Hopes Grow (and Doubts Remain) That New York City Will Adopt Comprehensive Planning

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If it’s plans you want, New York City’s got ’em. There’s the mayor’s affordable-housing plan, which is separate from the plan that aims to restructure the homeless shelter system or the plan for fixing public housing. The Department of Environmental Protection is finishing up a set of plans that will guide billions of dollars in capital work to reduce pollution in the city’s waterways and the Department of Transportation is revising the city’s plan of bus routes. There are rezoning plans for Bay Street and Gowanus under consideration, with ones for Bushwick and Southern Boulevard on the way. There’s a new plan for protecting the East Side from storm surge and a plan to build four new detention facilities around the city so Rikers can be closed. There are plans in a few school districts to address school segregation. There is a process underway to evaluate whether city policies help or hurt the cause of housing segregation.

Some of these plans elicit real passions. Neighborhood groups rally against homeless shelters, community advocates sue over rezonings and NYCHA tenants worry about who will benefit from private buildings on public land. People get angry about bus routes and bike lanes, over where the new jails will go, or whether the city will install bioswales on their street to collect stormwater or change local school zones to attack racial disparities.

Their feelings are often dismissed as NIMBYism or nostalgia, and sometimes that’s true. What the arguments reflect, however, is a genuine disconnect between citywide goals and street-level implementation. Some communities feel they have been singled out to shoulder common burdens, or been forced to accept dramatic change just to get basic amenities. A community’s political pull seems to determine whether it gets what it wants, or has to absorb what others don’t. And there’s a concern that the city is approving new development without creating the infrastructure—sewers, schools, transit—needed to support it.

These worries reflect the fact that New York City, unlike most other big cities, does not have a comprehensive planning process. For its many plans, the Big Apple does not commit to a unifying blueprint for its future.

For the first time in generations, there’s a chance that will change. The 2019 Charter Revision Commission is considering a menu of changes to the city’s land-use system, including the possibility of requiring a comprehensive plan. It is likely to be one of the topics discussed Thursday night when the commission hears from experts on land use. (Watch the 6 p.m. meeting live here.) Any proposals selected by the commission would go before voters in the fall.

A coalition of housing providers, community groups, issue advocates and elected officials has gathered to push for comprehensive planning and other changes to the land-use system. It’s unclear what kind of opposition they’ll encounter, and it’s possible the commission—which has to select from a long list of potential ballot proposals—will punt on the topic. But proponents believe the time is ripe for big change in the way New York sets course for the future.

“I think there is growing clarity as climate change, sea-level rise, inequality, the affordability crisis and crumbling infrastructure continue to become ever more apparent that a project-based, reactive process is not up to the challenge that the coming decades present,” says Brad Lander, the Brooklyn Councilmember. “There is this growing polarization in how people feel about our land-use decision-making exactly at a moment when we need more of it.”

A system with severe limitations

New York has long had a Department of City Planning and a City Planning Commission, but these have tended to focus on zoning, not planning. That’s a key distinction.

Zoning is a set of regulations on what kind and size of buildings can be built where. Development interest often provides the impetus for zoning decisions, and development activity is what drives change in neighborhoods after rezonings. Zoning tends to move parcel by parcel or neighborhood by neighborhood, but can add up to have a broad effect, like Mayor Bloomberg’s rezoning of 40 percent of the city’s surface area.

Planning, on the other hand, sets out goals and arrays multiple elements of city policy—zoning, capital investments, spending decisions, to achieve them. The de Blasio administration has taken steps toward more comprehensive planning than previous administrations, by having more extensive conversations with communities and by trying to coordinate housing subsidies, small business programs and other resources to support its zoning changes.

But you can’t have a comprehensive plan for one neighborhood and not for the one next door and call it truly comprehensive planning. Take de Blasio’s mandatory inclusionary housing rule, which requires developers taking advantage of new density in rezoned neighborhoods to build affordable housing. That would be a comprehensive policy if there were some uniform mechanism guiding which neighborhoods were being asked to absorb new density.

A myopic and selective approach is almost bound to happen under the city’s system for approving land-use changes, called the Uniform Land-Use Review Procedure or ULURP. Despite being the city’s main planning tool, ULURP focuses on a narrow set of land-related policy measures largely untethered to the city’s budget. The process gives only advisory voices to community boards and borough presidents and reserves real authority for the planning commission, mayor and City Council—where each individual Council member by custom has what amounts to veto power over proposals affecting her district.

New York has thought about different approaches to planning. The 1936 charter required a “master plan,” and a very thorough one was prepared in 1969 but never approved. The 1975 Charter Revision repealed the master plan requirement and created ULURP. Since then, the charter has been amended to include “fair share” provisions governing the location of city infrastructure and to offer communities the opportunity to create 197-a plans to govern their future. But the fair share provisions are weak, and while a few communities have taken on the immense task of crafting 197-a plans, some have been disappointed when the city rode roughshod over key elements of their vision.

The byproduct of this system is often the spectacle of community members resisting plans for growth in their neighborhood, which to outsiders can appear selfish or silly, given the city’s swelling population.

But it’s not as if neighborhoods are being asked to absorb what any objective process has determined is their fair share of growth. What the neighborhood protesters are upset about, to some degree, is that the process governing who gets targeted for growth and who gets protected is opaque and episodic. “The question is not, ‘Should we have more growth or less growth?'” says Lander. “The question is, ‘Should we be planning?'”

Other U.S. cities have embraced comprehensive planning. Seattle’s comprehensive plan has been evolving for 20 years and “guides city decisions on where to build new jobs and houses, how to improve our transportation system, and where to make capital investments such as utilities, sidewalks, and libraries,” according to its website. Chicago’s Metropolitan Agency for Planning is the anchor for a plan covering seven counties and 284 communities of northeastern Illinois; among other initiatives, it’s in the middle of a project to target pavement resurfacing across the region in a more strategic way. Minneapolis’ City Council voted 12-1 in December to adopt its 2040 plan, which essentially upzoned the entire city to absorb more people.

The experience of Seattle illustrates that comprehensive plans do not magically disappear urban ills: Homelessness remains a key problem there. And the Minneapolis plan generated a good deal of controversy, triggering worries about neighborhood character that will sound familiar to anyone who has followed a rezoning in New York City.

The idea isn’t that comprehensive plans offer instant results or easy solutions. But they at least provide a more rational framework for the conversation.

A bold proposal

The official list of proposals being considered by the Charter Revision Commission includes “create an independent long-term planning office to develop a comprehensive citywide plan (to be ratified by the Council),” and “require a citywide plan to be updated every ten years.”

A group of nonprofits called the Thriving Communities Coalition has assembled to advocate for those steps and fill in some details about what they mean. It includes the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), Community Action for Safe Apartments, the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition, Pratt Center for Community Development, Regional Plan Association, Los Sures and several others.

Not just any comprehensive plan will meet New York’s needs, according to Emily Goldstein, the director of organizing and advocacy at ANHD. “We could have a comprehensive plan that doesn’t get us to greater equity,” she warns. To avoid that, the coalition has articulated five principles to guide the formation of a comprehensive plan: fair distribution of resources and development, enforceable commitments, integration without displacement, transparency and real community power.

Key to the plan are assessments—separate ones—of the city’s current needs and of its future ones. That’s not been done in a systematic way in New York, according to proponents. Rather, it’s occurred neighborhood by neighborhood, often with the city making good on its obligation to meet current needs only in a quid pro quo around new development.

“What an actual comprehensive plan would do is open up that process to make it more transparent, more participatory. It would allow for the debate to be inclusive and not case-by-case and really enable a conversation about citywide needs,” says Elena Conte, director of policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development. Right now, she says, “We’re just being told ‘This is a need and this is what it means for you.’ That’s not a dialogue.”

Lander and the coalition do not envision a blanket rezoning of the whole city. Instead, the comprehensive plan would involve a citywide assessment of needs and a Council vote to adopt planning goals. Lander then envisions a period of “citywide bargaining” where communities propose ways they will help pursue citywide goals. Those proposals will then be linked to the city’s 10-year capital plan, and the whole thing put through a citywide ULURP consideration. The process should take two years. ULURP would also serve as a mechanism for amendments to the plan between full-scale revisions every 10 years.

At least, that’s one way it could work. The tricky part under any system will be how much and what kind of power communities will wield. “I think communities will have self-determinative power under comprehensive planning in the context of citywide goals,” says Conte. “In more exclusionary neighborhoods there are proposals that occasionally come along where you hear voices saying, ‘We love the goal but it’s the wrong site,” and I think that with a comprehensive plan, what it does is it enables a conversation that doesn’t allow for that easy out.”

According to Lander, that citywide bargaining process would allow community boards, borough presidents and Councilmembers to exercise meaningful power to shape local destinies—within the context of the plan.

Tweaking or transforming?

Objections to a comprehensive plan are easy to anticipate. One is that a truly comprehensive plan for a place like New York City could be out of date by the time it’s published (although the system the coalition has proposed, which eschews a citywide rezoning, is less vulnerable to that charge). Another counter argument, articulated by Charter Revision Commission member and former City Planning chief Carl Weisbrod at a January meeting, is that the current system works pretty well.

“Nothing that’s ever happened and certainly nothing in the political arena that’s every happened is perfect,” Weisbrod told his fellow commissioners. But the current charter, he said, strikes “fundamentally the appropriate balance between executive and legislative powers on the one hand, and the appropriate balance between citywide needs and local neighborhood needs on the other” and “has served us I think fairly well.”

Weisbrod continued: “What we’re really trying to do here—and land use is the area where this gets most reflected—is [to] correct, to modify things that we didn’t really consider,” when the charter was last overhauled in 1989, “and things that on the margins should be changed, but that the fundamentals of what we as a city did and how the city of New York now operates has served us extremely well over the past 30 years.”

Partnership for New York City president and CEO Kathryn Wylde has a different concern. “Term limits have made meaningful, long term planning impossible, since the thinking of policymakers is short term and driven by current events,” she said. “For those who are looking for solutions, I would suggest focusing on reform of funding programs and tax expenditures that have essentially moved control over housing and neighborhood development away from city agencies and community-based organizations. This is the price of relying on leveraging private funding and market forces to achieve public goals.”

It’s also possible the city’s development community will stand against comprehensive planning, arguing that it will slow the development of housing, boost building costs and reduce construction employment–the standard arguments against any regulation of development. But the current land-use systems, with its slowness and uncertainty, is not always a developer’s best friend. Proponents of the comprehensive approach hold out hope the politics of planning could make for strange bedfellows.

The charter revision panel itself is something of a mystery. Unlike most recent commissions, it doesn’t have a narrow scope and it does not appear to be dominated by any elected official. So where it will land is hard to predict. The impression so far is that it’s a genuine deliberative body. But the sheer number of charter changes it is considering could work against earnest consideration of a big-ticket item like comprehensive planning.

Under the heading of “land use” alone, the panel is considering changing the rules on dozens of topics, like the Board of Standards and Appeals, community board composition and how city property gets disposed, among many others. The Thriving Communities Coalition itself has proposed changes beyond comprehensive planning, like amending the environmental review process to require that the city actually mitigate the problems identified in an impact statement.

Election Day on 2019 is likely to be a quiet affair, with contests for Public Advocate and Queens district attorney effectively decided at Primary Day in June. Charter revision questions rarely generate big turnout.

But it’s the next election that could be shaped by what’s decided in the charter revision process this year. “In 2013, we had a mayors race that was almost entirely devoid of candidates giving their planning vision, giving their vision for the physical city. That was barely on the radar screen,” Lander says. If a comprehensive plan is approved this November, it could take shape during the 2021 mayoral campaign and as the new mayor takes office. “What we actually want from a mayor is a plan for the built city, for our planning future. Presenting a framework in which they’d be expected to talk about it? It seems like a good idea.”

3 thoughts on “Hopes Grow (and Doubts Remain) That New York City Will Adopt Comprehensive Planning

  1. We need local neighborhood plans incorporated with a vision for the City. Additionally, the Charter should require site-planning and environmental review with local oversight for every development.

    The current system does not allow local land use decisions to be made by local people. While community boards and borough presidents can provide recommendations and input, their recommendations are not binding, and while the recommendations must be acknowledged, they don’t have to be followed, and they are often disregarded entirely.

    In a City of 8.6 million people, it is not possible for the administration to do a good job guiding growth at the local level. Instead, the administration should be driving an overarching vision of the City: for example, NYC needs to plan for X number of residents and Y number of jobs by 2030, and the City assigns growth targets to each local district that would help to realize that vision. It would then be up to the Community Boards (Community Boards with more resources and staff) to adopt land use plans that would protect the community’s current assets, but at the same time identify areas where future growth could be accommodated. The Community Boards currently have no power in these very local decisions, but the charter could change to give them that power. Local people know best about these very local decisions.

    City Planning should take into account projected changes in the economy, employment, housing, transportation demand, and seek to maintain its historic environment and improve the quality of life for the City’s residents. Further this City needs to look closely at environmental impacts of current and future development.

  2. It’s about time that the pendulum swings back to comprehensive planning. It died in 1973, I think, when federal 701 funding ended and NYC was getting itself into a financial morass. The problem with the 1969 Plans was that they weren’t really very good and they would have been useless during the 1970s and 80s when the city hit rock bottom and lost a million people. However, without vision we are limited by what we can only see today. The city is a system built on networks that must be planned for and integrated. Is it any wonder that we now have a city of over 8.5 million and a transit system that is based on a 1930s to 1950s network. Quite honestly, had Robert Moses not forced the highway system on the city, we’d still be on streets and roads and nothing would be going anywhere. The highways are bad but better than nothing. Plus, Moses always included public housing in his plans. Not that I’m interested in defending Moses but if the city is to thrive we need to plan for its future and not on a building by building basis. Whatever political and governance structure is needed to make this happen should be considered.

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