Housing advocacy groups and some elected officials have been pushing for years for the city to adopt a comprehensive plan, and an earlier effort to do so was abandoned during the City Charter Revision process in 2019.

Sadef Kully

A coalition of housing advocates rallied at City Hall on Dec. 16, decrying the city’s rezoning proposals as racist. The Council is now looking to reform the city’s contentious land use policies.

The City Council’s consideration of legislation to create a new 10-year comprehensive framework for land-use decisions in New York presents a set of complicated questions to candidates for municipal office in 2021.

Besides addressing the public-health impacts of COVID-19 and the fiscal ramifications of the resulting economic crisis, campaigns now will be asked whether they support comprehensive planning—not in theory, but in actual legislative form. 

They will be quizzed on how they will operate such a system, and how faithfully they will abide by its principles. The ideas on housing, infrastructure and climate resiliency that each candidate brought into the campaign will have to be reconciled with the Council’s proposed new planning framework.

Making those questions more complicated is the fact that much of the city’s existing division of power is shaped by authority within the existing system for making land-use decisions. Councilmembers enjoy informal “member deference” over land-use moves in their districts, and the Council’s power as a whole to approve or deny such projects is one of its chief checks on the mayor. A major role for borough presidents and community boards is their advisory function within the current system. And for mayors, using the power of their office to reshape the city’s map is a primary way to achieve a physical legacy.

Those roles are likely to change, if not by the letter of the charter then certainly in practice, if comprehensive planning becomes city policy, as the bill introduced by Council Speaker Corey Johnson last week seeks to do. Particularly for lower offices, candidates will have to define what role they intend to play in that new approach to planning.

Last year, a Charter Revision commission opted not to fundamentally change the planning system, despite Johnson convening that panel with land-use reform as a primary target. Now, the Council will debate planning reform amid a budget crisis and a campaign in which many many members—facing term limits—are seeking new offices. 

A growing chorus

Housing advocacy groups and some elected officials have been pushing for years for the city to adopt a comprehensive plan. This latest attempt to overhaul city planning legislatively will be put to the test against communities who have grown dubious of the city’s land use policies, following the last several years of contentious rezonings and other hotly-debated development proposals. 

Johnson’s office detailed in a scathing report Wednesday how the city’s current land-use policies have “failed” New Yorkers and worsened inequality through a reactive and scattershot approach, rather than with a strategic, forward-thinking citywide plan. 

“We have a piecemeal and top down approach to land use and planning and we can’t afford to carry that ineffective approach into our future––the stakes are just too high,” City Council Johnson said when announcing the bill and accompanying report.

New York’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis, aging infrastructure and vulnerabilities to climate change have all been worsened by the failures of the city’s current long-term planning processes, according to the report. Those failures have not been more stark than during the pandemic, said Johnson. 

Johnson’s legislation comes a year after the City’s Charter Revision Commission failed to include comprehensive planning among the ballot proposals New Yorkers got to vote on, something advocates and lawmakers, like Antonio Reynoso and Brad Lander, had been pushing for at the time. New York is one of the few large cities that does not have a comprehensive planning process, something supporters say would allow the city to more strategically align its development and land use decisions with other citywide goals.

Both Councilmembers told Gotham Gazette earlier this year that passing comprehensive planning through a charter revision would have been more effective than anything the city could pass legislatively. “What we’re doing now is taking the most aggressive legislative action we could take to try to mimic what should have been done through the charter,” Reynoso told the site in February. 

Housing advocacy groups such as the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) also joined the City Council’s press conference in support of the legislation. 

“ANHD members have fought for years to promote equitable access to thriving neighborhoods for all New Yorkers, this is a critical issue for us,” said Barika Williams, ANHD’s executive director. “It’s not just a question of where folks have access to move into but also crucially important where they have the right to stay, and understanding what neighborhoods mean to people. We have seen over and over again—the status quo approach to planning in NYC does not support this.”

Anger against rezonings

Supporters of comprehensive planning say the failures of the city’s current approach are evident in the frequent community backlash to its land use proposals, particularly to rezonings and the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

That backlash was evident outside of City Hall on Wednesday, when dozens of community groups and housing advocates from every borough held a rally to speak out against the city’s private and public rezonings, calling them “predatory” and saying they favor developers over communities.

“We demand an end to the destructive up-zonings, the seizure of public spaces for private gain including public housing, and the excessive influence of real estate on our city government,” Alicia Boyd, founder of the Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP), said during the rally. “We demand reform of the fake community consultations on zoning that serve only to sideline true debate and dissent.” 

Some community groups where rezonings have been proposed or approved describe how the city pushed them to hold community engagement meetings about the project, only to later reject the ideas the community put forth during those events. Others have criticized the “quid pro quo” nature of the process, through which planning officials often tie neighborhood improvements, such as new parks or schools, to rezoning proposals –– improvements that critics say neighborhoods deserve with or without a rezoning. 

The contention around land-use decisions has peaked in recent years, particularly around 

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious 2015 affordable housing plan, which aims to create or preserve 300,000 housing units by the year 2026, in part through city-initiated neighborhood rezonings to create more density for both market-rate and affordable housing. To date, the city has successfully approved six large rezonings: East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway, East Harlem, Jerome Avenue, Bay Street in Staten Island and Inwood.

Three of those plans––East Harlem, Inwood and Jerome Avenue–have been met with heavy protest from residents, stakeholders, and advocacy groups who argue the administration has targeted largely low-income communities of color for rezonings rather than wealthier, transit-rich and high job opportunities neighborhoods, stoking fears of gentrification and displacement of long-time residents and small businesses. 

Similar sentiments helped defeat the city’s plans to rezone parts of Southern Boulevard in the Bronx and Bushwick in Brooklyn, both of which fell apart in recent years. Current proposals to rezone Gowanus in Brooklyn and SoHo and Noho in Manhattan–the city’s efforts to rezone in middle to upper-class neighborhoods with better access to transit and jobs–are also facing criticism from community groups. 

“It’s been a long time coming,” Reynoso, whose own campaign for the City Council was based largely on his experience with community displacement and gentrification in Williamsburg under the Bloomberg administration, said during Wednesday’s press conference. 

“We realize the city’s ULURP process is broken. You see it every single time when a community comes out to City Hall fighting against the rezoning that’s happening in their local neighborhood,” he added. “Councilmembers are put in a position where they are fighting for union jobs, affordable housing, too much market-rate, commercial, the destruction of manufacturing businesses––we all are pitted against each other.” 

In 2019, housing advocacy groups such as the Pratt Center for Community Development  pushed for city land-use changes, including a citywide comprehensive plan, during the City Charter Revision process. Before last year, there had not been changes to the City Charter since the 1980s. In a 2019 interview with the Max and Murphy podcast, Elena Conte, the deputy director at the Pratt Institute, said a comprehensive plan could allow land use policies to shift from responsive to development trends to proactive, and to be more inclusive of neighborhood needs while still meeting city goals.  

Although there ultimately were some land use changes included in last year’s charter revision— related to ULURP’s pre-certification process and review time—the comprehensive planning idea was rejected by the commission.

“It is overdue and it is absolutely urgent,” said Conte during the City Council press conference Wednesday. “There is a great temptation to always respond to what seems the most urgent, whether it is important or not, but the mark of leadership is to devote the most time and resources for things that are deeply important, whether they feel urgent or not. And comprehensive planning for an equitable city is just that. It has too long been neglected and dismissed.”

 The City Council’s recommendations

Johnson’s legislation, to be voted on in the coming months, would require the city to implement a ten-year comprehensive planning framework, the first starting in 2022 to 2031, through a number of policy recommendations detailed in the City Council’s report.That framework would center around racial, socio-economic justice issues, using the full range of budget, land use, and policy tools to address inequities. The report stressed that some of these policies currently exist, but do not work cohesively with each other.

“This citywide comprehensive planning framework would streamline and integrate more than a dozen planning and budget-related documents, reports, and plans already required by local law, to dramatically improve coordination across City agencies,” the report reads. The Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability (OLTPS) would oversee the new framework, and would be charged with producing “all related planning documents in partnership with relevant city agencies and informed by a robust and continuous public engagement process.”

Those documents would include a “Conditions of the City” report, which would examine “racial and socio-economic disparities, access to opportunity, displacement risk, short- and long- term risks to the city and its vulnerable communities, the impacts of prior development and budget decisions, and current and projected infrastructure needs, among other areas of analyses.”

The Mayor’s OLTPS would use that report, as well as public input, to work with a newly-appointed Long-Term Planning Steering Committee to create a “Citywide Goals Statement,” which would set measurable targets for “housing, jobs, open space, resiliency infrastructure, City facilities, schools, transportation, public utilities, and other infrastructure.”

Those goals would help inform a “Draft Long-Term Plan,” which would outline existing or new policies, such as those related to housing or open space, necessary zoning changes for height and density, recommendations for managing the city’s waterfront, a focus on historically neglected communities and prioritizing growth in neighborhoods with low displacement risk and access to opportunity, as well as the needs of the city’s community districts, including capital and expense budgets. 

After a public engagement process is complete, the City Council would adopt a final version of the Long-Term Plan plan that would be used as the foundational standard for future public and private development decisions. Only land-use applications consistent with that comprehensive plan would be subject to a Council vote, skipping review by the council’s land use committee—a step currently required under ULURP— thereby “streamlining the process,” and “creating more transparency” and less contention, according to Speaker Johnson. 

Applications that are deemed inconsistent with the city’s Long-Term Plan would need to be changed or modified. 

“We would ask, is this in line with what was discussed over the last many years? That is a proactive, transparent way instead of a piecemeal, reactive approach,” Johnson said. 

Under the legislation, all land use decisions, both those proposed by private developers and by the city, would require a statement of alignment describing how the application aligns or conflicts with the community’s comprehensive plan. If it conflicts, the City Planning Commission would need to provide a rationale for certifying the application. It would then automatically go to the Council for review, just as current ULURP applications do. 

According to Speaker Johnson, the new legislation would not change the required time periods under the city’s ULURP process, because that would require a City Charter revision. 

The bill would also require the city to produce a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS), to evaluate the impacts of the Long-Term Plan and incentivize rezonings, development, and infrastructure spending that aligns with the city’s goals. One of the last recommendations is to put oversight measures  in place to hold every city agency, and the Mayor’s office, accountable both during and after the planning process, and to report updates throughout that process to the public. 

If passed, Johnson said the new comprehensive plan would go into effect in 2022—Under a new city mayor, City Council, as well as new community board members and borough presidents.