All Together Now: Toward A Better Land Use Process

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New York For Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate, by Tom Angotti, MIT Press, $24.95.

“Community planning” is the sort of innocuous, agreeable phrase that rarely evokes more than a yawn, the province of over-credentialed technocrats. To Tom Angotti, it’s a rallying cry for those left dispossessed and disenfranchised by what passes for New York City’s municipal land use planning process – most residents, by his lights. Angotti has poured his life’s work as a planner, organizer, and professor into his new book, “New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate.” Surveying the land-use landscape from the big business of buying and selling property, to the potential for non-profit public land trusts or “community land,” to particular neighborhood struggles for land-use self-determination, the book sprawls like the city itself.

A terse “Chronology of Major Planning Events in New York City” opens the book, both rooting Angotti’s exploration and suggesting what a youthful story community planning in the five boroughs must be, if it can be included among 26 points on a timeline from 1898 to 2003. The year 1961 emerges as critical. It was the year community activist Jane Jacobs published her classic treatise, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” It was the year the city passed its second zoning resolution, updating a 45-year-old document that left the outer boroughs “unrestricted,” allowing industry, commerce and people’s homes to exist side-by-side on the same block. (Angotti argues that the city’s elites had always preferred zoning over planning.)

It was also the year that a klatch of radical neighbors formed the Cooper Square Community Development Committee and Businessmen’s Association to save their stretch of the Lower East Side from bulldozers. Two years prior, Robert Moses had marked 11 blocks of the neighborhood for “urban renewal.” The Cooper Square Committee parried with a study showing 93 percent of the people whose homes were slated for “renewal” wouldn’t be able to afford the new housing. Challenged by an assistant to the mayor to come up with its own proposal, the Committee produced New York City’s first community-based plan.

The plan’s introduction read: “A renewal effort has to be conceived as a process of building on the inherent social and economic values of a local community. Neglecting these values through programs of massive clearance and redevelopment can disrupt an entire community.” It’s a statement that could just as easily have been drafted by community activists staring down any of a number of mega-projects in the city today.

It took nine years, but an updated version of the Cooper Square plan was finally approved by the city. Not long after, the city’s charter was revised, initiating both community boards and the Urban Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). By 1989, the charter had been revised yet again, empowering the boards to design what are known as “197-a” plans to guide their communities’ development.

Angotti argues that 197-a plans should be “the building blocks for citywide planning policy.” Their process of communal creation, while vaguely defined, provides an opportunity for each and every one of us to have a say in the social decisions that determine the quality and direction of our neighborhoods, and our lives. But the regulations adopted by the Department of City Planning ensured the plans would have no teeth: “The existence of an adopted 197-a plan shall not preclude the sponsor or any other city agency from developing other plans or taking actions not contemplated by the 197-a plan that may affect the same geographic area or subject matter.”

In practice, this has meant that again and again communities have invested years in putting together a 197-a plan only to see its acceptance by DCP essentially serve as a death certificate. In the nearly 20 years since the charter was changed, only 10 such plans have won the city’s approval. Whether regarding CB4’s plan for Chelsea, the case of Bronx CB3, or plans for Red Hook, Greenpoint or Williamsburg in Brooklyn, the city has at best ignored the results of the 197-a process, and at worst implemented zoning changes explicitly contravening their recommendations.

While all these plans had their flaws, Angotti argues that they were generally inclusive, often calling for more affordable housing and access to public services. He acknowledges, however, that there are plans that don’t live up to his vision—as in the wealthiest Bronx neighborhood, Riverdale, whose 197-a plan was approved in 2003. “Within a matter of two years,” Angotti reports, “more than half of the areas were rezoned by DCP. Most of the zonings reduced the potential for new development.” Community planning can shut people out just as easily as it can welcome them in.

Angotti is at his best when he hones in on the stories of specific community planning efforts. With a career that has included stints as a planner for city government, and now has him directing Hunter College’s Center for Community Planning and Development and co-editing Progressive Planning magazine, he brings an impressive degree of erudition to bear on the subject – although at times it gets in his way. If you can hack your way past the occasional sentence like “Plans and planning are not static things but nodes of social and political relations that occur in urban places,” there are valuable insights to be mined from Angotti’s work. Yet his bids for world-historical sweep never quite make it to the dustbin of history, and the resulting narrative is littered with the jargon of the academic left: dialectics, disaster capitalism, manufacturing consent, flexible accumulation.

One wonders if the material might have hung together better under the book’s working title: “We Won’t Move: Community Planning in ‘The Real Estate Capital of the World.'” (And if the publisher had put any effort at all into the cover, which is splashed with a fuzzy snapshot by the author himself.) One of Angotti’s most enlightening case studies is about ¡Nos Quedamos!— “We Stay”—a coalition of South Bronx homeowners, tenants, businesspeople, property owners and institutions, which advanced its plan for the community outside of the 197-a process. Protests by the coalition forced the city to the table in the early 1990s. Given six months to come up with an alternative to the city’s urban renewal proposal, Angotti notes that ¡Nos Quedamos! held 168 public meetings, made it through the ULURP process, and has since seen over 700 units of new housing constructed. And like the folks at Cooper Square and in Red Hook, the coalition built by ¡Nos Quedamos! encompassed small businesses. Angotti doesn’t delve into the extent of their role in these coalitions and their respective victories; readers looking to chalk up another win might wish he had.

Angotti recounts another successful citywide planning effort by a group called the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods, which also bucked the 197-a process. Given these successes, it’s hard to avoid concluding that the 197-a process as it currently exists is far more effective at co-opting community organizing and planning efforts than realizing them. Some of its harsher critics would argue this is just one more example of the state offloading its responsibilities onto, well, whoever’s around—citizens, community boards, nonprofits, etc. If we value participatory democracy, the answer isn’t scrapping the process, but giving it teeth.

That’s one clear imperative of the book’s analysis. Making 197-a plans binding, as well as adequately staffing community boards, would be a good start. Angotti reports that in Seattle and Rochester, mayors established new agencies to help citizens participate in the budgetary and planning processes, moving planning out from under the shadow of high-rise luxury development, and making it proactive instead of reactive. In Boston, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative started a community land trust, and got the city to delegate the power of eminent domain (though we don’t learn the details, disappointingly), allowing it to expand the land under its control without displacing anyone.

It’s the community control of land that Angotti sees as crucial to empowering community plans. The Koch administration’s handling of the vast number of vacant lots, dilapidated buildings, and burned-out husks that wound up in the city’s hands after the near collapse of the late 60s and 70s wasted a valuable opportunity, he writes. Instead of unloading those properties on the highest bidders as quickly as possible, the city should have established a land bank, restoring to it a powerful foundation on which to plan for the future.

Instead, the redistribution continued patterns that too often leave neighborhoods at the mercy of the real estate and financial sectors. Threats posed by development often create the pressure that leads to community planning. Today, as the city braces itself for continuing waves of foreclosures, the credit markets choke on their own bad paper, and development projects grind to a halt, the city government may once again find itself in the real estate business. And where others see a crisis, Angotti sees an opportunity: “The city should cede full control over city-owned vacant land to organizations that will use it in accordance with democratic, community-initiated 197-a plans.” His is a vision of community planning that’s participatory, contentious, aggressive and confrontational, of struggles fought over decades and waged for future generations. Are we up to it?

– Nicholas Jahr

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