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RPA's "Inclusive City" report calls for new Office of Community Planning, improved Community Boards, "cross-acceptance" (but how far will it go?)

The passage of time suggests that the fight over Atlantic Yards--a dramatic private rezoning to increase density coupled with significant-but-overblown promises of jobs and housing, plus an arena--might have proceeded differently if it had not been a one-off.

What if it had proceeded from a widely recognized commitment to increase density, with broad public benefits as well as protections for locals from significant untoward impacts? What if there had been an equitable framework, and process, rather than an environmental review aimed to disclose, but not necessarily mitigate, impacts?

What if the money and energy that went into rallies and renderings had delivered more civic value?

Well, we know better know, and if the next Atlantic Yards is unlikely, that's not to say that unwise or heavy-handed projects won't proceed, since the template--offer public benefits in exchange for an upzoning--seems widely recognized.

(Other projects, like the huge, complicated, and pending 80 Flatbush, might have been informed by an improved planning process.)

A better way

That said, there's not only more consensus today regarding the value of planning, there's more juice. On 1/31/17, the Regional Plan Association, backed by good-government, planning, and community development groups (and elected officials), issued a series of land-use reform recommendations to the mayor and City Council. (Here's the full white paper.)

The working group recommends the establishment of a new Office of Community Planning, an implicit recognition that the Department of City Planning does not sufficiently balance interests, to set ten-year targets for things like housing creation and the siting of public facilities.

To resolve the inevitable tension between local resistance and from-the-top imposition, the report suggests "cross acceptance,” a process popular in New Jersey to balance goals.

Calling community boards "a promise made and broken," the report suggests new resources, including a full-time planner and funding for childcare, interpretation and refreshments at meetings. While board members wouldn't be elected--a process that could bring its own problems--the borough president would be required to push for broader demographic representation. (Of course, homeowners and retirees have more time and/or incentive.)

The overall goals, according to RPA:
  • Dramatically increase the amount of proactive planning in New York City.
  • Increase communication, participation, and transparency in development decisions before and during formal procedures.
  • Improve accountability, oversight, and enforcement in the City Environmental Quality Review process.
  • Update the City Environmental Quality Review technical manual to ensure accuracy.
The working group was facilitated by the offices of Council Member Antonio Reynoso, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Regional Plan Association. Working group members included:
  • Common Cause New York
  • Fifth Avenue Committee
  • Municipal Art Society of New York
  • New York Communities for Change
  • New York Lawyers for the Public Interest
  • Pratt Center for Community Development
  • Pratt Institute Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment
  • Office of the Brooklyn Borough President
  • Office of Council Member Brad Lander
The context

As the RPA's Pierina Ana Sanchez wrote, the city faces a conundrum:
Communities often experience important decisions being made behind closed doors with minimal input from community members and stakeholders. And too often, projects that might otherwise help provide much needed affordable housing or other benefits are halted because communities find the pathways to stopping a project easier than the pathways to improving it. This is insanity.
Reform has begun, she noted. Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer have proposed a New York Charter Revision Commission to address multiple issues, including land use reform. Council Members Reynoso and Margaret Chin had co-introduced a bill that would require project application statements – an early document in typical land-use review – to be made public earlier.

City Limits noted that the report was issued during a period when neighborhood rezonings pushed by the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to generate affordable housing have generated criticism for risking displacement in low-income neighborhoods and for insufficient outreach

Among the tactics

The tactics proposed include:
  • Create a citywide comprehensive planning framework with community-district level targets, including for housing creation and public facilities siting, in collaboration with communities and local elected officials.
  • Increase resources and support for neighborhoods by creating an Office of Community Planning
  • Reform community boards, with new resources, professionalism, and visibility
  • Align city and community interests through cross acceptance
  • Explore new revenue streams to support such efforts
  • Increase transparency in development decisions before and during formal procedures.
  • Improve and democratize available information about private and publicly initiated land use proposals
  • Improve environmental review by addressing inaccuracies reports
  • Ensure funding and implementation of mitigation measures
  • Track neighborhood outcomes after land use actions are approved for lessons learned.
  • Update the City Environmental Quality Review technical manual to ensure accuracy.
  • Examine best practices from other cities
The report notes that the 1975 Charter revision did seek to empower communities, leading to what are known as 197A plans, but few have been approved or followed, given lack of resources and backup.

In the current environmental review process, "the alternatives analysis generally only covers the 'no-build' scenario and the proposed project 'with-action' scenario," the report says, but future reviews should assess community plans, as well.

The report calls for plain-language reports and visuals that include zoning maps and accurate renderings and photo-simulations, such as depicting the full height of proposed development, not just from the pedestrian perspective. After all, many projects, not just Atlantic Yards, have been portrayed in the most appealing perspective.

The report calls for a required public meeting before a private development proposal.

Balancing interests

The report acknowledges that "there may seem to be an inherent tension between expanding stakeholder engagement and making the planning process faster and more predictable," but suggests that "not taking stakeholder input into account — and especially early in the process — can slow down projects, or even stall them indefinitely." That, of course, was the experience with Atlantic Yards, a state process that overrode the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).
completed.

The environmental review process, the report notes, includes "several troubling aspects," including the inherent conflict-of-interest created when a private developer or a City agency hires a consultant to prepare an environmental impact statement. New oversight could fix errors and sanction mistakes. Mitigation funds could be set aside at the start. Independent organizations could monitor implementation.

The review process has its flaws, notes the report:
For instance, the 2005 proposal to rezone industrial areas in Williamsburg to residential was determined to have no significant impact on business displacement in the area, though the area saw a dramatic shift in the ensuing years.
(Anyone remember how the Atlantic Yards review wrongly painted the project site as a haven for crime?)

Environmental reviews also could better assess benefits, as well as address cumulative impacts and citywide equity, in terms of fair housing and siting of facilities. And they could more broadly assess shadow impacts and even evaluate potential for solar energy--an issue that came up with Atlantic Yards, as a nearby building, Atlantic Terrace, eschewed solar plans. (Actually, it's going to have taken so long to build across the street that limited-term solar might have penciled out.)

The report also suggests a broader analysis area, analyzing "possible future developments adjacent but outside of specific EIS scoping areas, in order to more holistically account for impacts." Remember how the failure to assess adjacent areas shaped the Atlantic Yards Blight Study?

As City Limits noted:
The report recommends a variety of changes to the manual, including requiring that rent-stabilized tenants be considered in the displacement analysis (the manual currently considers them safe), and “removing assumption that new housing units directly reduce potential for displacement” (the city often argues that adding to the housing supply will, simply by virtue of supply and demand, lower rents).
Support from a planner turned Council Member

Council Member Lander, on Twitter, praised the report and noted that, in the 2013 Toward a 21st Century City for All report, he "laid out some (largely overlapping) thoughts on the topic of bringing more proactive city-planning + more inclusive community development together."

As Lander, an urban planner, wrote at the time:
In the absence of comprehensive planning, we are not connecting new development sufficiently with the infrastructure needed to sustain it. We cannot evaluate whether we are shaping growth in the most sensible ways. We cannot be confident we are making fair decisions about where to site facilities (and the environmental justice movement has shown us that often they are not).Under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Department of City Planning has been reduced to the “Department of Zoning and Urban Design.”
And some big projects drew criticism at that time:
As argued above, the city’s current developer-driven framework for planning has amplified tensions between competing interests. These tensions were highlighted in the negotiation process around several “community benefits agreements” in New York City (e.g., Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium, and Brooklyn Atlantic Yards). Negotiations between the developers and community groups were fully separate from the public planning process. The Memoranda of Agreement reached between the Bloomberg administration and the City Council around many area rezonings (Hudson Yards, Greenpoint/Williamsburg, Flushing Commons, Willets Point, and Coney Island) have not been better. They were disconnected from planning, negotiated at the last minute, and lack any framework for oversight or implementation.
Enacting the recommendations in this paper would go a long way to addressing some of these tensions. The “cross-acceptance” element of good comprehensive planning gives communities an incentive to engage in a real dialogue around growth, and to bring neighborhood vision to the table early. Infrastructure planning maximizes the likelihood that investments will be made to match growth and need. The fair-share process makes it possible for neighborhoods to believe they are being treated fairly, and to have their claims heard when they are not.
In a tweet, he amplified the issue:
But you can only do so much at the neighborhood or site-level alone, where the noise of the "NIMBY vs YIMBY/REBNY" is often too loud for anything to be heard above it. That was part of my goal in the 21c4All chapter: http://bit.ly/2nAVEkB
Some caution

Urbanist Pete Harrison, however, tweeted, "The planner in me admires the inclusive process outlined in this land use report. The activist in me still doesn’t know what values it is trying to promote."

Harrison amplified that point in an article posted on Medium, praising the "admirable recommendations" and improved process. However, he wrote:
However, the report fails on a basic level that speaks to a broader problem in the neo-liberal technocratic model: values. First, what are the core public-minded values that can be achieved through better land-use planning? More importantly, in the larger sense, what is the role of our city self-government in defining and supporting the public good?
On closer reading, this report doesn’t have a clear answer. This harms the potential impact of the report, but it also harms our ability to identify and address the larger problems facing our city.
He added:
I don’t get a sense of what a better planning process will do to materially improve the major problems in the city — a lack of affordable housing leading to greater displacement, a lack of resources for public infrastructure leading to a lower quality of life and opportunity, an inability to plan ahead on climate change and other long-term issues that existentially threaten our future.
I’m not saying a better planning process won’t do that. I know it will. But I know what “better” mean to me. People reading this will say “of course the report talks about values” and, yes, it is even titled “Inclusive City” and talks about how it wants more community engagement, buy-in, and control. Inclusivity, decentralization, transparency — they certainly sound like values. But in reality, they are more Stephen Colbert “value-y” terms than actual value claims.
I'm not quite as pessimistic, since I think think changing the process can affect the results.

Still, given, how money, lobbying, and clout shape land use, we should be mindful of Harrison's warning: "We can only really understand what this report is trying to change and if it is serious about doing so if it does challenge those that benefit from the current system."

Regional Plan Association Report Inclusive City, January 2018 by Norman Oder on Scribd

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