Gotham Gazette Tue, 02 Mar 2021 04:50:34 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Comprehensive Planning is Not Just About Housing and Zoning park view cam

Rendering (photo: mayor's office)

The City Council held a hearing this week on a bill to implement comprehensive long-term planning in New York City. With the right amendments, we think this legislation has the potential to foster a more equitable and rational planning process to guide land-use changes in New York City — one that will balance local and citywide needs.

But comprehensive planning is about much more than land use. Done right, comprehensive planning touches on decisions in nearly all aspects of city life: education, transportation, public health and safety, sustainability, you name it.  

One way to think about comprehensive planning is that it will finally provide a formal structure for city agencies to coordinate what they are doing and to stop the ill-informed, piecemeal decision-making that has led to unanticipated (but hardly unforeseeable) consequences.  

Our organizations have seen this tragedy play out again and again. In 2003, for example, the City rezoned Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn with the inscrutable goal of creating a “canyon of housing.” The City pursued this narrow goal so myopically that it refused to seize obvious opportunities for preserving and creating affordable apartments--essentially extending and exacerbating the exclusive character of nearby Park Slope.  

Over a decade-and-a-half later the community is still cleaning up the mess. The resulting influx of new, affluent residents immediately caused nearby schools to become not only severely overcrowded, but far more segregated as low-income children of color could no longer find seats there. One school had to reduce its attendance zone by half, one school had to be demolished and rebuilt with triple the former number of seats, and a third had to open anew. Although situated atop three subway lines, the tall new buildings included large underground garages belching out vehicles onto sidewalks; the pedestrian experience became intolerable. Lacking meaningful design guidelines, the resulting streetscape of blank walls and ventilation grates is some of the worst in the city.  

Every one of these problems could have been anticipated and addressed through a formal process that provided meaningful opportunities for the community to engage in planning, required different city agencies to coordinate their long-term plans, and, most importantly, adhered to clear and immovable guiding principles such as racial justice, reduction of segregation in schools and neighborhoods, net creation of affordable housing, and prioritization of public transit and pedestrian safety and accessibility. This is what comprehensive planning promises.  

Imagine if diverse government agencies and community members (given the proper resources) had been planning and thinking in advance — long before this rezoning process even started…

About how upgrades to public transportation and bicycle infrastructure could obviate the need for underground garages for luxury housing towers with comparatively excellent subway access?

About a plan to coordinate the creation of new market-rate and affordable housing with innovative student-assignment policies that would lead to more affordable housing in well-resourced areas of the city, racial and economic integration of the neighborhood and its schools, and more efficient use of existing school buildings?  

About how to improve pedestrian safety and reduce traffic violence so parents can feel comfortable sending their children to the broad range of schools and parks within walking distance?

About the role of an individual action like the Fourth Avenue rezoning in advancing racial justice, equity, and integration across the city as a whole? And in shifting the benefits and burdens of city life, growth, and change equitably?

Is this a fantasy? Not at all. In fact, comprehensive planning is the norm for most municipalities of any size. New York City’s exceptional size, complexity, and competing needs only increase the necessity of a formal and predictable planning process.  

The current legislation requires some amendments to enshrine better public transit, specifically faster buses, and integration as explicit goals; to give local communities a real opportunity to plan proactively without being allowed to override the public good of the city as a whole; and to ensure that the plan will actually guide official decision-making.  

This is work worth doing. We can get this right, and the time is now to make it happen. We simply can’t tolerate any more of the status quo.  

Danny Pearlstein is the Policy and Communications Director at the Riders Alliance. David Tipson is the Executive Director of New York Appleseed. Both organizations are members of the Thriving Communities Coalition. On Twitter @RidersAlliance, @AppleseedNY & @thrivingccnyc.

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Comprehensive Planning is Not Just About Housing and Zoning Thu, 25 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
City Council, De Blasio Administration Clash Over Comprehensive Planning Legislation daily life short

New York City (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

City Council members and officials from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration clashed at a Tuesday hearing over proposed legislation to overhaul, consolidate, and in some ways expand the city’s planning processes into a singular ten-year procedure that would align budget, policy, and land use decisions.  

The proposal was released by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in December and seeks to replace what he calls redundant, antiquated, inequitable, and ineffective existing planning procedures by taking a more holistic approach to planning. It would create a centralized process for examining and budgeting for the city’s long-term infrastructure and community needs, with an eye towards correcting long-standing racial and socio-economic disparities while also equitably meeting the city’s transit, housing, open space, school seats, shelters, and other needs.

The Council’s Committees on Governmental Operations and Land Use and Subcommittee on Capital Budget convened on Tuesday to hear from the de Blasio administration about its concerns and objections to the idea, while also pressing mayoral officials to answer for the many failures of the current siloed planning processes that are spread across various city agencies.

[City Council Speaker Unveils Comprehensive Planning Legislation]

“For decades, the city has relied on a piecemeal and ad hoc approach, muddling through its planning exercises one neighborhood, topic, and project at a time,” said Johnson, a Democrat, in his opening remarks. “That planning has largely neglected people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, and low-income New Yorkers. That has also led to serious inefficiencies. Our budget documents often simply don't relate to our city's policy and land use priorities. And as we enter a period of fiscal stress, we have no rational system for prioritizing our community's most urgent budget needs to reduce disparities and combat climate change.”

Early on, Johnson sought to dispel “misinformation” about the bill, noting that it would not amend the city’s zoning laws, mandate any zoning requirements or specific zoning actions, or change the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). Rather, he emphasized that it “requires the city to provide community boards and the public with new resources, new data and new analyses to support proactive community-based plans.” It would encourage proactive rather than reactive approaches to development and encourage the city to pursue new growth away from neighborhoods at risk of sea-level rise and other forces of displacement including gentrification and real estate speculation. 

Council Member Fernando Cabrera, a Bronx Democrat who chairs governmental operations, pointed out that the current planning process is enshrined in more than a dozen Charter-mandated documents that do not currently involve sufficient coordination between and among city agencies. “There's a fundamental disconnect here that cannot be overstated,” he said. “How can we as a city plan for our future when we only have fragments of the full picture of the city's current needs and assets?”

Testifying on behalf of the administration, City Planning Commissioner Marisa Lago sought to dissuade the Council from advancing the bill, opposing it because of concerns about “its feasibility, its costs, and its ultimate impact.”

She estimated that the bill’s requirement of a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) for each community district would cost about $500 million over ten years. “We're concerned that the ultimate impact of that time and money would be counter to our shared goals,” she said. “That it would make it more difficult, not easier, to build affordable housing or to site essential city facilities.” 

Johnson had already countered that argument in his own statement. “That cost estimate is both inaccurate and absurd. It indicates that this administration is not engaging in this conversation with us seriously. There is nothing about this bill that will amount to that price tag,” he said, arguing that it could actually end up saving money for the city and for developers pursuing land use applications. 

Lago and Johnson had a fundamental disagreement about the language of the bill. Lago said it would create a “heavily top-down” planning process and give City Council members even greater influence in changing land use applications near the conclusion of ULURP. Instead of streamlining planning, she said it would add an additional layer of bureaucracy to an already lengthy land use procedure.

“The bill also underestimates the importance of focused topic-specific planning efforts,” Lago said, “such as those for the waterfront, greenhouse gas emissions reduction, environmental justice, food policy or resiliency.” She pointed to the city’s OneNYC strategic plan created every four years as a “better model” than the Council’s proposal and said the city’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances is necessary for long-term planning. She cited the city’s ten-year food plan released on Monday, a pending coastal resiliency zoning plan, and the proposed SoHo-NoHo rezoning as examples of how the current processes are working towards goals of equitable growth. 

In particular, she said the comprehensive planning bill would increase rather than limit the ability of affluent communities to forestall projects that are in the city’s interest, which has been a wrench in some of Mayor de Blasio’s agenda, though he has often done little to counteract those forces.

Later during the hearing, Johnson took exception to Lago’s interpretation of the bill. “It's not top-down. We're empowering local communities to actually engage in planning, instead of being reactive to [City Planning Commission’s] certifying of private applications and public applications,” he said. He said he was ”flabbergasted” at Lago’s “complete and total misrepresentation” of the bill. 

Lago also worried that a new planning process could place a “chill on development.” “That would be so unfortunate, at a time where the pandemic has made crystal clear the need to provide more housing and, in particular, affordable housing, the need to kickstart the economic recovery,” she said. 

Council Member Brad Lander showed frustration with the administration for critiquing the Council’s proposal without offering any solutions of its own to fix the city’s broken land use process. “We are the frog in the proverbial pot. We are watching the water boil, the temperatures are rising and the seas are rising, our affordable housing crisis is growing, our infrastructure is aging,” he said. “And it is clear that our land use process has become toxic and broken and unable to deliver thoughtful conversation about the very future of our city.”

If Lago was going to oppose the Council bill, what is the de Blasio administration’s plan to improve how the city does planning and growth, he asked. 

Lago struggled to give a straight answer, and instead pointed to what she sees as another deficiency with the bill. “The speaker himself noted that this proposal would not require any rezonings,” she said. “And there may be many communities who would anticipate having no growth and this bill does nothing to change that.”

Lander responded with frustration. Later on, Council Member Keith Powers asked Lago to name areas of the city with good transit options that could be home to significant housing growth. Lago only pointed to the Soho-Noho and Gowanus rezonings, which are currently in process, and declined to name any other neighborhoods. This, despite the fact that the de Blasio administration has not achieved rezonings in the neighborhoods it targeted early in the mayor’s first term, thus far only rezoning a series of lower-income communities of color. Lago instead again said that the city looks to work with Council members who want to work with the city. The exchange was one of several where the two sides appeared to point to each other as broken or talk in circles.

Lago repeatedly noted the Council’s informal policy of member deference, which allows Council members to veto land use projects that need Council approval and rezonings in their district. Because of that, she said, often the only projects that succeed are those that have active support and participation from local members. 

“So member deference is the problem?” Council Member Antonio Reynoso asked her. 

“I think that that is a challenge,” she said. She added, “I think, were the Council to adopt a citywide lens rather than looking exclusively to Council member deference that that could be tremendously helpful in achieving our shared goal of more equitable land use,” she said. 

“That's exactly what this legislation is trying to do,” Reynoso responded.

Several advocates and experts also testified in support of the bill, though some suggested that it could be improved. They included Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Barika Williams, executive director of Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, which is part of the Thriving Communities coalition; Maulin Mehta, senior associate at Regional Plan Association; Spencer Williams, director of advocacy at the Municipal Arts Society; Adam Friedman, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, among others.

The Citizens Budget Commission, a fiscal watchdog group, raised some concern about the legislation though it has long supported overhauling the city’s capital planning process. In testimony submitted to the Council, CBC Senior Research Associate Sean Campion said tying capital plan reforms to land use reforms is not necessary, that changing the structure and timing of regularly issued capital budget reports would make them less useful, and that capital budgeting power should remain in the hands of the mayor. “[A] strategic plan is only as good as its implementation design,” his testimony reads. “Extreme care should be taken when adding new processes, requirements and organizations since they could slow or thwart progress towards those outcomes or unnecessarily increase costs.”

Similarly, testimony from the Municipal Arts Society noted that the current proposal leaves land use decisions under the purview of the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, which would be in charge of the ten-year comprehensive planning process. “MAS counters that a successful comprehensive plan for New York City must balance bottom-up and top-down planning through meaningful, ongoing community engagement strengthened by effective coordination and commitment from involved City agencies,” the testimony reads. “As written, Intro 2186 would reinforce the current structural imbalance in the City’s planning process.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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City Council, De Blasio Administration Clash Over Comprehensive Planning Legislation Tue, 23 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Speaker Unveils Comprehensive Planning Legislation m b skyline

New York City development (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on Wednesday unveiled legislation that would overhaul New York City’s long-term planning processes, eliminating duplicative procedures, streamlining agency coordination, and establishing a more proactive, holistic approach to land use and budgeting that prioritizes racial and economic justice. 

For decades, the city’s zoning, land use, and development have been subject to disparate sets of mandates and guidelines, some overlapping and redundant, in the City Charter, the city’s foundational governing document. There are more than a dozen planning documents that determine how infrastructure is built and how communities and boroughs grow. 

Over the last two years, Johnson and his colleagues, particularly Council Members Brad Lander and Antonio Reynoso, have been attempting to reform those processes into one centralized comprehensive approach that would act as an overarching strategy for everything from housing creation to school construction, public spaces, transit access, and economic development. The approach would bring about more equitable and sustainable growth across the city, addressing long-standing disparities and needs, particularly in Black and brown communities, while also meeting citywide goals.

Council members along with the Thriving Communities coalition of advocates and experts unsuccessfully proposed such a comprehensive planning framework before a Charter Revision Commission last year. They sought to have the commission present the policy to voters in the form of a ballot question, but the commission decided against including it in its final list of ballot proposals. 

“We have a piecemeal and top-down approach to land use and planning and we can't afford to carry that ineffective approach into our future. The stakes are just too high,” Johnson said Wednesday, as he announced the new legislation and released an accompanying report, “Planning Together.” The report outlines the city’s broken planning procedures that have created inequities and critiques city government’s inability to realistically evaluate, budget, and build major infrastructure projects through the capital budget.

The report and the legislation, Johnson said, would “give us tangible and useful tools to plan for our future...We're going to have clearly-defined, measurable, citywide goals, and every neighborhood is going to develop their own land use plan. These are real concrete things that New Yorkers can actually wrap their heads around.” 

Johnson was joined at a virtual rally to announce the report and legislation by Reynoso and Lander, as well as Council Members Vanessa Gibson, who chairs the Council capital budget subcommittee, Carlina Rivera, and Ben Kallos, as well as planning experts and advocates from Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, the Pratt Center for Community Development, the Municipal Art Society, and the Regional Plan Association. 

The new legislation, which includes City Charter amendments, would incorporate and re-jigger all the current elements of city planning into a comprehensive planning strategy over ten-year cycles, mandating a regular effort at thoughtful, coordinated growth and that decisions on land use and the city budget actively seek to rectify historic inequities across the city for low-income communities of color and to prevent the displacement that may be caused by forces of gentrification.

The plan will be a living document, changing every five years to keep up with the evolving needs of the city and based on regular engagement with communities. If the legislation is passed in 2021, the ten-year process would begin in 2022, with a Long Term Planning Steering Committee and an assessment of needs from community boards. The plan itself would first be published in 2025, and then amended in 2030 as citywide goals, needs and land use actions are reassessed.

It would require regular appraisals of infrastructure needs, short- and long-term risks and the impact of land use decisions. The proposed bill would require that the city prioritize community input and create new, local decision-making bodies to weigh in on land use and development processes. And it would set quantifiable targets for “housing, jobs, open space, resiliency infrastructure, schools, transportation, and other infrastructure.”  

The legislation was built off the Planning Together report, which includes, as Johnson called it, an indictment of “bureaucracy at its worst” under past mayoral administrations that created siloed processes, inefficient coordination across city agencies, and lacked proactive planning for community needs. Those problems, the report argues, have only worsened under Mayor Bill de Blasio and have served to effectively water down his attempt at holistic planning through OneNYC, his vision for equitable growth that retooled former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC framework. “The lack of proactive public engagement or buy-in from elected officials and communities has allowed the significance and utility of PlaNYC/OneNYC to fade over time,” the report says. 

It highlighted what has become a central issue for de Blasio’s affordable housing program: vociferous community opposition to individual neighborhood rezoning and land use proposals. The mayor’s administration has sought to upzone swathes of neighborhoods to allow for more density and to encourage developers to build a combination of market-rate and rent-restricted housing. But time and again, those rezonings have been met with widespread resistance and even legal challenges, some of which have successfully derailed the administration’s plans. The ones that have been passed, in coordination with the City Council, have all been in communities of color. In his final year in office, de Blasio is looking to advance rezoning plans in Soho and Gowanus.

“That contention is, in part, due to a growing distrust of the process and a sense among some community stakeholders that the City and private developers are often unfairly targeting neighborhoods—particularly low-income communities of color—to bear the burdens of growth in exchange for long-overdue investments like affordable housing, schools, child care centers, street safety improvements, parks, and playgrounds,” the Council’s report notes.

Johnson said he is hoping to soon hold a hearing on the legislation.

“It has long past time, long overdue that we implement these best practices that nearly every other city in the world uses to prioritize its spending,” said Council Member Gibson. 

“[A]dvocates are marching today as they have often in the past for an approach to land use that starts from listening to communities about their needs, rather than starts by responding to a proposal from a developer,” said Council Member Lander. “A comprehensive plan, developed in conversation with communities grounded in principles of fair housing, equity, livable neighborhoods, and sustainability will help give us the tools to do that.” 

An equity-focused comprehensive plan “will help move us away from this ad hoc approach to planning that only perpetuates the existing inequalities,” said Barika Williams, executive director of ANHD, which is a leader of the Thriving Communities Coalition.

Council Member Reynoso said comprehensive planning would ensure that “the burden of building ourselves out of any crisis doesn't fall on strictly poor Black and brown neighborhoods. We get to have a conversation about how all neighborhoods can contribute.” Reynoso recently killed a de Blasio administration attempt to rezone a portion of his district in Bushwick after the sides could not come to agreement on key pieces of the puzzle.

The comprehensive planning legislation is of a piece with Johnson’s policy agenda as speaker. He successfully created a “streets master plan” for traffic and pedestrian infrastructure, which was signed into law by the mayor at the end of last year (though it’s implementation has been delayed due to the pandemic). Johnson has pushed through legislation to codify the mayor’s Office of Food Policy into law and to mandate a ten-year plan to tackle hunger and food inequity. He called for municipal control of the city’s subways and buses in his first State of the City speech last year. In January this year, he proposed a homelessness reduction plan, though he has yet to produce a strategy for building affordable housing which he promised at the time as a companion plan. In March, Johnson also released an in-depth report and a series of proposals to mitigate climate change and build resiliency infrastructure. The plan was originally meant to be released in his State of the City speech, which was cancelled because of the pandemic.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Speaker Unveils Comprehensive Planning Legislation Wed, 16 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
What's The [Data] Point? 8,200 - The Gowanus Rezoning, with City Council Member Brad Lander brla sl pod

Council Member Brad Lander (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

What's The [Data] Point? Episode 97: 8,200 - the Gowanus Rezoning with City Council Member Brad Lander [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

City Council Member Brad Lander joined the show to discuss the Gowanus rezoning proposal that is entering final stages of negotiation and the prospects of passage in 2021 -- 8,200 is the number of new housing units that could be created by the proposed rezoning of Gowanus, Brooklyn.

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!

What's The [DATA] Point? · Episode 97: 8,200, with Councilmember Brad Lander

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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What's The [Data] Point? 8,200 - The Gowanus Rezoning, with City Council Member Brad Lander Thu, 15 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000
A Portal Does Not Replace A Knock On The Door 49390440083 63553a0d3e c

The mayor at a ground-breaking ceremony (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

The Department of City Planning (DCP) has announced that it is resuming the city’s rezoning process after a five-month suspension due to the pandemic. But DCP has neither adapted the process that leads to significant land use changes to overcome the obstacles created by the pandemic nor the underlying structural racism embedded in land use decision-making. As DCP said in a recent statement reaffirming its commitment to dismantling institutionalized racism:

“We recognize that planning policies and zoning codes have acted for decades as bulwarks against fairness, inclusion and integration, and that they have played a large role in perpetuating racism and even violence against Black and Brown Americans…We are committed to unpacking and taking on institutionalized racism within the planning profession and examining our own role…”

If the city is to restart rezoning, it cannot be under the same structurally flawed process that it has acknowledged contributes to the disparities that have plagued this country since its inception. The current crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the ongoing protests for racial justice have further exposed the fatal impacts of institutionalized racism on Black and Latino communities. Resuming this flawed process while there are still pandemic-created obstacles to outreach, education, community organizing, and public participation will cause further harm to these communities.

Community groups that DCP relied upon for “getting out the word” are swamped with the need to feed and care for residents in their neighborhoods during this pandemic and the mass unemployment that has resulted from measures taken to contain COVID-19. The city’s creation of an online portal to provide information on attending virtual DCP meetings is not sufficient and will exclude hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, many of whom are low income. A portal does not replace door-knocking. 

Additionally, budgetary changes have greatly impacted how the city will be able to respond to demands for more affordable housing. Beginning a zoning change now that relies on the current Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) mechanism is extremely problematic and fundamentally unfair due to the draconian cuts to the city’s capital budget. The funding that would have been used to deepen affordability under MIH and provide additional services to remediate the negative impacts of a rezoning has evaporated. 

There are gaping holes and misguided instructions in the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) manual for gathering the information that goes into environmental impact statements - information essential for community boards, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council to accurately and fairly assess a zoning change before they vote on major land use changes (see more here and here).

These flaws hide the displacement and inadequacy of any anticipated affordable housing, and do not project how a zoning change will alter the racial composition of a neighborhood such as when older buildings are torn down and replaced with new “luxury condos.” The CEQR guidelines assume that tenants in buildings with six or more units are protected by rent regulation even though those protections are frequently evaded. Evictions, already highest in Black and Latino communities, are expected to rise as a result of the pandemic.

The CEQR guidelines are completely silent on the financial impacts a rezoning has on property values - critical information that communities and elected officials need when they try to negotiate with developers for more and deeper affordable housing, schools, libraries, and other community benefits.

In addition to providing resources and information essential to a fair zoning process, DCP must be creative and innovative to overcome the obstacles to communications and outreach created by the pandemic, which still threatens people’s health and undermines the existing public engagement process. 

The city cannot resume land use processes that will impact Black and Latino communities without a massive effort to engage these communities. City government must be driven by the imperative to bring BIPOC into the decision-making. DCP needs to innovate ways to communicate and there are a number of measures DCP can implement today: 

  • The city owns, controls, or can access buildings, spaces, and infrastructure in every neighborhood, from public schools and firehouses to bus-stop shelters and subway platforms. These spaces can serve as neighborhood touchpoints with maps, descriptions of possible buildouts, and other information to alert residents about land use proposals. 
  • Many of these spaces are already in use for emergency services for the community and can serve an additional function as a means of outreach for projects. DCP can create displays, take-away flyers, and other materials for distribution in these areas. It is important that language services and translations are also made available to accommodate residents who do not speak English. 
  • The city needs to extend the timeframe and expand the means of communication wherever possible, such as keeping hearings open so people can testify over time, and facilitating locations within impacted communities where people can submit written testimony, or safely record and submit in-person video testimony, a feature Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has used often during public hearings; and
  • If the city truly wants to improve engagement in these communities, it must provide funding and other resources to community-based organizations, now swamped with providing essential services, to augment their capacity to reach out to community members about proposed zoning changes and encourage them to participate in the process.

This pandemic has demonstrated that the city is capable of changing rules and laws quickly to accommodate extenuating circumstances. It is not merely that these are extraordinary times that require innovation in how governments must engage their residents in decision-making. Government must also be enlightened by the awareness of the long-term structural barriers to engagement that have excluded communities of color from full participation.

Tara Duvivier is Senior Planner and Adam Friedman is Director at the Pratt Center for Community Development, a Pratt Institute Research Center, which provides technical assistance in land use and community development in low-income communities and communities of color throughout New York City.

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A Portal Does Not Replace A Knock On The Door Sun, 09 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Healing the New York Region with Coordinated Planning gov cuomo exec

An argument for a regional approach to recovery (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)

Even for a metropolitan area that experienced the trauma of September 11, 2001 and the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, nothing could prepare residents of New York and their neighbors in New Jersey and Connecticut for the COVID-19 crisis. The death toll has already far surpassed that of the World Trade Center attack and will continue to climb. The economic damage is certain to exceed the job and income losses of those events and the 2008 financial crisis combined. The impacts on our collective psyche won’t be fully known until well after the pandemic has passed.

More than even in those earlier disasters, the response to this crisis requires a coordinated effort from the states and communities that are intricately tied together in family, social, and business networks that use the same roads, trains, stores, offices, schools, parks, and public spaces, drink the same water, and breathe the same air.

The decision by Governors Cuomo, Murphy, and Lamont, and their fellow governors in four other northeastern states, to form a Regional Coronavirus Reopening Council is an unprecedented collaboration that is crucial to reopening their interdependent economies. The council can have an even greater impact if it lays the foundation of a coordinated, long-term strategy to build a region that is healthier, fairer, and more resilient.

Planning for the recovery needs to start with the realization that the region is very sick and still in intensive care. Easing stay-at-home orders and other restrictions too soon will result in more deaths, a likely return to lockdowns and a longer recovery.

Returning to full physical and economic health will also require treating the underlying conditions that made us so susceptible to this disease.

The vastly disproportionate impact that this has had on black, Latino, and Native American populations, and the racial profiling the has been targeting the Asian community, is rooted in our history of racism and segregation. The sharp divides between the affluent, the middle-class, and low-wage workers without benefits or savings is a glaring outcome of decades of growing economic inequality. High levels of air pollution and other environmental hazards have always been a health risk, and appear to make us particularly susceptible to serious coronavirus effects. The fragility of vital systems like the transit network and unemployment insurance is the result of decades of underfunding and a failure to modernize. Slow adaptation to climate change will lead to even greater vulnerability and inequity. Even immediate measures to restart the economy need to address these fundamental flaws.

All of these conditions are national in scope and call for a concerted national response. But both the unique character of the region and the scale of the epidemic here require a vision and plan for the tri-state metropolitan area at least, if not the entire Northeast. The governors, through the regional council, can set a course that both speeds recovery and begins fixing structural problems.

A starting point for the long view can be Regional Plan Association’s 2017 Fourth Regional Plan, a once-in-a-generation vision for the tri-state metropolitan area. Many of its recommendations will need to be reassessed in a post-COVID-19 world, but the long-term challenges addressed in the plan are, if anything, now more important to overcome. The values of health, equity, prosperity, and sustainability that shaped the plan can guide the actions we take at each stage of recovery and renewal.

As we transition to recovery, the immediate focus on coordinating guidelines for reopening and physical distancing can shift to incorporating health goals and metrics in all regional and state agencies. New York State’s health-in-all-policies guidelines are a good place to start. These will be particularly important in reducing the vast disparities in health outcomes by race and income.

A united effort to secure the region’s fair share of federal transit assistance is the first order of business to keep the region’s circulatory system from spiraling into decline, but why stop there? With support from the governors, the region’s transportation agencies could join in creating a universal fare-payment mechanism and start to integrate rail services to allow more direct, one-seat rides to different parts of the region.

The council could spearhead an effort to give affordable, reliable Internet service to every household in the region, eliminating a leading source of both urban and rural inequality while reducing the region’s vulnerability in future disasters. This could set the stage for more difficult but essential conversations on how to expand affordable housing and reduce segregation throughout the metropolitan area.

An economic restart may be our best opportunity to rebuild in a way that supports a healthier environment and greater resilience to both future pandemics and climate change. Interstate cooperation to reopen the economy can be a foundation for large-scale climate initiatives, such as expanding regional greenhouse gas reduction programs, scaling up renewable energy, and capitalizing adaptation trust funds.

Recovering from the coronavirus pandemic will require a mobilization of the region’s talents, resources, and political will to a degree not seen since at least the deep fiscal crisis of the 1970s. We have a chance to not only recover much of what we lost, but to heal the wounds and divisions that new calamities would otherwise exploit.

Chris Jones is Senior Vice President and Chief Planner at Regional Plan Association. On Twitter @RegionalPlan.

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Healing the New York Region with Coordinated Planning Sun, 03 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Members and De Blasio Planning Chief Spar Over Neighborhood Rezonings at Budget Hearing navy yards we

Mayor de Blasio makes an announcement (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)

What was ostensibly meant to be a City Council hearing on the proposed preliminary budget for the Department of City Planning on Tuesday turned into a debate about the de Blasio administration’s approach to neighborhood rezonings. Several Council members expressed their displeasure with rapid gentrification and resident displacement, and what they believe are the city’s insufficient efforts to stop those trends while at times exacerbating them through rezonings, while Mayor Bill de Blasio’s planning chief, Marisa Lago, defended the administration’s approach to housing and community development.

At a hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Land Use, chaired by Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr. of the Bronx, Lago -- who is the director of the Department of City Planning and chair of the City Planning Commission -- found herself on the defensive as she explained the administration’s strategy behind its neighborhood rezoning plans, which undergird de Blasio’s 12-year plan to build and preserve 300,000 units of rent-restricted housing. DCP plays a central role in that rezoning process, while the City Planning Commission winds up voting to approve or disapprove the proposals that make their way through the city’s land use review process.

Since 2016, the administration has successfully moved six large-scale neighborhood rezonings, which involve changing land use regulations to create more housing density while mandating inclusion of affordable housing in new, larger developments, as well as provide a slew of infrastructure and community investments such as libraries, schools, community centers, parks, and more. The rezonings also often change land use regulations related to commercial and manufacturing space.

But those rezonings have been focused in low-income communities of color, an approach that has been criticized for exacerbating existing displacement pressures and accelerating gentrification that is already underway, though the mayor and his top housing deputies have repeatedly argued that the rezonings are often the best way to mitigate the effects of market forces already taking hold in certain communities.

So far, rezonings have been approved in East New York, Brooklyn, East Harlem and Inwood in Manhattan, Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, Downtown Far Rockaway in Queens, and the Bay Street corridor on Staten Island. (East Midtown in Manhattan was also rezoned but was aimed at revitalizing a commercial district rather than aimed at building housing.) The Inwood plan has been halted by a judge, however, the subject of an appeal by the city. Other proposed neighborhoods for rezonings, including part of Flushing, were shelved before the planning process really got going, largely due to local opposition.

When asked which rezonings could be certified by the time de Blasio’s tenure is up, Lago seemed confident that one in Gowanus, Brooklyn would go through. She was cut off before she could name any other neighborhoods that have been identified for a rezoning but have yet to move.

If the administration were to stop rezoning wide swathes of neighborhoods, market-rate “as-of-right” housing would continue to be built, Lago said.

As she explained at the hearing on Tuesday, 80% of housing construction in the city takes place “as-of-right,” which involves private development where the city does not have a role to play. “New housing,” she said, is “disproportionately built in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods – 30% of new units since 2015 have been in the 20% of neighborhoods with the highest median incomes. These neighborhoods are also getting a proportionately large share of new affordable housing – 20% of new affordable units have been built in the most affluent 20% of neighborhoods.”

Acknowledging that its affordable housing plan needs to create deeper affordability, the administration has reset its housing program multiple times, most recently by expanding the number of units that will be set aside for the lowest income and homeless New Yorkers, Council members have repeatedly said the rezoning plans don’t create enough housing that is affordable for the current residents of the neighborhoods involved.

That’s also why some Council members have sought to downzone parts of their districts in neighborhood rezonings, to preserve the character of their communities and prevent the kind of rapid development that they fear will lead to rising rents that push out long-time residents.

“Does City Planning not care about keeping the character of neighborhoods intact?” asked Salamanca, who recently put the kibosh on a potential rezoning in part of his district.

Lago pushed back on the suggestion, noting that downzonings limit the city’s ability to spur the building of more affordable housing. “As a department that looks citywide, and a city that is growing, and in a city that has an affordability crisis, we need to recognize that the solution is not to stop housing construction,” she said.

That was a central divergence point that led to the abrupt stalling of the city’s effort to pursue a neighborhood rezoning in Bushwick, Brooklyn. In January, the city halted the environmental review process for the proposed rezoning after rejecting a request by elected officials and community activists to consider an alternate, community-based plan. The Bushwick Community Plan, which was years in the making, was “in essence, a downzoning,” Lago said at Tuesday’s hearing, citing the words of Vicki Been, the deputy mayor for Housing and Economic Development.

Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who represents Bushwick, disagreed, as he has before, and delivered the harshest criticism of the hearing. Reynoso condemned the city’s decision to walk away from the Bushwick Community Plan and questioned why the administration was instead interested in a plan that would lead to more displacement through development of what he sees as too much new market-rate housing. “At this point, it just doesn't seem like you're playing a fair game with the community, and asking us to engage in a system where the outcomes are only what you want and nothing else,” he said.

Lago emphasized that the displacement Reynoso fears would happen regardless. “We are seeing displacement occur with or without rezoning,” Lago emphasized, noting that the city’s approach has been to prevent displacement through various other means including free legal services to low-income tenants facing eviction and anti-tenant harassment measures, among others.

Lago particularly leaned on that argument when Salamanca questioned whether DCP supported legislation he has proposed along with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams to require a racial impact study with city-sponsored rezoning proposals. Lago did not directly say she supported the legislation. “We very much agree on the need critically to analyze land use actions, and we also need to analyze the status quo and what is happening, even in the absence of a discussion about rezoning,” she said.

“I would welcome the opportunity to engage with the Council on identifying whether there is a causality between racial displacement and rezoning,” she added.

Some of the criticism of DCP stemmed from housing and zoning decisions made well before Lago took over as planning chief, and almost a decade before de Blasio became mayor. Council Member Stephen Levin, for instance, noted that the Williamsburg-Greenpoint rezoning approved in 2005 under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not lead to the many projected improvements that city planning officials had predicted at the time. DCP released an analysis of the long-term impacts of the rezonings last year and he asked the department to conduct similar analyses of other rezonings.

Council Member Mark Treyger echoed Levin’s sentiment in forceful tones, noting that a Coney Island rezoning from 2009 had similarly failed to promote robust economic activity as envisioned and that current residents cannot wait for a decade for affordable housing to be built. “The reason why I'm bringing this to the attention of DCP is because it was your agency and others that sold my community a bag of goods about the 2009 rezoning,” he said, calling for remedial measures to help fix the problems the rezoning created.

“Michael Bloomberg failed Coney Island and we need to address the crisis my constituents face right now,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Council Members and De Blasio Planning Chief Spar Over Neighborhood Rezonings at Budget Hearing Wed, 04 Mar 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Corey Johnson: Master Planner? commvoicesheard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

Corey Johnson: Master Planner? Tue, 03 Mar 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Why We Need a Comprehensive City Plan Now first lady chirlane opening dev

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

New York City’s housing crisis is getting worse. While a significant number of luxury units sit vacant, the population of homeless children is growing, we have only a 1% vacancy rate in public housing, and more than half of New Yorkers spend over a third of their income on housing. We have a serious problem on our hands.

According to basic economics, the solution to demand exceeding supply is an increase in supply. A scarcity of units causes prices to rise; the most effective way to ease this upward pressure on rents is to build more, and to do so quickly. New residential units start a “migration chain” that filters down to lower income brackets, as well; the benefits of new construction filter down the property ladder even if the new construction is a luxury high-rise. Development alone is not enough -- we need to incentivize the creation of affordable units and provide low-income families with additional assistance -- but unless we build more, we have no hope of making housing more affordable in New York City.

And yet, we are struggling to build. According to Mayor de Blasio’s “Where We Live Now” plan, there were 163,000 new housing units built in the 2010s, down from 198,000 the decade before. Even the 1930s saw greater production of new housing.

Though conceptually, most people would agree that to fix our shortage we need to build new units, in reality most people don’t want new construction on their streets. Resistance to new development comes from a variety of different fears. Though blocked views, loud construction, and overcrowded trains are easy to dismiss as NIMBYism, other concerns are more nuanced. New development can change neighborhood character, and many communities fear that it can accelerate gentrification and displacement (though research contradicts this claim).

Despite these objections, we need to build more housing. Currently, it seems like any proposal, no matter how small, encounters fierce opposition. We should be mindful of how development will impact our diverse neighborhoods, but protestors and anti-development activists should consider the counter-factual: What will happen to our city if there is no development at all?

The build-but-not-here phenomenon we are experiencing in New York City is a classic collective action problem. In many cases, it is rational for people to want to keep new construction out of their neighborhoods. But when we take an individual’s rational decision and expand it to an entire city, we run into trouble. When all of New York City says “no” to new development, where does that leave us?

Currently, development proposals feel haphazard and uncoordinated, but we can start to break the stalemate with a comprehensive city plan, which is in the City Council’s legislative pipeline. Led by Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Brad Lander and Antonio Reynoso, the comprehensive plan would sketch out a long-term plan for rezoning, development, and land use decisions within the five boroughs.

The New York City Council attempted to introduce a comprehensive city plan as part of the 2019 Charter Revision Commission. The 2019 proposal, which failed to be put to voters, observed that for other major cities across the globe, comprehensive plans serve “as the basis for land use, zoning, and capital planning decisions.” New York City struggles to reach consensus on any of these issues, leading to stalled projects and, ultimately, skyrocketing rents.

Critics of a comprehensive city plan decry it as a toothless document and futile effort. They compare it to existing “fair share criteria,” a set of guidelines to help New York City place public facilities in a thoughtful, equitable way. Though well-intentioned, the criteria have made little difference in how city government actually allocates facilities.

Whether or not a comprehensive city plan changes patterns of development in New York City, though, at the very least such a plan will make new development projects feel more coherent. Currently, New Yorkers struggle to see how the buildings proposed for their neighborhoods fit into a broader effort to make housing more affordable. When proposals feel like one-off projects, they are easy to dismiss. After all, it is true that one building will not make a meaningful difference to the number of units we have on the market.

If, however, each proposed building is part of a clear plan to make New York City more affordable for everyone, opposition to development may become less venomous. True, a comprehensive city plan will not solve our housing affordability issues or eliminate disagreement entirely. Tensions surrounding gentrification and displacement will remain, and NIMBYism will continue. But at the very least, New Yorkers will be able to see how each new development connects to a larger plan. A citywide planning framework will not fix everything, but it is a good place to start.

Benjamin Heller is a graduate student at NYU’s Robert F Wagner School of Public Service. On Twitter @BenjaminHeller0.

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Why We Need a Comprehensive City Plan Now Wed, 19 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Pursues Comprehensive Planning Legislation city planning

(rendering via the Mayor's Office)

The New York City Council is crafting legislation to mandate the creation of a comprehensive plan for the city that would guide long-term decisions on land use, zoning, and investments in infrastructure. The effort is being led by Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Brad Lander and Antonio Reynoso.

Last year, the City Council urged the 2019 Charter Revision Commission to propose to voters an amendment to the city’s governing document to require a comprehensive plan every ten years. A comprehensive plan would serve as “a citywide strategic framework and vision for growth and development,” the Council wrote in its recommendations to the charter commission, which included representatives from various top city elected officials, including Johnson, who appointed its chair.

“The lack of a citywide plan contributes to the overall housing shortage and exacerbates conflicts for space between different uses,” the Council report reads. “The ad hoc selection of particular neighborhoods for growth-oriented rezoning plans has proved to be an inefficient and acrimonious process and is not delivering enough opportunities for development as the city needs.”

Even the charter commission’s staff agreed with the need for a comprehensive plan, recommending to the commissioners that it consider taking up the issue. The commission’s preliminary staff report issued in April noted that there are currently 12 different charter-required documents that determine city planning. “But the Charter does not always make clear how (and whether) these plans are intended to fit together, what they must address, how they relate to one another, how progress (or lack thereof) toward their goals is measured and assessed, and how the public can affect the content of these plans (if at all),” the staff report reads.

But the commission demurred, and among nearly 20 changes proposed to voters, all of which passed in November, only put forward tweaks to the city’s current land use processes. Commission Chair Gail Benjamin, appointed by Johnson, and Commissioner Carl Weisbrod, the former head of City Planning who was appointed to the commission by Mayor Bill de Blasio, both seemed opposed to the proposal, as did members of the de Blasio administration.

But where the charter commission passed, the City Council appears ready to move ahead. “Comprehensive Planning was a Council and personal priority in our testimony to the Charter Revision Commission and we continue to explore options to achieve those goals legislatively,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. A spokesperson for the speaker did not provide any additional detail about what the legislation would contain or the timeline for its introduction.

At the end of last year, Johnson passed and de Blasio signed a "streets master plan" law that includes mandates around bike and bus lanes and pedestrian space across the city. This past week, Johnson unveiled a "holistic, long-term" approach to combating homelessness in the city and said that a corresponding affordable housing plan is in the works. In a brief interview at City Hall after he released the homelessness plan, Johnson told Gotham Gazette that the larger planning legislation will incorporate those pieces and more.

Lander and Reynoso, who helped lead the push for comprehensive planning during the charter commission’s work and quickly rued the fact that the commission passed on the idea, indicated that there will be a package of several bills to accomplish comprehensive planning and related goals.

“Let's be perfectly honest, the only way we would have done it in a real comprehensive way, would have been through the charter,” Reynoso said in a brief interview outside City Hall. “So what we're doing now is taking the most aggressive legislative action we could take to try to mimic what should have been done through the charter.”

Lander stressed that the need to take “a more collaborative, more comprehensive, more proactive, more values-attuned approach, it just gets more and more urgent.”

“If we want to have a city that matches our values and carries them into planning for our future, the processes we currently have are broken and we have to have new ones,” he said during a phone interview.

Lander echoed Reynoso in pointing out that any bill passed by the Council will be more limited than what the charter commission could have accomplished. “By Council legislation, you can require a comprehensive planning process every so often, but you can’t change the [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] process to favor projects that would be aligned with that plan or make it more difficult to have projects that don't,” he said.

The push for comprehensive planning also has the support of the Thriving Communities coalition, made up of advocates, nonprofits, and grassroots organizers who sought to convince the charter commission to pursue their goals. The coalition criticized the commission’s refusal to take up the issue. “While the status quo might work for developers and the powerful few, it does not work for most New Yorkers, and without meaningful changes, the processes we have now will only exacerbate inequality, segregation, and displacement,” it wrote in a statement after the commission issued its final ballot proposals. Spokespeople for the coalition -- which included organizations like Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, Community Action for Safe Apartments, New York Appleseed, Regional Plan Association, and Pratt Center for Community Development, among others -- did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Any comprehensive planning legislation is likely to face push back from the de Blasio administration.

Vicki Been was formerly commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and testified before the charter commission as an outside expert at a March 21 hearing. She later rejoined the de Blasio administration when the mayor appointed her Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development in April.

In her testimony, Been raised the issue of the city’s Fair Share criteria, which determine how the city sites municipal facilities according to neighborhoods bearing their fair share of the burden. Over the years, the fair share policy has been criticized for largely failing to accomplish its intended objective as facilities such as homeless shelters and waste management plants began to be concentrated in certain communities, often low-income communities of color.

“Much of the criticism of the fair share criteria is that they are like an environmental impact review, all you have to do is show that you considered the fairness of the distribution. You don't have to meet any numerical or other target because one wasn't set because it's too difficult of a question,” Been said at the hearing. “And so there's no reason to believe that moving the question into what we call a comprehensive planning system would accomplish anything other than what is accomplished in the conversation about fair share.”

Anita Larement, executive director of the Department of City Planning, similarly raised red flags about comprehensive planning at that hearing. “On the one hand, people are looking for more community control over decision-making, which actually we know will lead to more problems in regards to siting things that people don't want in their neighborhoods. And this notion that somehow on the other hand if we can do comprehensive planning that we will solve these problems? What I would really submit is that, that is not correct,” she said.

After the 2019 Charter Revision Commission declined to move comprehensive planning forward toward a ballot proposal, Lander and Reynoso wrote a joint op-ed lamenting the missed opportunity but stressing the importance of moving ahead with better city planning, especially regarding infrastructure, climate resiliency, housing affordability, transit, school seats and more, with a holistic vision for development, services, and community benefits and burdens.

"Comprehensive planning is not a panacea, but evidence from other cities suggests that it is an essential component of fair and rational progress," they wrote. Concluding that if New York City is "going to meet the collective challenges of rising temperatures and sea levels, growing population, aging infrastructure, keeping people in their homes, and addressing deeply-rooted inequality, we’re going to have to start doing it."

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

City Council Pursues Comprehensive Planning Legislation Sun, 02 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000