Skip to main content

Featured Post

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what's coming + FAQ (pinned post)

At Charter Commission hearing, most invited panelists support ULURP; Angotti, BPs, civic groups, call for planning, not zoning; AY gets a cameo

The New York City Charter Revision Commission hearing on June 24 aired some important testimony on land use reform, to relatively little coverage, and though land use is not on the agenda this year, the issues deserve discussion.

The gist of the expert testimony--four of five those invited--was that the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) pretty much works, and shouldn't be amended. (There was also a lot of criticism of Community Benefit Agreements, as I've written.)

The one outlier, urban planning professor Tom Angotti of Hunter College--also an advisor to the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods on Atlantic Yards issues--disagreed, laying out in great detail the flaws in ULURP.

He suggested that greater weight (though not a veto) be given to the advisory opinions of local Community Boards and arguing for greater transparency in the pre-ULURP negotiations.

Also see Angotti's essay in the July Gotham Gazette, headlined Charting a Better Way for Planning and Community Boards, which questions for example, the continuing validity of a side agreement between then-Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff and then-City Council Member John Liu regarding the Flushing Commons project in Queens.

(Coming July 21: a free conference titled Land Use and Local Voices: Is the City’s Land Use Process in Need of Reform?, sponsored by the Municipal Art Society and Manhattan Community Board 1.)

The Atlantic Yards exception

Barely mentioned was that state projects like Atlantic Yards avoid ULURP completely, with no weight at all given to the Community Boards; one expert, Vishaan Chakrabarti of Columbia University's real estate program, said it was "inappropriate" for the state to control such projects.

(The three affected Community Boards all expressed opposition or significant concern.)

Atlantic Yards did play an awkward cameo role in a question from a commission member, who wondered--without recognizing how AY avoided ULURP--how the charter might allow for community participation in discussions about the "horrific" traffic generated by the arena.

And, as noted, Community Board 8 Chairperson Nizjoni Granville, without naming names, testified that ""Too often developers seek loopholes to avoid the input of the community they are attempting to infiltrate."

The BPs' take

Meanwhile, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, echoing her previous testimony (and that of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz), in her introductory remarks argued that Borough Presidents' recommendations in ULURP should be binding, to be overridden only by a supermajority of the City Planning Commission.

And Borough President Scott Stringer, in previous testimony (noted below), has called for a new Independent Planning Office to generate a citywide comprehensive plan.

The coverage

In a preview article, City Limits noted that the Bar Association of the City of New York has called for shortening the timetable embedded in ULURP, so as to ensure that developers don't miss the market, while the Pratt Center for Community Development criticized the lack of meaningful community engagement.

City Limits also pointed to steps announced by the city on June 1 to make environmental review easier for small projects, a clarified full form for analysis of the potential impacts on medium-sized projects; an upgraded Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination website to "create a one-stop-shop for environmental review," and "a revised and more user-friendly City Environmental Quality Review Technical Manual to improve the quality of analysis and its reporting."

Even before the hearing, Amanda Burden, chairperson of the City Planning Commission and head of the Department of City Planning, supported the status quo. The Observer reported June 24:
"Some people think that ULURP takes way too long; half the people think it's way too short; and that means it's probably just about right," she said. "I think we definitely should make sure we don't mess with things that aren't broken."

...The strong statement suggests that the commission, which is controlled by mayoral appointees, will indeed leave the rezoning process alone. Developers have long pushed for a shorter process, and community boards have worried that their voices would be marginalized by any change.
The Observer provided a good summary of Angotti's critique and the response by the status quo defenders. The Staten Island Advance focused on the desire of Borough Presidents to have a greater role in the land use process.

Streetsblog not only summarized the discussion but pointed out that Angotti's position was supported by testimony from the Citizens Housing and Planning Council and the Pratt Center for Community Development.

And City Pragmatist blogger Alvin Berk, chairman of Brooklyn Community Board 14, noticed, in Commission Chairman Matthew Goldstein's remarks about Community Benefits Agreements, a distinct desire to cut through the red tape of environmental reviews to ensure that important projects like Moynihan Station and Hudson Yards move forward.

DCP testimony

David Karnovsky, General Counsel of the Department of City Planning, led off, explaining how the 1975 Charter Commission aimed to unify “a bewildering set of procedures” that incorporated “very little public participation” and had “little accountability.”

The issue was how to give locals a say, without granting a veto. So the commission rejected the notion that some issues are inherently local and recognized that all land use issues both affect local community and implicate larger concerns, he said.

Karnovsky said that, “if, after 90 days of review in the ULURP process… no progress has been made… the application arrives at the Planning Commission facing healthy skepticism.”

“No application can come before the Planning Commission and say, in effect, ‘Ignore them, they’re only advisory,’” he said, ignoring the example of projects that bypass the commission.

So he praised ULURP as “strong and robust… it has a logical and a coherent structure… it is slow, but it is also predictable.”

Angotti’s critique

Angotti (testimony below) cited “a sharp divide” between pre-ULURP and the seven-month ULURP process, given the informal arrangements that “quite logically” happen beforehand.

“No applicant wants to go through a seven-month process and find they’re going to be turned down, because they didn’t predict the opposition of certain groups,” he said, suggesting that, “when they get to ULURP, it becomes a fairly formulaic process.”

Community Boards, he said, “feel very disempowered.” He recommended greater sunlight to the process and that CB votes have a greater weight. “I don’t know what the formula is,” he said, suggesting that no votes be given greater credence.

Beyond that, the environmental review process prior to ULURP is supposed to disclose the potential negative environmental impacts but is too long and too complicated to really inform decision-making. Similarly, he recommended greater transparency and public input.

And he said, the City Planning Commission “is fixated on ad hoc, localized zoning, instead of planning.” There should be a comprehensive citywide plan that involves not merely buildings but services.

For example, the “ major, publicly-disseminated comprehensive plan, PlaNYC 2030,” was not submitted for debate, in accordance with the City Charter, and “remains a strictly executive document.”

By terming local plans advisory, DCP has rendered community-driven 197-a plans “meaningless,” for example directly contradicted the Greenpoint/Williamsburg local plan with the waterfront rezoning.

And Community Boards, with budgets of less than $200,000 for jurisdictions larger that most cities in the state, have too limited participation and lack professional resources.

There should be greater outreach and independent panels to select members, he said. And CBs should be able to hire own professional staff and planner to advise on such things as complex EIS documents.

A land-use lawyer

Paul Selver, co-chair of Land Use department at the law firm Kramer Levin (which also represents Forest City Ratner on Atlantic Yards), said that the process balanced city betterment with giving all stakeholders “an appropriate say.”

While ULURP isn’t perfect, he said, “its basic structure is sound” and thus required only fine-tuning.

Such changes, it seems, would tip in favor of corporate clients, such as eliminating the role of City Council in approving all special permits and leaving it up to the City Planning Commission.

The second, as noted, is the elimination of Community Benefit Agreements.

Third, he recommended a ten-year sunset period for community-driven 197-a plans, observing, not unreasonably, that such plans, to be meaningful, “must be current and accurate.”

Fourth, he suggested that 25 percent of Community Board members be owner-operators of businesses, saying they had a different perspective than local residents.

Fifth, he suggested a 30-day statute of limitations--rather than four months--for all actions subject to ULURP, saying that currently those planning to sue wait until the end of that period.

He said that the City Planning Commission should be involved in preparation of capital budget and said that, when considering landmarking, the City Council be allowed to consider social and economic considerations.

Global competitiveness

Vishaan Chakrabarti
, who directs Columbia University’s real estate program, cited his now-familiar mantra that the city’s global competitiveness is key. He drew on his experience as an urban planner, architect, developer (for the Related Companies), and director of the Manhattan office of the DCP.

“I categorically believe that ULURP works,” he said. “because everyone comes out of the process somewhat unhappy.” He called it “a predictable process.”

“If you take, for instance, the Hudson Yards rezoning, [Manhattan] Community Board 4 played an absolutely critical, erudite role,” he said, suggesting that both a Community Board and a Borough President “can have a tremendous impact.”

He also disagreed with Angotti’s distinction between zoning and planning, saying that “a very detailed, block-by-block comprehensive plan is done before a rezoning takes place,” giving the High Line as an example.

“That was a win-win-win for the development community, for affordable housing advocates, for open space advocates, for the surrounding community, as well as the city’s overall economic growth,” he said.

He then expressed dismay about Community Benefit Agreements.

He agreed with Angotti that there are problems in the pre-ULURP process, but came from a different perspective.

With Moynihan Station, he said there were “about four” environmental impact statements, “probably about $12 million worth of soft costs, we have no train station, we have process… major infrastructure cannot be built, because it outlives the boom and bust cycle… the EIS process has to be looked at in some way, with the federal government, in a way… that becomes predictable.”

Chakrabarti said there was insufficient coordination between DCP and the New York City Economic Development Corporation. “I believe we should consider the creation of a New York City redevelopment authority,” he said, “ that merges or overlaps the economic development role of EDC with the planning role of the department city planning.”

That, he said, would “enable us to more comprehensively plan publicly-owned sites, plan for infrastructure, build affordable housing, and so forth.”

State oversight and Atlantic Yards

“Also, a governance issue, and with all due respect to our partners in state government,” he said, “I think far too much of the city’s land use is controlled by Albany: the World Trade Center site, Moynihan Station, Atlantic Yards. It is extraordinary to think the list of publicly controlled sites that we do not control as a city. I think that is largely vestigial and is largely inappropriate in a major global city like New York today. And we should control our own destiny.”

Unmentioned was that, at least in the case of Atlantic Yards, the city agreed to have the state oversee it but could have asked to have it--and former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff agreed that the project should have gone through ULURP.


Regarding global competitiveness, Chakrabarti said, “There is no question that, as a city, we are steadily becoming anti-growth in comparison to London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, and Mumbai… our infrastructure is old and failing.”

From City Council

Christopher Collins, counsel to the Council’s Land Use committee for 13 years and now Vice-Chair of the Board of Standards and Appeals, said, “Overall, I think ULURP works well,” as it balances local needs with citywide issues.

“In my experience at City Council, the recommendations by Community Boards were always considered,” he said. ("Considered" doesn’t mean all that much in cases like the recent approval of the New Domino project.) “To simply say that Community Boards are advisory is not saying they are without influence.”

Chairs of committees, he said, “always would ask, where is the Community Board on this?” (If they had asked about Atlantic Yards, they would have been told that the Community Boards were not in favor.)

Collins also criticized the common belief that an individual Council Member has an effective veto on projects in his or her district. The member’s opinions “certainly have great weight,” he said, but can be overruled when leaders decide that citywide importance outweigh local concerns.

Or the mayor wants it, as with New Domino. (In other words, had Atlantic Yards gone through ULURP, local Council Member Letitia James’s opposition would not have carried the day.

AY and traffic

Commission Vice-Chair John H. Banks, Vice-President for Government Relations at Con Edison,
at 1:17:45, challenged Angotti regarding the pre-ULURP process, using an Atlantic Yards example.

“When you suggested that the pre-review process be open, how would you determine who has a right to participate in that?" Banks asked. "I could imagine that, although it might not be directly related to my particular community, I could envision some ancillary problem… For example, with the Nets stadium, I don’t live that near the stadium, but I know traffic in all of Downtown Brooklyn is going to be pretty horrific. How do you limit the people who want to be involved in that… your assorted wacko from wherever wants to come and have an impact on somebody’s community?”

(Banks--at least according to publicly available information--lives in the north part of Park Slope about two blocks from me, within a 15-minute walk of the arena site. There will traffic on the Seventh Avenue artery near his residence.)

Angotti, in his response, avoided the opportunity to say that, when it comes to Atlantic Yards, Banks’s question was irrelevant, because Atlantic Yards didn’t go through ULURP.

“The question ought not to be limit the participation but to improve the quality of participation,” Angotti said.

Banks brought up the likelihood that there could then be “private discussions before the pre-ULURP process.”

Angotti said that the pre-ULURP process could be made predictable and the environmental review could be collapsed if it focused “on the real environmental issues, and not just those that need to be covered to protect the applicant from future losses.”

Need for supermajority?

Banks asked if there should be a supermajority on the City Planning Commission or City Council to override local objections by the Community Board or Borough President.

“We believe the balance works,” responded DCP's Karnovsky.

“Right now the balance is heavily toward City Hall,” Angotti countered. “To balance it, we need to give more weight at the community level.” There were some claps from the audience. He said it was important to “improve the ability of communities to have a say about the futures that are going to affect them.”

Planning vs. zoning

Angotti said that in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, “before they rezone, they have a comprehensive plan… then they do the rezoning based on the comprehensive citywide plan and community plan.”

He returned to his criticism that, in New York, the zoning comes first, so upzoning is not accompanied by planning for school facilities and transportation.

He said--implicitly citing Atlantic Yards--that even “areas designated for transit-oriented development” have not gotten an upgrade… because no new transit was built… This is not comprehensive planning.”

Chakrabarti countered, “I very much believe that planning comes first, before a zoning proposal is written. I’ve seen it time and time again,” He cited the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning as one example.

“I frankly don’t know how one would do a citywide land-use plan in a way that wasn’t completely top-down,” he added. “We have to have the flexibility of proactive neighborhood planning, as well as reaction to what communities want, where the market is headed… We’re not Portland [Oregon].”

Karnovsky read a quote from 1975: the charter commission said a citywide master plan is an anachronism, it’s never been implemented, but rather a dynamic process is needed. “The notion there can be a document that reflects a citywide plan is a mirage.”

Actually, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer testified in April:
Other cities have recognized the need for comprehensive planning and have created planning documents, such as London’s Spatial Development Strategy. Created in October 2009, London’s plan outlines necessary infrastructure improvements, and initiatives for preservation, economic growth, and greening the city.

Closer to home, the Regional Plan Association’s Third Regional Plan for the New York City metropolitan area has provided context and support for regional infrastructure projects such as the NJ Transit/Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s Trans Hudson Passenger Rail tunnel.

...The Charter Revision Commission should recommend establishing a new Independent Planning Office (“IPO”).

Comprehensive Planning – The primary function of the IPO will be to generate a citywide comprehensive plan based on agency needs, citywide development goals, mayoral policies, borough presidents’ Strategic Policy Statements, and community board plans, such as 197-a Plans.
BP role increased?

Commissioner Stephen Fiala, Richmond County Clerk and a former City Council member from Staten Island who served on 2004-2005 Charter Revision Commission, said he believed Community Boards “should stay advisory.”

However, he said, “the ‘89 charter eviscerated the role of borough presidents,” given that the court-ordered dissolution of the Board of Estimate--which gave equal veto power to borough presidents despite vastly disparate populations--left them with only advisory powers. “The boroughwide perspective isn’t given the same weight as mayoralty and district perspective.”

Karnovsky said not to underestimate borough presidents, noting that Manhattan BP Scott Stringer has helped shape projects.

Collins added that there are borough delegations at the City Council to provide that borough-wide perspective.

Other comments

The Pratt Center, in its comments, sounded much like Angotti, warning that the CPC has ceased to plan:
The City Planning Commission (CPC) was conceived as an independent body appointed to comprehensively plan and to scrutinize land use in the public interest, above the fray of city politics. But over the years, its role and ambition have diminished. First, in the 1970s, it lost its control over the city’s capital budget. Then, with the elimination of the Board of Estimate in 1989, borough presidents lost much of their power over land use decision-making and their appointees to the commission went from being influential deal-makers, whose dissenting views could shake up a land use plan, to a minority with little leverage.

Today, the Department of City Planning (DCP) and City Planning Commission have narrowed their focus to zoning – land use changes in particular areas, as opposed to development of a plan that involves land use and the services and capital investment needed to support that plan, and addresses how the plan for an area fits into the city’s overall needs.
Pratt cited the need for a master plan, and pointed out the flip side of the rezonings: downzonings where they may not be prudent:
The City Planning Commission once again needs to plan strategically for the entire city, rather than serving as an enabler of developer-driven projects. Piecemeal zoning changes create a void that invites real estate speculation and uncertainty for residents and businesses. They have enabled a wave of downzonings of neighborhoods with political pull, many of which conflict with City sustainability policies encouraging development in areas well-served by mass transit. And without a planning framework to follow, community boards seeking to develop
their own feasible plans have no road map – no way to make sure that they’re heading in a direction that will serve the community’s and city’s needs well.
Pratt also cited the lack of community-based planning, given DCP's unwillingness to consult 197-a plans and the limited resources available to Community Boards.

Also, Pratt recommended a revision of the "fair share" rules regarding siting of unwanted facilities, saying it should extend to private facilities and assess environmental factors rather than use costs as a deciding factor.


The venerable nonprofit Community Housing and Planning Council (CHPC), whose board includes architects, planners, and a good number of developers and their lawyers (including Selver), also criticized the status quo:
However, despite many gains, much of NYC government has continued to carry out its responsibilities without regard to the goals of PlaNYC. NYC currently has no long‐term, citywide planning process or other means to advance PlaNYC’s objectives effectively.

The work of the Department of City Planning and the City Planning Commission is now focused almost solely on the Zoning Resolution, which has become a substitute for long‐term planning. Yet, the New York City of the 21st century faces challenging long‐term issues of a complexity that far outpaces the confines of a zoning policy alone.

In 2007, the Mayor set up the Office of Long‐term Planning and Sustainability to coordinate and oversee efforts to develop and implement PlaNYC’s strategic vision for the City's future. Yet, its decision‐making powers, its influence on other government agencies, and its role in the land use review process are not established under the City Charter or effectively established otherwise. For example, the objectives reflected in PlaNYC receive no required or consistent consideration in Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) decisions. We believe that one of the results of this lack of incorporation is that the City’s long‐term needs and objectives are not well represented in land use decisions, the public review process, and other government decision‐making processes.
While CHPC does not with to expand the power of Community Boards, it does support the City Charter requiring the necessary funding for every Community Board to hire a professional urban planner.

Tom Angotti Charter Revision Commission June 24, 2010

Scott Stringer Land Use Testimony


CHPC on City Charter