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Gotham Gazette -- Land Use
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Land Use
Topic Pages / Land Use

Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Land Use/Zoning
Sites for Beginners

The Topic
"Land Use" refers to the processes by which alterations are made to the built environment and the principles and laws which govern these alterations. Such changes include construction, demolition or renovation of buildings, changes to streets and sidewalks, and designation of historic landmarks. A city's land use policies have far-reaching effects which delve into social, economic and political arenas. Eventually they are the ultimate arbiter of how a city develops. "Zoning" refers to New York City's Zoning Resolution - first passed in 1916 and overhauled in 1961 - that enumerates the rules for land use.
The Context
New York City has over 200,000 acres of land, and we fight over every square foot. The city's land use policies set the stage for that fight. Will there be parks? And where? How high can Donald Trump build? All these questions and more are relegated to the land use arena.
The Reporter
Tom Angotti is professor and chairman at the Pratt Institute Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment, co-chair of Planners Network and a member of the Municipal Art Society Task Force on community-based planning.

Brad Lander is the executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a community development organization in Brooklyn. Laura Wolf-Powers is getting a PhD at Rutgers University's Department of Urban Planning and Policy Development, and teaches at the New School University.

The Archives
See past monthly updates for Land Use.
by Laura Wolf-Powers

Brownfields And Albany

The old Rheingold Brewery in Bushwick -- seven acres that have lain abandoned since 1976 -- will soon be the site of 250 new affordable apartments, a daycare center and retail stores. Before the developers (the Bluestone Organization and the Bushwick Senior Citizens Council) could think about building on the Rheingold site, they had to contend with the environmental legacy of the property's industrial past. Over several years they worked successfully with state and local environmental agencies to ensure that any contaminants on the site that posed a danger to the public's health would be removed or contained.

The Rheingold project could be a model for how to reclaim former industrial properties, called brownfields, for neighborhood re-use. City and state agencies have cooperated, community groups have participated through "visioning" workshops, cleanup guidelines have been successfully negotiated, and an end use has emerged that will fulfill the community's desperate need for affordable housing and amenities. This should happen more often, everyone agrees, and it should be easier. The lack of clear remediation standards at the state level made settling on a plan for the Rheingold site "incredibly difficult," in the words of one participant.

Developers, community groups, and advocates all agree that Albany needs to pass laws that will make it easier to develop brownfields. But although they have been negotiating for several years, with intense activity in recent months, legislators in Albany are deadlocked. And advocates are concerned that even if a deal is reached, it will not do enough to ensure that communities have a say in what is built on their underutilized industrial sites. As in so many cases, Albany's political dysfunction is stifling sensible land use planning in New York City.

The brownfields opportunity

Brownfields are abandoned or under-utilized properties, mostly in cities, where environmental contamination -- actual or feared -- impedes redevelopment. Many are owned by municipal governments and can be had for a song. They could provide new housing, stores or factories in cities where available real estate is scarce. Developers, however, fear that they will be held liable for past environmental harm done and for the cleanup of contaminants. Moreover, they know that litigation and delay are likely to add millions of dollars of cost and several years to the timetable for development.

Under expedited procedures established by many state legislatures, would-be builders on brownfields sites are now having an easier time. State-sponsored voluntary cleanup programs provide developers with incentives for redeveloping brownfields, and with relief from liability if they agree to comply with state-approved cleanup plans. In central cities, the prospect of a straightforward process for getting vacant sites clean and ready for re-use has piqued the interest of for-profit and non-profit developers, municipal officials, and advocates of "infill development" which fulfills the goal of limiting urban sprawl. New funding available from the federal government through the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act, passed by Congress last winter,has made local brownfields projects more attractive still.

New York City has compelling reasons to take advantage of this trend. A 1997 survey by the mayor's office estimated 5,000 to 6,000 brownfield properties in New York City -- a huge proportion of the city's developable land. A state brownfields program could catalyze enormous opportunities for housing and job creation -- like the Rheingold site -- within the five boroughs.

While Albany fiddles...

Unfortunately, however, development on brownfields is more cumbersome in New York than in most of the rest of the country -- and efforts in Albany to address the problem are in limbo. Governor George Pataki, State Senate leaders and their Assembly counterparts are arguing about the terms of a new program that would provide developers with some relief from liability for cleanup, set standards for remediation, and establish financial incentives to spur re-building. While advocates remain hopeful that legislators will reach agreement on such a program in 2002, it is increasingly likely that brownfields reform will languish this year as it has for the past three. Continuing absence of a state framework guarantees lots of red tape for non-profit and for-profit developers -- and it makes them (and the city itself) weaker contestants in the competition for new federal funds.

The best-publicized aspects of the brownfields impasse have to do with the environment. Some Assembly members are balking at "use-based standards." Under such standards, a developer building a factory would face less stringent cleanup requirements than one building housing -- such a developer might, for example, be permitted to block exposure to harmful chemicals rather than remove them altogether. Some Democrats in the State Assembly believe use-based standards would erode the ability of the Department of Environmental Conservation to protect public health. But others counter that the current method -- under which developers negotiate with the state agency on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis -- is less protective than most use-based proposals. Also at issue are institutional controls -- how aggressively the department would monitor sites on an ongoing basis, particularly if they were to change use (if a factory site was later purchased by a new developer who wanted to build housing, for example). And there's always money -- in this case a dispute over how to fund cleanup of the contaminated sites in New York State's Superfund program (see Gotham Gazette's Environment Topic Page for July). State legislators are linking brownfields incentives to Superfund refinancing, though they are different initiatives.

Promoting community-driven redevelopment

New York City's community development professionals have an additional concern that has not been making headlines -- the role that local communities will have in planning for brownfields re-use. A state program that lifts constraints on development could be a boon for neighborhoods such as East New York and the South Bronx, which contain dozens of brownfields. But advocates want city and state officials to use their greater-than-usual control over these sites to encourage development in line with the priorities of local residents. This goal lies at the heart of a bill sponsored by State Assemblymember Vito Lopez which would allocate funds to community groups to work with the city to conduct feasibility studies and organize participatory planning processes for brownfields sites. The Lopez bill also stipulates that projects that involve community-based planning be first in line to receive remediation funding and developer incentives. Says Mathy Stanislaus, an environmental lawyer and consultant who serves as president of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, "We want to create a formal link between a community-driven plan for the re-use of sites and state resources targeted to developers."

Why is public participation important? A recent discussion paper on brownfields in the city, published under the auspices of a foundation-funded brownfields initiative called New Partners for Community Revitalization, puts it this way: "Blind redevelopment -- i.e. re-use that is determined solely by the highest bidder -- has historically had negative impacts on low and moderate income residents as a result of gentrification and rising property values." Brownfield redevelopment that integrates local participation is more likely to result in development that generates living-wage jobs and affordable housing. This is not to say that every brownfield should be developed by a non-profit or that sites should feature only community facilities. Many, perhaps most, will ultimately be developed by private developers seeking a profit. But particularly if they are receiving public funding, developers should be accountable to the communities in which they are building, and this will often mean the inclusion of at least some moderate-income housing, at least some accessible open space, and on some sites, provisions that strengthen and protect manufacturing.

As Albany debates the terms of a brownfields program, the community participation provisions of the Lopez bill appear not to be on the table. Legislators want to resolve the environmental cleanup issues first and seem to assume that an accord on participation will come later. This worries Stanislaus, who is concerned that inadequate community development provisions will be tacked onto a deal at the 11th hour. "They'll have taken so much time and energy to resolve the cleanup issues that they won't have anything left in them, so they'll follow the path of least resistance." In his role as advocate and sometime mediator in the negotiations, Stanislaus tries to make sure that the community participation issue stays at the forefront.

New York City brownfield advocates are waiting to see if state legislators reach agreement this year. But they are also proceeding with plans to influence city policies, working with the deputy mayor for economic development and other agencies to improve the local climate for brownfields redevelopment. Though a state framework would help, there are measures the city can take on its own -- technical assistance initiatives, zoning changes, seed funding for projects and community planning -- to jumpstart the re-use of more abandoned properties in the five boroughs.

The City's portfolio of developable land is dwindling and brownfields are nearly all that is left. "Even in the absence of state legislation on brownfields," says New Partners leader Jody Kass, "New York City can and should be doing a lot."

In the June 2002 column "Olympic Planning," we incorrectly stated that the "Framework for Development" for the far west side of Manhattan had been approved by the City Planning Commission. In fact, it has only been proposed by the Department of City Planning -- the first step in a long process which includes hearings and votes by the local community board, the Manhattan borough board (of the borough president, community board presidents, and city council members from the borough), the City Planning Commission, and the City Council. We apologize for the error.

Sites For Beginners:

  • How Zoning Works - An overview of zoning: its definition, purpose and implementation in NYS and NYC. This primer also explains who has authority to make which decisions, with accompanying laws and citations. Excellent.
  • NYC Department of Planning - The official City site. Not frequently updated, but a good repository for official New York City Land Use documents. Find the complete text of the Zoning Resolution (a hard copy would run you $400+) and downloadable zoning maps. Find out which zone you live in!
  • Regional Plan Association - The venerable and still influential pro-planning organization. Particularly good for information on big-item controversies, e.g. Governor's Island. Second Avenue subway, anti-sprawl legislation. Check out their MetroLink proposal and the Gowanus Tunnel Study.
  • NY Metro APA - A small site for the local chapter of the national professional organization: American Planning Association.
  • Municipal Arts Society - A great place for all things regarding New York planning, architecture and design. Most relevant: the just released Briefing Book of Community-Based Plans available to download, which offers for the first time ever a comprehensive look at the sometimes spotty, sometimes inspired plans for (and from) each neighborhood across the city, complete with maps and community contact information.
  • NYU's Urban Planning Links Page - This page is chock full of great land use links which focus both on NYC and the USA.

Other Recommendations:

  • Air Rights - An old Gotham Gazette Issue of the Week, still relevant and interesting, though a slightly arcane Land Use topic.
  • Tenant Net - A great source for NYC real estate, if slightly biased toward the leassee.
  • "The Cultivator by Martin Filler" - A fascinatingly critical article about Fredrick Law Olmsted and what's wrong with Witold Rybczynski's new biography of him. From The New Republic.
  • New York Landmarks Preservation - Packed with information on preservation and restoration of landmarked buildings.
  • New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission - The Official City site for landmarks preservation.
  • Pace Law School Center for Land Use - Excellent introduction to land use issues by a leading academic think tank. Check out the "Land Use for Local Leaders" section.
  • Van Alen Institute - An immense amount of information on current and future NYC land use issues. Start with the well organized, user-friendly contents page and then zero in on your prime concern.

Visit the Topic Archives!

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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