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Community-Based Planning

by Derek Alger

25 March 02

Residents of Chelsea worried that their row houses and six-story apartment buildings would soon be overwhelmed by massive luxury high rise development. In Red Hook, pollution and housing abandonment threatened the community. Greenpoint residents longed to be able to enjoy their area's waterfront, while people in the South Bronx felt ignored by government agencies that had an "urban renewal" plan to rebuild the Melrose Common area.

In a city where development either seems to be rampant and random, or to come from the top down, residents of these communities and others throughout the city have sought to take control, coming up with their own plans for the streets where they live.

This is called community-based planning. Since a change in the city charter in 1989, any neighborhood can draft its own comprehensive community plan through its local community board. The city has approved only eight such comprehensive plans, though, and those have produced mixed results. On the East Side of Manhattan, the process resulted in a new park, and in Melrose, the urban renewal plan was made more responsive to community concerns. But in Chelsea, the plan has done little to prevent the rapid development of the neighborhood.

Community-based planning has played a small part in the discussion over how to rebuild Lower Manhattan after September 11. Critics attacked Governor George Pataki for appointing only one person who actually lives in Lower Manhattan to the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation.

The critics were echoing an argument that has been made for years: who knows better about the needs of local neighborhoods than the people who live there? "The city is too large and diverse to have a single overbearing planning apparatus," says Tom Angotti, a professor of urban planning who is a member of the Municipal Art Society task force on community-based planning. " The move toward community-based plans, says Angotti, is "a recognition that the era of Robert Moses, massive urban renewal, Westway, and large-scale speculative development is over. The way to improve planning in New York City today is to start from the bottom up, at the grassroots, in the neighborhoods."

Not everybody agrees that planning for the city should be scattered among the 59 local community planning boards. Indeed, some feel that the city should not be planned at all


"One of the extraordinary and unique things about New York is that it is not a planned city," Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said in his 1998 State of the City speech. "A commissar of planning did not devise New York. Nor was it built according to an original general scheme of overall organizing principle like Washington, D.C. or Paris. Yet it is better known and more successful than those cities."

It would be ridiculous, though, to call New York completely unplanned. There have always been rules and regulations that channeled the growth and development of the city. Even in colonial times, smelly industries were placed downwind of the city, and in the 19th century the city planned the grid system of streets, planned public spaces like Central Park, planned for public transit. With the advent of skyscrapers, New York in 1916 became the first city in the country to adopt what is called a zoning resolution to regulate the size and location of buildings. That proposal anticipated a future population of 55 million, but was also aimed at limiting density, controlling development and allowing adequate light and air to reach the city streets.

Planning, nearly by definition, was understood to come from a central authority. Robert Moses, a public official for 50 years who is often called the "master builder" of New York, did not consult residents to see how they felt when he put highways through their neighborhoods. For better or worse, big projects such as Lincoln Center and Co-Op City were erected without much participation by the people who would either be displaced by the project or live next to it.

According to Todd Bressi, editor of "Places" magazine, that began to change in the 1960s. "Paul Davidoff, who founded Hunter College's urban planning program, spearheaded the idea of advocacy planning," Bressi says. "Senators Robert Kennedy and Jacob Javits also helped launch the community-based development movement with the creation of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. And Pratt Institute opened its Center for Community and Environmental Development, making university resources available to the neighborhoods."

In 1963, the city created community planning boards. Today, each of the city's 59 boards has as many as 50 unsalaried members appointed by the borough president (with participation of the local members of the City Council). The law requires that the community boards be consulted on placement of city facilities within their boundaries, though their opinions are purely advisory.

Yet they also have amassed a kind of power -- too much, according to some critics. The boards have "found themselves with more power over zoning and policy making than anyone had ever anticipated," according to a 1999 article in New York magazine. It is the power, some say, to kill. Community boards are accused of simply being nay-sayers, their hearings orgies of opposition, their aim to block any and all new proposals. "Participation âis reactive and confrontational and is often based on personal agendas and narrow self-interest," writes Jocelyne Chait, a planner who has worked with the Municipal Art Society,.

Community-based planning was a movement devised to encourage neighborhoods to propose as well as oppose. In 1989, Section 197-a of the revised city charter gave the community boards the power to sponsor their own plans for local development, improvement and growth. They came to be called 197-a plans.


The 197-a process is the most high profile avenue for community planning in New York. (A more common, and less ambitious plan, is called a 197-c). In 1992, the City Council approved the plan offered for Melrose Commons by Community Board 3 in the South Bronx, making it the first such plan to go through the entire process. Since then, the city has approved the Chelsea Plan in Community Board 4 in Manhattan (see story), the Red Hook Plan in Brooklyn; the Stuyvesant Cove Plan (see story); the Manhattan Borough President's Comprehensive Manhattan Waterfront Plan (see story); the Department of City Planning's New Waterfront Revitalization Plan; the Williamsburg Waterfront Plan and the Greenpoint Plan (see story), the last two both in Community Board 1 in Brooklyn.

As a general rule, city government has not encouraged community-based planning, For the eight years of the Giuliani administration, community board members say, City Hall all but ignored them, viewing the local perspective as too parochial, too focused on the needs of their neighborhood to the detriment at times of the entire city. No community board is likely to put a waste transfer station or electric power station in its plan, for example. The City Planning Commission deleted a provision of the Red Hook plan barring a waste station there and got proposed restrictions on truck traffic removed. The community saw this as an infringement of its democratic rights; but the commission may well have seen its action as necessary for the well-being of the city as a whole.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg may have signaled a change in attitude from his predecessor when during his inaugural address he referred to community boards twice. It is too soon to tell what the appointment of Amanda Burden as chair of the City Planning Commission will mean for community-based planning. In a written statement, Robyn Stein, a spokesperson for Burden, said the office has begun working with Bronx Community Board 8 and Manhattan Community Board 9 on their proposed plans and would "welcome the opportunity for early collaboration with other boards" undertaking community plans.

But even if the attitude at City Hall has changed, some things are not going to get better. The boards are ill-equipped to go through the astonishingly long and complicated review process, involving many different agencies, that takes on average four years, but in the case of the Chelsea plan, took 15. Most community boards do not have anybody with expertise in planning, and they lack funds to hire a professional planner. Already short of resources, their budgets were cut by five percent in December, and they are being asked to prepare for another 20 percent in the next budget.

The city sees the maze of review and approvals that the community plans must go through as a means of reaching a consensus and of balancing local interests with the needs of the city as a whole. Whatever the merits of that argument, the time and effort certainly scare away some communities, and many groups that begin the process do not complete it.

"The process is a daunting task," admits June Eisland, a former member of the City Council who headed the land use committee for a decade. "But I recommend it. It provides a long-range blueprint of what a community would be like. It shows the pluses and shows the deficiencies."

Even when a plan is adopted, that does not mean it is going to happen. For one thing, the community boards have no power to enforce their plans. For another, unforeseen obstacles require not just commitment but a willingness and ability to adapt and persevere. The Stuyvesant Cove plan called for an "economic component" that would support the park and enhance the experience of being on the waterfront. The board had envisioned that the money-making enterprise would be a rooftop restaurant. But then it discovered that the structure on which the restaurant was to have been placed could not support it. Instead, the park will be funded by an environmental center with a cafe, gift shop and performing space.

Other problems prove harder to solve. The Chelsea plan sought, among other things, to stave off gentrification of the Manhattan neighborhood. But even though many of the specific proposals regarding zoning did go into effect, they were not sufficient to fight off the real estate boom of the 1990s.


Nobody can argue that the current program has been an overwhelming success. The current process, says the Municipal Art Society, "is neither efficient nor effective. Communities get frustrated. Development gets delayed. Faith in government erodes."

Chait is not surprised New York has discouraged community planning: "Democratic planning and decision making not only requires a great deal more time and effort than centralized ´top down' planning and development. It also poses a direct threat to established power structures."

Advocates of community-based planning say that such "bottom-up" planning has worked in many other cities, from Seattle to Houston, Minneapolis to Rochester; even in the nation's capital. All of these cities have a comprehensive policy that reflect the goals and values of community-based planning. In Baltimore, for example, the city's Community Planning Division keeps in touch with more than 700 community associations throughout the city, keeping them up-to-date on development plans, while informing developers and city government of neighborhood needs.

In the wake of September 11, planners, businesspeople and others are talking again about the need for thinking big in New York City -- of rebuilding downtown, creating grand transportation hubs. But communities continue to grapple with the problems they have always confronted -- the abandoned factories in Greenpoint, the spate of high rises on Seventh Avenue in Chelsea, the paucity of open space along the East River. In those areas, people will still pack meeting rooms and lobby their community boards, looking for small solutions to the problems in their neighborhood.



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