Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/196 Fri, 28 Feb 2020 03:02:16 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Why Boosting Self-Response Rate is City's Census Holy Grail https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9099-why-boosting-self-response-rate-is-city-s-census-holy-grail https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9099-why-boosting-self-response-rate-is-city-s-census-holy-grail census app

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Every ten years, the U.S. Census Bureau undertakes the herculean task of counting the residents of the entire country. The process, which will occur this year, largely relies on people telling the federal government about themselves – who they are, who they live with, their age, their race, for instance -- in a count that has immense influence over how federal funding is allocated and congressional representation, among other things.

When people don’t respond to the Census questionnaire on their own, the Census Bureau (and its partners in states, cities, and other localities across the country) has to rely on other less accurate methods to complete the count, either in-person surveys or administrative measures.

Ahead of the launch of the 2020 Census in New York and across the country, leaders in New York City, which had a particularly low self-response rate in the 2010 Census, are emphasizing how important it is to get New Yorkers to participate in the initial round of questionnaires. Nearly all of the many tens of millions of city and state dollars allocated toward Census outreach is aimed at getting New Yorkers to fill out the Census as counting begins.

“Self-response is the gold standard in decennial census data collection and is the most accurate and efficient source of data,” say experts from the New York City Department of City Planning’s population division, in a new article in Significance magazine, which is published for the Royal Statistical Society and American Statistical Association.

The authors – division director Arun Peter Lobo, chief demographer Joseph Salvo, and senior demographic scientist Annette Jacoby – seek to raise a red flag about the potential for a low self-response rate, which can have disastrous consequences, and outlined the ways the city and other jurisdictions can tackle the problem.

New York residents had a self-response rate of 62% in the 2010 Census, far below the national average of 76%, which subsequently led to a significant undercount of the state’s population. Black residents in particular had the lowest rates of returning the questionnaire and were more likely to be undercounted, the authors noted.

The city, and the state overall, is also home to several categories of hard-to-count populations – immigrants, people with limited English proficiency, seniors, children under the age of five, public housing residents, to name a few. In addition, this year’s Census will employ a largely digital methodology, risking undercounting of rural populations and other areas with limited internet access, and it comes amid a tense atmosphere where many immigrants fear the motivations of the Trump administration, which unsuccessfully tried to place a citizenship question on the Census but appears to be considering other ways to target citizenship information.

All of those factors add up to a challenging undertaking, and it's why the city has already put about $40 million towards Census outreach, much of it geared to ensuring a robust self-response rate.

“The census is a national competition for billions of dollars in federal funds for education, housing, healthcare, transportation — programs New Yorkers rely on every day. The fair distribution of these funds is only possible if all New Yorkers are counted," said Julie Menin, Director of NYC Census 2020, in a statement. “In 2010, only 62% of New Yorkers self-responded to the Census; far below the national average of 76%. This year, with our unprecedented $40 million NYC Complete Count Campaign, we’re going to achieve a complete and accurate count of all New Yorkers and ensure that we all get our fair share of the resources and representation that are rightfully ours.”

Lobo, Salvo, and Jacoby note that those who tend to self-respond at a lower rate are also less likely to respond to door-knockers from the Census. In areas where there is a low-response, the Census Bureau and localities have to rely on alternate tactics – enumerators who go door to door; administrative records to fill gaps in data; or statistical imputation as a last resort.

These methods have their faults. For instance, if an enumerator cannot reach the resident of a housing unit, they may ask a landlord or neighbor about their information. Information from these “proxies” is “often highly speculative and prone to error,” the authors wrote.

Administrative records can be replete with inaccuracies and incomplete data, particularly for more socially vulnerable populations, they noted. “People who interact with government agencies, have bank accounts, and deal with public institutions are more likely to be represented in administrative records, while more vulnerable populations – including immigrants, the formerly incarcerated, and homeless persons – might be underrepresented because of the absence of such ties,” they wrote. “Even administrative data on benefits for underrepresented and marginalised populations fall short of capturing everyone, as those eligible to receive these benefits often do not apply for them.”

Statistical imputation involves using the information from “donor households,” the neighbors of non-responding households, to make certain assumptions about the household in question. According to the article, this process, called “substitution,” accounted for 1.9% of the total enumerated U.S. population in 2010. “Substitution in New York City was at 3%, with the highest rates of substitution clustered in just a few black neighbourhoods, where as much as 20% of the population was “enumerated” through a substitution algorithm,” the authors noted. 

The flaws of that approach are obvious in a city like New York, where there is a broad diversity of households across the five boroughs.

The authors noted that there are two sides to an erroneous Census count – wealthier white residents tend to be overcounted while low-income residents of color tend to be undercounted. From a city planning perspective, the impact can be harmful to certain communities. “These lower-level geographic effects have real-life consequences in terms of conducting needs assessments, calculating rates of disease incidence, determining the distribution of resources and services, as well as the drawing of local political districts,” the city planners wrote.

The solutions the authors suggest – mobilizing “trusted voices” in immigrant communities and communities of color – are already being employed by city officials, who have doled out $19 million to community-based organizations to accomplish this goal. The authors also urge municipalities to hire non-citizen residents to conduct outreach, which would build confidence among immigrant communities and also provide interpreters.

“The finest operational plans and the best technology will not result in a good count,” they wrote, “unless the public heeds the call to answer the census.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Why Boosting Self-Response Rate is City's Census Holy Grail Sun, 02 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Letter to the Editor: Key Points from Our Report on City Storefront Vacancy https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8844-letter-to-the-editor-report-city-planning-storefront-vacancies https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8844-letter-to-the-editor-report-city-planning-storefront-vacancies nyc planning vacancy study aug 2019 cover

(photo: NYC Planning)


To the Editor:

In response to the opinion piece “Our Small Business Crisis is Very Real, and Demands City Action,” (Sept. 25), we want to caution that the tens of thousands of retail businesses in New York City come in all shapes and sizes, and no one solution fits all.

Contrary to the author’s claim, the Department of City Planning’s (DCP’s) Assessing Storefront Vacancy report details and directly links neighborhood vitality and affordability to the challenges that local shop owners face – from ever-evolving consumer tastes, competition from e-commerce, significant regulatory hurdles, changing streetscapes and high rents, particularly on higher-end retail corridors.

From every angle, the DCP report’s findings are clear: first, vacancy rates differ dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood, and even block to block, and for different reasons; and second, some retail corridors are thriving. 

The DCP report reinforces what we have suspected for years: traditionally strong dry-goods retail markets, such as department stores and hardware shops, are the most challenged, while restaurants, entertainment, and experiential retail – services sought after by residents and workers that cannot be replaced by e-commerce – are multiplying.  What may be surprising is that brick-and-mortar retail jobs grew by 33% between 2008-2017, with jobs in restaurants, bars, and food stores exploding, gaining 132,000 jobs.

While zoning restrictions may initially sound like good solutions, the DCP report shows that cumbersome regulations hurt small businesses the most. We also know that singling out chain retailers is not a sound solution for a variety of reasons, including because many New York chain stores started out as mom and pops.

What the DCP report highlighted is that there are no easy answers, and that there is not one set of solutions that works for all types of stores and all types of businesses, in every neighborhood.

Sincerely,
Marisa Lago, Director of the Department of City Planning
@NYCPlanning

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

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Letter to the Editor: Key Points from Our Report on City Storefront Vacancy Thu, 10 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Planning Chief on De Blasio Administration's Zoning for Growth, and the Need for More Housing in the Suburbs https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8834-city-planning-chief-on-how-de-blasio-administration-is-zoning-for-growth https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8834-city-planning-chief-on-how-de-blasio-administration-is-zoning-for-growth marisa lago city breakfast2

City Planning Director Marisa Lago (photo: May Vutrapongvatana)


In a Friday morning speech about how New York City’s limited space is used, Marisa Lago, director of the Department of City Planning, discussed some of the department’s approaches to the housing, employment, and equity challenges facing the city.

The city has a population of 8.4 million and is “the only older U.S. city that has surpassed its 1970s-era population peak,” said Lago, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to direct the Department of City Planning and chair the City Planning Commission in early 2017 after over three decades in city and federal government. The city has 4.5 million jobs, including 800,000 created between 2010 and 2018, she told the audience attending the CityLaw breakfast at New York Law School.

In the picture Lago painted Friday, the Department of City Planning is responsible for balancing New Yorkers’ personal and professional needs with the implications of broad, even global, economic changes in a way that makes room for long-term growth. The work often revolves around the limited resource of land, which is heavily regulated by zoning rules enshrined in law or controlled by property owners, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council.

“It’s important to remember that, despite the growth in population in the city, we still have the same 303 square miles of land,” Lago said. “So to grow sustainably and equitably, we have to build more housing and especially affordable housing, and we also have to create what I call ‘space for jobs.’”

Using zoning rules to expand housing and job production is a fixture in the lifecycle of big cities throughout the country and the world. Lago also pointed to the need for more housing development in the New York City suburbs. The prongs of Lago’s approach to city planning, which extend back before her tenure at the Department of City Planning to her predecessor, Carl Weisbrod, include utilizing and expanding flexibility in zoning, and embracing data-driven planning, she said.

Flexibility in Land Use
Flexibility in zoning is key for a city as large as New York to adjust to demographic shifts and technological developments that drive and are driven by changes in the economy. The space needs of so-called “classic sector” jobs, like finance, the arts, even some manufacturing, are different in the new economy of online shopping and changing consumer preferences.

Lago believes having the ability to shift land use regulations from generation to generation is essential for the city’s long-term economic viability. “Powerful as zoning is, it can’t stop the tide of a changing global economy,” she said.

One of Lago’s focuses is updating the city’s mid-century zoning of manufacturing districts outside of Manhattan that place limits on height and density and require a high degree of space dedicated to parking. DCP is looking for opportunities to reduce parking requirements in those districts that have public transit options, she said, “to provide a wider array of permitted densities that will allow manufacturing business to grow vertically and also to give more flexibility to the envelopes of buildings.”

“Sometimes the best thing that the city can do is to get outdated, overly-proscriptive zoning out of the way of businesses that want to construct space for jobs,” said Lago.

But the city’s existing zoning already allows for a high degree of flexibility to meet existing construction demands. As-of-right development is the “workhorse of producing both housing and space for jobs,” Lago said Friday. As-of-right development refers to proposed construction or repairs that comply with existing zoning requirements. They don’t need approval from the City Planning Commission and City Council to proceed, meaning they do not have to go through the city’s extensive land use review process (ULURP).

The city over the last decade has relied on as-of-right development to produce a significant proportion of its new housing stock. According to Lago, 80 percent of the new housing built since 2010 -- housing approximately 300,000 New Yorkers -- has been as-of-right.

“If we were like San Francisco, where practically every single development project has to go through discretionary project review, we would be producing far less housing, thus becoming increasingly unaffordable,” she said.

But in some cases, Lago is hoping to insert flexibility on a broad scale through new zoning instruments.

Climate resiliency has become a significant focus of city planners in the seven years since Superstorm Sandy left entire neighborhoods in need of repair and reconstruction. The city planning department is pursuing changes to land use requirements throughout the city’s floodplain to make it easier for home- and small business-owners to mitigate flood risk.

Currently, elevating buildings along the waterfront, a common response to flood risk, often violates building height requirements and moving mechanical equipment from basements to higher floors takes up valuable residential square footage, according to Lago. For the past seven years, DCP has had in place temporary emergency zoning regulations that remove some of these requirements and encourage better flood resiliency construction.

Under a new plan called Zoning for Coastal Flood Resiliency, DCP hopes to codify the temporary regulations. Lago said the new amendments will go into ULURP early next year.

“We’ve now had seven years of living with these temporary regs and we’ve learned a ton by reaching out extensively to neighborhood residents in the city’s various types of flood-prone areas,” she said.

When DCP feels zoning regulations need to be changed, it is common for the agency to try to harness the demand of private sector stakeholders. Rezoning, and especially upzoning -- zoning for added building height and/or density -- is often a negotiation between the city and the private landowner seeking to benefit from added capacity on the land.

Under the mayor’s signature housing policy, which is intended to create or preserve 300,000 units of affordable housing over 10 years, the city instituted Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) to ensure the creation of affordable housing in exchange for upzoning. MIH, which became law in 2016, is a permanent change to the city’s zoning code that requires a portion of housing units in newly upzoned plots or neighborhoods to be made permanently affordable. One of the criticisms of the plan is that the affordability standards in many cases are not truly affordable to local residents and do not reflect the demographics of the city.

Lago said housing production is essential to making the city affordable, even as it causes gentrification and displacement. “I think that we have to acknowledge that the fear of displacement and the fear of gentrification is real,” she said. But, “we also have to put the lie to the claim that if we build no more housing that somehow the city will become more affordable. That just is not true.” But in her prepared remarks she did not address the middle ground between those two thoughts, which is where one major critique of the de Blasio administration’s neighborhood rezoning and affordable housing policies resides: that they are not as helpful as they could or should be in addressing the city’s affordability crisis for the many New Yorkers who feel its crunch most acutely.

Asked about “actual” affordability in reference to this criticism during the question-and-answer session that followed her remarks, Lago cited programs administered by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development that create set-asides for extremely low-income people, the seniors, and formerly homeless people. In terms of the zoning regulations DCP and CPC have influence over, Lago defended the affordability tiers in many of the rezoned neighborhoods, which create “workforce housing” serving the needs of middle-income professionals like teachers and firefighters.

Data-Driven and Regional Planning
On Friday, Lago emphasized the importance of “community-informed, fact-based” city planning. She discussed recent examples of research-based analysis, which DCP has undertaken to inform its work.

This summer DCP released a study on retail-store vacancy that examined over 10,000 storefronts in 24 pedestrian-oriented shopping corridors across the five boroughs. The report found that the vacancy rate of storefronts was not uniform city-wide and the reasons for vacancy varied from neighborhood to neighborhood, according to Lago.

“This research that we have done is going to inform our neighborhood planning work and I hope the work of other policy-makers who may have non-zoning tools to address the needs of small-businesses throughout the city,” she said.

DCP has also used, Lago said, quantitative research to confirm what it had long-believed: that in a city with limited space and as many transit options as New York, tall buildings are essential for creating dense housing stock. It also reveals information about what range of building heights the city can allow to create the level of density needed to house the growing population, she said.

Lago described a study of new residential buildings completed by DCP in 2017. The study found one-to-six story buildings represented 87 percent of new buildings constructed that year but only a quarter of new units. By contrast, 22 percent of new housing units fell into just 18 high-rises above 40 storiess (one percent of the new residential buildings completed that year). The remaining half of units were in mid-rise buildings of 13 stories or more, all of which are in neighborhoods Lago considers “transit-rich.”

But the measurements are not always complete.

At a City Council oversight hearing in May, representatives of DCP and the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination revealed that the city has no procedure for assessing the accuracy of Environmental Impact Statements -- required when a proposed rezoning could potentially change the neighborhood -- after a project is complete. Council Members and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams have introduced a number of bills to improve this, including requiring a racial impact study to accompany rezoning proposals. The bill will mandate reporting on the potential effect the proposed rezoning would have on the racial make-up of the area.

Lago wants to see data-driven approaches to zoning expanded to the regional level by continuing the work of DCP’s regional planning office started by Weisbrod. The regional planning office is partnering with DCP counterparts in municipal governments throughout the New York City metropolitan area with the understanding that housing affordability depends on the supply of housing outside the five boroughs and that the city is the job center for the region. Lago says she hopes to continue to leverage regional data to inform the work and partnerships of local governments.

“In the city we understand that housing affordability is a major challenge, but we also have to be aware that the region as a whole is falling woefully behind on housing production,” Lago said. “Historically, the suburbs to our north and east have been affordable alternatives to city living, but for years these jurisdictions have allowed extremely restrictive zoning to curtail their housing production."

“Our goal is to bring regional knowledge to bare in our and in other governments’ local planning efforts,” she added.

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Planning Chief on De Blasio Administration's Zoning for Growth, and the Need for More Housing in the Suburbs Sun, 06 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Small Business ‘Crisis’ That Isn’t https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8748-the-small-business-crisis-that-isn-t https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8748-the-small-business-crisis-that-isn-t city council mmv sbs bishop

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


When shops and restaurants that you love and depend on close it can be heartbreaking; I know from personal experience. My Upper West Side neighborhood has been seen as the epicenter of what some call a “small business crisis” in New York City, and we have certainly seen our share of lost community icons and long-shuttered storefronts, but a new report shows there is no citywide crisis and lawmakers should be very careful as they consider remedies to what problems do exist.

Earlier this month the New York City Department of City Planning issued a comprehensive, well-designed study of vacancies on commercial business strips in 24 neighborhoods across the city. It shows that retail storefront vacancies are not unusually high in most neighborhoods (the industry standard is 5-10%) and, where they do exist, are due to a number of causes, which differ from place to place and storefront to storefront.

Just last month, a package of bills was adopted by the City Council that will provide even more information about retail vacancies by requiring that landlords report periodically to the Department of Finance on the number and status of their retail spaces.

Yet elected officials continue to refer to a “crisis” of retail vacancies. Just a few days after the City Planning report was released, Council Speaker Corey Johnson bemoaned the “blight” of retail vacancies “all across the city.” 

Examples of long-standing merchants priced out by rising rents are more compelling news stories than data that shows the localized nature of the problem. So, despite the fact there is no citywide crisis and the Council’s new legislation will provide additional data on vacant storefronts, support is strong for a proposal to require sweeping protections for retail tenants to help assure lease renewals, including mandatory 10-year terms and arbitration when landlord and tenant cannot agree on rent increases. The number of Council sponsors of the “Small Business Justice and Stability Act” (SBJSA) has grown to 30 (of 51 members) since a hearing was held on it this past December.

Concern about retail storefront vacancies and turnover in New York City is not new. It has been labeled as a “crisis” as far back as the 1970s and was a focus of intense scrutiny during the Koch administration in the mid-’80s when the mayor responded by forming a commission to study the topic. Then-Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger championed a rent arbitration proposal back then.

Several of my favorite restaurants, diners, and clothing stores on the three blocks of Amsterdam closest to my apartment have closed over the last ten years. There are many vacancies in my neighborhood for a number of reasons.

Some are due to the creation of new, unrented retail space on the ground floor of brand new high-end residential buildings that have sprouted up along the corridors; some are because proprietors decided to retire, or because a new enterprise misjudged how much business it would attract in the area, or because the landlord -- sometimes a residential rental or co-op building -- is holding out for a chain store type of tenant that can pay a high rent to help offset increasing costs like property taxes. This is all part of life in an upscale neighborhood like the Upper West Side. It may be unsettling and even sad, but it is not a crisis. 

Also, while some of us may miss our favorite places, the new stores and restaurants that replace them are serving the people that live here, albeit in different ways.

An example is a large new restaurant/juice bar that has opened around the corner from my apartment. A beloved diner used to be there, and when the lease was not renewed nine years ago, it remained vacant for more than two years. The two small stores next to it were also vacated, while the rental apartment building owner held out for a larger tenant to take over the entire space. A slick new place arrived that lasted five years but didn’t seem to me to have been able to generate enough business to sustain the large space. (There were protests when the spaces were combined and when the new restaurant opened.) After another six months, Tacombi, which has several other branches in the city, opened. With a menu of reasonably-priced Latin-American food and drinks it appears to be thriving and is filled with neighborhood families.

It is understandable that elected officials feel compelled to “do something” when their constituents feel impacted in such a direct and personal way, which explains why my City Council representative, Helen Rosenthal, along with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, are two of the most vocal advocates for the SBJSA. But as the City Planning report shows, there is simply no basis for citywide legislation. Time will tell, but I expect that the newly-mandated reports from landlords will bear out that conclusion. 

Moreover, the SBJSA will do nothing to bring back beloved stores that have already closed and could make it even harder to bring in new tenants since landlords, with less flexibility to respond to the market, will be more selective and want only those with a proven record of financial viability.

A more targeted approach would focus on strengthening retail storefront presence in those areas that City Planning calls “Underperforming Corridors” – in Coney Island, Brownsville, Richmond Hill, and Longwood -- which suffer from long-term historic disinvestment. Incentives and/or modest tenant protections would help these areas without interfering with business decisions in high-income areas that don’t need help. 

We are not suffering from a shortage of places to shop or eat on the Upper West Side. The market will work here: if stores remain vacant for too long, landlords will lower the rents. That appears to be starting to happen.

The Council should not forge ahead with sweeping legislation that will impose real burdens on landlords in the majority of neighborhoods. 

***
Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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

 

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The Small Business ‘Crisis’ That Isn’t Thu, 22 Aug 2019 02:07:54 +0000
Leaving the REBNY vs NIMBY Doom Loop https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8708-leaving-the-rebny-vs-nimby-doom-loop https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8708-leaving-the-rebny-vs-nimby-doom-loop city planning manhattan brooklyn waterfront

(photo: NYC Planning)


This past week, amidst flooded streets, blackouts, overheated jails, and subway failures, New Yorkers saw the consequences that result from a failure to engage in strategic long-term planning for the future of our city. In the final decisions of the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, we also missed a big chance to do something about it.

The dangers of failing to invest strategically in the infrastructure that sustains our city will grow in coming decades, as temperatures and sea levels rise. Meanwhile, even as our infrastructure strains, the city’s population continues to grow. So our housing affordability crisis is on track to get worse – exacerbating displacement, inequality, and the unfair imposition of our city’s burdens on low-income communities of color.

It’s clear that we need a better way to make infrastructure and land-use decisions that take climate change, affordability, and the challenges of growth seriously. Our piece-meal planning system is not up to the task. 

Currently, the process of developing a capital plan to invest in our infrastructure constitutes just making a big list – a list that is in no way informed by plans for rezoning or development. How can we plan which neighborhoods should get resilient infrastructure like levees and seawalls when land-use and growth decisions are happening elsewhere? Shouldn’t we include capital budgeting for infrastructure like transit and schools as part of the process of planning for the new residential growth that will require it?

Meanwhile, New York City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) is a reactive, project-by-project process for considering changes – bereft of strategic vision, shared values, or a connection to long-term infrastructure planning.

Codified in 1975 when the city’s challenge was abandonment rather than growth, ULURP has become reduced to a shrill, tug-of-war between the pro-growth forces of the Real Estate Board of New York (who profit on each development, and therefore rarely worry about which ones make long-term sense for the public good) and neighborhood activists whose Not In My Back Yard advocacy (rooted in a variety of motivations) leaves no way to figure out where and how the growth we need to address the scale of the housing crisis should take place.

The process ensures that decisions are driven by the interest group with the most powerful political connections, creating a planning rationale that reflects and reinforces systemic inequities.

If we are going to plan for the future that’s coming, like it or not, we need a way out of the REBNY vs. NIMBY doom loop. 

The 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission -- which last week issued its final decisions on ballot proposals to go before voters this November -- had the chance to plot a better course forward. The Charter Revision Commission heard more complaints about New York City’s land use process than any other topic. Commission members and staff acknowledged “a level of public disillusionment” and that “the somewhat scattered approach the Charter currently takes to its various planning requirements exacerbates this disillusionment and confusion.”

But, even with all the signs pointing to the need for better long-term planning, they failed to propose any meaningful changes. When we vote in November on charter changes, addressing our disparate and dysfunctional planning processes won’t be on the ballot, though 19 other proposals will be.

When the commission began its work last fall, we proposed a real step forward. Together with the Thriving Communities Coalition of community-based groups, affordable housing, environmental, and planning advocates, we asked the commissioners to require New York City to undertake a comprehensive planning process, in which we would work together to set a broader citywide framework for land use and infrastructure decisions.

The process would begin with data-driven, citywide analyses of our challenges. We would then have a public conversation about the values that should shape decisions -- values like fairness across communities, making sure people can stay in their homes, mitigating climate change, investing in resilient infrastructure, new modes of transit, and closing the Rikers Island jails. We could do it every ten years as they do in so many other cities, or every four years to coincide with our mayoral election cycles. 

Together, we would set a citywide framework for the tough job of balancing citywide needs and neighborhood preferences. Communities would get a real voice, but not a veto. The City Council would vote on this broader framework. After that, zoning actions, development proposals, and infrastructure investments aligned with the comprehensive plan would move more smoothly. Those that conflict with the plan would not (or, at least, would have to clear extra hurdles). 

We would plan for increased transit capacity alongside increased housing density, budget for new parks equitably across the city, and take a holistic look at where we need to take further action to plan for rising sea levels and more 100-degree days. Communities could be able to have confidence that promises made to them – for new parks, schools, libraries, or transit – would actually be kept.

Comprehensive planning is not a panacea, but evidence from other cities suggests that it is an essential component of fair and rational progress. As part of their process last year, our friends in the Minneapolis City Council voted to get rid of single-family zoning across the city, and upzone their transit corridors citywide to address their housing shortage (at the same time, they voted to strengthen tenant protections to protect renters from displacement as growth occurs).

Let’s be honest: there is no way Minneapolis would have done this with a process like ULURP, which goes one neighborhood or project at a time. What neighborhood would have agreed to be the first one to give up the privilege of single-family zoning? Not one.

By comparison, of the ten neighborhood rezoning processes initiated during the de Blasio administration, nine have been in low-income communities of color. This would not have happened if we had developed a comprehensive plan, with fairness across communities as one of its principles. 

The Charter Revision Commission failed to get the job done. But the heat wave and its impacts reminded us that, in the longer term, we really don’t have a choice. So in the coming months, we’ll be working in the City Council to do what we can through legislation. And in the coming years, we’ll try to make sure that the 2021 city elections focus on issues that matter the most, even if they don’t always make the daily news cycle. 

Comprehensive planning may not top the polls. But if we are going to meet the collective challenges of rising temperatures and sea levels, growing population, aging infrastructure, keeping people in their homes, and addressing deeply-rooted inequality, we’re going to have to start doing it.

***
City Council Members Brad Lander and Antonio Reynoso represent parts of Brooklyn. On Twitter @BradLander & @CMReynoso34.

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

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Leaving the REBNY vs NIMBY Doom Loop Tue, 30 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
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
     

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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