Good evening. My name is Elena Conte, and I’m the Organizer for Public Policy Campaigns for the Pratt Center for Community Development. For more than 45 years, the Pratt Center has worked with community-based organizations throughout the five boroughs to help New Yorkers build stronger, more sustainable neighborhoods and plan for their future.
We’d like to thank Chairman Goldstein and the New York City Charter Revision Commission for deciding to make land use one of your five areas of focus. The City Charter’s land use provisions center on one fundamental principle: New York City needs to map out the course of its future growth, through an impartial and transparent process. However, under the current version of the charter such long-term planning for the city as a whole has not taken place. The charter puts the City Planning Commission in charge of long-term comprehensive planning, but that commission has come to narrow its focus to reviews of individual proposals for zoning map changes put forth by property holders and the Department of City Planning.
The absence of comprehensive planning leaves New York City without the foundation for sound future growth. Neighborhoods pay the price when development overloads their streets, schools and services. Government agencies do not know where their resources will be needed. 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. And developers themselves have little certainty that infrastructure and services will be adequate to support their projects.
Meanwhile other major cities in the U.S. and around the world engage in comprehensive planning, with strong public involvement. For example, civic, community, labor, business and other groups in partnership with government are currently revising the London plan, deciding the principles for Greater London’s growth.
New York City has taken an important preliminary step through the establishment of the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, which through PlaNYC has set ambitious objectives for improving the city’s environment and reducing its carbon footprint. But PlaNYC is a vision, not a plan. Problematically, it has been developed without either meaningful public participation or a way to ensure city agencies follow through to achieve PlaNYC’s important goals.
The Pratt Center would like to ask the Charter Revision Commission to step up to this historic opportunity and bring inclusive, comprehensive planning to New York City. Specifically:
An independent commission should create and enforce a planning framework, to make sure that rezonings serve neighborhoods and the city as a whole. Individual zoning and variance proposals should be based on a framework and principles that stakeholders already agree on. And as is standard practice elsewhere, the development of that planning framework should involve a broad range of participants.
In the past, the City Planning Commission has led such processes and could again. But the emerging challenges of sustainability planning require a broader mandate than the planning commission has had in the past. To be effective, such planning requires power to coordinate policy and budget across multiple city agencies, as well as a scope that extends beyond traditional land use into environment, energy and other arenas. Those powers may best be carried creation of a new sustainable planning commission with the power to steer budget as well as policy decisions.
Proposals under the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure ought 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 deserves 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.
Fair Share needs repair. The charter’s “fair share” provision 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. But private facilities and even many government-funded ones are exempt from fair share rules. A few largely low-income neighborhoods continue to host most facilities, and the harmful health consequences that come with those that pollute.
Along with the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, The Pratt Center recommends a new data-guided system that enforces minimum standards for every community. A fair share information system can track a set of indicators, including measures such as air quality, for each community district in the city. Areas that fall below the standard for a given indicator should be last in line to receive facilities with a proven negative impact.
Fair Share also needs to include 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 private facilities, such as waste-transfer stations, and those run by public authorities.
All agreements must be public. Because the City Council has limited power to revise land use proposals, it sometimes conditions its approval of a rezoning on commitments from the mayor to provide community benefits. The Pratt Center has been involved in shaping such agreements and supports the principle that the land use process is an appropriate venue for mitigating the impacts of rezonings.
But currently, the mayor’s office and City Council treat these as private agreements. The charter must create a mechanism to recognize such commitments as part of the public land use record. What’s more, the city planning process itself must recognize these side agreements as a byproduct of broader failures in city planning and development policy. The agreements have become necessary precisely because planning does not take a look at citywide needs, forcing the City Council to address local needs or mitigate impacts project by project. Side deals are also no substitute for strong citywide standards promoting affordable housing and good jobs. A citywide planning framework, in the context of such standards and with a mandate to take into account neighborhood needs, will help render such agreements unnecessary.