Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Will Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030 survive his mayoralty? Should it?

Many people concerned about planning and development issues were heartened by Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s announcement last year of PlaNYC 2030, observed Eve Baron, director of the Municipal Art Society (MAS) Planning Center. However, as she said introducing a forum titled “PlaNYC2030 Post-Bloomberg” on April 14, many people think important issues were left out--and the panel discussion bore that out.

Indeed, she said, the Community-Based Planning Task Force the MAS helped launch sought a more open process.

The mayor’s plan was not submitted as a 197-a plan, Baron noted, which makies it “more of an agenda,” with its applicability potentially limited once he leaves office. (“Section 197-a of the York City Charter authorizes community boards and borough boards, as well as the Mayor, the City Planning Commission, the Department of City Planning, and any Borough President, to sponsor plans” which are reviewed by the CBs, borough presidents, City Planning Commission, and City Council once adopted, they are used to guide subsequent actions by city agencies.)

Many more community plans have been drawn up, and MAS has just compiled them into a new Atlas of Community-Based Plans. While it was originally created to inform candidates running for local office, now it’s an educational tool for the public, providing examples for communities that need advice on creating their own plans. One example in the atlas: the UNITY plan alternative for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard.

Criticism and reflections

Tom Angotti, a planning professor at Hunter College and a member of the task force, said one reason it was launched was frustration with City Hall and the Department of City Planning. Though eight 197-a plans--of many others developed--have been passed, the day after, “City Planning ignores them,” he lamented.

(Sustainability Watch, a collaboration between Gotham Gazette and the Hunter College Center for Community Planning & Development (CCPD), monitors and debates the city's plans. In an article posted yesterday, headlined Is the Long-term Sustainability Plan Sustainable?, Angotti amplified many of the points he raised during the panel. Here's an article from today's New York Sun that links to a report by the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, which gives mixed-reviews regarding the plan's 127 initiatives, praising reduction of carbon emissions, a start on planting trees, and energy efficiency programs, but criticizing too few transportation improvements outside of congestion pricing and not putting the plan into law--the issue Baron raised.)

Angotti cited CCPD’s work on the UNITY plan as “is a project that helps us define what we mean by sustainability,” he said, suggesting that the question was “what’s being sustained and who benefits.” UNITY’s visions, he said not without edge, “go far beyond [AY architect] Frank Gehry’s hallucinations.”

CSOs and CP

Miquela Craytor, deputy director of Sustainable South Bronx, noted that the Storm Water Infrastructure Matters (S.W.I.M.) coalition, which advocates for green infrastructure to reduce combined sewer overflows (CSOs), had pointed out where PlaNYC 2030 fell short.

Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, was still smarting from “congestion pricing going down in flames.” Why did it fail? “We didn’t do a good enough job of defining sustainability in human terms,” he reflected. “We let the opposition define the downsides.”

While London has been the city most cited as an example for New York, given its history of road pricing, White suggested that Paris or Bogotá are better models, since both have more aggressively reorganized (and even closed) streets to better serve ctizens.

Enough inclusion?

Moderator Amy Zimmer of Metro asked if the panelists’ groups felt represented in PlaNYC. “We weren’t asked to the table,” Craytor said, suggesting that the administration bears an animus to Sustainable South Bronx for its opposition to a planned jail in the South Bronx. She suggested the plan scants the importance of jobs

Yolanda Gonzalez of Nos Quedamos, an organization that has grown since it significantly reshaped urban renewal plans in the Melrose neighborhood of the Bronx, said the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, to which the group belongs, had to speak with one voice and, even if members didn’t agree with all of the plan, supported its broad goals, especially the need to reduce truck traffic.

Angotti scoffed at the “Town Hall meetings” set up by the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, calling them “a public screening of the mayor’s slide show.” He pointed to the plan’s precursor, an unreleased (but leaked to Streetsblog) land use plan by Alex Garvin. That plan, Angotti noted was developed for the New York City Economic Development Corporation, not the City Planning Commission.

PlaNYC, he alleged, “was really to sell a plan that was already made.” Civic activists brought into the process, he said, ‘really deserved to have a dialogue, not a monologue.” None of the plan went before Community Boards or community-based organizations, he noted. Such failure to consult, he suggested, was “blowback” that led to the demise of congestion pricing. He did allow that Bloomberg did appoint a progressive Department of Transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, but said that may not be enough.

White was more optimistic, saying there remain opportunities to improve bus service, make streets friendlier, and expand the bike network. “There is this tension between real estate and development,” he acknowledged. “It’s not going to go away.”

Next mayor

What should the next mayor do, Zimmer asked. Focus on parking policy, White said, noting that the city has collected too few statistics regarding parking; only when the number of spaces are counted can New York consider limiting them, as some other cities have done.

Gonzalez talked about the promise of solar panels. Craytor mentioned green roofs.

Angotti even took issue with the goal that every resident be within a ten-minute walk of a park. “For a lot of people, a ten-minute walk is a challenge.”

Some contentiousness

In the Q&A segment, the panel came in for criticism from Manhattan Borough Historian Michael Miscione, sometimes a gadfly, who called it “extremely cynical and negative.” Communities, he warned, can suffer from provincialism: “It’s important to have a perspective that looks at the greater good.”

That was one of the themes that emerged during the recent reassessment of master builder/power broker Robert Moses. Two of the panelists, however, were from the South Bronx, a neighborhood that can most defensibly say no. It has four power plants, 12 substations, and garbage galore. “We are oversaturated, overburdened to start with,” Gonzalez said.

Another audience member, who identified himself as a PlaNYC fellow, earnestly described his frustration in trying to engage communities. “It’s not true we’re not consulting,” he said, it’s just that people don’t show up. “Do we engage them, or propose something and let them criticize it?” he asked.

Gonzalez said Nos Quedamos had hosted a PlaNYC event with more than 60 organizations involved, but said city staffers didn’t follow up. Craytor warned that, given the prior distrust in certain communities, “you won’t overcome it in two hours.”

Nor, even, at this panel.

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