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After lots of talk about "comprehensive planning," Charter Revision Commission makes cautious proposals; hearings start this week (+Been's turnaround)

New York is in the middle of a big discussion about whether a comprehensive plan is needed and, if so, what it might look like. For now, a City Council-sponsor Charter Revision Commission has recommended relatively minor changes, but public hearings begin this week--April 30 in Queens, May 2 in Brooklyn--to hear public testimony on those proposals.

Let me recap some of the discussion

Starting last year

From Gotham Gazette, 5/16/18, New York City Doesn’t Have a Comprehensive Plan; Does It Need One?:
City government has no coherent, overarching plan for growth and the challenges that come with it -- housing, transportation, climate resiliency, school seats, garbage collection, and more -- and city officials don’t believe that one is necessary.
...On a recent episode of What’s The [Data] Point?, a podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission, guest Anita Laremont, the general counsel and chief data officer at the Department of City Planning, was asked about the lack of a comprehensive city plan. “We are charged by state law that we must have a well-considered land use plan,” Laremont said, “and what we have maintained historically is that the city zoning framework at any given time is the city’s well-considered plan.”
Laremont was referring to the city’s land use rules, its zoning regulations that, generally speaking, dictate what types of building are allowed to be built where, and to what size.
Former DCP director Carl Weisbrod offered a common caution, suggesting that, based on the record of the 1969 Plan for New York City, which took so long it was already outdated (and thus never adopted), such plans are hazardous, and would be incompatible with flexibility.

Those are worth considering, but larger challenges persist. The article noted that the nonprofit Regional Plan Association (RPA) had released its fourth regional plan, addressing numerous "ambitious infrastructure investments, institutional reforms, and policies."

The issue raised in Lander's tweet animates housing advocates. Rezonings in lower-income neighborhoods spur skepticism about displacement, but higher-income neighborhoods have resisted

Gearing up in 2019

Hopes Grow (and Doubts Remain) That New York City Will Adopt Comprehensive Planning, City Limits published 3/21/19, pointing out that, despite numerous plans (affordable housing, school desegregation, etc.), the there's no comprehensive plan, one that might deter resistance to change:
Their feelings are often dismissed as NIMBYism or nostalgia, and sometimes that’s true. What the arguments reflect, however, is a genuine disconnect between citywide goals and street-level implementation. Some communities feel they have been singled out to shoulder common burdens, or been forced to accept dramatic change just to get basic amenities. A community’s political pull seems to determine whether it gets what it wants, or has to absorb what others don’t. And there’s a concern that the city is approving new development without creating the infrastructure—sewers, schools, transit—needed to support it.
The article noted that the Department of City Planning and parent City Planning Commission tend to focus on zoning--the scale and bulk of buildings, decided at the neighborhood or parcel level--rather than planning.

Cities like Seattle have adopted comprehensive plans. Minneapolis’ City Council "essentially upzoned the entire city to absorb more people."

The article cites the Thriving Communities Coalition, a group of nonprofits that set five principles to guide "a comprehensive plan: fair distribution of resources and development, enforceable commitments, integration without displacement, transparency and real community power." What's unclear is the tension between such overall planning and community voices.

The article cited a criticism from Partnership for New York City president and CEO Kathryn Wylde:
“Term limits have made meaningful, long term planning impossible, since the thinking of policymakers is short term and driven by current events,” she said. “For those who are looking for solutions, I would suggest focusing on reform of funding programs and tax expenditures that have essentially moved control over housing and neighborhood development away from city agencies and community-based organizations. This is the price of relying on leveraging private funding and market forces to achieve public goals.”
In other words, building affordable housing relies on market forces.

What about 2021?

Lander made an interesting observation:
 “In 2013, we had a mayors race that was almost entirely devoid of candidates giving their planning vision, giving their vision for the physical city. That was barely on the radar screen,” Lander says. If a comprehensive plan is approved this November, it could take shape during the 2021 mayoral campaign and as the new mayor takes office. “What we actually want from a mayor is a plan for the built city, for our planning future. Presenting a framework in which they’d be expected to talk about it? It seems like a good idea.”
The hearings begin

In a 3/25/19 article, Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Land Use and Planning, Gotham Gazette noted that "experts struggled to articulate a clear definition of comprehensive planning."

Interestingly, if many residents think that ULURP stacks the deck against them, the city disagrees. DCP's Laremont said:
“While some local voices feel that the ULURP process does not give them a strong enough voice, we hear from affordable housing developers, fair housing advocates, and others who see that local concerns are frequently winning out over the wider needs of families, immigrants and others among the city’s most vulnerable.”
What's planning?

From the article:
In a document distributed prior to the hearing, the commission defined a comprehensive plan as “a document that articulates long-term development goals related to transportation, utilities, land use, recreation, housing, and other types of infrastructure and services.” But the first expert, Vicki Been, the former commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, began the panel by admitting, “I’m not sure that we’re all on the same page about what is meant by comprehensive planning.”
She called a charter mandate “empty platitudes without much more detail about what is meant by comprehensive planning,” and cautioned that its ratification could make an already lengthy and unpredictable process more onerous.
That's meaningful, since Been is now the Deputy Mayor, having replaced Alicia Glen. (Here's her testimony.) Here's more:
But neighborhood residents, and their elected officials, consistently do not want their neighborhoods to change significantly. They reject proposals that might affect their property values or their rents. They support affordable housing in theory, but the particular housing proposed is never just right – it’s too tall, badly designed, targeted at the wrong incomes, on a site that would be better for something else, built by non-union workers, staffed by the wrong employees, operated by the wrong entity, etc., etc. That risk aversion, the rational desire to maximize the value of one’s largest investment or to minimize one’s own expenses, and the myriad of concerns that people express about specific proposals may all be well-meaning or understandable. But they too often add up to no new housing, even affordable housing; no housing for people with special needs; no homeless shelters; and no essential infrastructure to support the city’s needs, such as sanitation, garages or police stations.
Following on the Max & Murphy show, Would a Comprehensive Plan Map a Better Future for NYC?, City Limits 3/28/19 quoted Elena Conte of the Pratt Center for Community Development:
What the city has done is come to East New York and said, ‘We want to do development here, so let’s engage you in a very narrow set of questions that are limited around this topic.’ That’s not what planning is. Comprehensive planning first of all is not a plan at the level of detail where it comes down to block and lot,. It’s an opportunity for us to dream and articulate together about what our aspirational goals for our city and then actually set those goals numerically for city–to see holistically what is happening at a neighborhood level.
She noted neighborhoods don't get a veto:
“What I do get to do is say, ‘Here’s where it will work best in this community and here’s how we can work to integrate and support it.'” That includes more affluent communities, who will have to accept housing that brings in lower-income people.
Been's turnaround, with an Atlantic Yards cameo 

City Limits 4/9/19 published Mayor’s New Development Chief is Not a Fan of Comprehensive Planning:
Been also argued that the city already does a lot of planning: “Since the Bloomberg Administration released PlanNYC, for example, the city has put out detailed and comprehensive for affordable housing (Housing NY, and Housing NY2.0); for NYCHA (NextGen NYCHA); for homelessness (Turning the Tide on Homelessness); and sustainability (Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency (LMCR) project), among other critical issues. The city has pulled much of that together in a plan to become the most resilient, equitable, and sustainable city in the world – OneNYC.”
That’s a different take than Been had nine years ago, when City Limits interviewed her for an issue of our magazine called “City Without a Plan.”
Asked back then about whether PlaNYC was really a “plan,” Been said: “I think it’s been a very important contribution, but I don’t think it’s a substitute for the kind of comprehensive planning that is usually thought of as part of a land use process.” A comprehensive plan, she added, “would normally say, ‘Here are areas that are underdeveloped and could take more growth, and here are areas that are at their max. PlaNYC tells you we want a more sustainable city, a city where everyone is 15 minutes from a park. But it doesn’t tell you, ‘This area needs growth, this area doesn’t need growth.'”
Indeed, I remember a 2006 panel, featuring a fierce debate between Bertha Lewis and Candace Carponter about Atlantic Yards affordable housing. As I wrote, New York University law professor Been, who spoke in careful generalities about Atlantic Yards, lamented that “the system is broken” because “we don’t have a comprehensive approach to planning.”

And she got the last word: “We're dealing with 49 developments. We're dealing with one rezoning at a time. We don't have a comprehensive look at what's going on where and where we're going to put the affordable housing, where we're going to put the density and allow that affordable housing."

The debate continues

In a 4/11/19 op-ed in the Daily News, Racist planning shaped our city; conscientious planning can help undo its mistakes, Adrien Weibgen, a senior policy fellow at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, argued:
Planning that finally centers the needs of low-wealth communities of color is not a radical idea: It’s a necessary and proactive way to address inequities that were put in place by past plans, and have been in place for far too long.
For example, redlining and slum clearance forced poor people of color to neighborhoods far from opportunity. Wrote Weibgen:
But planning in these areas is not centered around remedying the past harms to, or addressing the current needs of, these communities. All too often, investment is tied to future development, a future where residents are likely to be wealthier and whiter, and current residents may not be in the picture at all.
It shouldn’t be this way, and it doesn’t have to be. Comprehensive planning can require city agencies to center their plans and spending around demonstrated neighborhood needs — which is not required today — and to direct future growth where it is least likely to fuel displacement. 
Similarly, writing 4/16/19 in Gotham Gazette, New York City Should Have a Comprehensive Plan, urban planner John West, cited three dimensions in a comprehensive plan:
One, it needs to address the full range of issues that concern a location.
Two, it needs to address the issues at the appropriate geographical levels – community, county, city, region.
And three, it needs to address the issues as they evolve over time.
He acknowledged it might be unwieldy and time-consuming, but suggested it was worth it:
The city-wide parts of the plan be prepared by the mayoral administration in consultation with all interested parties and that the community-centric parts of the plan be prepared jointly by the applicable community board, borough president, and the city administration.
The plan should be revised frequently to keep it current with evolving conditions and goals.
The result

As noted in the 4/23/19 Gotham Gazette, 2019 Charter Commission Report Indicates Areas of Focus for Crafting Ballot Proposals:
The report also recommends continuing to look at slightly shifting the balance of power in the city’s land use approval process, possibly by proposing that borough presidents and community boards get more time, potentially within a fixed window, to weigh in on land use applications before they are certified. Like in other areas of city governance, this potential proposed tweak is far less significant than some called for.
Several elected officials and urban experts who testified before the commission advocated for the requirement of the creation of a comprehensive plan for the city that takes a more holistic approach to the city’s future. With those proposals in mind, the commission staff detailed the city’s planning landscape, which they found is already vast, with as many as 12 separate kinds of planning-related documents, but does not necessarily fit together. The report recommends creating a “planning cycle” and incorporating all the disparate elements with clear progress indicators and a uniform public engagement process, among other things.
That's not the comprehensive planning advocates called for, however.

Here's the second of the report on land use and comprehensive planning. And here the staff recommendations, first on ULURP:
Staff recommends that the Commission further consider and solicit public feedback
concerning a pre-certification engagement process to provide more time and an earlier
opportunity for Community Boards and Borough Presidents to review and comment on
applications that are likely to proceed through ULURP. For example, a fixed precertification “comment period” (e.g., 30 days) could be established. In order to facilitate meaningful engagement, this comment period could be initiated by having the applicant
submit a Project Information Form (PIF) to affected Community Boards and Borough
Presidents with information necessary to evaluate the substance of the proposed project,
such as relevant plans, diagrams, and proposed actions.
Here's the recommendation on Community Board review:
Staff recommends that the Commission further consider and solicit public feedback
concerning whether (and by how much) to extend the time period for Community Board
review under ULURP for those applications certified by DCP at a point in time in the
calendar year which results in a substantial portion of the Community Board’s review
period falling within the months of July and/or August (e.g., by extending the time period for such review from 60 to 75 days in those instances).
Here's the recommendation on comprehensive planning, which cites the many existing plans:
Staff recommends that the Commission further consider and solicit feedback concerning
amending the Charter to (a) make clear how these various planning documents should
relate to and impact one another and ensure that the timing and development of such
plans facilitates that end, such as through establishing a “planning cycle”; (b) ensure that
such plans address anticipated future planning challenges and include specific indicators
for measuring progress consistently throughout such documents and over time; (c) require that such planning consistently identify and address short-term (within the current electoral term), intermediate (within the next electoral term), and longer-term issues; (d) require that some element of this planning describe contemplated short-term,
intermediate, and long-term changes to land use and development in communities, such
as reasonably anticipated neighborhood rezonings (particularly now that the ZPR is
defunct); and (e) establish a clear and, to the extent feasible, uniform process for ensuring that the public and other stakeholders have an opportunity to meaningfully weigh-in on what the plans address and how.