major investments involved. “We have no insight into the projects that agencies are undertaking -- if they meet the city’s most critical needs, or if they are the easiest to undertake,” Doulis said in an interview. She added that this was not the case for all the city’s agencies, pointing out the Department of Education and the Department of Transportation both have satisfactory levels of transparency. On the other hand, the Department of Environmental Protection, for example, “could post better reports,” she said. The current report lacks specificity -- “what are their goals?” Doulis asks.

Earlier this year, CBC published a report, “Rightsizing and Right Timing New York City’s Capital Plan,” which describes how the city has consistently drawn up capital commitment plans that are “overly ambitious” for the city’s agencies, forecasting much more spending than is executed and sowing unnecessary confusion. According to the report, the city’s agencies only attained 54% of their capital commitments. The report concluded that:

“The inability of agencies to meet their commitment targets suggests that their capital plans are either overly ambitious or fail to reflect actual priorities. This overly ambitious schedule leaves the City vulnerable to taking on more capital projects than it has capacity to manage, which has led in the past to delays and increased costs. A 2017 analysis by the City Council found that more than half of city capital projects with budgets greater than $25 million are behind schedule, over budget, or both.”

In the interview, Doulis said that the issues are a result of the fact that those determining the budget have little reason to curb the growth of the capital budget. “[OMB’s] incentive is to improve these [agencies’] projects, the City Council has little incentive to not pass the budget because the short-term effects of debt-servicing are small.” While politically expedient for the time being, Doulis said, the city’s “big outstanding debt liability is a problem because it is paid through the operating budget, and is a fixed cost.” When the next inevitable economic-downturn occurs, “there will be cuts to services,” she said.

Doulis is critical of the general lack of strategic forethought in the city’s capital planning. “There is no eye on what the city can do and what they should do, and in what order,” she said. On the de Blasio administration’s priorities, as reflected in OneNYC, she said, “there’s a specificity that’s lacking.”

To Plan or Not To Plan
Meanwhile, the Regional Planning Association said investments needed to meet the city’s coming challenges are even more far-reaching than the “overly-ambitious” budgeting that is currently occurring. But, the RPA takes a regional frame and includes New York State and other non-city governmental entities like the MTA and Port Authority.

The RPA suggests changing this structure anyway, with a fourth plan call for establishing a new Subway Reconstruction Public Benefit Corporation to overhaul and modernize the subway system within 15 years. RPA also wants to see transformation of the Port Authority into a infrastructure bank that finances large-scale transit infrastructure projects; expansion of the existing carbon pricing system, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, to include emissions from transportation, residential, commercial, and industrial sectors; consolidation of the region’s three existing commuter rail systems into one integrated system; expansion of JFK and Newark airports, and more.

Chris Jones, vice president and chief planner at the Regional Planning Association, joined What’s the [DATA] Point? soon after the Fourth Plan was released.

“Each of the plans that we’ve done has really tried to start a conversation about the difficult questions that people don’t think that we can really address because they’re just too hard,” he said.

Acknowledging that many proposals in the plan are extremely ambitious and require a lot of political will, he said, “we put out, ‘here’s what we think the ideal is,’ and in the real political world, it doesn’t end up being that ideal, but you can move towards that in a number of ways.”

In that real political world, Mayor de Blasio recently said that "each element of our mass transit planning has to be seen individually," when asked a question at a May 3 press conference where he was highlighting the city’s ferry service, which he has focused on expanding.

The comment made planners, urbanists, and transit experts groan, further evidence to some that de Blasio does not value real urban planning and that he does not have a vision for integrated transit options in his expansive city where many struggle to get around efficiently. If de Blasio does not have a cohesive transportation plan, he certainly cannot begin to have a comprehensive city plan, though he has not expressed that as a goal.

De Blasio has described his transportation vision as being about providing more options and reaching new people. A more extensive subway system would be nice, he said, but given the challenges with such a goal, he is working on other modes of transportation, including ferries, bikes, and a planned light-rail streetcar for the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, the BQX.

“We’ve got to do more than one thing to create a 21st century city with multiple mass transit options that are convenient and that work for people,” he said in response to a question about his focus on ferries.

“If we were planning for a city that wasn’t changing you could have one conversation, but we’re about to pick up an additional population in the next 10, 20 years about the size of the population of Staten Island,” de Blasio later said. “We’re going to add that into New York City. And we need more and better options for people to get around.”

by Gabriel Slaughter and Ben Max

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

New York City Doesn’t Have a Comprehensive Plan; Does It Need One? Tue, 15 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
The Week Ahead in New York Politics, September 6 New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

After a Labor Day weekend with storm scares from Hermine that mostly proved to have little impact on New York, things kick into gear on Tuesday. On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and a variety of other officials marched in the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn. Before marching, de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton answered questions about violence during the pre-dawn J'Ouvert celebration, which city and community officials had taken additional measures to avoid this year. Two people were killed in shooting that also injured at least two others.

On Tuesday, de Blasio will hold a press conference with Bratton and other NYPD officials to "discuss crime statistics," at 1:30 p.m. at NYPD headquarters. Presumably, they will be discussing August crime numbers and year-to-date crime through the first eight months compared to last year through the same period.

Prior to that, at 11:30 a.m. de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray will appear on The View on ABC television.

Meanwhile, Tuesday marks one week until the state legislative primaries in New York.

Thursday is the first day of the school year for most New York City schools, expect Mayor de Blasio and others to mark the occassion with several events.

After a typically quiet August, the City Council swings back into action this week for what promises to be a busy Fall. Council committee hearings get going on Wednesday, and the Council will have its first of two full-body Stated Meetings of the month next week, on Wednesday the 14th.

Sunday September 11 is the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

There's a good deal happening during this Labor Day week, with several events to be aware of - see our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
e-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max:***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday: Labor Day

Tuesday marks one week until the state legislative primaries in New York. It is the third of three primary days this election year in New York, after the April presidential primaries and June congressional primaries. Read several of our recent articles on the elections:

"On Tuesday at 8:45 AM, Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams will host his annual 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony in the Rotunda of Brooklyn Borough Hall, bringing together the families of victims and fallen heroes with citywide leaders and local residents. The event, commemorating the 15th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, will feature interfaith prayers, readings and tributes by surviving family members, and selections from the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. There will be moments of silence coinciding with the time of the towers’ collapse; the silence observed at 9:58 AM in memory of the fall of the South Tower will be followed by the lowering of the American flag atop Brooklyn Borough Hall as well as the placement of a remembrance wreath outside the building by Borough President Adams and victims’ families. Borough President Adams, who served in the New York City Police Department (NYPD) during 9/11, will speak about terrorism’s enduring impact on Brooklyn and New York City. Other citywide leaders scheduled to address the ceremony include NYPD Commissioner William J. Bratton, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro, NYPD Chief of Department James O’Neill, FDNY Chief of Department James E. Leonard, and United States Army Garrison (USAG) Fort Hamilton Commander Colonel Peter Sicoli."

On Tuesday morning's The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC at about 10:30 a.m., Carmen Fariña, New York City schools chancellor, will discuss Thursday's first day of school and talk about the issues facing city schools and what to expect this year.

On Tuesday at 11 a.m. at City Hall, there will be a “press conference to announce filing of amicus briefs by elected officials and community groups in support of state court decision ordering release of Officer Pantaleo’s misconduct record summary.” Pantaleo was the officer who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold. Participants will include Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner; Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer; City Council Members Ritchie Torres, Brad Lander, Robert Cornegy and Andy King; Tina Luongo, Legal Aid Society; Donna Lieberman, New York Civil Liberties Union; Communities United for Police Reform and others.

On Tuesday at noon at City Hall, Public Advocate Letitia James will deliver remarks at a press conference calling for Halal and Kosher food in city public schools. At 6:30 p.m., James will deliver remarks at a press conference with tenants at 888 Grand Concourse in the Bronx.

At 1 p.m. Tuesday, the City Planning Commission will hold a review session.

At 1 p.m. Tuesday, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli will release a report on Lower Manhattan’s economy. He’ll be joined by other elected officials and area representatives at 150 Broadway.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Brooklyn Historical Society is hosting a book talk: ”Renee Dinnerstein on Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, Pre-k to 2.” Dinnerstein will talk about her new book, and will also talk with Brooklyn New School Principal Anna Allanbrook about “the challenges of bringing progressive instruction into New York City schools.”

On Wednesday, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at the 2016 Global Social Economy Forum in Montréal, Canada, where she will speak during two sessions, including one on participatory government.

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet at 9:30 a.m.
  • The Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses will meet at 11 a.m.
  • The Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Connections will meet at 1 p.m.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the City Planning Commission will hold a public meeting.

At 11 a.m. Wednesday, the New York State Legislature will hold a public hearing on water quality and contamination. This hearing will happen in the Legislative Office Building in Albany. It is the second of three water contamination hearings scheduled by the state Legislature and the first that is a joint Assembly-Senate hearing.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, the Manhattan Institute will host a lecture from New York University Law Professor Richard A. Epstein on how former Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and current Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have used and overused New York’s Martin Act. This Act was passed in 1921 to deal with financial fraud, but has been used quite frequently in recent times.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Brooklyn Historical Society is hosting “Race and History: An Evening with Annette Gordon-Reed.” This event is a part of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s “Race and History” series.

At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, State Senator James Sanders, Jr. will host a workshop on financial management, especially suited for small business owners and operators.

Thursday is the first day of the new school year for traditional public schools in New York City.

At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, the Association for a Better New York will host a breakfast event featuring Chair of the City Planning Commission Carl Weisbrod.

At 10:00 a.m., the New York State Department of Financial Services will hold a public hearing related to Anthem Inc.’s acquisition of Cigna Life Insurance Company of New York.

At the City Council on Thursday:

  • The Committee on Contracts will meet at 10 a.m. to go over a “resolution condemning all efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel and the global movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction the people of Israel.”
  • The Committee on Land Use will meet at 11 a.m. to look at the land use issues discussed at meetings the previous day.
  • The Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections will meet at noon on “submitting the name of Hari Savitala to the Council for its advice and consent regarding his appointment to the Environmental Control Board.”

At 6 p.m. Thursday, the New York City Bar Association will host "The Road To the Court of Appeals: Demystifying the Process": The Commission on Judicial Nominations to Hold Open Discussions about Nomination Process.” One member of the New York State Court of Appeals is supposed to retire at the end of this year. 

At 7 p.m. Thursday, the Brooklyn Historical Society will continue its #LetsTalkFeminism series with “Are We There Yet? The Illusion of a Post-Sexist Society.” Speakers will include Marcia Gillespie of Ms. and Essence; Anna Holmes of Jezebel; and Muthoni Wambu Kraal of Emily’s List. President and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, Teresa Younger will moderate the discussion.

Friday and the weekend:
On Saturday at 9 a.m., the New York City Charter School Center will host “Dignity for All Students Act Training: Harassment, Bullying, Cyberbullying, & Discrimination in Schools.”

Sunday September 11 is the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The Postcards Memorial in Staten Island will host a ceremony at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday to commemorate the lives of Staten Islanders lost on September 11, 2001.

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Brendan Birth and Ben Max

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, September 6 Mon, 05 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000