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Environmental review process slammed at MAS Summit, but solutions remain elusive

Is the environmental review process broken? At the Municipal Art Society's (MAS) Summit for New York City October 21-22, two speakers suggested it was, but they didn't make what I believe is a key distinction: between truly public projects and public-private (or private-public) projects.

Opening up the first session of the two-day event, Philip K. Howard, lawyer, author (The Death of Common Sense), and founder of the national coalition Common Good, warned of "a growing bureaucracy that shackles government, stifles innovation, makes it impossible to adapt to current challenges."

And while his critique encompasses the budget and the schools, he directed his most pointed comments to the struggle to build new infrastructure.

"No pebble left unturned"

Environmental impact statements (EIS) "have evolved into a process of no pebble left unturned," he warned. "If it takes a decade or longer to get approvals, it will be 2025 or 2030 to start building a rail line or power grid... Even the president doesn't have the authority to make these choices over a reasonable review period."

"We're going to have to change the structure of law not to deregulate, but to make regulation work... to get where we all want to go and preserve the magic that is New York," Howard said.

It's hard to disagree that the system doesn't work, but there's also an argument for a distinction between projects that are truly public and those in which the main or significant beneficiary is private.

Past efforts

In May 2007, the Manhattan Institute issued a report and hosted a panel on streamlining the city's environmental review process.

While proponents advocated a narrower definition of the "environment," they also suggested that state projects like Atlantic Yards should have gone through the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which allows for more input by community boards and elected officials.

Large-scale development difficulty

Later in the Summit, on a panel regarding Moynihan Station, former MAS President Kent Barwick took up the issue. While "we get good marks for what we're doing with individual building and retrofitting neighborhoods," he said, "we don't get very good marks at our capacity for large-scale developments."

Rockefeller Center, he said, is "a standard we have a hard time meeting." (Of course, Rockefeller Center was produced not by government guidance but by a private developer with few limitations.)

Lack of capacity?

"One reason is we have diminished the capacity of our public authorities," Barwick said. "Basically, there are no Ed Logues in the picture, no Robert Moses."

"I'm not talking about arrogance, I'm talking about capacity," he said, noting that Moses wouldn't let his designers or architects go into the armed forces, knowing they were needed to draw up plans for the flood of money that would emerge after World War II.

Although the capacity for public interaction has improved, "we have made the public participation process more cumbersome than ever," he said, adding that some large-scale projects have no local review.

(Unmentioned, but likely on his mind: Atlantic Yards, which the MAS critiqued when it helped found the BrooklynSpeaks coalition, which is has since left.)

Relying on developers

Referencing Howard, Barwick said, "We have an unbelievably cumbersome and wasteful public approval process... we rely on developers to provide... not only the infrastructure the public should be providing... but even the money to fund the EIS's."

He criticized not just the state SEQRA process but also ULURP, saying, communities are invited "to scream," but lost any real power to affect process... We're not getting the consensus we need to move things along."

The solution, however, remains elusive.