You are here
City Charter Revision
As the New York City Charter Revision Commission meets to rewrite the document that governs New York City, the Pratt Center has been the city's leading advocate for reform to the city's land use process.
Comprehensive, Inclusive City Planning: What NYC Needs Now
Since the 1930s, charter review commissions have recognized that New York City needs to map out the course of its future growth, through an impartial body and transparent process. Under the current charter, the City Planning Commission (CPC) must detail its zoning and planning policies and describe proposals for implementing them.
But while the City Planning Commission was created to guide comprehensive city planning in the public interest, it is not fulfilling this basic part of its job description. Instead, the mayorally controlled Department of City Planning (DCP) calls the shots on land use, and redraws the city’s map at will. While CPC sometimes modifies DCP’s zoning proposals, it invariably approves them. Under the current charter, the two bodies work hand in hand, in structual alignment.
The result is that unlike other major U.S. cities, New York lacks a road map for future development. The city is inadequately prepared for growth – and neighborhoods pay the price when development overloads their streets, schools and services. Too often, developers drive the land use process for their own benefit. In the absence of a forward-looking, publicly developed plan, government agencies do not know where their resources will be needed. And when communities attempt their own planning, under charter Sec, 197-a, they have no way to connect their efforts with the city’s own plans. Opposition to land use proposals frequently arises out of fear impacts won’t adequately be addressed.
The City Planning Commission should create and enforce a planning framework, to make sure that rezonings promoted by the Department of City Planning serve neighborhoods and the city as a whole.
It’s time for New York City to commit to inclusive, comprehensive city planning so:
- Investments in infrastructure keep up with growth and support needed development.
- Individual zoning and variance proposals are based on a framework and principles that stakeholders already agree on.
- An independent City Planning Commission assesses and acts on city and neighborhood needs from a range of perspectives.
- Public participation in comprehensive planning makes community members invested participants.
- Neighborhoods know expected standards for public services.
- Transportation and land use planning are coordinated to maximize use of existing infrastructure and steer investments where they’re most needed.
- Environmental review can be expedited for proposals that comply with the plan (with changes in state law)
The public must participate in planning. Other major cities not only have a comprehensive long-term plan but involve the public in formulating it. These include Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. Public participation is required by many states, including California, Georgia, Oregon, and Wisconsin. Greater London is currently revising its London Plan in an effort that engages civic, community, labor, business and other groups in partnership with government.
Land use proposals under the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure ought to to receive wider scrutiny before proceeding. Proposals are currently certified only by the Department of City Planning. We recommend that the City Council also play a role in certifying some or all ULURP proposals.
The charter commission should separate the roles of the Commissioner of the Department of City Planning and Chair of the City Planning Commission. Currently, these must be held by the same individual. Instead, the CPC chair should be appointed with the advice and consent of the City Council.
Community-based planning needs stronger support. Charter Sec. 197-a allows for the creation of community-based plans, but without adequate support or implementation. To make Sec. 197-a an effective tool, community boards must have access to planning resources. City agencies must formally acknowledge 197-a plan recommendations, implement them where feasible, and provide an explanation if they choose to bypass them.
Fix Fair Share
Following its 1989 revision the New York City Charter has included a potentially revolutionary “fair share” provision that requires the city to review all proposed public facilities, from drug treatment centers to truck depots, to make sure that no one community is stuck hosting many more than others.
Two decades later fair share has fallen short of that promise. The City Charter exempts private facilities and even many government-funded ones. It also relies on city officials to make qualitative judgments about proposed projects’ impacts and the capacity of communities to absorb them, even though today city officials have access to rich, hard data that can much more effectively and efficiently drive analysis and decision-making.
The City Charter calls on the mayor to release an annual Statement of Needs detailing the nature and location of proposed facilities slated for siting, expansion or closure, and provides for review by community board, borough presidents and City Council. But under current practice, the city frequently amends its Statement of Needs, allowing siting proposals to escape public review.
The bottom line is that Fair Share needs fixing to serve New York the way it was supposed to, especially when it comes to polluting facilities. A few largely low-income neighborhoods continue to host most of these facilities, and the harmful health consequences that come with them.
Building on the work of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, The Pratt Center recommends:
A new data-guided system that enforces minimum standards for every community
Drawing from effective practices in the field of public health, urban planners in other cities have developed assessment systems that measure health impacts of development, and use those measurements to guide city planning. San Francisco has been using such a system, called the Healthy Development Measurement Tool (http://www.thehdmt.org/) to assess the environnmental impacts of development plans.
In New York, a fair share information system can set a minimum standard for a set of indicators, such as air quality, that every community must meet. A community’s baseline burden should include all infrastructure and polluting facilities in order to accurately take into account the cumulative burden. Communities that fall below the standard for a given indicator should be last in line to receive facilities with a proven negative impact.
Inclusion of a wider range of facilities
The charter limits fair share to “public facilities,” defined in subsequent implementing rules as facilities that are either city-run or receive at least half of their funding from city government. This excludes not only private facilities, such as waste-transfer stations, but also those run by agencies such as the New York Power Authority. The City Charter must bring a wider range of high-impact facilities under the fair share rules.
Real status for the Statement of Needs
The annual Statement of Needs is supposed to give communities full information about all city facility siting decisions. That isn't happening. The City frequently amends the statement after it is issued and after the review process is complete, allowing many facilities to escape review. This loophole must be closed. If the City fails to identify new facilities by the publication of the Statement of Needs, it must wait until the following year for review.
For more information, visit fixfairshare.org
For more Pratt Center analysis on how the City Charter Revision Commission should fix New York's broken land use process, see the issue brief "City Charter Revision: Where Land Use Fits In."