Tests Loom for De Blasio’s Approach to Community Planning

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Carmen Vega-Rivera, a tenant leader with Community Action for Safe Apartments, and Wayne Moten, a trade-union member and local resident, address an early August meeting about the pending Jerome rezoning.

Adi Talwar

Carmen Vega-Rivera, a tenant leader with Community Action for Safe Apartments, and Wayne Moten, a trade-union member and local resident, address an early August meeting about the pending Jerome rezoning.

After a rush of activity culminating in last spring’s approval of the sweeping Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability reforms to the city’s zoning code, the approval of the rezoning of East New York, and the withdrawal of the city’s plan to rezone Flushing West, the summer of 2016 has been a quiet one for the neighborhoods Mayor de Blasio’s housing initiative intends to revamp.

That quiet, though, could soon be broken in a big way. De Blasio has announced plans to rezone as many as fourteen city neighborhoods — a step that the mayor says is needed to ease the city’s housing crisis, but some neighborhood residents fear it will only grease the skids for gentrification — with the first of those to kick off as soon as this month, along the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx. And with it will come important tests for the administration’s much-touted promises to increase community input into the city’s land-use policy, and for community groups’ attempts to make the city put its money where its mouth is.

It’s not a new question. Ever since 1975, when the city created a new land-use process to counter the top-down approach to planning practiced by Robert Moses, there have been promises that the involvement of community boards, of community-designed plans, and of city-led visioning sessions would usher in a new era of neighborhood-led redevelopment. Time again, the results have been disappointing, leading residents of targeted neighborhoods to wonder: Will it be any different this time?

Department of City Planning director Purmina Kapur, a 13-year veteran of the agency, says she understands the fears, and hopes to assuage them. “One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is that we need to be out there listening first,” she says. “We are not going into any of these areas with pre-baked plans.” Rather, she says, the city sees its role as providing data, and starting a “dialogue about what the potential future is, and how can we harness what is happening there already to actually benefit the community that is there today.”

Reacting to the R-word

Nowhere is the concern about the possible negative impact of rezoning more acute than along the two-mile stretch of Jerome Avenue along the elevated 4 line tracks that de Blasio declared two years ago would be upzoned to add more housing to an area dominated by light industry. Though the announced goal was to provide more affordable housing, some locals reacted with trepidation, recalling upzonings under the Bloomberg administration that left unrecognizable neighborhoods in their wake from downtown Brooklyn to Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

When Carmen Vega-Rivera, a tenant leader with Community Action for Safe Apartments, first learned in 2014 of the city’s plans for the area along Jerome Avenue running from just north of Yankee Stadium up into University Heights, she recalls her response was “What do you mean there’s a rezoning?” The city had begun convening meetings with selected community leaders, she says, but despite her longtime tenant advocacy and work at the Bronx Museum of the Arts four blocks from Jerome Avenue, “I didn’t get invited by anyone. I heard that they were inviting community board members, nonprofit directors — they were inviting people that were going to make decisions about what we needed without understanding that they had no idea what the needs were.”

To counter complaints about top-down planning, the de Blasio administration has ramped up community input procedures, focusing especially on “visioning sessions” where government officials lead small-group discussions to solicit recommendations from community members, on everything from rezonings to the planned BQX waterfront streetcar. Reviews on the ground, however, have been mixed, with many attendees complaining that facilitators were more interested in having participants fill in the blanks for a predesigned plan, and selectively reporting back suggestions that better fit the city’s goals.

At the initial city-led meetings, though “they wouldn’t let us talk,” says Vega-Rivera. “It was the city making their push for what they were going to be doing and why they were going to do it.” In response, CASA and other local groups, including the Latino Pastoral Action Center, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, and Mothers on the Move, decided to take matters into their own hands. Says Vega-Rivera, “That was the birth of the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision”

A plan of their own

One legacy of the troubled history of city rezonings is that rather than trust in the official land-use process, community leaders are increasingly taking planning matters into their own hands. When East Harlem was shortlisted last year as another of de Blasio’s rezoning targets, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes that neighborhood, stepped in to seize control of the planning process. The speaker convened a group that included Community Board 11, the low-income membership group Community Voices Heard and Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer’s office to gather its own information on community concerns. (Brooklyn councilmember Brad Lander has launched a similar project, dubbed Bridging Gowanus, to prepare for a possible rezoning in his own district.)

In February, the Manhattan groups released the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, which includes a comprehensive list of recommendations like improving schools, building more affordable housing and preventing destabilization of apartments.

“One thing for me that’s really important is [the affordable housing] has to be in perpetuity,” says Sandra Rivera, an East Harlem native and Community Voices Heard member who took part in the community planning process kicked off by Mark-Viverito. She notes that several affordable East Harlem buildings erected during the Koch administration are now seeing their affordability requirements expire, leading to a spate of Airbnb conversions — “I noticed all these people coming in and out with suitcases, and I was like, ‘What are these white people doing in these buildings?'”

Along Jerome Avenue, the newly formed Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision set up its own series of four visioning sessions, augmented by written community surveys. Since the serpentine rezoning district mapped out by City Planning touched on 14 separate neighborhoods, instead of presenting a comprehensive plan like the one developed in East Harlem, the coalition issued a policy platform statement that focused on broad principles and sweeping legislative changes from affordable housing (demanding that half of all new housing to be set aside for families earning under $27,000 a year) to anti-displacement provisions as well as more far-ranging initiatives like “landlord licenses” that would grade landlords and deny them the right to purchase or build new buildings if they scored too low.

It’s a laundry list of concerns far more expansive than typically addressed by rezoning, which is both its strength and weakness. On the one hand, requiring citywide action against displacement holds open the possibility of addressing some of the most troublesome effects of rezoning, such as secondary displacement when property owners on blocks outside the zoned area proper decide to jack up rents, counting on spillover popularity from being close to new construction. On the other, it has the same pitfalls as the wide-ranging discussions at visioning sessions critiqued by community activists: Without some way of implementing these provisions, they become merely wish lists that can be largely discarded at ULURP time.

Who’s afraid of ULURP?

Hunter College urban affairs professor and former city planning official Tom Angotti, who has been one of the most vocal critics of the rezoning process, praises the East Harlem organizers for coming up with a good plan — but is still concerned that “it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.” Many of the included demands, he notes, rely on City Council action outside of the rezoning process, whether through new legislation or promises of additional capital spending. “You can put anything in the capital budget, but the chances of it staying in there are slim,” he scoffs. “By the time some of these things get done, the displacement has already occurred.”

In some ways, notes Angotti, community groups in the west Bronx and East Harlem are reinventing the wheel. Starting in 1989, the city allowed communities to write “197-a” plans (named for the new city charter provision that authorized them) to propose broader planning goals than those specifically included in a rezoning. East Harlem’s Community Board 11 wrote its own 197-a plan in 1999. The 197-a movement reached its apex in 2002, when a wide-ranging plan was adopted for Williamsburg and Greenpoint — only to be set aside by City Hall.

“Williamsburg spent over a decade developing their plan,” recounts Angotti. “They wanted development, but they wanted it contextual and keeping with the existing Williamsburg. They presented it to city planning, and after two years of getting nickeled and dimed on every word and phrase, it passed the City Planning Commission.” The final document as adopted specified that waterfront development would be limited to “contextual” housing no taller than what was already there, plus some retail and light manufacturing.

Two years later, says Angotti, “the city planning department comes up with a zoning proposal, and it’s luxury highrises on the waterfront.” And because 197-a plans, like the independent plans come up with for East Harlem and Jerome Avenue, don’t have the force of law, there was nothing that the community planners could do to overrule the rezoning — resulting in the wall of luxury housing that makes up the Williamsburg waterfront today, and which helped spawn a wave of gentrification that now spreads across the neighborhood and into Bushwick.

A new map?

The city’s struggle to encourage redevelopment without running roughshod over community desires date back to the 1970s, when good-government advocates succeeded in getting the city to implement a new structure for land-use decisions: the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. ULURP, as it quickly became known, established a 9-month clock during which all redevelopment plans would have to clear set public hurdles — approval by the local community board, the borough president, the city planning commission, and the city council — before it would become law.

Unfortunately, problems with ULURP soon emerged. Most significantly, the one step that promised the best opportunity for ground-up input — the community board vote — was only advisory, leading to a long series of prominent projects that were approved even after community boards voted them down, including the new Yankee Stadium built in a public Bronx park, the Williamsburg waterfront rezoning, and de Blasio’s mandatory inclusionary housing plan itself.

And the public document that was supposed to ensure that any ill effects were mitigated — the environmental impact statement — often brushed over those issues instead of actually addressing them. In April, the Bronx Coalition sent a letter to City Planning asking that the scope of the Jerome Avenue EIS be expanded to thoroughly examine impacts on all the neighborhoods adjacent to Jerome Avenue, not just the rezoned corridor itself. “Above all,” they wrote, “we urge the City to examine not just the extent to which the proposed Jerome Ave. rezoning may advance the city’s overall policy goals, including the Housing New York plan, but also how much the rezoning advances these local goals.”

Today, of course, there’s a different sheriff in town than there was 14 years ago when Williamsburg and Greenpoint were rezoned. It’s something that community-plan advocates say gives them at least a glimmer of hope that the city can be influenced by concerted neighborhood organizing this time around.

While she notes that “it’s a very arduous task” to keep on top of all the community board actions and council hearings currently, let alone when the ULURP process begins in earnest for East Harlem next year, Rivera feels that just having the East Harlem document in place is a powerful tool — so long as the community members who drew up the demands stay active in calling political leaders to account for their actions. “The fact that we’re witnessing means they have to be accountable,” she says.

Still, progress has been slow, and community leaders know that getting on the city’s agenda will involve more than just issuing policy proposals. After the Bronx coalition’s April letter to City Planning highlighting their top four “non-negotiable” demands — new anti-displacement strategies, housing at rents affordable to current community members, local hiring, and accountability to community members — it took three months to get a meeting with city officials. And even then, says Rivera-Vega, city representatives were noncommittal about what they would support, saying they were limited by the State Environmental Quality Review law in what they could include in any EIS.

The first real test could come as soon as this month, when the city is expected to issue a scoping document to indicate what will — and won’t — be addressed in any Jerome Avenue rezoning. A full scoping hearing, the first step in ULURP, is scheduled for September 29.

“I think the proof is going to be in the pudding, and we started baking that with the work we are doing,” says Kapur. She points to the $1 billion Neighborhood Development Fund that the mayor has inserted into the capital budget, which she says is already slated to be used to add a new school, park improvements, and other non-zoning improvements to East New York. “We started allocating that money in capital budget, and we want the community to hold us accountable to that.”

That accountability could be put to the test soon: The draft EIS scope for Jerome Avenue is expected to be released later this month. If the main points of the coalition plan aren’t incorporated in the rezoning scope, says Rivera-Vega, “we’re going to do everything in our power to stop it — we don’t want them here. Mi casa no es su casa.”

City Limits’ coverage of housing policy is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation and the New York Community Trust

3 thoughts on “Tests Loom for De Blasio’s Approach to Community Planning

  1. If deBlasio wants to better the lives of working New Yorkers, he should have vetoed the Brad Lander Nickel Fee on each of our shopping bags. In the long run, this accomplishes nothing for the environment as shoppers will be using stronger and heavier plastic bags which will never disintegrate.

    Since deBlasio and the city council lacks common sense, why hasn’t the State Assembly voted on the bill passed by the State Senate which overrode Lander’s Nickel Bag Fee?

  2. But of course the city goes in with “pre-baked plans”, regardless of Purmina Kapur claim otherwise.
    The pre-baked plan is to shoehorn in large residential buildings so the mayor can claim he has achieved his housing unit count goals. It doesn’t matter how inappropriate the sites and the land scape may be, not that the housing type DeBlasio ad his developer friends are building don’t create the kind of working communities the people of this city know are right for people, the “pre-baked plans” put these inappropriate high-rise housing structures at the top of any priority list, rand will never allow the community to suggest, let alone voice a planning perspective that embraces any other set of priorities.

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