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Livable neighborhoods, community planning, and community media 2.0

The Planning Center of the Municipal Art Society (MAS) has launched the Livable Neighborhoods Program: Resources and Training for Community-Based Planners, which aims to train community board members and other community planners to better serve their neighborhoods.

In other words, whether the city cedes land use review to the state or not, citizens could use some more training.

A set of seminars was held May 5 and will repeat this Saturday, May 19. The program is open to the public, but priority will be given to members of community boards and grassroots organizations. (Sign up here.)

(Beyond this program, MAS's Campaign for Community-Based Planning aims to ensure that community-based planning becomes official New York City policy.)

Community district = city?

As Eve Baron, director of the MAS Planning Center, points out, the average New York City community district is the size of Connecticut cities like Bridgeport, New Haven, or Waterbury, all of which have “hundreds of employees and multi-million dollar budgets to provide services.” By contrast, the city’s community boards, with budgets of $200,000, can’t fulfill the demands placed on them.

Participants at the seminar get a planning “toolkit” with chapters on planning topics like community organizing and visioning, data collection, zoning, 197-a planning, “brownfield” planning, historic and cultural resources preservation, electronic mapping and the budget process.

The training component, using the toolkit as a textbook, is hosted by the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development (CCPD). I found the sessions I attended May 5 useful in some ways, basic in others, but, then again, I’ve been immersed in certain land use issues for a while.

Zoning issues

The toolkit has some valuable information, such as an explanation of variances, mapmaking help via the Community Information Technology Initiative, a bibliography for census and demographic resources, and New Yorkers for Parks' guide to neighborhood advocacy. A description of the Rheingold Brewery Development in Brooklyn, which emerged from a charrette involving a host of interested parties, is an interesting contrast to the Atlantic Yards plan, announced as a virtual fait accompli.

Still, the single most valuable handout was my own copy of the city’s Zoning Handbook, produced by the Department of City Planning. It's an accessible guide to the city's myriad zoning regulations, which, in the case of Atlantic Yards, are superseded by the Empire State Development Corporation.

I attended a useful seminar on land use and zoning, conducted by Anthony Borelli, the land use and planning director for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. (Here’s the online version of the office's Land Use 101. Slide excerpt below.)

The session highlighted an interesting timeline. New York, which initiated the nation’s first comprehensive zoning, did so in 1916. The city revamped its zoning code 45 years later, in 1961.

Since then, there have been updates—“to reflect the conditions that exist now, rather than in 1961, or anticipated in 1961,” Borelli said—but no comprehensive overhaul. Given that the 45-year mark was 2006, maybe we’re overdue.

AY & community planning

Of course, Atlantic Yards came up. I already reported how Atlantic Yards was suggested as exemplifying how developers “leapfrog” communities.

Also, the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods’ (CBN) Atlantic Yards Environmental Impact Statement Handbook was presented in the toolkit as an example of a comprehensive community response.

Discussing the role of the environmental impact statement, Hunter professor Tom Angotti, a consultant to CBN, told a group that “the process was set up to protect the developer from a lawsuit.”

Fisher's advice

Former City Council Member Ken Fisher, who lost to Marty Markowitz in the 2001 race for Brooklyn Borough President and is now a land use attorney, appeared as a special guest May 5, offering a lively, candid explanation of how the city works. (Fisher’s funny, but not clownish.)

“It’s not cheap to build parks and infrastructure,” he said, defending the contested Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront rezoning, allowing that “we’ll see in about ten years whether it works.”

He declared that, of elected officials, “25% are corrupt, lazy, and stupid; 25% are superstars, and 50% are somewhere in between.”

Politics, he said, is as much art as science, but politicians can be helpful to community groups by offering analysis, logistics, funding, networks. In return, they want recognition—and “they don’t like surprises.”

“Elected officials can give you credibility,” he said, and they can “give cover to the moderates, and vice versa,” when it comes to land use compromises. (That may be why elected officials have gravitated to BrooklynSpeaks in the Atlantic Yards dynamic.)

Fisher offered what seems to be a not atypical sense of wonder at the explosion of development in New York. “I’m stunned,” he said. “We can’t believe how amazing it is… The city is changing in remarkable ways.”

Community media 2.0

Interestingly, the community outreach advice during the Livable Neighborhoods program was rather traditional, advising community groups to make sure they sent press releases to media outlets, including web sites.

Unmentioned was how people and organizations can now create their own media via the web. Consider the ecosystem around Atlantic Yards. Community groups like Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods, and BrooklynSpeaks all have their own web sites.

More general web sites that cover development like Gowanus Lounge and Brownstoner also discuss Atlantic Yards. NoLandGrab covers Atlantic Yards from soup to nuts, posting original documents, links, and comments. My Atlantic Yards Report offers reportage, analysis, and commentary. (I mention other AY-related sites here.)

Beyond creating an organizational web site, community planners could follow the NoLandGrab model, serving as a clearinghouse for all documents and news coverage about a topic, with commentary and analysis. Someone could even follow the Atlantic Yards Report model, which is a journalist self-assigned to examine a topic.

While both the NLG and the AYR strategy require much time and dedication, they obviously fill a void. Just as the community boards are underequipped compared to cities of comparable population, so communities in New York are underserved by the press.

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