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Rezoning Revamp: Neighborhood Groups Wary of Speaker Johnson’s Top-Down Process

Issue 263

Emlyn Cameron Apr 26

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has introduced legislation to revamp the city’s 46-year-old process for making land-use decisions. The bill is meant to increase the system’s responsiveness to community needs by mandating a 10-year plan with preferred

land uses. But some community organizers and land-use experts are concerned the plan would give local residents little authority over development in their neighborhoods.

“When I saw the plan, I thought, ‘oh! great!’ But, then, I read it and it makes no place for community planning,” Thomas Angotti, a retired professor of urban policy and land use at Hunter College, told The Indypendent.

New York is the only major U.S. city without comprehensive land-use planning, Angotti says. Instead, it has maintained piecemeal zoning regulations favorable to real estate, which he ascribes in part to landlords’ lobbying and campaign donations. Now, he says, climate change, calls for racial and economic equity, and community resistance to development are making comprehensive planning politically viable. But he sees Johnson’s bill, Intro 2186-2020, as inadequate to meet community desires.

The speaker’s bill is meant to modify the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process, commonly known as ULURP, in which the 59 local community boards have only an advisory voice on rezoning plans or major developments in their neighborhoods, and the City Council, which approves or disapproves them, traditionally defers to the opinion of the local member. In the de Blasio administration’s rezoning of neighborhoods like Inwood, Highbridge, East New York, and Chinatown for high-rise luxury housing with a trickle-down amount of “affordable” apartments, this has often played out as community boards opposing the rezoning, and the administration dismissing their ideas, but offering enough concessions for the local councilmember to vote yes.

Johnson’s legislation would set up a 10-year plan, and the council would vote on which land-use scenarios to adopt for each district in the plan. The choices would be meant to reflect community needs established in meetings, hearings, and suggestions from institutions such as the community boards, as it moves along the path from a “preliminary citywide goals statement” to the adoption of the eventual long-term plan.

Council Communications Director Jennifer Fermino says plan-aligned applications would go through ULURP, but the council reviewing them would be discretionary rather than mandatory. Councilmembers could have them “called up” for a hearing and vote by obtaining the signatures of seven other members, and the applications would be able to cite relevant portions of a “generic environmental impact statement” to supplement studies of the environmental effects.

Angotti, however, believes the bill misses a key part of planning’s renaissance: communities’ desire to take the initiative themselves in determining land use. Community boards would still be understaffed, underfunded, and only able to offer advisory opinions, he points out. He hopes to see an alternative that would give communities more substantive leadership, such as increasing community boards’ resources to develop and propose plans themselves.

“It’s a matter of an ongoing conversation with these communities,” he said.

THE SPECTER OF ROBERT MOSES

Angotti is not alone in thinking planning under the proposed bill may end up being imposed from above. The ULURP process is “not perfect by any stretch of the imagination,” says Kirsten Theodos of the People’s Citywide Land Use Alliance, which organized a March rally against the bill in front of City Hall, “but what this legislation does is create essentially a Robert Moses.”

The bill would empower a director of long-term planning to propose three land-use scenarios for each district in a draft long-term plan, and gives the director authority to select one of those three if the City Council does not vote for a land use to include in the final long-term plan.

Angotti believes the bill misses a key part of planning’s renaissance: communities’ desire to take the initiative themselves in determining land use.

This evokes the specter of Moses, who autocratically ruled development decisions in the metropolitan area from 1924 to 1968, from building Jones Beach to ramming the Cross-Bronx Expressway through the heart of work- ing-class neighborhoods.

Opponents of the bill say that the legislation would give the planning director final say what proposed land uses make it into the final long-term plan, and, by extension, which types of proposals are subject to discretionary review and can use the generic environmental impact statement.

Fermino says the council wouldn’t have to adopt any of the land uses put before it, and that the local institutions involved in the review — community boards, borough presidents, the long-term planning steering committee — could create their own suggested land uses and submit them as part of their recommendations to the council. The council could also conceive land uses to vote into the long-term plan, with the director only stepping in if it doesn’t select any land use.

Opponents respond that this isn’t explicit in the bill’s text. It says that the steering committee, borough presidents, and community boards “shall each submit … a recommended preferred land-use scenario for each applicable community district” to the speaker. The council must “adopt a single resolution establishing one preferred land use scenario for each community district,” but the bill doesn’t specify if it must be one of the director’s proposals or can be their own.

POWER IMBALANCES

Other activists believe the bill will reduce power imbalances in the land-use process. The Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, whose work ranges from helping tenant coalitions organize against harassment to advising nonprofit developers, is backing the bill with caveats. Emily Goldstein, the group’s director of organizing and advocacy, believes it will give councilmembers more resources to assess land-use proposals, putting them on a more equal footing with developers and city agencies such as the Department of City Planning and the City Planning Commission. (The Department of City Planning is opposing the bill on the grounds of expense, practicality, and predicted outcomes, Director Marisa Lago said in written testimony to which the Indy was referred by DCP).

At a February hearing of the council’s Subcommittee on Capital Budget, Johnson argued that the bill would not substantially alter the ULURP process or reduce the role of community boards or other representatives. He emphasized that its purpose was to create a system robust enough to respond to systemic inequalities and climate change.

“We have worked hard as a council to advance equity and justice and to undo the city’s harmful and exclusionary policies, but we, as a city, have not acknowledged — let alone reformed — the ways in which our city’s fundamental failure to plan has upheld the status quo,” Johnson said.

The hearing did not inspire confidence in everyone. Philip Simpson, a lawyer and member of Inwood Legal Action, which unsuccessfully challenged the de Blasio administration’s rezoning of the neighborhood, believes the city government showed its true attitude about community input elsewhere: Three community boards submitted testimony saying that they had not learned about the bill until shortly before the hearing.

Fermino responded that the bill was going through the normal legislative process and feedback was being solicited from communities and community boards.

Simpson and other opponents say they will need to see more proof that the administration is truly committed to comprehensive planning that is responsive to communities, instead of imposing top-down planning.

“I think the whole bill should be scrapped. We need citywide planning, but it needs to start at the bottom and filter up,” he said.

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