July 19, 2010
Good evening Chancellor and members of the commission, and thank you for the opportunity to testify tonight.
I’m Alyssa Katz from the Pratt Center for Community Development, which helps communities across New York City engage in urban planning and promote environmental sustainability.
Our partners include community development corporations, civic associations, community boards, affordable housing developers, small businesses and labor unions, all seeking to make sure development meets’ their constituents’ and neighborhoods’ needs. Through 197-a plans and the advisory vote of community boards in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, the City Charter aims to give groups like these a say in land use decisions. In practice, however, the charter’s land use provisions fall short of providing meaningful public input.
We therefore want to express disappointment at the charter commission staff’s recommendation that land use issues be left for future consideration. We agree with the staff that proposals advanced by the Pratt Center and other groups, including Citizens Union, do indeed call for “substantial changes to the balance in the system of land use established in the 1975 Charter.” And we want to stress that those changes are both urgent and necessary. The commission must give them serious consideration.
Our organizations are not talking not about radical experiments. New York City simply deserves what London, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington DC and many other major cities take for granted: A comprehensive planning framework that guides land use, infrastructure and development decisions, and whose creation involves a broad range of stakeholders. Done right, this kind of planning hardly inhibits development. It in fact promotes growth, by creating greater clarity and confidence about long-term infrastructure and planning priorities.
By the staff report's reasoning no charter commission would ever take on land use issues, because these will always be extremely complex and require more than a six-month cycle for consideration. Sooner or later - and we would urge sooner - a charter commission will have to upgrade NYC's 1970s land use review process to reflect what is now standard practice across the country and world.
What we’ve heard so far at commission hearings is a vigorous defense of the existing land use review. One refrain is that "since everyone ends up unhappy, the land use review process must be working." It's easy to joke about failure, and much harder to build something that actually works. The land use process can and should result in win-win outcomes for developers and communities. It needs to be set up to succeed.
We also heard that ULURP is effectively balanced between developer, mayoral and community interests, and that community boards’ advisory votes have significant impact on the shape of projects. In case after case, this is simply not the real-world experience.
No one is asking the commission to hand over the land use process to anti-growth obstructionists. On the contrary, land use reform is about cultivating an environment for growth that works. A comprehensive planning framework puts land use decisions in a coherent and accountable planning context. That balance is essential for global cities’ success. This summer London is taking public input on the second iteration of its Greater London Plan, involving a wide range of stakeholders. In Tokyo, long-term, participatory planning takes place at the borough level.
New York City suffers for lack of a big picture, long-term view. Planning priorities that should get worked out ahead of time instead become burdens on individual land use proposals. Communities, developers and the city fight the same issues out over and over again in neighborhood after neighborhood. This built-in conflict becomes a drain on everyone’s resources and an unneccessary burden on development, at a huge opportunity cost for New York.
With PlaNYC the current administration in City Hall gets that big picture thinking is essential. The City Charter now needs to catch up and give long-term planning force, accountability, and a strong foundation that includes neighborhoods instead of fighting them.