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Planning for the Future
Alexie Torres-Fleming of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, which helped develop the Campaign for Community-Based Planning
Upgrading New York City’s development rules for the 21st century
New York City's planning process needs to be more inclusive and accountable and more effective at building a livable and sustainable city.
New York City’s development battles over the last decade – from Willets Point to the Kingsbridge Armory to the Far West Side and the Williamsburg waterfront – have exposed limitations of the current process for managing the city’s growth, and highlighted opportunities to engage New Yorkers as participants in planning. As the City Planning Commission moves to update the city’s zoning resolution, it’s time for the public to have a say in how a fresh vision for the city emerges and to have assurances that their voice will guide decisions about local and citywide plans.
How New Yorkers Plan Now
Twenty-two years have elapsed since New York City revisited the way we think about and plan for development and growth. Since the 1989 overhaul of the City Charter, the world has changed and our city with it. New York’s 20th century planning process struggles to keep up with 21st century problems--including climate change--as well as 21st century opportunities and technological innovations.
New York remains the only large city in the country that does not have a comprehensive plan to guide land use, siting, and economic development decisions. It also lags far behind other cities in involving the public in developing a long-term planning agenda. What we have is PlaNYC, which provides an important framework for reducing carbon emissions, accommodating growth, and improving infrastructure. But PlaNYC is not an instrument for land use planning or public participation. It is not recognized by the City Charter and is in fact an end-run around charter provisions that require the City Planning Commission to report on long-term plans for the city.
New York City’s planning process is currently anchored by the three City Charter provisions. The Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, guides public review of land use changes. Another measure, Section 197-a, gives the public tools to create plans for the development, growth, and improvement of the city and its neighborhoods. The Fair Share provision generates criteria for the siting of facilities, such as waste transfer stations, that are needed by the city but also burdensome to their host neighborhoods.
The current charter is an improvement over its pre-1970s predecessors, which offered neither direct public involvement or transparency. Yet the charter’s land use provisions, which set up a consultation process driven by public hearings around site-specific land use proposals, remain fundamentally reactive to zoning map changes proposed by government planners or developers. They are also isolated from any larger roadmap for the city’s development.
Elected officials and other community leaders have turned to creative workarounds to these serious limitations of the current land use process. As we’ll detail in a coming report, City Council members have successfully negotiated for the inclusion of needed community resources, including affordable housing, open space, and schools, as part of major upzonings that unlock lucrative development opportunities. Community boards and groups continue to produce plans for affordable housing, economic development, environmental remediation, transportation and more, most of them outside the 197-a process, in the hope of shaping the agenda of council members and other decision-makers.
What’s still missing is a path for setting the city’s overall planning agenda with meaningful public participation, so that local land use decisions can be informed by local needs as documented by those who know them best, and then plugged into a shared vision for the future of New York City.
A Shared Vision
Planning in New York City needs to evolve: to build on the strengths of the charter’s existing reviews while working toward a citywide vision that powers community-level input. While more than 8 million New Yorkers will never reach consensus on their city’s future, the public can and should participate in setting planning priorities and then help implement them. Government decisions must be transparently rooted in publicly disclosed goals set by the city’s planning agencies, and elected officials and municipal agencies need to be accountable in ways that are easily understood.
A citywide planning framework that emerges from a public process needs to serve as a foundation for a transformation in how planning gets done at the community level. Currently, 197-a plans are set up for failure: they have neither the power to direct city spending nor a connection to the government’s existing planning activities. Community boards can work to build consensus around plans for years, only to see their efforts pushed aside by the Department of City Planning and other agencies.
Instead of generating input that is systematically disconnected from outcomes, community boards need to first participate along with the City Planning Commission in setting community goals, and then be tasked with developing recommendations to proactively achieve them. Each community district would have to weigh tough choices in this process, including where to site increased residential density and polluting facilities. Right now, community boards’ most meaningful power is to say “no.” They need commitment to diverse representation, adequate resources for planning, and more direct connections between the efforts of community boards and local land use and budget priorities as a way of doing business will strengthen not just neighborhoods but the entire city.
Pratt Center continues to advocate for this vision and to work with community partners and many others to shape it into reality.