Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/196 Tue, 23 Jul 2019 07:37:35 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Council Hearing Highlights Big Gaps in City Planning Processes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8513-council-hearing-highlights-big-gaps-in-city-planning-processes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8513-council-hearing-highlights-big-gaps-in-city-planning-processes hearing city hall cm rafael salamanca jr

Council Member Salamanca, center (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


A Tuesday City Council hearing about how city planning is done revealed major flaws in the process and showed significant divides between the mayoral administration and the Council over a set of bills aimed at changing relevant processes. Specifically, the legislation addresses how the outcomes of neighborhood rezonings -- where land use rules are adjusted in certain geographic areas to meet new development goals -- are projected and evaluated.

The hearing, which included racial overtones, was centered on oversight of the “City Environmental Quality Review,” known by its initials, CEQR, the city’s pre-rezoning assessment of the potential impact discretionary changes may have on the area and its residents.

Questions from members of the Council’s land use committee to representatives from the de Blasio administration brought into focus what planning and evaluation tools the city does and does not use when it pursues a major neighborhood overhaul or plans key infrastructure developments, and in measuring what impact these developments have on the communities.

A key concern expressed at the hearing was whether the Department of City Planning and the City Planning Commission are appropriately and accurately evaluating the local impact of zoning changes to inform future studies and planning. Several of the Council members present sponsor bills intended to improve the way the city evaluates the potential impact of rezonings on local transportation, schools, and residential displacement, changes that often fall along racial and economic lines.

With real estate always at a premium in New York City, the restrictions the city places on how land can be used in the five boroughs has incredibly broad effects on the character and utility of neighborhoods. Anything from the number of apartments available (and the number of affordable ones), what commerce and industry operates, the density of sidewalks and public transportation, and what city services will be accessible, can all be dramatically affected by zoning decisions.

The shifting needs of neighborhoods and the interplay of local economies throughout the metropolitan area makes development -- and, consequently, land use rule changes -- a necessary reality in New York City. But as has been the case in other periods of its history, with drastic recent changes over the last two decades, the city has had to grapple with how to grow responsibly.

City government has a lengthy process for considering and making changes to zoning restrictions, which requires that a lead city agency be designated to conduct a review of the “potential adverse environmental effects” of a rezoning proposal. Except for certain actions deemed by the lead agency to be too minor to warrant review, the study must result in an Environmental Impact Statement with proposals for mitigation strategies to avoid unfavorable outcomes.

The rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn in 2004 and of parts of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in 2006 both required Environmental Impact Statements, and were the subject of scrutiny at Tuesday’s oversight hearing.

While representatives of the Department of City Planning and the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination (MOEC) spoke to the process of conducting and assessing environmental impact studies, they could not speak to the outcomes of these rezonings and whether the environmental reviews have been able to accurately predict the reality that followed.

What became painfully evident during the hearing was the fact that there is no procedure, or even an intention, to assess the accuracy of environmental impact predictions integral to the city’s consequential decisions to change the way land may be used.

The reality in those two cases is far different from what was predicted by the environmental impact statements, both Council members and administration representatives agreed. Downtown Brooklyn was rezoned largely to create opportunities for commercial development, while allowing some residential expansion; the result 15 years later is a vastly different neighborhood dominated by residential development, and a new economic landscape that has pushed out most of the community there before the rezoning, according to several of the Council members present.

While the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning was intended for residential development to accommodate what was a growing need in 2006, an “explosion” of land speculation, land use variances, and illegal conversions in the years since have also displaced a large portion of residents, according to Council Member Antonio Reynoso, whose district includes parts of the neighborhood. The Environmental Impact Statement for that rezoning predicted a number of adverse impacts, including the indirect displacement of approximately 2,510 residents, and suggested mitigation strategies including the preservation and creation of additional affordable housing in the neighborhood.

The Department of City Planning has never revisited these figures or strategies. (Nevertheless, it considers Downtown Brooklyn to be a “very successful rezoning,” according to Susan Amron, general counsel at DCP, who testified on Tuesday.)

Amron told Council members at the oversight hearing that such a post-rezoning review does not fall under the agency’s purview.

“It is important to remember that environmental review is a disclosure process that applies only to discretionary decision-making, and not to the as-of-right developments that constitute nearly 80% of projects in the City,” she said. “Environmental review is also not a tool that looks backward to identify causes of current conditions...Again, it is a disclosure tool prepared at a specific moment in time, intended to aid decision-makers.”

But Council members present at the hearing could not understand why such a process wouldn’t include a retrospective assessment of whether the methodologies employed are sound and instructive, at times expressing shock and frustration.

“That answer doesn’t sit right with me,” Salamanca said. “How can the City of New York put a report out, submit it to the City Council, and then not go back and double-check to see how accurate that report was?”

Two of the bills being discussed would require city agencies to produce a comparative report on the projected and actual effects of a rezoning on transportation and school overcrowding, sponsored by Council Members Mark Gjonaj and Francisco Moya, respectively. They would further require the Department of City planning or the lead agency to make recommendations on how to amend the CEQR Technical Manual, which provides technical guidance on environmental impact studies, to “more accurately forecast such impacts in future land use actions.”

Another bill, sponsored by Moya, on the table Tuesday would require the city’s housing agency to produce a similar comparative report on residential displacement, and a fourth bill, sponsored by Reynoso, would require the city to track mitigation commitments.

At the hearing, Hilary Semel, director and general counsel of MOEC, the agency responsible for producing the CEQR Technical Manual, said that the office will soon launch an update to the manual, but has not yet determined its scope or the timeline of its release. City agencies “with expert jurisdiction over certain technical areas led the updating to those methodologies” in the past, Semel told the committee. But the manual has only been updated four times since it was first published in 1993, the most recent update in 2014, largely to accommodate changes to local, state, and federal law and policy.

In terms of tracking mitigation strategies, Semel said, OEC “is currently actively working on initiatives that will incorporate aspects of mitigation tracking. OEC will be able to apply its unique CEQR expertise, the developmental process, and the development of a public mitigation tracker.”

These initiatives, while still in the early stages of development, missed the crux of the matter for a number of the Council members present, many of whom are black and Latino and represent districts in which communities of color have been displaced or are under extreme economic pressure. Under Mayor de Blasio, a series of lower-income communities of color -- including East New York, East Harlem, Inwood, and others -- have been home to rezonings targeted at increasing housing density while providing broader public benefits. Several other proposed rezonings, in a more diverse mix of neighborhoods, are at various points in the lengthy process.

“The fact that you believe CEQR requires some changes because...everything can be improved and not speak to the gross miscalculations made by whatever formula exists in the CEQR manual, that you would come in here and say the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning was a success and that it’s something you’re proud of, is beyond me,” said an emphatic Antonio Reynoso, Council member from Williamsburg, Bushwick, and other areas who sponsors the bill to track mitigation strategies.

“You are part of the reason why 30,000 Latinos were displaced in ten years,” he continued. “You did that intentionally if you don’t think you have a problem with your manual. The manual needs to be modified so it can speak to real world problems.”

Council Member I. Daneek Miller of Queens wondered aloud about the racial make-up of the Department of City Planning. Only 28% of the department is black or Latino, according to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, as of the 2017 fiscal year. For the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, an agency involved in mitigating displacement through affordable housing, that metric is a much higher 61%.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

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Council Hearing Highlights Big Gaps in City Planning Processes Thu, 09 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Zoning for a More Resilient Future https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8495-zoning-for-a-more-resilient-future https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8495-zoning-for-a-more-resilient-future more resilient future

(photo: City Planning Department)


As the threat of climate change grows more prevalent by the day, cities must take the lead in reducing our carbon footprint and becoming more resilient. This year, New York City has taken a big, green step forward, with actions by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council that will decrease our emissions.

When it comes to withstanding the storms and flooding that climate change will bring more frequently, though, it’s vital that existing zoning rules don’t stand in the way of protective measures for the buildings that make up our coastal communities. As sea levels rise, so too will flood waters and we must make certain that zoning accounts for future risk.

Shortly after Hurricane Sandy devastated our coastal communities, the City adopted emergency zoning to enable homeowners to rebuild to more resilient standards, based on the then-newly provided flood maps produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

These zoning changes allowed property owners to raise living space and mechanical equipment to a higher elevation that could otherwise wind up under water. They also expire one year after FEMA creates new flood maps. But there’s no telling when the next storm may hit.

When it comes to building or renovating, the hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses in the floodplain can’t be kept in limbo. We need to provide guidelines for how buildings can be constructed or retrofitted to better withstand or recover from storms and flooding. This affects roughly 400,000 residents in today’s flood zone, an area that could increase in size to cover nearly 800,000  New York City residents by the 2050s due to sea level rise.

zoning for flood resiliency coverWith years of lessons from Sandy recovery and community outreach, we’ve created Zoning for Coastal Flood Resiliency, rules tailored to New York’s diverse neighborhoods, building types, uses and needs, as well as increased storm and flood risk from climate change.

We have listened to communities throughout the City’s flood zones to understand the challenges they face both from storms and increased chances of flooding due to climate change. Zoning for Coastal Flood Resiliency is responsive to what we heard and will allow New Yorkers to make smart choices when retrofitting or rebuilding.

The proposal’s main goals include:

Expanded geography: We saw during Hurricane Sandy that floodwaters ignore lines drawn on maps. Much flooding occurred well beyond the boundaries of the old Flood Maps. With climate change and rising sea levels, storms will become more frequent and floodwaters will travel further inland. We’re expanding the proposed zoning protections from the 100-year floodplain to the 500-year floodplain, ensuring that an additional 44,600 buildings in the city that house nearly 350,000 additional residents can become more resilient.

Flexibility for resiliency: Residents told us that current zoning often forces their resilient measures to eat into living space in their homes. In response, we propose to allow sea level rise to be factored into designing new buildings or retrofitting existing ones, offering more room for resiliency. This flexibility will give resilient buildings a decreased chance of property damage from a future storm and likely reduced flood insurance costs.

Alternatives for the relocation of important equipment: For buildings to quickly get back up and running after flooding, it’s critical that their mechanical, electrical and plumbing equipment or back-up systems are above floodwaters. The zoning would allow them to be elevated.

On a personal and a macro level, New Yorkers are still feeling the impact of Hurricane Sandy. It’s imperative to apply lessons learned from that disaster and emerge stronger. These zoning measures will help individual property owners prepare for a resilient future.

This is just one piece of the puzzle. When combined with the City’s investments in coastal protection and the hardening of our infrastructure, we can provide real and tangible risk reduction from coastal storms.

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Michael Marrella is Director of Waterfront and Open Space at the Department of City Planning. On Twitter @NYCPlanning.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Zoning for a More Resilient Future Wed, 01 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Land Use and Planning https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8385-charter-revision-commission-hears-expert-testimony-on-land-use-and-planning https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8385-charter-revision-commission-hears-expert-testimony-on-land-use-and-planning press conference

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


The sixth 2019 Charter Revision Commission “expert” hearing ended in more confusion than it began with on the decidedly complex topics of land use and city planning.

Over the course of more than three hours on Thursday evening, experts struggled to articulate a clear definition of comprehensive planning, leaving the commissioners feeling like they had little to work off moving forward in the process of examining the city charter and recommending changes to the city’s foundational governing structures and laws, even if they support the idea abstractly. Meanwhile, experts on the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) put forth several different ideas about how much ULURP should involve the community, but mostly agreed that it already works well enough.

As with several of the other hearings, experts and commissioners agreed on the broad goal of working toward a more equitable, affordable, and livable city, but disagreed on the means to achieve it.

The charter revision commission is holding a series of expert hearings as it works toward the first potential significant overhaul of city governing since 1989, with four main focus areas to decide on a series of suggested reforms to put on the ballot before voters this November.

The commission has already held hearings on election reforms, police accountability, city budgeting and contracting, conflicts of interest and chief diversity officers, and the public advocate and law department. The commission consists of 15 members appointed by each borough president, the city council speaker, the comptroller, and the mayor, and there is staff to help with research and more.

Uniform Land Use Review Process
“Would you agree that how land is used in any particular place is always a political act?” Commission Chair Gail Benjamin asked the question of the hour, jumpstarting a ULURP panel with commissioners concerned about displacement and equity, and an expert panel that largely echoed those concerns but conceded few suggested reforms.

ULURP refers to the city’s “standards and timelines for certain land use actions” that stretch beyond the purview of the land’s zoning. Currently, ULURP is a monthslong process that moves from the Department of City Planning to community boards to borough presidents to the City Planning Commission to the City Council.

Experts were mixed on how to reform ULURP, or whether it even requires change. Marisa Lago, Director of New York City Department of Planning, cautioned against moving away from as-of-right housing development, or new housing that complies with existing zoning laws and does not require special approval, which she said provides much of New York City’s affordable housing. The ULURP process, Lago said, is also indispensable to supporting affordable housing and prioritizes community input.

Some experts emphasized the importance of a comprehensive, citywide perspective, rather than a hyperlocal view of city planning.

Anita Laremont, the executive director of the Department of City Planning, called for a timely, fully public process that balances community input with governmental power -- and indicated ULURP may give too strong a voice to louder local opposition to development. “While some local voices feel that the ULURP process does not give them a strong enough voice, we hear from affordable housing developers, fair housing advocates, and others who see that local concerns are frequently winning out over the wider needs of families, immigrants and others among the city’s most vulnerable.”

Andrew Lynn, who formerly held Laremont’s role and is currently a consultant, similarly warned against prioritizing “a vocal, local minority directly affected by an action whose interests may conflict with those of a larger, quieter citywide constituency that has a stake in the action.”

Joe Rose, former chair of the City Planning Commission and director of the Department of City Planning, espoused many of same the viewpoints as the other experts on the panel, but also recommended a process that adds 30 extra days to community boards’ decision time, which is currently 60 days, in particularly complex cases. Community Boards currently have an advisory role in ULURP. Rose further argued that giving the Department of City Planning a stronger enforcement role regarding zoning laws would alleviate unnecessary convolution in the ULURP process.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect, urbanism professor of practice at Columbia University, and former planner for the city under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was part of the experts’ consensus against significantly revising ULURP to bring in more considerations. “We are outpacing our growth projections,” he said. “But given our land scarcity, we simply can’t keep up unless we expand the production of both affordable and market-rate housing. The fantasy that less growth will lead to equity is irresponsible rhetoric.”

The only expert who spoke unequivocally in favor of ULURP reform was Carmen Vega-Rivera of Community Action for Safe Apartments, who spoke about her “extremely frustrating” experience with the Jerome Avenue rezoning in the South Bronx that was approved a year ago and she says invited private developers into the rezoned neighborhood and could potentially lead to gentrification and displacement.

Vega-Rivera called for an overhaul of the CEQR, or environmental review process, which she said failed to adequately assess the threat of displacement in the Jerome Avenue project. She suggested a public CEQR process that is renewed at least every five years and delivers a full explanation to the community of the Planning Department’s methodology. She also recommended revoking total mayoral control over the CEQR process and instead endorsed a special oversight commission of appointed experts. “In other words,” Vega-Rivera said, “no one has more power than the other.”

After Commissioner Alison Hirsh, Vice President of 32BJ SEIU, asked experts to answer to Vega-Rivera’s concerns, Laremont assured, “we take very seriously the risk of displacement,” but that the CEQR manual is highly technical and public revision risks making an already complex document more difficult to maneuver.

Commissioners were mostly concerned with maintaining equity and community oversight in the ULURP process. Commissioner Sal Albanese, former City Council member and three-time mayoral candidate, asked experts how the city can achieve a balance of continued growth and a vibrant working-class population, while Commissioner James Vacca, a former City Council member, asked why ULURP fails to engage community boards earlier in the process to avoid isolating local residents and stakeholders.

Vega-Rivera said community-based efforts are not occurring. “I happen to be a tenant fighting not to be displaced in my community,” she told the commissioners. “No one has knocked on my door to assess my situation.”

The other experts largely agreed with each other that New York City can only achieve equity with a comprehensive view of the city, arguing that a neighborhood-centric approach is myopic. Lago offered homeless shelters as an example: few neighborhoods want to host them, but they remain a critical service that have to exist throughout the city, she explained. At the same time, none of these experts endorsed an actual comprehensive plan for New York City.

Commissioner James Caras, the Land Use Director for the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, reupped his colleague’s question about engaging the community earlier. Laremont answered, “I’m a little bit confused because I’m not aware of a single instance when that has not been the case.” Even if the process has been informal, community members and stakeholders are consistently looped into the ULURP process, she said. When Caras asked why a community-centric process should not be codified if it’s already in place, Lago said that “one size doesn’t fit all,” and city planning groups need flexibility.

Other concerns from commissioners included the disparate planning entities in the city, which experts argued makes the process more robust; increasing digital access to ULURP applications, which Laremont assured; and adding urban planners to the City Planning Commission, which received mixed reviews.

Comprehensive Planning
New York City does not have a comprehensive city plan, unlike many other cities across the globe. Some are calling for the requirement to be added to the charter, whereby at some regular interval, the city would be responsible for developing such a plan for land use, development, and key aspects of city life.

The competing definitions of comprehensive planning were debated more than any concrete reform suggestions, flummoxing commissioners after an intense two hours of two comprehensive planning panels. Commissioner Hirsh at one point told the experts that she counted seven different ideas in their written testimony submitted to the commission that could all be considered comprehensive planning.

In a document distributed prior to the hearing, the commission defined a comprehensive plan as “a document that articulates long-term development goals related to transportation, utilities, land use, recreation, housing, and other types of infrastructure and services.” But the first expert, Vicki Been, the former commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, began the panel by admitting, “I’m not sure that we’re all on the same page about what is meant by comprehensive planning.”

She called a charter mandate “empty platitudes without much more detail about what is meant by comprehensive planning,” and cautioned that its ratification could make an already lengthy and unpredictable process more onerous.

Most of the first comprehensive planning panel shared Been’s concerns, while the second panel was significantly more receptive to the idea, if less uniform on what comprehensive planning means and how to enact it.

Other panelists who spoke against comprehensive planning cited its failure in the 1970s charter revision process, when by the time it was codified, it was almost immediately outdated, according to several experts. Urban planner Sandy Hornick called the idea “inherently top-down,” rather than community-based. Patrice Carroll of the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development, where comprehensive planning is in place, said that Seattle’s plan allows for flexibility within a broader framework that precludes an overly top-down approach.

Commissioner Hirsh asked how the current system accounts for equity, again probing at the hearing’s lack of clear definitions. Been explained that citywide tension stems from a lack of a clear interpretation of fairness, and Hornick offered the example of waste stations to illustrate the argument that comprehensive planning will not remedy the problem that residents will fight against undesirable assets in their neighborhoods.

Commissioner Vacca strongly pushed against this notion, saying, “We’re not talking fairness or saturation, we’re talking inequality.” He cited the significant five-year gap in life expectancy between Manhattan and the Bronx due to issues like air quality. “These studies are not subjective, this is the reality. We already have this information at our fingertips and we don’t use it when we plan,” he said. “We plan in a vacuum.”

This sentiment was echoed most prominently by City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, including Williamsburg, which has become essentially synonymous with gentrification and displacement. “Planning has left us an unaffordable, economically segregated, racially segregated city in a climate crisis,” he said, testifying before the commission in favor of comprehensive planning. “There has to be a better way.”

Elena Conte, Director of Policy at Pratt Center for Community Development, argued the comprehensive planning trusts communities to articulate their own needs, and Tom Angotti, a professor of urban planning at Hunter College, accused other experts of depicting comprehensive planning as a catch-all “boogeyman.”

Commissioner Albanese expressed concern that comprehensive planning would stifle growth, but Angotti said that cities that use the system are growing, like Seattle and Amsterdam. Commission Chair Benjamin inquired about legislating comprehensive planning, rather than mandating it through the charter. Reynoso said that he did not trust his own body, the City Council, to handle the issue properly.

Nearly all commissioners agreed that they approved of a form of city planning that is community-based, equitable, and meets the challenges facing the city––from displacement to climate change––but seemed wary about the future of a comprehensive planning mandate without more concrete proposals.

[READ: New York City Doesn’t Have a Comprehensive Plan; Does It Need One?]

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Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Land Use and Planning Sun, 24 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Hoping to Dictate City Rezoning and Stem Gentrification, Locals Put Forth Bushwick Community Plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7955-hoping-to-dictate-city-rezoning-and-stem-gentrification-locals-put-forth-bushwick-community-plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7955-hoping-to-dictate-city-rezoning-and-stem-gentrification-locals-put-forth-bushwick-community-plan bushwick today 19

photo via Bushwick Community Plan


A years-long endeavor to protect a Brooklyn neighborhood from unwanted development and plan for its future took a major step forward over the weekend: the Bushwick Community Plan, an ambitious and collaborative effort, was formally released.

The creation of the plan has at times been contentious, indicative of the fraught nature of virtually any community planning process and the high stakes involved in addressing affordability, transportation and other crises facing many neighborhoods across New York City. The effort was organized by local City Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Espinal with Brooklyn Community Board 4 and a variety of other stakeholders.

At the release event on September 22, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez told the more than 200 people who packed into the cafeteria of the Academy of Urban Planning to learn the details of the plan that the development of the community plan was an example of democracy in action.

“You will empower our member of the City Council, Reynoso, to go to the city and say, ‘This is a community-driven rezoning plan – and this is how it should be done,’” she said.

The Bushwick Community Plan includes a number of goals – including slowing displacement, preventing out of character development, and supporting both small- and large-scale manufacturing businesses – and is being presented from the community and its leaders to the Department of City Planning as it begins to evaluate the area for changes to land use rules and new city investments, similar to processes that have taken place in areas like East Harlem.

Like several others the de Blasio administration has rezoned already, including East New York and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx, Bushwick is home to many low-income people of color at risk of housing displacement. But more like East Harlem and Inwood, Bushwick has already seen significant gentrification and locals are concerned about how the pace has accelerated without a coherent plan.

The comprehensive 74-page community plan covers six areas: land use and zoning, housing, economic development, community health and resources, open space and transportation and infrastructure. Under land use and zoning, the key issue, recommendations include not allowing areas currently zoned for manufacturing to become residential unless certain requirements are met; allowing higher density development in some cases when it will increase the number of affordable housing units; and proposing historic districts as well as individual landmarks throughout the neighborhood. The plan also calls for increased funding for anti-displacement legal services, the creation of a program that would incentivize homeowners to keep rents affordable in their buildings, more sanitation funding for commercial corridors, and improving Maria Hernandez Park and Irving Square Park, the two largest parks in the neighborhood.

But at issue is how feasible the plan is, how the de Blasio administration approaches its efforts to rezone and invest in the area, and how far Reynoso, Espinal, and their partners can push the city to adopt the community’s vision. The Department of City Planning may use the community plan as something of a guide as it designs a rezoning proposal, but it remains to be seen to what extent the community proposals shape the process, which will ultimately come to a vote before the City Planning Commission and the City Council, where Reynoso and Espinal will have outsized sway. Bushwick residents, both for and against a rezoning, worry about how the city might mangle or ignore the plans altogether.

A democratically-designed rezoning plan
Under current land use rules, otherwise known as zoning, significant new development is allowed in Bushwick without consideration of affordable housing or the aesthetic character of the neighborhood. There are many properties that have extensive as-of-right powers, meaning developers can build taller buildings without any real negotiation with the city for community benefits.

One such property is near the Myrtle-Wyckoff transit corridor, where developers plan to build a 27-story tower with retail space, office space, and 400 apartments, according to the minutes from a February meeting of the community board’s Housing and Land Use subcommittee. That particular high-rise wouldn’t be allowed under the zoning rules that are being proposed as part of the Bushwick Community Plan, according to Community Board 4 District Manager Celeste Leon.

In 2013, concerned by overdevelopment happening in nearby neighborhoods, members of the community board wrote a letter to then-City Council Member Diana Reyna seeking to explore the idea of rezoning Bushwick. The goal was to preserve the character of the community. In particular, preventing taller buildings, which have been referred to as “middle finger buildings,” from being wedged in between two- and three-family homes, according to current Reynoso, who succeeded Reyna in 2014.

“Affordable housing would have been icing on the cake,” Reynoso said in a late August interview.

After his election, Reynoso, along with Espinal, who took office the same year after moving from the state Assembly, initiated the Bushwick community planning process, an effort to allow residents to democratically design a rezoning plan that would best suit their needs. Over the course of the next several years, the steering committee – comprising of more than 200 participants, including the members of the community board, organizations like immigrant-advocacy group Make the Road New York, the RiseBoro Community Partnership, and Churches United for Fair Housing, as well as 21 individual Bushwick residents – held a dozen workshops, town halls, and other issue-specific meetings.

Planning this way is time-consuming and complicated, but the process allows for many voices to be heard, Reynoso said.

Shortly after Bill de Blasio was elected mayor, he put forth an agenda to rezone 15 different neighborhoods throughout the city in an effort to create more housing, especially affordable housing, and infuse communities with new resources, in part to handle an influx of new residents. His predecessor, too, used rezoning to manage development in New York City, though with a somewhat different lens: during his three terms, Michael Bloomberg oversaw more than 100 rezonings. Before de Blasio began to move through his rezonings, he worked with the City Council to pass significant changes to the city’s land use rules, including Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, which requires developers to include certain percentages of affordable housing in new buildings that receive a city variance to build denser.

Bushwick was not on de Blasio’s original list of neighborhoods, but city officials have been closely involved as the community has crafted its plan and appears ready to move into its planning process.

The city will hold its own listening sessions and do its own studies, then release its own initial plan. Once the Department of City Planning certifies a Bushwick rezoning application, the Uniform Land Use Review Process, which takes roughly seven to ten months, begins. After the community board offers its advisory vote, the plan moves to the borough president for review and additional nonbinding feedback, then the City Planning Commission for formal approval, followed by the City Council for final say. Throughout the process, local leaders, especially the City Council member(s), typically continue to negotiate with the mayoral administration to make tweaks to the city’s proposal and secure additional investments.

Pushback against the plan
As in most rezonings, at issue in Bushwick is that the mayoral administration’s interests may not be in line with the community’s. One example is the neighborhood’s manufacturing zones. Bushwick is known for its old factories and warehouses, which developers often eye as potential for new residential space. The community plan would oppose changing most manufacturing zones to residential zones unless special conditions are met. That is one point the city has tried to ignore, said Leon, the community board district manager.

Another example: at a February meeting, Winston Von Engel, the Brooklyn director of the Department of City Planning (DCP), reportedly told Bushwick residents that the city was interested in preserving the aesthetic character of the neighborhood, more so than preventing displacement, according to several residents who were present. Von Engel later told the Bushwick Daily that he had been misinterpreted and that there should be a balance between preservation and expansion.

In June, a group of activists shut down that month’s Community Board 4 meeting so that the board could not discuss the rezoning plans at all. One of the activists, Pati Rodriguez, of the anti-gentrification group Mi Casa No Es Su Casa, stood up to plead with the board: “I want to continue to live in the neighborhood that raised me, and I wish I could keep raising my daughter here too, but if this goes to DCP, I don’t think that is ever going to happen.”

Activists like Rodriguez oppose the rezoning entirely.

“The community board has no veto vote,” Rodriguez said in a later interview. “It makes the community powerless. That’s why we have decided the only way we can stop anything from happening is to disrupt the process.”

Michael Higgins, a member of the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, said that the plan itself could cause Bushwick residents to panic, from which landlords can then benefit.

“I think trying to address overdevelopment with rezoning is a backwards solution,” he said. “It comes from the belief that we can meet market forces with government, and unfortunately that’s just not the way the City of New York works in fundamental ways.”

He said the community has more leverage when individual properties are rezoned, rather than whole swaths of a neighborhood, because residents have the opportunity to negotiate requests like more affordable housing and community space.

Tom Angotti, professor emeritus of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College and the author of “Zoned Out! Race, Displacement, and City Planning in New York City,” said he understands the skepticism over the rezoning.

There have been no citywide studies that explain the relationship between rezonings and gentrification, but individual case studies do show that zoning changes lead to displacement, particularly in low income communities and communities of color, Angotti said.

Reynoso acknowledges the community’s concerns, but said that Bushwick’s geography, as well as the way it is built out, leaves fewer opportunities for growth compared to other neighborhoods around the city, referencing the recently-passed Inwood rezoning, which drew criticism from local housing activists concerned about density, neighborhood character, and gentrification. But Inwood, Reynoso said, encompasses waterfront property that the city could capitalize upon.

New development of that nature just isn’t possible in Bushwick. The Bushwick plan envisions growth near transit hubs, but otherwise is mostly designed to downzone the neighborhood, Reynoso said, and disallow large new residential buildings.

“The basic principles of what’s happening in other locations don’t necessarily apply here,” Reynoso said in the interview. “The fears that people have are not necessarily apples to apples.”

That’s true, Angotti said, but that still doesn’t mean the Bushwick Community Plan will prevent displacement. He points not so much to the community plan itself, but to the Department of City Planning and the City Planning Commission.

Angotti said the city has rejected every community-based rezoning proposal of which he is aware over the last 25 years.

“In every instance that I know of, the community plans get ripped up and changed to the point of being unrecognizable to the people in the community,” he said. “The city planning department has its own way of looking at land use in the city, and it doesn’t include communities. It doesn't include people.”

In a statement, the agency did confirm that rezoning applications, even those by city agencies, are usually changed during the public review process.

Jose Lopez, the co-director of organizing at Make the Road New York, has been heavily involved with the Bushwick Community Plan, serving on its steering committee. He recognizes that DCP will craft its own proposal for the ULURP process, but has some hope for the influence that the community plan may have.

“If there is a good rezoning where we can control growth, generate affordable housing, where we see effective tools that keep people in the homes they live in – if it’s a good rezoning, that is something we can get behind,” he said. “But our members believe that a bad rezoning is worse than no rezoning at all.”

Reynoso said that the discretion and authority to rezone really lies with the City Council, not with any city agency, and “the Council member’s job is to advocate on behalf of the community” – which he plans to do.

Typically, when the City Council votes on a rezoning plan, the expectation is that the Council will vote to support what the local City Council member(s) – in this case, Reynoso and Espinal – want. Yet, in May, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said that his approach is “deference” but “no veto” for Council members on land use matters.

“Michael Bloomberg did 140 rezonings,” Angotti said. “Everyone of them passed. So the track record pretty much demonstrates how difficult it is, once something gets into ULURP, to derail it under the current system because of the overwhelming power of the mayor.”

Robert Camacho, the chair of Community Board 4, has been involved with the planning process since the beginning. He said he is satisfied with the final plan, but does worry for its future.

“If we don’t do anything, the city will do what it wants,” he said. “And if we submit something, the city can do what it wants anyway. I see it as a lose-lose situation. So why not do something? Something beats zip. If you don’t ask, you’re not getting anything.”

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Bianca Fortis is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist. On Twitter @biancafortis & @GothamGazette.

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Hoping to Dictate City Rezoning and Stem Gentrification, Locals Put Forth Bushwick Community Plan Tue, 25 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
What's The [Data] Point? 75%, with Marisa Lago, Director of the Department of City Planning https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7779-what-s-the-data-point-75-marisa-lago-director-of-the-department-of-city-planning https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7779-what-s-the-data-point-75-marisa-lago-director-of-the-department-of-city-planning whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 45 -- 75%, with Marisa Lago, Director of the Department of City Planning [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

marisa lago cbc

New York City alone accounted for 75% of the jobs created in the New York metropolitan region since the recession, according to a forthcoming report from the Department of City Planning. Marisa Lago, Director of the Department and Chair of the City Planning Commission, joined CBC to discuss some of the report's findings as well as neighborhood revitalization, housing affordability, and resiliency and sustainability.

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!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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What's The [Data] Point? 75%, with Marisa Lago, Director of the Department of City Planning Fri, 29 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Planning Director Previews ‘Geography of Jobs’ Report https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7752-planning-chief-previews-geography-of-jobs-report https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7752-planning-chief-previews-geography-of-jobs-report lago cbc

Marisa Lago (photo: Citizens Budget Commission)


Urban planning wonks and other interested parties gathered Tuesday morning for a Citizens Budget Commission trustee breakfast featuring Marisa Lago, the director of the city’s Department of City Planning (DCP) and the chair of the City Planning Commission.

At the event, Lago granted attendees a preview of DCP’s forthcoming “Geography of Jobs” report, due for release later this summer.

“Geography of Jobs” is a product of the Department of City Planning’s first foray into regionalism, led by DCP’s relatively new regional planning unit, launched under former Chair Carl Weisbrod. The report is the product of a collaboration among leaders of cities throughout the metropolitan region, defined by DCP as inclusive of New York City and 26 neighboring counties in Northern New Jersey, Southern Connecticut, the Hudson Valley, and Long Island.

Lago spoke of the report’s affirmation of the region’s economic strength. As a whole, New York City and its surrounding counties have a gross domestic product (GDP) of $1.7 trillion, one-tenth of the national GDP. If the region were its own country, its economy would rank squarely between South Korea’s and Russia’s.

Twenty-three million people live in the region, of whom 8.6 million live in New York City, though nearly 30% of the city’s workforce lives beyond its limits.

“Geography of Jobs” reveals deep disparities between New York City and its environs. Sixty percent of the region’s jobs are outside of New York City, and, over the two-decade stretch before 2008, New York City accounted for roughly 33% of job growth in the region. Since the recession, however, 75% of regional job gains have been in the city.

Lago said that the city’s planning officials worked hard to not be insular when collaborating with officials from outlying areas, and that they did not want New York City to be perceived as “that evil empire across the Hudson.”

The report also shows that New York City is gaining younger workers, defined as those aged 25-54, at a rate three times higher than the national average. The rest of the region, however, has an aging workforce.

The final conclusion of “Geography of Jobs” that Lago shared on Tuesday morning relates to employment categories: the bulk of New York City’s employment growth has been in professional office jobs, while markets beyond the city are increasingly filled with healthcare and local service workers.

The Department of City Planning’s recent emphasis on regional planning reflects its belief, Lago said, in “the commonality of our challenges” on topics ranging from climate change to housing stock.  

This theme was prominent in her discussion of the city’s resilience against climate change. With 520 miles of shoreline, 400,000 residents in a FEMA-designated flood plain, and all but a single community district at least partially in danger of flooding, New York City is threatened by sea level rises and future Superstorm Sandy-type events.

According to the OneNYC city resilience plan distributed at the event, sea levels in New York City have already risen a foot over the past 100 years, and are expected to increase by between 8 and 30 inches by the 2050s, and by between 15 and 75 inches by the century’s end.

“Sandy showed us that Mother Nature knows no boundaries, and she certainly doesn’t adhere to political boundaries,” Lago remarked.

By reforming flood insurance standards, enhancing and making permanent the emergency flood resilience zoning measures of October 2013, and modifying zoning regulations, among other measures, Lago said that the DCP hopes to “future-proof” New York.

She also emphasized the role zoning can play in facilitating job growth. Though every borough has benefited from recent job growth, outdated zoning regulations that “evidence a love of the car” constrain new development, Lago said.

Zoning in New York City, much of which was developed in the 1960s, favors a suburban vision of an economy dominated by office parks surrounded by seas of cars. This makes it difficult to find locations in the city for life sciences facilities and, oddly, microbreweries, which are prohibited in all but industrial zones. Commercial buildings are burdened by outdated density limits, Lago said, and parking and loading requirements near transit centers should be “rationalized.”

But crucial to any future city plan, Lago warned, is the 2020 Census, which she described as an “existential issue for our city.”

The census is important on numerous fronts. New York State is already slated to lose one seat in the House of Representatives due to its shrinking population, and undercounting in the city could lose it two. New York City receives $7 billion annually in government funding that’s dependent on the city’s size.

The city’s population has grown by 5.5% since the previous census, in 2010, and most of this increase is due to immigration. Thirty-eight percent of New Yorkers are foreign-born, and an additional 22% were born in the United States to at least one immigrant parent. Half of Queens residents were born outside the country.

But the proposed addition of a citizenship question to the census threatens to depress turnout in a city where one in seven households contains a person without legal immigration status. Lago called on the attendees to “look to your community” and spread the word that the Census Bureau would not share citizenship information with other governmental organizations, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol.

She described participation in the census as “everyone’s right.”

Lago also encouraged the audience to reach out to her department with information on onerous or nonsensical regulations, zoning standards, and “bottlenecks” in development.

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by Daniel Yadin for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that New York City is home to 8.6 not 8.5 million; that the region includes New York City and 26 other counties, not 31 (31 would include New York City's five); that the region is home to 31 million people; and that nearly 30% of the city's workforce live beyond its borders.

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City Planning Director Previews ‘Geography of Jobs’ Report Tue, 19 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
With New Data, City Takes First Step Toward Regional Planning https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7686-with-new-data-city-takes-first-step-toward-regional-planning https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7686-with-new-data-city-takes-first-step-toward-regional-planning nyc metro region map via dcp

The NYC Metro Area (image via DCP presentation)


New York City has seen rapid post-recession population and job growth, while housing development has not kept pace, and while areas in the metropolitan area surrounding the city have also seen growth, it has been at a slower pace than the city’s. Still, there are 1 million commuters into the city who account for 28 percent of the city labor force, and as job opportunities in the five boroughs continue to grow, housing options in the areas just outside the city are troublingly stagnant. Meanwhile, out-migration from the city to other parts of the area and other parts of the country has slowed in recent years.

These are a few of the key findings presented on Tuesday morning by Carolyn Grossman Meagher, director of regional planning at the New York City Department of City Planning, at an event hosted by the Association for a Better New York, a business group.

The regional planning division of DCP, formed just two years ago from a recommendation from Mayor de Blasio’s OneNYC plan, has produced a trove of regional data and is beginning to take its work public, evidenced by Grossman Meagher’s presentation, which also included the launch of City Planning’s Metro Region Explorer, an interactive online tool created by DCP's Planning Labs unit that allows public access to regional economic, housing, and population data and trends. The region is home to 23 million people in 9 million households, Grossman Meagher’s presentation showed, with 10.3 million jobs and productivity that accounts for 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

regional population dcp

The explorer application shows changes since 2000, with a focus on the 2008-2017 timeframe, putting things in “a regional context” to help show that New York City “has, and is dependent on, a regional ecosystem.”

On Tuesday morning, Grossman Meagher highlighted her unit’s early work through a slideshow of maps, graphs, data, and key takeaways; stressed the need to think regionally about growth and development; and presented research that both acknowledges major challenges, like the region’s housing crisis, but also stopped short of pinpointing concrete solutions beyond a vague need for development outside and within the city.

The research, which tracks trends across 31 counties -- including New York City’s five -- and over 900 municipalities in parts of the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, found large imbalances between housing production and employment change in New York City, suburban areas north and east of the city, inner New Jersey, and portions of southern Connecticut, disparities that can potentially impact the way the city thinks about infrastructure demand and development in the coming years. In areas like Long Island and Westchester, where communities have experienced employment gain but relatively little new housing, imbalances affect commuting patterns, transit infrastructure, and planning needs.

“The balance between the city and the suburbs is shifting,” is one of the key takeaways of the data as presented by Grossman Meagher, given that fewer households are leaving the five boroughs for surrounding areas, likely in part due to the lack of housing available.

new housing dcp map

In the era after the onset of the most recent economic recession hit, roughly 2008-2016, New York City rebounded the quickest in terms of employment gains. Currently, the city is experiencing its highest levels of employment and an annual job growth rate of about 2 percent, while the rest of the region experienced an annual job growth rate of 0.3 percent in the period from 2008 to 2016. At the same time, New York City has also added 180,000 more jobs than housing units in the post-recession period, while areas such as inner New Jersey increasingly become more housing-oriented.

The regional forecasts expect housing demands to reach a level of 1.6 million new households by 2050, or an approximate average of about 40,000 new households per year. While that annual mark of added households has been met so far, it is mainly concentrated in New York City, with 142,000 units added in the period between 2010 and 2016, and New Jersey, with 95,000 units.

population growth dcp map

“We don’t think that can continue forever,” Grossman Meagher said at the event. “And there’s a real question as to whether or not other parts of the suburbs will find their way back to performing at these levels when they’re underperforming by about half.”

As the imbalance between job growth and housing development continues region-wide, many are looking towards New York City for employment opportunities, a trend that has significant impact on commuter patterns and infrastructure demand.

“The demand that we might experience for infrastructure really changes if you imagine a city that continues to recentralize as we currently are,” said Grossman Meagher.

The research also found that rent affordability is yet another challenge that the entire region faces as the relationship between the city and the suburbs substantially changes. Traditionally, suburbs have acted as a sort of “relief valve” to the city’s housing supply.

“We’re net exporters of people to the suburbs,” said Grossman Meagher. “Historically, New York City has been the engine that primes the pump of regional population. People come to New York City from all across the globe and then some – today it’s one in three – leave our city for our backyard as they look for different, maybe cheaper, ways to live in proximity to New York City’s jobs, our communities, our resources.” In return, the housing that these migrants leave allows the city to open up availability for a portion of its housing supply.

However, given the lack of housing elsewhere and with employment increasingly centralized towards the core of the region, fewer people are leaving the city and of those who are leaving, fewer are moving into the suburbs rather than into other metropolitan areas in the U.S.

“In other words, as a New Yorker, it is becoming less of an opportunity for me to avail myself to economic resources outside the city because the job growth just isn’t there,” said Grossman Meagher.

Grossman Meagher also presented other findings, including that about one-third of private sector jobs in the region are office-based and that New York City holds 40 percent of the total private employment in the region.

She stressed that the city can now offer essential data to other government entities in the region and begin more collaborative conversation than has occurred in the past.

Ultimately, the research poses daunting challenges for DCP, its Regional Planning Division, the city, the region, planners, elected and appointed officials, and other stakeholders, like residents and business owners. The plan is that the Metro Region Explorer will help people, including planners, understand how New York City is inevitably entwined with the surrounding regional network and to confront what this dynamic relationship means for the future.

“We really rise and fall together,” said Grossman Meagher. “And, yet, as planners, the city really hasn’t focused for a long time on our relationship to the region.”

[Related: New York City Doesn't Have a Comprehensive Plan; Does It Need One?]

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by Chelsey Sanchez @GothamGazette

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With New Data, City Takes First Step Toward Regional Planning Tue, 22 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Doesn’t Have a Comprehensive Plan; Does It Need One? https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7674-new-york-city-doesn-t-have-a-comprehensive-plan-does-it-need-one https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7674-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.”

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by Gabriel Slaughter and Ben Max

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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New York City Doesn’t Have a Comprehensive Plan; Does It Need One? Tue, 15 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
What's The [Data] Point? $307.45, with Anita Laremont of City Planning https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7620-what-s-the-data-point-307-45-with-anita-laremont-of-city-planning https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7620-what-s-the-data-point-307-45-with-anita-laremont-of-city-planning whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 37 -- $307.45, with Anita Laremont [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

wtdp anita w maria and benAnita Laremont is the general counsel and chief data officer at the Department of City Planning, where major decisions are made around how land is used in New York City. Laremont joined the podcast to discuss some of the significant projects and changes that City Planning has ushered through over the past several years, including historic changes to the city's land use rules meant to spur affordable housing, neighborhood rezonings, and why the city doesn't have a master plan.

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!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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What's The [Data] Point? $307.45, with Anita Laremont of City Planning Wed, 18 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
For Government, It's DSO or Die https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7572-for-government-it-s-dso-or-die https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7572-for-government-it-s-dso-or-die planning labs bx cd9 profile shot

City Planning's Planning Labs


Private sector innovations in information technologies are transforming virtually every industry, and the rate of change seems to be accelerating. A decade ago, Facebook was a website used almost exclusively by college students to keep in touch with each other; today it’s one of the world’s largest media distributors with the capability of swaying elections simply by tweaking its algorithms; and in ten years it’ll likely be directing a self-driving car to drop you off at your friend’s house.

The mindblowing rate of innovation taking place in the private sector is a stark contrast to the glacial pace of innovation in government bureaucracies. Indeed, to many people in the private and public sectors, government agencies appear, at best, frozen in time, and at worst, actually deteriorating before our very eyes. New York City’s beloved subway system is a case in point.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Government agencies can leverage new tools, techniques and technologies to improve their effectiveness and even delight their users, but doing so requires more than simply signing a fat contract with a vendor of high-tech wares. It requires government adopting the values of the “open source way”: open exchange, participation, rapid prototyping, meritocracy, and community building.

Doing so will change government agencies in significant ways: new roles, new skills, new trainings, new people, and new organizational structures.

It’s easy to see why wholesale reform of government agencies isn’t happening: people don’t want to lose their jobs. But piecemeal reform is taking place within government, and patterns are emerging that show how small teams within government that deliver “digital services” to other government units and agencies - things like websites, mapping systems, workflow management solutions and other high-tech products and services - are driving change.

The major factor that distinguishes these newly emergent “digital services organizations” (DSOs) from other technology groups within government is that their main job isn’t procuring software from large software companies, but instead to leverage open source software, peer to peer collaboration methodologies, and agile development approaches to build their own products.

The origins of the “digital service” concept can be traced back to 2010 when the government of the United Kingdom began a website redesign project that turned into something much more: a rethinking of the very nature of government. Mike Bracken, co-founder of the U.K.’s Government Digital Services (GDS), articulated “government as a platform” in his 2014 PDF talk. GDS has gone on to become a vocal advocate of the open source way in government and is responsible for saving the UK Government over £1 billion a year since its inception in 2013.

The United States federal government got serious about starting a GDS-style entity in 2013 when the Obama administration realized that its hallmark legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, could be jeopardized by its inability to successfully launch the HealthCare.gov website by the time the legislation came into effect.

Once it became clear that the project was massively mismanaged, the administration assembled a crack team of technologists from inside and outside government to get the website up and stable. To achieve this goal, the team used many open source and agile development methodologies popular in startup culture. Ultimately they got the site launched, and many of the people involved went on to create and lead high-tech units in the government such as the U.S. Digital Service in the White House, and “18F” within the General Services Administration.

18F “collaborates with other agencies to fix technical problems, build products, and improve how government serves the public through technology.” Its process relies on open source and startup-centric principles of “human centered design, agile methods and open technology.”

This approach is very different than the “monolithic procurement” approach that usually happens within government where “large, complex, multi-year contracts” are drawn up between government agencies and large corporations. “According to the Standish Report from 2003-2012, 94 percent of government software projects over $10 million are either over budget, over time, or just don’t work,” via the 18F website.

Instead of monolithic procurement, 18F and other DSO advocate for in-house open source development and modular procurement, which is “a strategy that breaks up large, complex procurements into multiple, tightly-scoped projects to implement technology systems in successive, interoperable increments.” By pairing this with open source software development and meticulous documentation, 18F can share the innovations they develop for one agency with others, reducing costs for everyone involved and allowing anyone in the world to use and contribute code to their projects.

This approach has been highly successful. In less than four years, 18F has grown to nearly 200 staff and completed hundreds of projects for over 25 federal agencies that range from building public websites (like FEC.gov) to backend infrastructure (like Cloud.gov) and a myriad of products that help other government workers build faster, more accessible, and more secure technology products. They’ve been successful to the point where for-profit software industry groups lodged an official complaint that 18F was hurting their businesses because they were saving the federal government too much money.

The significance of 18F’s accomplishments, along with the clarity of their message about how to reform government, has gone almost entirely unnoticed by nearly everyone, except for a small but very online group of people who self-identify as “civic technologists.” This community consists mostly of people who work as technologists for private enterprise by day, and try to use their technical skills to more broadly help people by night. Rarely do these people actually work within government, and if they do, it’s rarer still for them to have the freedom and support within government to perform the type of work that 18F does.

While there are a number of federal entities that have adopted the DSO model such as Defense Digital Service, which applies 18F-style approaches across the Department of Defense, at the municipal level there are very few: San Francisco has a small digital services team, and the teams managing websites in Boston and Philadelphia have some DSO characteristics, but New York City Department of City Planning’s Planning Labs follows the 18F model most closely.

Planning Labs is a nine-month-old, three-person unit within DCP that isn’t shy about borrowing from 18F’s playbook. Its site is built with 18F code, its published principles are nearly identical, and its members’ outspoken support for open source as the path forward for government is just as loud.

In its short existence, its already launched a half-dozen products, each of which uses open source approaches to deliver a standardized product. Looking through its portfolio of products - from its zoning tool, facilities directory, tax lot viewer, and statistical mapping tool - it becomes clear that Labs isn’t simply building products, but instead organizing the city’s information in an open, standardized, and future-friendly way that will benefit New Yorkers for generations. It’s not hard to imagine these various systems being weaved together along with other open source solutions such as David Moore’s City Council tracking system Councilmatic to create a comprehensive city information system like SimCity, but real, and in real-time.

For Chris Whong, Planning Lab’s founder, NYC Planning Labs “is responding to the need to create more functional and accessible tools for planners, practitioners, and the general public to use and analyze data. With a smaller team, human-centered design, agile processes, and open source software, we are delivering tech products better, faster, and cheaper in-house.”

Whether one thinks government is good or bad, or somewhere in between, almost everyone agrees that it should work effectively, operate transparently, and if it’s going to provide services to the public, they should be of decent quality and at a reasonable costs. The capacity for government to deliver services, and the public’s desire to pay taxes to fund government agencies to provide them, is heavily dependent on the effectiveness of government agencies and the civil servants that work within them.

In an age of rapid private sector innovation, those agencies and civil servants will need to be able to leverage technology effectively if they want to keep up with their private sector counterparts. If they don’t, the public will want to privatize these services. It’s that simple.

The “do or die” nature of this moment can’t be overstressed enough. If DSOs like 18F and Planning Labs aren’t given the resources and flexibility they need, their members will become dejected and find happier homes in a private sector that values their talents.

Anyone who is passionate about good government, anyone who thinks the public sector is important and worth preserving, should be studying and supporting DSOs and the principles that they follow. If they aren’t the future of government, it’s possible nothing is. Such is the sentiment of Matt Brackin, the co-founder of the U.K.’s GSA, who recently tweeted: “I hoped the internet era would revitalise our state. It's just exposed its bankruptcy.”

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Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City through Sarapis Foundation and on humanitarian projects around the world through Sahana Software Foundation. He was a candidate for New York City Public Advocate in 2017. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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For Government, It's DSO or Die Tue, 27 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000