Phil dePaolo, an activist who opposed the 2005 rezoning of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Both neighborhoods completed community plans earlier in the decade that were substantially contradicted by the zoning changes the city enacted.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

Phil dePaolo, an activist who opposed the 2005 rezoning of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Both neighborhoods completed community plans earlier in the decade that were substantially contradicted by the zoning changes the city enacted.

The first one was in Forest Hills: 61 blocks. East Harlem was next: 57 blocks. Then Morrisania, in the Bronx. Next, Bridge Plaza, in Brooklyn. Soon it would happen in Park Slope, City Island, Bayside, Dyker Heights, Throgs Neck, Fort Greene, North Riverdale, Astoria, and across virtually all of Staten Island. At one point during the Bloomberg administration’s nine-year spree of 108 rezonings, community activist Phil DePaolo heard one frustrated cop at a public hearing remark, “It’s like a fucking revolving door with these rezonings.”

Since 2002, New York City has rezoned 9,400 blocks, changing the regulations governing the way land is used (residential? commercial? manufacturing?), the style and height of buildings, the size of yards and the distance between houses. “There’s really been a sea change over the last decade,” says Paul Graziano, a community planner. “Back in the ’80s, under Koch, and even into the ’90s they would do a five-block rezoning and say it took them five years to do it and it’s the largest rezoning they’ve ever done and it’s amazing.” The current administration makes those past efforts look comical. Since Bloomberg became mayor, the city has rezoned 18 percent of the city—an area comparable to the entirety of San Francisco or Boston. On one rezoning, Graziano began talking to City Planning in 1999, during the Giuliani years. “I met with City Planning in 2000, 2001, and they thought it was interesting. But nothing really happened until Amanda Burden got there.”

Burden, who carries the honor of being a fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners, has sat on the City Planning Commission for 20 years and was named its chair—and the head of the Department of City Planning—15 days into Bloomberg’s first term. She says the rezonings “are setting the conditions for sustainable, transit-oriented growth” and are “designed to accommodate a population of 9 million New Yorkers projected by 2030.”

Ken Fisher, a former city councilman who now represents developers going through the land use process, says Burden has left a distinctive imprint on the city. “Amanda Burden has been empowered by the mayor to raise the quality of design. She’s notoriously detail-oriented. It doesn’t mean that they always get everything right, but it’s forced developers that have come before her and city agencies to raise their game,” he says. The RPA’s Bob Yaro concurs. “There’s been a stronger focus on urban design than at any time since the Lindsay administration,” he says.

Indeed, zoning under Burden has charted new territory— inclusionary zoning that gives developers the right to build larger structures if they create affordable housing, bonuses for builders who protect cultural institutions, provisions to encourage bike racks, neighborhood grocery stores and waterfront development. But as impressive as the roster of rezonings and accomplishments is, the sheer number raises a question: Is there a consistent idea behind what City Planning has done in Riverdale and in Stapleton, Staten Island, in Douglaston of eastern Queens and at Hudson Yards in Manhattan’s far west?

The city says it is pursuing “transit-oriented development”— encouraging growth in areas near transit lines and curtailing it in areas that are car-dependent. But the recent Furman Center report finds that while about three-quarters of the areas where City Planning has allowed more growth are near transit, a quarter aren’t. And more than half of the areas downzoned had good links to transit.

Fisher thinks there is a slightly different idea at work: “The Bloomberg administration has a philosophy that recruitment and retention of talent is key to the city’s economic development and that the way to do that is by giving that talent places to live, play and work, and so a lot of the waterfront development is driven by that.”

Melinda Katz, now a land use lawyer in private practice, became chair of the City Council’s powerful Land Use Committee at around the time Burden took over City Planning. She says the Sept. 11 attacks of just four months earlier fueled a feeling that the city needed to act. “We had to do something in order to move the city’s economy along. One of the greatest memories I have was this unspoken realization for my community that we needed to promote faith and confidence in the city of New York for business, development and tourism from countries all around the world,” Katz recalls. “We felt that land use could be a great tool for promoting that confidence. If the rest of the world saw we were active not only in security but also looking at land use, that would send a message that New York was safe for business.”

That focus meant different things for different neighborhoods. In September 2003, when the city announced the downzoning of 40 percent of Staten Island’s residential lots, Bloomberg expressed his concern for the survival of “tree-lined streets and suburban-style family homes.” So he “directed the City Planning Department to work closely with the borough president to make sure these applications proceed quickly through the review process.”

But residents of other neighborhoods—like Williamsburg, Greenpoint, 125th Street, Jamaica, and other areas that were not downzoned but instead targeted for increased density—did not get their communities preserved. It’s true that different policies make sense in different neighborhoods. But the Furman Center found a pattern that at least raises questions: Areas that got downzoned—like most of Staten Island— were whiter and wealthier than areas that got upzoned, like 125th Street and Jamaica.

“Most of the issues that are taken up in zoning are really to accommodate developers’ visions of how the city should be growing,” says Columbia University professor Elliott Sclar. “The only time communities have a shot,” he says, is “when developers don’t have their eyes on a particular project.”

New York passed its first zoning resolution— a document describing what can be built on every square foot of the city—in 1916, becoming the first city in the world to apply zoning on a citywide basis. Other cities soon followed New York’s lead. Developers chafed at the intrusion onto their private property rights. One builder, the Ambler Realty Co., sued the village of Euclid, Ohio, to challenge the municipality’s zoning rules as an unconstitutional “taking.” The U.S. Supreme Court sided with the village, and zoning has enjoyed authority ever since.

By the 1950s, architecture critics and builders in New York began to complain about the strictures of the 1916 rules, which contributed to the “wedding cake” look of many of New York’s older buildings: To build higher under the 1916 rules, builders had to set back the upper floors, so that buildings looked like cake layers stacked one atop another. There was a desire for the new, international style of skyscraper—a sleek, soaring rectangle set in a plaza. And while some groaned about the confines of the 1916 rules, others worried about their looseness: The 1916 zoning theoretically would have permitted building to house 55 million people (about as many people as live in modern-day South Africa). So in 1961, the city revised the entire zoning resolution.

That 1961 regime is still in place, although it has certainly evolved. It has been amended more than 250 times just since 1993. Some of those tweaks are the neighborhood-specific zonings, like the 108 so far under Bloomberg and Burden. But other changes apply citywide—to all balconies, for example, or transient hotels, the waterfront, adult establishments or sidewalk cafés.

On the City Planning website, Burden says that the recent rezonings are anchored by “comprehensive urban design master plans.” But some planners dispute that description.

Zoning, they say, is chiefly a regulatory device; it just says what can and can’t be built. The private market dictates what actually gets built, which is fine, except that the private real estate market can’t provide everything a neighborhood needs. “Planning is about more than the physical,” says the Pratt Center’s Eve Baron. “You have to have not only a building for people to live in but day care, schools, all those sorts of services.” Transportation infrastructure, parks, health care—all these are what goes into a real comprehensive plan. New York has never taken a comprehensive approach to planning. The 1811 Commissioner’s Plan—which set in place the width of Manhattan cross streets and avenues still seen today—was purely physical, and it so narrowly focused on real estate development that it neglected to provide more than a few small parks in the nearly 10-mile span between the Battery and 155th Street.

Some cities took a different tack. The Plan of Chicago in 1909 laid out streets but also plotted where cultural facilities and parks should go. In the 1920s, the U.S. Department of Commerce drafted two laws for states to adopt comprehensive planning. Today, 24 states have some comprehensive planning regime, and at least 10—California, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington—require cities to create such plans. Some, like California, require all local laws to conform with a local plan covering stuff like land use, housing and open space.

Take Miami’s comprehensive plan, created in 1989. The most recent update and review of the plan—published in 2004—reveals both breadth and specificity. It details changes in the city’s demography and population, describes challenges associated with poverty and economic development, and then analyzes how specific city policies have adhered to the comprehensive plan’s language on land use, housing, parks, sewers, ports, airports and natural resources. Every goal is tracked precisely, down to the location of new affordable housing and where deficient roadways were repaired.

Similar attempts at comprehensive plans have been tried in New York. They failed. Robert Moses personally defeated efforts in 1939 and 1950. Most spectacularly, in 1969, the Lindsay administration actually prepared a master plan, but it went nowhere. Had New York planned comprehensively for its future in the early part of the 20th century, “you could have had farmland protected—one of the things we’re regretting today. You could have had more concentrated development around subway lines. You could have had the city’s social infrastructure coordinated with land development,” says Hunter College’s Tom Angotti. Manhattan might have been made less dense.

“We would have ended up with a city with far more equitable development,” says Ron Shiffman, an urban design professor at the Pratt Institute. “Some of our burdensome facilities would have been distributed equitably through the city rather than overwhelming certain communities. I think the city would probably have more of a balance of jobs.”

The city’s failure to plan in the past would be little more than historical trivia—were it not for the fact that, advocates say, the city still isn’t planning.

The City Charter charges the City Planning Commission with “the conduct of planning relating to the orderly growth, improvement and future development of the city, including adequate and appropriate resources for the housing, business, industry, transportation, distribution, recreation, culture, comfort, convenience, health and welfare of its population.” That’s not what’s happening.

“The charter puts the City Planning Commission in charge of long-term comprehensive planning, but that commission has come to narrow its focus to reviews of individual proposals for zoning map changes put forth by property holders and the Department of City Planning,” Elena Conte, an organizer at the Pratt Center, told the Charter Revision Commission this summer. “The absence of comprehensive planning leaves New York City without the foundation for sound future growth. Neighborhoods pay the price when development overloads their streets, schools and services. Government agencies do not know where their resources will be needed. When communities attempt their own planning … they have no way to connect their efforts with the city’s own plans. And developers themselves have little certainty that infrastructure and services will be adequate to support their projects.”

On Earth Day 2007, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled PlaNYC, his pioneering proposal for creating a sustainable city. Impressive in presentation and rich with detail in describing the challenges facing New York—a growing population, rising seas, dwindling energy supplies and more—PlaNYC called for a menu of policies to address them, from controlling sewage releases to expanding bus service, reclaiming unused waterfront territory to facilitating new natural-gas infrastructure. Bloomberg wasn’t the first to talk about sustainability, but he was the first to make government a prominent player in bringing it about. “It’s really changed the way New York City is,” says one member of the team that produced PlaNYC. “For better or worse, we have lots more bike lanes. For better or worse, we have seating areas. They’re putting things back on the pedestrian level. This is the first time America has done something like this, and it’s happening in New York City.”

While not all-encompassing— PlaNYC says little to nothing, for instance, about freight—it is remarkably comprehensive, collecting under the umbrella of sustainability everything from affordable housing to open space to energy transmission. And it has invigorated the city’s offices. “There’s been a lot of unique thinking that has permeated city agencies, including City Planning,” says Shiffman. “Things that the department was not cognizant of or was opposed to 10 years ago, suddenly, they’re willing to talk about.” This has led to real-world achievements: converting much of the taxi fleet to hybrid, planting 350,000 trees and launching 20 pilot projects to keep storm water out of the sewer system.

There’s just one problem with PlaNYC: It’s not a plan.

“I think it’s been a very important contribution, but I don’t think it’s a substitute for the kind of comprehensive planning that is usually thought of as part of a land use process,” says Professor Vicki Been of NYU’s Furman Center. A comprehensive plan “would normally say, ‘Here are areas that are underdeveloped and could take more growth, and here are areas that are at their max,’ ” Been adds. “PlaNYC tells you we want a more sustainable city, a city where everyone is 15 minutes from a park. But it doesn’t tell you, ‘This area needs growth, this area doesn’t need growth.’ “

Ironically, PlaNYC was never intended to be what its name implies. “It’s supposed to be an agenda, and that’s what it is,” says the former PlaNYC staffer. “We made a mistake by calling it a plan. Plan means something to people that we didn’t understand at the time. We thought it was a cute name. But planners kept telling us, ‘That’s not a real plan.’ It wasn’t supposed to be. That’s not what we were doing.”

A specific plan—one linked to city policies, specific places and actual budget dollars—was possible, “but there was a deliberate decision not to do that,” says Pratt’s Eve Baron. “At that point, there was no sense that there would be a third term,” she says. “Everyone was very conscious of the time constraints.” Indeed, a countdown clock in the mayor’s City Hall bullpen reminded people of their dwindling time in office. And in the background was the ever present speculation, encouraged by some at City Hall, that Bloomberg wanted to run for president in 2008.

The path the mayor took did produce a landmark document for the environmental movement. But it did not create any formal links between those noble sentiments and the zoning decisions going forward at City Planning or the investments being made by the city’s Economic Development Corp. Some of those entities’ decisions reinforced PlaNYC. But others—downzoning transit-served neighborhoods in a city crying out for affordable housing, building an excess of parking garages at the new Yankee Stadium and Gateway Center in the Bronx, adding tens of thousands of residents to the sewage and transit infrastructure around Atlantic Yards—did not.

The lack of a comprehensive plan in New York has placed a heavy burden on the system the city uses for making land-use policy. It’s called ULURP, short for Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, and it accomplishes the significant feat of pleasing almost no one—mainly because it’s not built to be as comprehensive as people want it to be.

Much of the trouble begins before ULURP does, in a period known as precertification. This is when a developer has to gather all the paperwork that City Planning requires—and, in many cases, complete an environmental impact statement, or EIS. For the simplest project, like the building of a small school, an EIS takes three to six months. The review of more complicated proposals can take years. Creating the EIS itself is costly for a developer, but the bigger financial risk to builders is that construction costs will increase drastically or economic conditions change markedly while the environmental review process plays out.

One reason for how long these reviews take is the laundry list of considerations each EIS has to make: traffic, transit, pedestrian movement, air quality, water purity, open space, shadows, housing, noise, neighborhood character, socioeconomic effects. The litany of items considered, says land use lawyer Fisher, goes to the absurd. “A leaf falls on a lake in California and [an EIS] consultant has a new task in the Bronx,” Fisher says. “A lot of it is litigation-driven.”

Linh Do, a senior vice president at AKRF, the firm that dominates the EIS world in New York, concurs: “New York City is very informed. The communities, they’re very savvy. The environmental document becomes more than an environmental document. You’re fearful of litigation. You want to cover your bases.” This caution contributes to the length of the process and the report.

But length is just one problem. Because they apply arbitrary criteria provided by the city, some EISs seem to downplay obvious concerns. The proposal to rezone industrial areas in Williamsburg to residential, for instance, was determined to have no significant impact on business displacement in the area. Building 5,000 apartments in Jamaica was deemed to represent no significant adverse impact on subway crowding. And the Yankee Stadium plan that obliterated a huge city park, to be replaced at public expense over a number of years by a collection of smaller parks, was said to have no significant adverse impact on open space.

And even if an EIS finds that a project is going to have an adverse impact, it does not mean that a developer will be compelled to fix the problem. What’s more, community critics note an inherent conflict: The firms that prepare EISs are paid either by the developers or by the city agency facilitating the project. Would the EIS consultant really publish something that its client didn’t like?

Edward Applebome, the president of AKRF (which with its subcontractors has, over the years, collected at least $10 million in fees from the city for environmental reviews) acknowledges that developers are likely to choose his firm because, “we’ve had a history of working with them. They’re comfortable working with us.” But he argues that if his firm rigged an EIS to downplay some environmental harm, it would only expose the developer or agency to a lawsuit—precisely what AKRF is supposed to protect its clients from.

The deeper problem with EISs, says Applebome, is not the EIS. It’s the fact that the environmental review becomes a battleground for all the strong feelings around controversial projects. “It carries the water for a lot of discussion,” he says.

In an attempt to defuse some of the strong feelings that swirled around one of the most controversial recent projects, the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, developer Forest City Ratner in 2005 cut a deal with potential community opponents: The community groups got affordable housing and local construction jobs. FCRC got their support for the project.

Ratner’s allies were anchored by ACORN, the now defunct community-organizing group that had years earlier picketed a Ratner project for failing to hire locally. The bargain struck between Ratner and ACORN was called a community benefits agreement (CBA), and it was the first major one in New York City. Among other things, it pledged that 50 percent of the 4,500 units of rental housing that were to be associated with the project would be affordable and that Ratner would make “good faith efforts” to guide 35 percent of construction contracts to minority-owned firms, and another 10 percent to women-owned companies.

Other deals followed. The Related Companies made promises to the community around its new Gateway Center in the Bronx, which displaced small businesses in order to create a chain-store-dominated mall. Columbia University signed a CBA with groups near its development site in West Harlem, where it contemplated using eminent domain to take over residential and industrial lots for a new research campus. The Yankees pledged community benefits when they built a new stadium using $1.4 billion in public subsidies.

Some CBAs do deliver some benefits. According to a recent report by a task force appointed by City Comptroller John Liu, Atlantic Yards has exceeded targets for hiring minority contractors. The community partner of the Gateway Center says it has set up nutrition and job-training programs for local residents. And Columbia has made at least $1.55 million in required payments to a CBA fund.

But there’s no independent monitor of the Yankees CBA plan. The nonprofit that was supposed to be administering the benefits fund at the Gateway project was sued for diverting money from the developer to its own salaries, not community benefits. The vehicle for CBA funding in West Harlem was slow getting its incorporation papers prepared. And at Atlantic Yards, the number of promised affordable units, which will be publicly subsidized, will most likely be smaller than estimated, take longer than initially projected and serve households making more than the average local family.

These case-by-case flaws hint at larger problems. It is unclear that CBAs are legally enforceable: If a developer tries to back out, what can community groups really do to force him to comply? There is often no mechanism for monitoring compliance. And who gets to represent the community, community boards or independent groups that might not reflect an entire neighborhood and could benefit financially by becoming the conduit for a developer’s community payments?

“Accountability and potential conflicts of interest are an issue for many of the community benefit agreements,” read the report by Liu’s task force. “Benefit agreements are an unfortunate byproduct of the city’s failure to develop solutions for problems that demand a comprehensive citywide approach. Benefit agreements also arise because the city doesn’t effectively plan for its neighborhoods and insufficiently considers community needs. Rezoning applications that support major new development move forward without adequate provisions for public schools, transit and other essential supports.”

A report from the New York City Bar Association earlier this year came to a similar conclusion as Liu’s panel. “On the one hand, it’s good for residents to be engaged in decisions affecting their neighborhood. On the other, there can often be the perception of ‘zoning for sale,’ ” it read, adding that “communities that have strict regulations that are waived in exchange for benefits may lose sight of genuine land use goals, leaving the community unprotected.”

Environmental reviews and community benefits both try to bridge the gap between the planning that communities want and the limitations of the ULURP system. Not surprisingly, they both fail. As the bar association concluded, “The current ad hoc approach is sending mixed signals to both the community and developers.”

Replacing that ad hoc approach won’t be easy. There are reasons New York has never engaged in comprehensive planning. One is that in New York, planning, policy and purse strings have often been separated: City Planning used to be able to direct city capital expenditures but it no longer has that power. And while Planning still controls the land, DOT runs the streets, the MTA operates the subways and buses, and the Port Authority, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and other independent players oversee other important assets.

Another is that the real estate industry, always a powerful actor in New York, has generally preferred a freer hand to buy and build what it wants. “This city is known as the real estate capital of the world for a reason,” says Hunter’s Angotti. “They were able to kill proposals for a comprehensive plan in the early part of the 20th century.” There’s also a deep and widely held suspicion about the wisdom of planning. On the left, disciples of Jane Jacobs worry that planning stifles the organic development of the city through the imposition of ill-conceived, large-scale, top-down projects. On the right there are complaints that planning—or even the simpler act of zoning—restricts the benevolent hand of the market.

And of course, New York’s size and ethnic and political diversity would also be a challenge to getting a plan. “Twice before, they’ve tried to do a comprehensive plan for the city,” says the RPA’s Yaro. “Both times it collapsed under its own weight for being too politically difficult.” What’s more, a plan that says everything about New York could end up saying nothing. Partnership for New York City president Kathy Wylde remembers the Lindsay master plan. “It was a look at planning objectives from 20,000 feet, where some of the facts were wrong,” she recalls. “I’m not a big believer in comprehensive planning based on that experience. I think it tends to be a combination of wishful thinking and unrealistic raising of expectations, or lowering them.”

And of course, plans can move slowly compared with a fast-changing city: If New York produced a comprehensive plan, says Fisher, “it would be obsolete before it was published.”

All these problems could beset a comprehensive plan. But none of them is a given. “[Planning] is not a theoretical exercise,” says Angotti. “It’s a matter of political determination. If the mayor decides that a plan is a worthwhile exercise, they’d find a way to do it.” Indeed, some plans do work. The Regional Plan Association, while lacking any formal authority and having a region-wide focus, managed to accomplish lasting achievements through its three regional plans (see “Three Wishes,” on p. 50). The question is not whether a comprehensive plan will be easy. The question is whether New York can solve its problems without one—not just the problem of climate change or population growth or traffic congestion, but the democracy problem that plagues the city’s current system for deciding what to do with its finite supply of land. Municipal Art Society president Vin Cipola said recently that the city’s move toward transit-oriented development is a good step.

The problem, he says, is that communities are saying, ” ‘Yes, we see this new stuff going up, but how has it added to the quality of life in my community?'” Cipola adds: “And the answer, often, is it hasn’t.”