Amid the rubble of September 11, the idea that the former site of the World Trade Center must be redeveloped under speedier environmental reviews quickly became popular with leading voices for rapid, large-scale reconstruction, from WTC operator Larry Silverstein to the editorial page of the Daily News. Now, just weeks before the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) is set to release its development guidelines, a leading civic group seeking to give the public a voice in the rebuilding process is also on the verge of supporting fast-track redevelopment.
Last week, the Civic Alliance, a coalition convened by the Regional Plan Association to influence downtown rebuilding, discussed proposals that call for any eventual legal challenges to redevelopment plans to go directly up to the appellate level of state court, instead of the usual point of entry, State Supreme Court.
The idea is that cutting out one stage of legal review could speed up rebuilding significantly. “Judicial review at the three tiers of the legal system can take three years,” said David Paget, a lawyer who represents developers seeking land use and environmental approvals and who is on the Civic Alliance working group weighing the proposals. Paget says that since the initial administrative review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) and other laws can themselves take several years, “the question is, are there measures that could be adopted that could render that process more efficient and less time-consuming?”
But reactions from urban planners, lawyers and other community-oriented members of the Civic Alliance range from anxious to furious. SEQRA and other government review laws call not only for consideration of impacts on air, water, and the rest of the natural environment, but they also subject to scrutiny a development project’s stresses on physical infrastructure (such as sewage treatment and transportation) as well as noise and other potential nuisances to residents and workers in the area. The critics’ greatest concern is that emergency WTC regulatory changes will set a precedent for fast-track environmental review, without ensuring meaningful public input up front.
“A lot of people see SEQRA as a costly and time-consuming process, and I basically agree with that,” said Eva Hanhardt of the Municipal Art Society, which is a Civic Alliance member. “But I’m hesitant about using this kind of tragic moment, so that we don’t in a rush make major changes to processes that will not only affect all parts of a city, but also over a long period of time.” Hanhardt also points out that a speedy development process might not lend itself to thorough disclosures of environmental hazards, which are known to exist at and near the WTC site but have not been completely documented or abated.
Some of the skepticism has to do with the interests of those advocating for faster review. The working group is co-chaired by Deborah Beck of the Real Estate Board of New York, whose members, some of the largest builders in the city, stand to benefit significantly from less onerous regulation on their development plans. (Since the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation has jurisdiction over all of downtown, any changes in environmental regulations could apply to an area much larger than the WTC site.)
A similar committee at the Bar Association, whose members have been advising the Civic Alliance group as well as the LMDC, is headed by Stephen Kass, who represented the New York Power Authority in its law-bending efforts to get permits for temporary waterfront power generators. And, the most widely cited proposal to alter the review process was drafted by respected environmental attorney Michael Gerrard, who has since been hired by Silverstein to advise the developer on environmental matters related to WTC reconstruction.