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Columbia vote (35-5-6) vs. AY vote (4-0), newspaper coverage, and the value left in ULURP

What a difference the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) makes, at least in terms of public awareness. The City Council's contentious approval of Columbia University's West Harlem development plan merited front-page, above-the-fold coverage in the New York Times yesterday (albeit attached to graphics regarding Governor's Island plans; click to enlarge), as the vote was 35-5, with 6 abstentions. (Gotham Gazette called it divisive, and highlighted those not toeing the line.)

By contrast, on 12/6/06, when the Empire State Development Corporation board voted 4-0 to approve the Atlantic Yards project after perfunctory and uninformed discussion, the Times placed the article, headlined A Nod for Atlantic Yards, and Then a Lawsuit, on page 3 of the Metro section. The ESDC meeting lasted 15 minutes; the City Council hearing Wednesday elapsed over five hours, including breaks.

There wasn't any contentiousness; as I noted, the press release had already been prepared when the 3:30 pm board meeting began. Still, as an example of how business gets done in New York, it was worth a closer look, and the Times article, which did look skeptically at some statements by then-ESDC Chairman Charles Gargano, simply described the board meeting as "largely anticlimactic."


Consider what might have occurred had the Atlantic Yards project gone through ULURP. It likely would have passed the City Council, thanks to the city's and Forest City Ratner's political muscle, but the criticism voiced by the three affected community boards would have gotten much more airing. And, at the City Council vote, critics like Council Members Letitia James and Charles Barron would have had a platform for their views.

An Atlantic Yards critic on the ESDC board might have flayed fellow board member Charles Dorkey for his uninformed question about the location of Atlantic Yards: “What are the cross streets for (Site) 5”). That critic might have said that it was time to start rather than conclude examination of the project.

And even if ULURP is a "complete sham," as Municipal Art Society Kent Barwick has said, it is superior to the ESDC process, not just because it provides a greater opportunity for a democratic vote but because, as shown yesterday, it provides more of a platform for public scrutiny. And Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff now acknowledges Atlantic Yards probably should've gone through ULURP.

PACB approval

When the three-member Public Authorities Control Board approved the project two weeks later, on 12/20/06, the Times did run the story on the front page the next day. (Here's No Land Grab on the anniversary.)

But the coverage, headlined State Approves Major Complex For Brooklyn, was about inside political maneuvering, and then outside reaction from project critics. The approval votes by Republican Gov. George Pataki, who owed little fealty to Brooklyn voters, and Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, were in the can.

The real drama revolved around Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of Lower Manhattan, again not elected by Brooklynites but deeply engaged in city dealmaking. The Times reported: Yesterday's vote followed days of intense negotiation between officials at the Empire State Development Corporation, which is overseeing the project, and aides to Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the State Assembly, who has one of three votes on the control board.

None of those voting, however, got a chance to express any dissent. The approval vote took just five minutes.


  1. When is a ULURP hearing (and process) not a ULURP hearing (and process)? When the public officials before whom the hearing is held say that isn’t within their purview to do anything concerning the public action issues about which the public testifies at the hearing.

    Before we get too enthusiastic about the beneficial result of the fuller ULURP process that applied to Columbia’s rezoning and takeover of West Harlem, let’s remind ourselves that, though it was a fuller process, what is being proposed by Columbia was not treated to a full ULURP process.

    Yes, Columbia ‘s expansion will not integrate or share space with the neighborhood, involves a great deal of rezoning principally for the special benefit of Columbia, will wipe out a swath of older buildings, including historic ones, and does not look to designate as landmark old buildings that might actually be saved. Yes, all of this was subject to ULURP review and hearings, but one of the most highly objectionable aspects where the Columbia plan diverges from the plan wanted by the Community Board is Columbia’s strategic use of eminent domain to acquire property. The eminent domain is to be exercised by the Empire State Development Corporation and this was not treated as being subject to ULURP.

    The City Planning Commission held hearings but the Planning Commissioners voting for Columbia’s plan pointedly put it on record that eminent domain was not something they were deciding upon and that this was instead the State’s responsibility. They side-stepped the issue which is to say they gave the public testimony against eminent domain no effect (and also ignored CB9's position on this). Similarly, there were City Council Members last week who excoriated as abysmal the situation with eminent domain, complained about the lack of local and City Council control and called for the state legislature to pass remedial legislation to fix it. Then, they voted for Columbia’s plan since they said they could only be voting on something other than eminent domain as it was so entirely out of their control that it was, perforce, outside their preview. This is again to say that they gave the public testimony against eminent domain no effect while also ignoring the Community Board on this.

    It was all of course an exercise in political buck passing. The idea of ULURP is political accountability. So long as eminent domain is done with the distortion of a State agency acting outside the ULURP process (which it needn’t be) there has not been a full ULURP process.

    Had there been a full ULURP process where it was absolutely clear that it was the responsibility of public officials to consider and act on eminent domain based upon the public’s testimony and community board input the vote tallies might have been different. Yes, if the public and community board had been treated with greater deference results might have been different.


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