At a Land Use Committee hearing on Tuesday morning, elected officials and community advocates offered praise and criticism for a bill that would establish an online public database to track the city’s commitments to rezoning neighborhoods. Some said the bill needed to go farther, establishing mechanisms to improve oversight and make those promises enforceable.
The database would include “written commitments” that have been made by the mayor or the mayor’s agencies in relation to any city-initiated land use regulation change that goes through the Uniform Land Use Reform Procedure (ULURP) and is approved by City Council. The bill requires an agency selected by the mayor to manage the database and issue a report on June 30 of every year detailing the city’s progress on each commitment.
For instance, while negotiating the rezoning plan for East New York with local stakeholders, the de Blasio administration made a number of promises that go beyond the zoning changes legally approved by City Council, including the development of 1300 units of affordable housing on publically owned land, the creation of a $12 million fund to support small home repairs and basement legalization, and other benefits.
Mayor de Blasio has already promised to create a public database tracking the commitments made to each rezoning neighborhood. Jon Kaufman, Chief Operating Officer at the Department of City Planning (DCP) said on Tuesday that the agency is assisting the Mayor’s Office of Operations to establish such a database, which they hope to launch immediately following the passage of Intro 1132.
“We are whole heartedly supportive of creating a commitment tracker,” Kaufman said. “Historically, we are aware that plans that increase new housing capacity have sometimes been approved without fully securing the investment in corresponding infrastructure. We’re doing a few things differently to address this.”
He mentioned that in addition to the commitment tracker, the administration has launched the $1 billion Neighborhood Development Fund devoted solely to capital improvements in rezoning neighborhoods, and has been working more closely with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to ensure rezoning areas receive appropriate capital investments.
DCP is also highlighting its updated website for the East New York rezoning plan: the agency has created a map of the neighborhood linked to all its strategies and promises. The website also provides updates about upcoming public visioning sessions at which residents will work out the details of future projects.
What’s in a promise? What is a promise?
Many details of Intro 1132 have yet to be defined, however, and City Council members were eager to hear from both Kaufman and the public to refine the bill. Public Advocate Letitia James, one of the lead sponsors of Intro 1132, wanted to know how the mayor’s office intended to define “commitments” in its forthcoming database, whether promises made by private developers would also be tracked, and how City Council would object if it disagreed with the mayor’s commitment list.
Kaufman said the database would report on “trackable” city-initiated projects; he said promises made by private developers would be too difficult to enforce. He also said the city would provide timelines to explain when projects would be completed. City Planning officials do not expect there will be disagreements between City Council and the administration about what constitutes a “commitment,” as commitments would have been clearly outlined in writing over the course of the planning process.
Councilmember Brad Lander said that in addition to the tracking tool, which would only take effect after the Council approved a zoning change, the city should produce comprehensive plans describing all the city’s non-zoning commitments and make them available to community advocates earlier in the public engagement process.
“I believe it could help [Intro 1132] be much more useful as a planning and engagement tool, in addition to what it is already said to do, which is [providing] overtime commitment tracking,” Lander said.
While Kaufman responded that it was difficult for agencies to make definite commitments in advance of the end of the negotiation process, Lander said several agencies had already done just that in East New York, providing drafts of their plans earlier on, followed by a final document at the end of negotiations.
Advocates dream bigger
During a public comment session, advocates said that after years of broken promises, the bill was a step forward.
“Our neighborhoods—the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfronts—are, sadly, Exhibit A for why this legislation is necessary,” said Ward Dennis, board member of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth and a member of Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park.
Dennis mentioned a variety of commitments, from the creation of parkland to affordable housing, that the city has yet to fulfill, and said it’s difficult to hold agencies accountable because commitments are “scattered throughout EISs, EASs, and CBAs” (Environmental Impact Statements, Environmental Assessment Statements and Community Benefit Agreements). He called for the passage of the bill, along with measures that would ensure new development only goes forward if promises are kept.
Eleven groups, including the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, the Pratt Center for Community Development, and community organizers in rezoning neighborhoods like the Flushing, Bronx, and East New York, submitted a proposal that raised a number of issues with Intro 1132.
They say the proposal does not make clear how the city would define “commitments,” does not specify how the commitments would be enforced, and makes no efforts to hold private developers accountable. In additional testimony, Pratt Center for Community Development director Adam Friedman said he thought the process for compiling all the commitments made throughout a rezoning process “is likely not as straightforward as it would appear” and called for clearer guidelines.
The coalition had its own proposal for a “comprehensive and coordinated approach to documenting, monitoring, overseeing and enforcing all public and private commitments made during the rezoning process.” It includes the creation of a new mayoral office to coordinate all the agencies involved in a rezoning, enforce commitments and timelines, and propose solutions if problems arise. It would work in conjunction with “monitoring committees” made of local neighborhoods stakeholders—that would meet with agencies to track the progress of the city’s commitments.
The new mayoral office would track not only the completion of tangible projects, but also the area’s progress toward a variety of “goals and benchmarks” based on the community’s professed priorities for their neighborhood, such as improved health outcomes. To assess the impact of the rezoning and progress toward such goals, the office would keep track of a variety of metrics including employment rates, racial demographics, share of non-English speakers, and the change in the number of affordable units. Instead of providing only annual updates, it would offer real-time tracking of neighborhood data.
“The passage of this legislation would be an important first step—establishing transparency, and ensuing that commitments and agreements made during a rezoning are tracked and monitored adequately,” testified Jonathan Furlong of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. “However, we urge the council to build on this legislation with additional measures to ensure accountability for and enforcement of the city’s commitments.”