At its last full meeting on June 9, the New York City Council dealt with legislation on taxi licenses, property taxes and health insurance for spouses of prison guards. But what dominated its agenda was land—deciding what could be built on it and how it could be used.
There was an application for a sidewalk café in the west forties, a measure creating an urban development action area in the Bronx’s Belmont section and a special zoning permit on Kosciuszko Street in Brooklyn. With a rapid set of votes, the City Council executed its role in the city’s multilayered land-use process.
What’s wrong with that process? A lot, according to both developers and the community advocates—the belligerents in many land use battles. On Thursday evening both sides will pitch their ideas for reform to the city’s Charter Revision Commission, which is considering changes to the city’s 400-page constitution.
Thursday’s meeting—to be held at 6 p.m. at the Flushing Branch of the Queens Borough Public Library, located at 41-17 Main Street in Flushing—is the last of five “issues forums” that the commission called to study parts of the charter that might warrant change.
Previous forums covered term limits, voter participation, government structure and public integrity. After Thursday’s hearing—which will be webcast—the commission’s staff is likely to recommend charter changes, which will be the subject of another series of hearings in July and August.
Thursday’s hearing will feature five “expert” witnesses: Hunter College Professor Tom Angotti, land use attorney Paul Selver, Columbia University Professor Vishaan Chakrabarti, Board of Standards and Appeals vice-chair Christopher Collins and David Karnovsky, the general counsel to the Department of City Planning.
But plenty of others have already weighed in on how the city might revise its land use process, which is regulated by the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure or ULURP—the sequence of steps governing zoning changes, the location of capital projects and sales of city property. ULURP grew out of a 1975 charter revision.
The Bar Association has called for shortening the timetable embedded in ULURP. “For the development community, pace and certainty are the most important things,” says Ken Fisher, a former Brooklyn councilman and attorney who represents developers and owners in land use matters and recently stepped down as chair of the Bar’s land use committee. “One of the reasons there are so many stalled sites around the city is that developers raced to catch the market and those that didn’t have their financing in place when the music stopped got stuck. Every one of them wishes they had gotten their building permits faster.”
The Pratt Center for Community Development, on the other hand, believes the flaw in the process is not its pace but its lack of meaningful community engagement. “The shortage of affordable housing despite a glut of condos, overcrowded schools and subways lines, and even a shortage of space for industrial jobs all point to the fact that the city’s decision making process for land use has broken down,” says Adam Friedman, Pratt’s director. The process, he added, “is broken for numerous reasons including the planning department’s failure to capitalize on the expertise of residents who know their neighborhoods better than anyone, and the need to weave together the city’s various objectives into a comprehensive framework.”
This conversation is not new: In May 2007, the Manhattan Institute published a report—authored by Hope Cohen, who sits on the Charter Revision Commission—calling for streamlining the environmental review process for development in New York.
Nor is the land use debate separate from other topics on the Charter Revision Commission’s plate: The argument over whether borough presidents are still relevant, for instance, revolves largely around whether they have too much or not enough power in the land use process. Manhattan BP Scott Stringer, among others, has pushed for beeps to have more sway.
Mayor Bloomberg earlier this month took steps to streamline the environmental review process, like creating a “one-stop shop” for information relating to environmental reviews.
With so many ideas on the table, and so many other issues on the commission’s plate, it’s unclear whether Thursday’s session on land use policy will lead to concrete proposals in the near future, or a second stage of consideration next year. The charter commission has not announced whether it will propose charter changes to the voters this November, or wait until November 2011 or 2012. If it wants to get a proposal on the 2010 ballot, it must finalize language by early September.
“I’m guessing that the commission will tackle term limits and maybe non-partisan voting and punt on everything else unless it’s completely innocuous,” says Fisher. “I’d be surprised if the commission had enough time to fully develop and articulate changes to the land use process this year. “