Lawmakers push changes to city’s planning process
by Benjamin Fang
Dec 25, 2020 | 3496 views | 0 0 comments | 298 298 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Seonae Byeon from the MinKwon Center spoke about the recent Special Flushing Waterfront District.
Seonae Byeon from the MinKwon Center spoke about the recent Special Flushing Waterfront District.
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The report argues that the current planning system is too spread out, and should be streamlined.
The report argues that the current planning system is too spread out, and should be streamlined.
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The legislation would amend the city charter to create a 10-year planning timeline.
The legislation would amend the city charter to create a 10-year planning timeline.
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In an effort to address neighborhood disparities and create more equitable growth, lawmakers have introduced legislation to reform the city’s planning process.

Last week, members of the City Council, led by Speaker Corey Johnson, unveiled a new report, called “Planning Together,” which details the “failures” of the current approach, which they described as piecemeal.

Johnson said the city’s planning mandates are spread across multiple agencies, which produce dozens of individual plans and reports, leading to inefficiencies. The land use and planning processes are also not connected enough to the city’s budget, the speaker said.

As a result, advocates and community groups have reacted in a “reactionary and defensive” way to neighborhood rezoning projects, he said, which also impacts the land use process.

“Right now, planning in New York City is completely broken,” Johnson said. “We want to streamline everything into an interconnected, ten-year comprehensive planning cycle.”

The proposed legislation, which was introduced last Thursday, would require the city to reform its planning mandates into a single process.

It would also require regular reports on the current conditions of the city, including an assessment on economic and racial impacts, an assessment of infrastructure needs and evaluating short and long-term risks.

The city would be mandated to set citywide and district-level targets for housing, jobs, open space, resiliency infrastructure, schools transportation and more. Each neighborhood would develop proactive land use plans in partnership with the city and identify urgent budget needs.

“We’ll have clearly defined, measurable goals,” Johnson said. “These are real concrete things New Yorkers can wrap their heads around.”

Without comprehensive planning, the speaker said the city will not be equipped to handle issues like housing and homelessness, resiliency and climate change, or the economy.

“We need to plan holistically for those challenges,” he added. “Comprehensive planning is a tool to do that.”

The City Council worked with several advocacy and planning groups on the report and legislation, including the Regional Plan Association, the Pratt Center for Community Development and the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD).

ANHD executive director Barika Williams said the status quo approach to planning reinforces economic and racial inequality. She said wealthier, whiter communities currently have the privilege to say no to more density, infrastructure and facilities like homeless shelters.

“It exacerbates displacement while failing to give truly affordable housing,” she said.

Williams argued that equity-center planning and moving away from the ad-hoc approach would mean fairer distribution of resources and developments “so all New Yorkers’ needs are addressed.”

Councilman Antonio Reynoso called the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) broken, which is evidenced by the way communities fight rezoning proposals in their neighborhood.

In Bushwick, which Reynoso represents, community stakeholders came up with their own rezoning plan that actually resulted in 8,000 more units in the neighborhood. The plan called for allowing growth in corridors like Wyckoff Avenue, Central Avenue, Myrtle Avenue and Broadway.

But the city “walked away” from the proposal because officials thought the Bushwick Community Plan didn’t provide a sufficient amount of units.

“The community actually wanted a rezoning, but wanted to dictate what that looks like,” he said.

Councilman Brad Lander, who also worked on the legislation, said the current land use process doesn’t serve the needs of neighborhoods or the city as a whole.

“Too often, the process begins with a developer trying to serve their own interests,” he said, “and then cramming it into public interest language.”

Under the City Council’s new framework, each community district would create their own comprehensive plans, lawmakers said. Development applications would then be judged against those community plans.

“That is a transparent, comprehensive way against a piecemeal approach,” Johnson said.

Though the legislation was introduced last Thursday, the speaker said he doesn’t have a timeline of when the bill will have a hearing. But he said going into his final year as the leader of the legislative body, the comprehensive planning bill “is a priority for me to get done.”

Just as city lawmakers unveiled the report and legislation last Tuesday, advocates and local organizations across the city rallied in front of City Hall to denounce the city’s rezonings.

The 60-member coalition, which included groups from Flushing, Sunnyside, Astoria, Gowanus, SoHo, Sunset Park, Chinatown and other neighborhoods that have seen large-scale development or rezoning projects, released their own “community declaration” for the future of the city.

The declaration called for stopping all rezonings, ending what they called “enormous giveaways” to real estate developers, banning virtual meetings as a substitute for public hearings, and preventing the conversion of manufacturing into “gentrified housing.”

The rally was organized a week after the City Council approved the Special Flushing Waterfront District.

Seonae Byeon, lead housing organizer at the MinKwon Center, which opposed the project, said in a statement that she called on these groups to unite against the waterfront district because it would lead to increased gentrification, higher rents and the shuttering of small businesses.

“Many neighborhoods responded because we know the same patterns of racist rezonings have ruined our communities,” she said. “These luxury developments throughout the city have been nothing but a giveaway to the developers.”

Alicia Boyd, founder of the Brooklyn group Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP), said the organizations all demand not just an end to up-zonings, but also the use of public spaces for private gain and the “excessive influence of real estate” on city government.

“We insist upon a new framework for affordable housing,” Boyd said, “that is free of the negative effects of the current policy.”
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