Making community-based planning a reality in New York City is going to take more than interactive maps, cutting-edge websites and good intentions, elected officials told urban planners in a forum last week.

A new collection of local plans was the spark for an out-loud evaluation of how successful attempts at real bottom-up planning have been. The “Atlas of Community-Based Plans,” to be posted online next month by the Municipal Art Society (MAS), contains satellite maps and proposals for 87 neighborhood blueprints, called “197-a plans,” that have been developed through a local process.

But Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and City Councilwoman Gale Brewer told an MAS audience that political realities are different from the tidy democratic sheen of the Atlas.

“I always feel beaten down. How do you have planned gentrification and not gentrification that just kind of wipes out the neighborhood?” asked Brewer, a Democrat representing the Upper West Side. She suggested residents form strong, local advocacy groups. “I tell people to divide the neighborhood and keep it under control.”

Stringer said the city’s 59 community boards – the typical force behind creation of the 197-a plans (named after that section of the City Charter) – have improved over the past generation, yet still need to be freer of political influence. Stringer said he seeks to make permanent an initiative of his to bring young urban planners into every community board to provide professional guidance. He was critical of some 197-a plans as being naive.

“Some are not as realistic. We have to empower the community board with professional staff,” and teach it how to get the plans accomplished, he said.

“Does it matter if you have an urban planner [on a community board]?” Stringer asked.
“It is a necessity.”

The two spoke at the first in a series of panel discussions called “Creating the City We All Want: A Roadmap,” sponsored by the Campaign for Community-Based Planning, a project of MAS. At the outset of the two-hour discussion, moderated by Pratt Center for Community Development director emeritus Ron Shiffman, MAS planning center director Eve Baron introduced the online interactive map called Atlas, to be available April 15.

“The Atlas is a resource for city agencies and for communities who would like to start their own plans,” Baron said.

Brewer, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Technology in Government, supported the concept. “The public, they want information that is easy to understand. I would like to put a lot more information up for the public,” she said.

Brewer said keeping up-to-date one potentially powerful function of the Atlas, a map that compares the number of community-based plans with development dollars invested through agency capital budgets in each of the city’s 59 community districts, would be difficult. She said to get a true sense of investment in a neighborhood, funding from federal and state agencies should be included as well. “It is a great idea but very resource-intensive,” she said.

Stringer used his handling of the controversy over Columbia University’s expansion into Manhattanville as an example of how to bring the community into the planning process. (See Community Board Reform and the Columbia Process, City Limits Weekly #608, Oct. 9, 2007.) He criticized those who said they could stop the expansion, saying they misled their neighbors.

“It was going to happen. You do a disservice to tell them it is not,” he said. So he traveled the area and sought out what people wanted, “to use the power of land use to make sure the community can win.”

Brewer, who said several times that she was frustrated by the power of developers to override the wishes of the community, urged communities to unite. Her experience seeing large projects advance against the expressed wishes of local residents had left her disheartened, she said, but she did not feel legislators were swayed by campaign donations from real estate interests.

It’s the large projects themselves, as planned, that rely too heavily on developers to finance amenities such as parks, Brewer said.

“(A campaign contribution) doesn’t have the influence. You have this administration and you have these big projects… and you have to have a certain number of developers to pay for the park,” she said. “It is the absolute scale. Something has to pay for the open space and the schools.”

Thomas Lowenhaupt, a former member of Community Board 3 in Queens, asked if Web-based interactive tools such Wikipedia and Wikimapia would influence planning in the city. Brewer said not enough people were familiar with such Internet sites.

“I think most of the community probably does not know what you are talking about,” she said.

But she had a different response to Ken Diamondstone, a former member of Community Board 2 in Brooklyn. He said spot zoning, which gives developers rights to develop more intensely a property in an area with generally lower density, can lead to more development in surrounding parcels.

“The domino effect with spot zoning creates changes that will almost be inevitable,” he said.

“The only way to counter it is create a massive amount of information and organize to stop the spot zoning,” Brewer said.

– Adam Pincus