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In Seattle, Neighbor Power; in New York, too much neighbor rancor

Given the contentiousness around development in New York, especially Brooklyn, it's refreshing to read Neighbor Power, by Jim Diers, who in 1988, was appointed by Seattle Mayor Charles Royer to head the city's new Office of Neighborhoods. That's right--an office concerned with neighborhoods. Diers was reappointed by the subsequent mayors and, after his 14-year tenure, the four-person office had grown into a Department of Neighborhoods with 100 staff.

As Diers writes:
The Department of Neighborhoods differs from other city departments that are responsible for separate functions such a transportation, public safety, human services, or parks and recreation. Neighborhoods is the only department focused on the way citizens have organized themselves: by community. That unique focus enables the department to decentralize and coordinate city services, to cultivate a greater sense of community and nurture broad-based community organizations, and to work in partnership with these organizations to improve neighborhoods by building each one’s special character.

Some contrasts

The question is: how might that translate in New York City? Not directly, given that the average neighborhood in Seattle has 5000 residents. (That would make Atlantic Yards, if built as planned, nearly three neighborhoods.)

The concepts have value. Seattle, which learned from St. Paul, MN, and Portland, OR, has seen its examples emulated: neighborhood matching fund programs in Houston, Detroit, Cleveland, and neighborhood service centers in Baltimore and San Diego.

There's a big caveat; this doesn't mean that neighborhoods are ensured a role in development plans, the hot issue in New York, but it implies that neighborhoods are worth listening to. "Government must learn to see neighborhoods not only as places with great needs, but as communities with tremendous resources," Diers writes.

What about the NIMBYs?

Diers suggests that good planning can stave off knee-jerky NIMBYism:
While I admit that some individuals are narrow-minded, I have come to trust the community, especially when the community organizations are broadly based, democratic, and empowered. I believe that people act responsibly to the extent that they are given responsibility. It is when people know they have no power that communities take extreme positions, expecting their positions to be moderated by the decision makers. NIMBYs are usually the product of centralized decision making, especially when officials try to sneak a project past the community and impose one-size-fits-all solutions regardless of local conditions.
(Emphasis added)

That certainly seems to be the case in New York, though the NIMBY tag can be thrown too casually, as regarding Atlantic Yards.

He suggests that empowerment serves all:
Too many local governments treat citizens as nothing more than customers; citizens, in turn, think of themselves only as taxpayers; government resources, consequently, continue to decline. As Daniel Kemmis wrote about public hearings, “The one element that is almost totally lacking is anything that might be characterized as ‘public hearing.’”

Indeed, consider the examples of the hearing on the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement in August 2006 and the recent hearing on Columbia University's planned expansion.

Livable neighborhoods

A 2005 report, prepared by the Municipal Art Society Planning Center in coordination with the Community-Based Planning Task Force, Livable Neighborhoods for a Livable City, suggests several steps New York City should take to improve the capacity of communities to plan

As Eve Baron and Micaela Birmingham wrote:
New York’s current planning process is out of date, out of touch and out of ideas. At times, communities have no other option but to resort to lawsuits to have their voices heard. New planning tools that take advantage of the skills, knowledge and abilities of local communities would allow for faster, less costly and more innovative development.

Promise and reality

On paper, the report points out, the city is supposed to fold community-based 197-a plans into planning and policy decisions, but even if they're adopted by the City Planning Commission and the City Council, they're ignored when rezoning is spurred by market forces.

(Such community plans have been developed both in Williamsburg and West Harlem. There was no 197-a plan for the Atlantic Yards site, in part because it straddles three community districts. It's hard to call the city's designation of the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area, or ATURA, planning for the AY site because it did not encompass the footprint and the city had focused on the mall north of Atlantic Avenue rather than the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard.)

The report recommends that community boards and community-based organizations get increased training and technical resources; after all, the average community district has a population of over 100,000--the size of some small cities, like Albany--but a budget of $200,000, barely enough to keep the doors open. (Albany’s Division of Planning itself had an annual budget of $369,996, with six full-time staff, at the time of the study's writing.)

A 197-a plan can cost between $50,000 and $250,000 to create, but there's no regular source of funding. Beyond that, smaller plans, easier to fund, might also prove helpful.

Improvements needed

The study states:
A new planning framework must also be able to accommodate calls for changes to city policy—addressing critical and growing needs for affordable housing, job creation, open space, and sustainability. As it now stands, planning in New York City is heavily politicized, driven by market forces, and has in the last few decades taken place largely outside the public realm. The current administration has done a better job at conferring with communities about zoning decisions. But there is much more to be done before we can declare that New York City is balancing efficiency with equity and has embraced a new approach to planning.

It recommends that the Department of City Planning (DCP) do much more to provide professional planning assistance to community boards and that it should advocate for community plans to be ingregrated with broader city initiatives. DCP and the Department of Buildings should notify the community board whenever any new large-scale development is proposed, even as-of-right projects.

Of course, when DCP steps out of the way and lets the Empire State Development Corporation take the lead, as with Atlantic Yards, the challenge is even more stark.

(Some of this all could change as PlaNYC 2030 is implemented, but that plan doesn't include a major revamp of community boards.)

Reinvent community planning

Last year, Project for Public Spaces' (PPS) Nine Ways to Transform New York into a City of Great Places, endorsed the Livable Neighborhoods recommendations under the rubric "Reinvent Community Planning."

PPS explained why community boards have a reputation for fighting projects, rather than smoothing the way for them:
Community Boards tend to act as vehicles of opposition because that's how their role has been defined in practice. In a typical development project involving public property, the Community Board becomes involved usually after something has been proposed. This process does not encourage community representatives to exercise real creativity or leadership. They can only react to what's already on the table.

The city should reinvent Community Boards by adopting their plans as legitimate goals and asking communities to articulate their aspirations, needs, and priorities at the beginning of the development process. When officials, developers, and designers start working with communities as equal partners, they will benefit from the collective expertise of the people who have the most at stake in the project. The community, in turn, gains more say in changes to their neighborhood and thus becomes more invested in seeing them through.


Easier said than done, of course, but in doing so, PPS suggested, community boards "must become more open, transparent, and engaged with their constituencies." (Community Boards 2, 6, and 8 in Brooklyn have held open meetings and taken testimony regarding Atlantic Yards; they just weren't given any say.)

And so should city agencies, right? In Coney Island, there may even be a start, even as city officials leak strategically to eager tabloids.

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