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Gotham Gazette -- Land Use
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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

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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.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Land Use.
by Tom Angotti

Community Planning

(June '01) There are no plans to guide development in the city's hundreds of neighborhoods. So when a new development is proposed that is too big and that threatens to displace people, a big protest erupts. There is no plan to deal with traffic congestion, the shortage of affordable housing, the lack of open space, the use of city-owned property, or the flight of industrial jobs. There is no plan that assures every neighborhood will get its fair share of city services and burdens (such as waste transfer stations).

Instead, community leaders are engaged in a constant struggle to defeat unwanted projects. Rarely do they get a chance to say what they DO want, and the funds to make it happen. It is no wonder we have a reputation as a litigious city with a combative political culture. It is no wonder community boards have a reputation for being naysayers. How can we get the city to work with neighborhoods to develop common strategies for both development and preservation?

Is Zoning a Plan?

It has become a common saying in the Department of City Planning that the city's master plan is really the Zoning Resolution. The zoning code is a gargantuan three-volume text, written in 1961 and revised in bits and pieces over the years. It divides the city into residential, commercial and industrial zones and controls the density and height of new development. But there are only a handful of people in the city who understand this Byzantine block of regulations and know how to use (and misuse) it. This small group of cognoscenti is not using zoning as a tool for long-range planning, which they could if there were any long-rage planning. So zoning is not the solution.

But bottom-up, community-led planning could be the solution. A task force pulled together by the Planning Center of the Municipal Art Society (MAS) has come up with a Platform for Community-Led Planning. Planners Network, an organization of professional planners and community activists, has a Platform for Bottom-Up Planning. These documents, prepared for the current election year, have some useful ideas about how community planning could work.

The governments in Seattle, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Baltimore, to name a few, have made it a matter of policy to support community planning. They provide staff support and funds so that neighborhood residents and businesses can work with city officials to develop a common strategy for the future.

I am not suggesting that New York City create a bloated Planning Department and do a lot of grandiose plans for the city. It is neither the time nor place for another Robert Moses, that grand city builder of the 20th century who cut up neighborhoods for giant public works projects. This city is too large and diverse to have a single overbearing planning apparatus. The way to improve planning in New York City today is to start from the bottom up, at the grass roots, in neighborhoods. Each community can fashion its own planning process to meet its particular and most urgent needs. They can decide to create a plan covering the entire community district or just a small area of a few blocks.

New York City already has a mechanism for doing this, but it is not using it. It is called the 197-a plan.

197-a Plans

In 1989, Section 197-a of the New York City Charter was revised to give community boards the explicit authority to prepare their own plans and submit them to the City Planning Commission and City Council for approval. Since then, however, only a handful of plans have been adopted. Most of the city's 59 community districts and hundreds of neighborhoods have no plan. The reason for this is that the Department of City Planning does not support or encourage local planning, and community boards do not have the resources or staff to do it on their own. The Charter calls for the city to provide a planner for each community board, but to date none have the funds to hire one. Developing a plan takes lots of community meetings, lots of data gathering and cooperation from the city agencies that control information and resources. Communities that decide to do their own plan have to scrape together their own resources. They often call on local schools and professionals to help out. Why shouldn't they get help from city agencies, particularly the Planning Department? Isn't it in the city's interest to work in partnership with communities to develop a common vision of the future so that every new proposal by a city agency or private developer does not become a point of heated conflict?

Communities can and should plan in partnership with city agencies and the official planners, and they should have the support of government. This will make city government stronger and better enable the city to fashion long-range strategies that can more easily win consensus. And it will help the city's agencies learn how to work better with each other.

Finally, communities need to have more input into the budget process so their plans can be implemented. It does not make any sense that in a city of eight million people, there is only one annual budget hearing where community representatives have a chance to say what they want. Budget consultations should be continuous and community boards should play a central role in the formation of budget proposals, the setting of priorities, and the integration of spending proposals by different agencies. The city of Porto Alegre in Brazil, with some three million people, started a participatory budget proc ess over ten years ago and last year 40,000 people took part in budget consultations that took place throughout the year.

In many ways, city planning in New York is out of tune with what is happening nationally. Professional planners all over the country are talking about Smart Growth -- directing new development to preserve open space, achieve greater energy efficiency and improve the environment. Many cities have developed policies under Agenda 21, an effort launched by the United Nations Conference on the Environment to safeguard and promote healthy communities. Many engage in strategic discussions with suburbs about stopping suburban sprawl and integrating transportation and services. In New York City there is barely any discussion about these things.

Our newly elected leaders will have a chance to open up the discussion and start planning, with neighborhoods in the lead, from the bottom up.

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 architecture, design, and land use. Most relevant: their coverage of the Zoning Reforms, and its accompanying informational booklet.
  • 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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