Community Board Reform And the Columbia Process

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“How would we change New York if we had a magic wand? How wide would the sidewalk be? Why not have districts just for pedestrians? If we could do anything, what would our vision be for the future? What is our dream city a hundred years from now?”

These are some of the questions the former mayor of Bogotá and current celebrity speaker Enrique Peñalosa asked at a conference of city planners and community board members held at Columbia University one year ago. They sounded thrilling to an audience unused to hearing their own local politicians pose such questions. A community planning culture and political process in which New Yorkers are called upon to gather in small groups, discuss the economic, physical and geographic needs of their neighborhoods, and with the help of experts, put together a detailed plan in which these things are competently envisioned seemed farfetched.

Actually, the political framework for just such a process has existed since 1975 when a newly revised city charter called for the creation of 59 community districts, each with a board of residents who, when need be, could propose official plans for “the development, growth, and improvement of the city and [their district].” If reality has been slow to catch up, it’s not because the parts and potential aren’t there. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer certainly thinks the framework is sound.

Stringer, a Manhattan native, has spent much of his nearly two-year tenure implementing reforms in the way his borough’s community boards work. He thinks the city helpline, 311, and district offices for members of City Council and the state legislature have largely shifted the role and responsibility of community boards. “I believe we’ve got to segue from fixing the street corner light, which 311 is doing, to becoming the planning vehicle for a local neighborhood,” Stringer said in an interview. “We should be hiring a planner in every community board district office.”

This idea is a radical break, to say the least, from the time when the city charter required every land-use decision to derive from a comprehensive, citywide master plan which professionals oversaw in central offices. Community-based planning initiatives have existed as far back as the 1950s, but they were spurred by local planning corporations, dependent on their own funds, and couldn’t rely on an official city-sponsored process to be heard.

Things changed in a major way during the 1970s with the introduction of the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) and the advisory role granted to borough presidents and their appointees sitting on the community boards. Since then the problem has been less political or legal, says Municipal Art Society president Kent Barwick, and more “breaking down the culture.”

“On the one hand, planners being trained people think they know best,” Barwick said, “and tend to see the communities as reactive. On the other, community boards have sometimes acted as private clubs nobody can get into and haven’t really been taken seriously as a result. Stringer’s efforts have been on both sides to try to improve the culture.”

In particular, since Stringer took office in Jan. 2006, he has screened potential members for conflicts of interest; slowly transformed – with the help of good-government groups – the community board application process into one based more on merit than patronage; and filled widespread vacancies. When he took office there were 112 empty chairs among Manhattan’s 12 community boards; today that number is down to six. In conjunction with the Municipal Art Society, which runs the annual Livable Neighborhoods training program, Stringer has also attempted to educate board members about the city’s public planning process and how its zoning ordinances work, and he’s created a fellowship program in which graduate students in city planning get stipends to help with planning projects. In an effort to open up the boards to the broader public, the Manhattan Neighborhood Network has even begun televising meetings.

Last fall these and other reform efforts reached a high point when more than 500 city planning experts, policy wonks and community board members descended on Columbia’s Alfred Lerner Hall to discuss transportation policy. Bogota’s Peñalosa – called “the rock star of traffic” by one Stringer staff member – gave the keynote address. In addition to waving that “magic wand” and encouraging community leaders to think big about the future of their city, he commended Stringer and his office for having the gumption and foresight to even put the event together. Breakout sessions were organized, neighborhood groups like the Times Square Alliance made presentations, and, most important of all, ordinary citizens were asked to make concrete suggestions. The message was clear: there was a new regime in town, and as far as planning goes it was going to encourage a broader, bottom-up process. The only qualifications you needed were a Manhattan residence and a genuine interest.

A Jumbled Toolbox

About two weeks ago, however, something happened to bring into focus just how thorny building a genuine community-based planning movement can be. Columbia’s Manhattanville campus expansion plan began the ULURP process this fall, where it awaited advisory votes from Community Board 9 and the borough president before being sent to the Planning Commission and City Council. If the rezoning gets approved, then Columbia gets to dig a controversial seven-story pit for building services, called the“bathtub,” under research towers rising 25 stories into the air. CB9 voted 32-2 against the university’s plan, in part because Columbia has refused to take the potential use of eminent domain off the table. But on Sept. 26, Scott Stringer shocked observers by going against the community board and voting Columbia’s way.

For many in the New York community-planning circles, it soured the progressive, communitarian mood that was growing. Ronald Shiffman, founding director of the Pratt Center for Community Development and a longtime advisor to CB9, went so far as to say that Stringer, who is still fairly new at this game, “doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

Just before he pledged his support, Stringer gained Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s commitment to give $33 million to local affordable housing initiatives and landscape improvements for the nearby waterfront park. Some question whether $33 million is a big enough donation for a project that’s expected to cost nearly $6 billion. Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, the CB9 chairman, has suggested the community needs more like $500 million in housing subsidies alone. But there’s another even more fundamental concern: The deal raises hard questions about when it’s appropriate to trade land-use considerations for economic ones, and about what the most effective tools are for getting the community’s own vision heard. A Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) is one such tool: when the community is organized, as is the case in Columbia’s targeted neighborhood of Manhattanville, a CBA can be an effective way to elicit financial and social commitments from a specific private developer, whether it’s money for a certain number of affordable units or education programs benefiting students.

Another tool is the so-called 197-a plan, outlined in section 197-a of the city charter, which gives the local community board the power to initiate a development plan of its own that the city is obligated to acknowledge in the public planning process. According to Eve Baron, planning director at the Municipal Art Society, both are important, especially since not every community has the time or resources to draw up a 197-a plan, which can take years.

“Where you get into trouble with a CBA though,” she said, “is with regard to land-use decisions, and how much power a CBA can have over the land use review process. Take, for example, affordable housing: when a proposed rezoning goes through the ULURP process and the city writes inclusionary zoning into the decision, it becomes law and every developer who wants to build in that area has to obey the law.”

“With a CBA,” Baron said, “it all rests with the developer and his or her willingness to be a good Samaritan. The developer may be fined but there’s still really not a rigorous enforcement framework in place.”

In the case of Manhattanville, according to Shiffman, the community’s 197-a plan itself called for a CBA to be entered into by the local development corporation and Columbia. “By negotiating his own financial arrangement, [Stringer] undermined the LDC,” Shiffman said, referring to the West Harlem Local Development Corporation. “Should a person who votes on land-use decisions be able to negotiate a financial arrangement as a condition of that vote? It’s totally inappropriate. We had our own CBA, but it was supposed to come after the land use decision, not before, and certainly not as a condition of that decision.”

Stringer defends his support for Columbia and vigorously claims that there is no contradiction between his community board reform work and his apparent rejection of CB 9’s 197-a plan – the best example of such a plan in the entire city, most observers would agree.

“How can we say that, when we have taken much of the community board 197-a plan and incorporated it into this zoning victory? The community board’s plan served as an invaluable guide and pushed me to do more than I could have otherwise. But just like I don’t tell them what to do, they don’t tell me what to do. I have a role and they have a role.”

Stringer later seemed to acknowledge that the compromise was just as much the result of the hand he was dealt: “Could I have gotten more? Well, I’m only an advisory opinion here, you know? I could have voted no and done nothing basically, except mirror what the community board said.”

Is the City Committed?

Even Reyes-Montblanc, CB9’s feisty chairman, acknowledges that Stringer is probably doing the best he can in a culture that doesn’t value community input very much. The borough president’s vote in the ULURP process, like the community board’s, is merely advisory. All the real power rests with the planning commission, City Council and mayor – and Mayor Bloomberg recently came out in support of Columbia too. Perhaps for this reason, Reyes-Montblanc attended Stringer’s press conference on Sept. 26 and congratulated him for “breaking the impasse” and jumpstarting a new round of negotiations.

“The community’s position was well known to the borough president,” said Reyes-Montblanc in an e-mail, “but from his much wider perspective, fraught with many other pressures that do not affect a board chairman, he made his decision.” With respect to Stringer’s overall reforms, Reyes-Montblanc said he had only praise for the city planning internship program and hoped a permanent planner would eventually be assigned to district offices. “For the first time in many years,” he added, “we had 50 members” sitting on CB9.

There are still some problems, of course. Manhattan community boards 5, 8 and 10 are still looking for a district manager – the crucial nuts-and-bolts executive – and, though it’s not the borough president’s direct responsibility to hire them, it’s hard to communicate with your constituents without them. Still, many board members seem positive about just how dramatic the changes have been. Joe Restuccia, a member of CB4 in Chelsea, Clinton and Hell’s Kitchen, says Stringer “has been a real breath of fresh air.”

“I’ve been on CB4 since 1982 – that’s a lot of borough presidents – and I’ve never seen the quality of board members be any better than they are now,” Restuccia says. “The folks coming on are just so much more balanced and more able to participate than they used to be. We don’t have those one-issue people anymore, and our members are so much more diverse now.”

Indeed, from the perspective of community planning, Stringer’s most daunting challenge at this point may not lie with the community boards, but in winning his colleagues in the mayor’s office and City Council over to his way of thinking.

In theory, the city’s public planning process is supposed to give local neighborhoods the chance to voice their opinions about important land-use decisions. In the best of cases, it’s supposed to give them the opportunity to develop their own comprehensive visions for the future of their community, and – some might say – even privilege those plans over competing visions for the simple reason that they come from the people most affected.

Alas, in practice, that’s almost never the way it plays out. Said Eve Baron of MAS: “What’s missing, I think, is a citywide commitment to uphold what’s in the city charter and to uphold the citywide planning framework. There’s a lot that the city could be doing to recognize 197-a plans without turning them into law, which might be a mistake. We have a City Council that reviews each and every land use application that comes along, but we don’t have them reviewing them in light of a 197-a plan like they should be doing. Also, these plans don’t have budgets attached to them, but they could. We’d have a better shot at understanding the capital budget and expense budget implications. That would be one way to give them a more integral role.”

“It’s true that the city has needs that are larger than the community,” added Kent Barwick, “so there needs to be a definite give and take. But if the community plan is ignored to the extent it has been, it’s senseless to create these plans.”

– David Giles