Corey Johnson says his ‘Planning Together’ proposal will help create a more just and inclusive city planning process. But others raised worries about the costs of the plan, and about how it would engage communities.

William Alatriste/NYC Council

Councilmember Corey Johnson at a City Hall rally in March 2016.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson took up a defensive strategy during the first public hearing about his comprehensive planning legislation on Tuesday, responding to dozens of residents and community groups that raised questions about, or spoke out in opposition to, the proposal.

Johnson introduced his “Planning Together” proposal back in December, which would amend the City Charter to require a long-term comprehensive plan overhauling the city’s existing land use planning processes. Johnson says the legislation — which would require the city to implement a ten-year planning framework, starting in 2022 — would streamline the current piecemeal approach to city planning, bringing several agencies in line with a larger agenda to bring equitable growth to neighborhoods across the five boroughs.

He presented a chart to the virtual hearing’s attendees, outlining things he said are “false” and “true” about his proposal. He said it was false to assume the bill would amend or change the city’s zoning resolution, trigger rezonings or upzonings, propose or support the elimination of single family zoning, or eliminate the role of community boards in future rezonings. Instead, he says the plan would provide community boards with more resources to plan for their neighborhoods, direct growth in communities vulnerable to sea-level rise and displacement risks, identify and prioritize community budget needs and encourage rezoning tools on the community level.

But officials from the Department of City Planning (DCP) and other city agencies testified against the legislation. They included DCP Director and City Planning Commission Chair Marisa Lago, who questioned the bill’s feasibility and effectiveness.

“We do not believe it’s feasible to achieve all of the bill’s goals through a single, one-size fits all process. Not without glossing over key priorities and short-changing key community impact. To attempt to do so would cost an incredible amount of money,” said Lago in her testimony.

She pointed to one aspect of the bill that would require community boards, borough presidents and a newly-created “Long-Term Planning Steering Committee” to submit separate land use proposals for each of the city’s 59 community districts during years three and four of Johnson’s 10-year proposal –– a whopping 177 plans over a nearly 10-month period. She said this “top-down approach” would make it impossible to provide the in-depth planning efforts and engagement needed to meet “every inch of the city.”

“We are concerned that the ultimate impact of that time and money would be counter to our shared goals—that it would make it more difficult, not easier, to build affordable housing or site essential city facilities if these priority projects were subjected to an additional layer of bureaucracy,” she continued. “The practical effect of the bill would be to reinforce the political incentives to inaction that exist today and that drive exclusionary and inequitable outcomes.”

Lago also argued that another aspect of the plan — which would require a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) for each community district over a ten-year period  — would cost an estimated $500 million, at time when the city is under a hiring freeze and grappling with a pandemic-related economic crisis.

Johnson, however, defended the plan and characterized Lago’s cost estimate as inaccurate. He and other councilmembers questioned Lago and other city officials about the de Blasio administration’s own legacy of trying to eradicate “the tale of two cities,” asking if the city has examined its planning decisions and how those may have furthered racial and socio-economic disparities, which have became more evident during the pandemic. The speaker defended his legislation as an important solution for New York’s land use future, saying the city’s current policies do not work to address the city’s inequities.

Several housing and land use advocacy groups also spoke in support of Johnson’s plan, though said they want to see more details on how it would be implemented and how communities would be engaged.

“Comprehensive planning is about moving away from our current, inequitable approach to planning towards one centered on advancing racial and socioeconomic equity,” said Barika Williams, executive director at Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development (ANHD). 

However, ANHD and other members of the grassroots Thriving Communities Coalition made several recommendations for how they think bill could be strengthened, saying it should include language to focus on reducing segregation, addressing access to different types of housing, budget transparency, fully including NYCHA residents during the planning process, centering environmental justice and climate resiliency, among many others. 

The director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, Adam Friedman, said the city desperately needs a fair and inclusive process to simultaneously address climate change, racial and economic disparities and the “sheer complexity of running a city with 9 million people.” Friedman said the city’s current and past planning practices have failed to look at the big picture, giving the example of the Jerome Avenue rezoning in the Bronx, where the local auto repair industry lost a chunk of industrial space and local small businesses suffered displacement. 

Other elected officials and advocacy groups, however, raised concerns about whether the proposal includes adequate input from community boards. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said she opposes the legislation, saying that while it could achieve some of its goals holistically, it lacks community engagement. 

“It doesn’t put communities at the center of the land use process,” she said, saying her office has been involved in 171 ULURP applications (Urban Land Use Review Procedure, the city’s public land use review process) since taking office in 2014. “We see how important it is to have community input––to analyze and provide constructive comments––they can’t be sidelined.”

Eva Hanhardt testified on behalf of the Collective for Community, Culture and Environment, a women-owned consulting business. While the group has been advocating for a comprehensive, community-based plan for the last 20 years, they are concerned about Johnson’ legislation and “the haste with which it was being proposed.”

Andrea Goldwyn, director of public policy at the New York Landmarks Conservancy, said the bill was well-intentioned but there were too many unanswered questions, such as how the city will deal with the existence of as-of-right development. She recommended that the City Council present Johnson’s plan before all community boards and consider making amendments before any vote takes place. 

“We urge the Council to reject this proposal,” she said. “New York needs comprehensive planning, but not this plan.”

Both Manhattan Community Board 8 Chair Russell Squire and Community Board 2 Chair Carter Booth said the City Council had conducted little to no outreach to their groups about the bill, and said residents have many questions about its feasibility and community engagement strategy. Queens community boards 8, 11 and 13 — boards that are home to significant numbers of single-family homeowners — have also been vocal in their opposition to the plan, according to news reports and community sources. 

Without the support of the de Blasio administration, Johnson would need a minimum of 36 councilmember votes to pass the legislation.