C.B.1’s divided views on geographic divisions

By Julie Shapiro

Community Board 1’s newest committee is doing some soul searching.

The Planning and Community Infrastructure Committee, founded last year as a task force to focus on the Greenwich St. South neighborhood, has expanded its scope to provide comprehensive planning for the entire district.

“We have a big need for planning in the Downtown area,” committee chairperson Jeff Galloway said. He envisions the committee as a place where all of the board’s planning mavens come together and build on their expertise.

What’s not yet clear, though, is how the Planning Committee will interact with C.B. 1’s four geographical committees, which have each been handling their own planning for years.

At a Planning Committee meeting last Thursday, views ranged from Rick Landman — the former Planning Committee chairperson, who would diminish geographical committees’ influence on the board — to Marc Ameruso, who is not a member of the Planning Committee and thought it ought to be dissolved.

Landman, who for years has been leading the fight for subject-matter committees rather than geographical ones, relished the opportunity to defend his views.

“Why is planning bifurcated when no one else is?” Landman asked. “Everyone else except us has a planning committee.”

Of the city’s 59 community boards, C.B. 1 is the only one to delegate zoning, liquor licenses and street fairs to geographical committees. Board 1 is one of the city’s smallest community boards in terms of area, but it is densely packed with dissimilar sections, including some of the city’s oldest and newest neighborhoods.

Ameruso, the sole board member to attend the meeting who was not on the Planning Committee, disagreed with nearly everything committee members said.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said of the current committee structure. Ameruso said there is no need for a Planning Committee because the geographical committees already have expertise on planning issues.

Landman, though, said the distribution of affordable housing or nightlife or parks should be planned across the board, not just within individual neighborhoods. Unless someone is looking at the big picture, opportunities can slip through the cracks, he said.

As an example, Landman cited the Tribeca Committee’s hesitancy to include affordable housing when rezoning parts of North Tribeca. The Planning Committee could have made sure that the board discussed and prioritized affordable housing during any major rezoning or land-use changes, Landman said.

Andy Neale, co-chairperson of the Tribeca Committee, said affordable housing didn’t come up during the Jack Parker Corp. rezoning several years ago, but the more recent Tribeca North rezoning under discussion includes an affordable housing provision, although some question whether the incentives will lead to any below market rate housing. Neale added that C.B. 1 already has a Quality of Life and Affordable Housing Committee to deal with housing issues, so the Planning Committee doesn’t need to address that.

Some board members, however, said that C.B. 1’s division into geographical committees only serves to reinforce the differences between neighborhoods.

“Working on issues brings people together,” Julie Nadel, chairperson of the Waterfront Committee, said in a telephone interview. “Dividing into neighborhoods divides people.” Based on her experience working with other community boards, Nadel sees a good case for at least reexamining C.B. 1’s unique system.

In the past, the geographical committees — Battery Park City, Financial District, Seaport/Civic Center and Tribeca — voted individually on any planning or zoning questions. But now, Planning Committee members want to be included in those discussions and have an equal vote.

“I didn’t join this to be advisory,” Planning member Susan Cole said at last week’s committee meeting. “It’s bad enough that we’re on a community board that’s only advisory. I don’t want to be advisory to an advisory [board].”

While the Planning Committee is united in wanting a vote, other board members are hesitant to give that privilege to people they see as outsiders.

Neale thinks the geographical committees can take care of planning on their own, and he doesn’t want Planning Committee members to cast votes on Tribeca issues.

“The geographic committees have a huge institutional memory and local knowledge of the local issues,” Neale said. “It would be very difficult for anybody who doesn’t have the local knowledge to have the same input as the local committees.”

Galloway, who also co-chairs the Battery Park City Committee, understands where Neale is coming from. Galloway said he, too, would feel offended if someone from outside his neighborhood came in and told him what to do — but that’s not what the Planning Committee will do at all, he said.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to go to any geographical committee and say, ‘We’ve decided what to plan for you,’” Galloway said. On the contrary, the Planning Committee would take input from the geographical committees.

“I don’t see that there should be any conflict at all,” Galloway added. “I very much value what people think about their own communities.”

Prior to Landman’s recent criticisms, it was unclear whether the Planning Committee would be able to vote on zoning and land use.

This week, Julie Menin, chairperson of C.B. 1, said she’d always envisioned the Planning Committee voting on ULURP (uniform land use review procedure) and zoning issues, but that in the past, it hadn’t made sense to involve the committee in matters that the local committees had been handling before the Planning Committee formed.

“All new ULURPs will be handled jointly by the geographical and planning committees,” Menin said.

If issues like the Tribeca North rezoning or 50 West St. ULURP discussions started today, the Planning Committee would have a say from Day 1, Menin said. Going forward, the ULURP looming on the horizon is the General Growth Properties plan for the Seaport, expected to be announced in the next few months. Menin promised the Planning Committee would weigh in.

Landman, though, said the Planning Committee is already out of the loop on General Growth’s plans, and he thinks the committee should have been able to vote on Tribeca North and the 50 West St. development. Also, when the heads of geographical committees meet with city agencies about zoning or planning issues, Landman wants the Planning Committee to be included.

Menin called the new method of board-wide planning “a radical shift,” but she said this comprehensive planning is important. Menin has also created the Quality of Life Committee and Small Business Taskforce, both subject-matter groups. Still, she’s not about to get rid of geographical committees.

“They possess a unique knowledge about the services and problems in those communities,” she said. “Because C.B. 1 is such a diverse district, with so many different neighborhoods, that’s why we’ve had geographical committees.”

Last fall, Community Board 2 created a geographical committee of its own, the Chinatown Committee, but all planning, zoning and liquor license questions stayed within C.B. 2’s subject-matter committees.

When Planning Committee members talk about building expertise, they realize that it will take time. Landman, a certified planner, envisioned members attending lectures on land-use law and he suggested that the committee take advantage of its most valuable resource: Michael Levine, director of land use and planning for C.B. 1, who used to work for the Department of City Planning.

Whatever changes take place, they will happen after Landman’s time — he is stepping down from the community board this month, largely because he is frustrated about the lack of respect the Planning Committee has received.

Landman likened his ideal Planning Committee to the Landmarks Committee, where members develop expertise and apply it to projects throughout Board 1. For another example, Galloway pointed to the Youth and Education Committee, which has a geographically diverse membership. The Youth Committee frequently holds joint meetings with geographical committees.

In addition to voting on ULURP and zoning proposals, the Planning Committee wants to develop guidelines for dealing with ULURP applications in general. The committee could have a checklist of concerns and a prioritized list of amenities, standardizing the process.

“For that to happen well, it also has to have some teeth,” committee member Albert Capsouto said, meaning that geographical committees would have to be required to use the Planning Committee’s ULURP guidelines. He also wants to see the Planning Committee chairperson take part in meetings between geographical committee leaders and city agencies or elected officials.

At the meeting, Levine reminded the committee about the needs assessment he crafted last year based on conversations with the geographical committees. The results show that the board is more united than many people would have guessed.

“From Battery Park City to the Seaport, they all said the same thing,” Levine said. Everyone wanted more supermarkets, schools, parks and cultural institutions and almost everyone wanted to prevent out-of-context development. The similarities bode well for the board’s ability to rise above politics, several board members said.

Cole also focused on the positives.

“We’ve got experts here — we’re very lucky, so let’s do something with it,” she said. “Life’s going to change here and we should be smart enough and knowledgeable enough to get more, not less.”