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Is there a future for long-term planning and more community input? Maybe in the Stringer administration, discussion suggests

There was no specific mention of Atlantic Yards at a 10/6/11 panel at The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs titled Community-Based Planning: The Future of Development in New York (full video below).

However, for those of us familiar with the project there were lots of echoes: the diminished role of local voices, the failure to plan comprehensively, the willingness to let developers take the lead, and the recognition that the city must accommodate increased density near transit in order to grow..

Stringer’s take

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer got the leadoff role, previewing a theme that surely will be part of his 2013 mayoral campaign: the need for balance.

He called for greater engagement among neighborhoods, builders, and the Department of City Planning. “Part of what I tried to do when I became Borough President was figure out how we could change the great skyline of Manhattan, but do it in a way that incorporated basic community relationships,” he said, “ so development projects could coexist with neighborhoods.”

As he’s said before, Stringer set up an urban planning fellowship program to place urban planners at Community Boards. He also established a community-based merit selection process for Community Board appointments, divorced from the previous political process and drawing on nominations from various stakeholder groups.

Today’s Community Boards are more diverse, he said. “By giving them more training and resources, we've created the ability for local activists to stand with big developers.” That of course is a matter of debate, given that one of his signature achievements, “a balanced expansion plan” for Columbia University differed significantly from the Community Board’s plan.

While Community Boards were set up as planning boards, in the 1975 charter revision, he said, their roles stressed service delivery. However, in the late 1970s, he said, the need for such help diminished when local elected officials began to add professional staff.

Today, given that elected officials have such staff members, and the mayor’s office established the 311 system, he said Community Boards have to focus on community planning for neighborhoods--and the next city Charter revision should provide boards with urban planners.

He commended Amanda Burden, who heads the City Planning Commission (CPC), for a record number of rezonings, “but we have to figure out how we plan long-term... Right now the CPC is a planning vehicle for when developers come up with a megaproject.”

Other cities, like Seattle and London, work on long-range planning, but New York doesn’t. “We have to think about what agency, or entity, will help us plan long-term,” he said.

Planning, he reminded the audience, encompasses not just buildings, but schools and other infrastructure.

What next?

What, asked moderator Jarrett Murphy of City Limits, should be done in Charter revision.

Stringer noted that that the 2010 Charter Revision Commission ignored various proposals regarding how to improve planning.

But a planning agency “to do long range thinking that would involve multiple city agencies” is needed, he said.

Should Community Boards and Borough Presidents, whose votes are merely advisory under the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), have more weight?

“I’m not here to advocate for having Community Boards having the ability to turn down projects,” he said. But the boards need more funding and more training. Similarly, he said that Borough Presidents like himself don’t need more power but do need more resources so they can work with city Council Members.

The 1989 Charter Revision set up a process known as 197-a, wherein Community Boards create proactive plans. Does he think the process is viable?

“Way too often the 197-a is a manual that gathers dust on the shelf,” Stringer replied. “It's just a reality. I think the process as it’s presently constituted basically sends communities on a false mission... That's why we want to look at long range planning that involves communities and agencies.”

Paul Graziano, Principal, Associated Cultural Resource Consultants, cited the rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint in 2005. “Most people don’t know that the community itself spent ten years on a 197-a plan,” he said.


Graziano was asked about his experience working for landmarking areas in Queens. Outside New York City, he said, most landmarking or historic preservation issues are incorporated into planning. Because the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has sole discretion, the results have been very variable.

Beyond that, he said, the commission “does not like, in general, to designate suburban neighborhoods,” even though only half the land in the city could be considered urban.

How the CPC works

Richard W. Eaddy, Vice Chairman, City Planning Commission and Senior Managing Director, Studley Inc., noted that he’d seen the process from several angles, having been a Community Board member and a Deputy Borough President. “The planning process in New York City is a very complicated one,” he said. “Often there is a lot of dialogue and communication long before it comes to the commission.”

He gave a standard defense of the city process, citing Burden’s extensive exploration of communities and meetings with community groups. “By the time a rezoning comes, there's been a lot of dialogue,” he said. Then there are additional hearings by the Community Board and Borough President, plus the public hearing the commission holds itself

“I agree that all these voices are important, and should be at the table, and I think they are,” Eaddy said. “The process if very inclusive... everyone doesn't always get what they want, but no one can say they're not being heard.”

Except, of course, when the state overrides the city land use process, as with Atlantic Yards.

What’s the community?

Are Community Boards up to the task to funnel the desires of the community, Murphy asked Julia Vitullo-Martin, Director, Center for Urban Innovation, Regional Plan Association (RPA).

Vitullo-Martin observed that Stringer had made an important point, that he must bring forward
the perspective and public interest of the entire borough, while the Community Board represents the neighborhood.

“The interest of the city, the neighborhood, and the borough are just not always the same,” she said. (Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz has frequently made the same arguments.)

Vitullo-Martin said the “fair share provision” from the 1989 Charter revision, aimed to ensure an even distribution of facilities with negative impacts, was never completely implemented in New York. Had it been done, along with the addition of professional planners, “it could be immensely useful.”

Still, she said, “We are so much better off than, say, we were 40 years ago because we have strong, engaged Community Boards.”

Is community listened to?

Eaddy said “lot of the rezonings have been developed from conversations with communities” concerned about growth, especially given that the extant 1961 zoning provided opening for much larger development, a city of 12 to 16 million people ratner than 8 million-plus.

Graziano observed that the issue is political: “the further away you are from Manhattan and the high-density waterfront, the better chance you have of getting what you want.”.

“I laud the Borough President for his apolitical attempt” to reform Community Boards, Graziano said. “This is not how it works in Queens.” And, he said, he’s pretty sure it’s the same in the other outer boroughs.

How to grow?

If downzonings limit development, is that a rational approach to growth?

Vitullo-Martin reminded the audience that the 1961 zoning resolution “was drawn up by planners ... who were intellectual children of the New Deal, who believed in infinite progress of mankind and infinite growth of New York City.” So they created “a plan for a city that was never going to be.”

So now “one of the unfortunate realities of life” is that “an awful lot of people want to live in the neighborhoods that Paul is trying to protect... At least some of those neighborhoods do have to be developed more intensely, so New York can attract the residents and businesses that it wants.”

Vitullo-Martin, formerly of the Manhattan Institute, is an often pro-development, but has been very critical of the favoritism involved in the Atlantic Yards project.

Graziano responded that, in his experience, “every single one of these downzonings allows for growth,” such as around LIRR rail stations in northeastern Queens, well beyond the subway system.

Eaddy expressed a caution toward comprehensive planning, given that New York is a complicated, ever-changing city. “Growth happens in areas where there is transportation,” he said. Given that they’ve upgraded transportation-rich neighborhoods like Downtown Brooklyn, “all these things together helps create a city that allows for some growth but also protects the character of a lot of intact neighborhoods.”

“Williamsburg is such a fascinating example,” Vitullo-Martin observed. “There have to be some desirable neighborhoods that are developed substantially more intensely than they want to be.”
“And that particular Borough President’s office,” she said in a subtle dig at Markowitz, “is substantially less substantively engaged [than Stringer].”

“I think Marty would beg to differ,” Graziano interjected.

“What I mean is, these issues, the dilemma of which parts of Brooklyn are going to be developed,” she said, “is not a public, substantive discussion.”

Departing from Bloomberg

Stringer, again telegraphing a likely campaign talking point, expressed support for congestion pricing, but suggested the Bloomberg administration “missed a strategic opportunity,” given that the plan was focused on Manhattan, rather than engaging all five boroughs.

Beyond that, he said, “I don't like to criticize the mayor... but we have to start thinking strategically about giving communities the tools they need.” Community Boards, he said, “have not had an increase in their budget in 19 years...the mayor is choking the ability of communities to have this discussion.”

And Borough Presidents’ budgets have been cut as well, as power’s been concentrated in the mayor’s office.


“The city should be building infrastructure before development, or along with it,” Vitullo-Martin observed. “The current impulse is to bring it after.” She cited the need to build schools. She also expressed dismay that the Brooklyn waterfront didn’t lead to discussion of light rail to ensure the area was not “completely isolated.”

“I think it's going to be a an issue in the mayoral campaign,” she said. “Infrastructure is going to be a looming, serious, horrible problem.”

Eaddy responded, “New York is a city that people really want to come to... but we do have limited resources... I think there's a delicate balance of trying to meet the needs of communities and also trying to balance budgets... Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don't.”

Graziano cited the rezoning of greater Jamaica, where areas with little infrastructure were nevertheless upzoned. He criticized the ubiquitous environmental consultant AKRF--which of course worked on Atlantic Yards--for making specious findings that the rezoning wouldn’t affect schools and transit.

Comprehensive plan coming?

One audience member asked, if when Stringer becomes mayor, would the city adopt a comprehensive plan.

Stringer staffer Brian Cook, who had replaced him on the panel, said he could not speak for the campaign, “but I could not imagine not working in his administration on a comprehensive plan.”

Eaddy cautioned, as did others during the 2010 Charter Revision discussion, against a comprehensive plan for a city so large and fast-changing.

“I've been lucky enough to work in New Jersey, where master planning is law,” Graziano responded. “Every seven years there has to be a re-examination... I don’t see anything not flexible about that.”


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