Head for the Frisco Bay to learn about planning

By Julie Menin

For all of the dense zoning texts and boxcars full of building regulations, land use planning in New York City today remains pretty much an unpredictable and often times puzzling process. The theory that a new development can cause impacts — on traffic, schools or park space — which the development should help ameliorate, is a generally accepted principle. Such impacts are sometimes but not often enough revealed by required environmental impact analyses. However, how these impacts are then dealt with and who pays for the amelioration is elusive at best. When a project requiring public review starts to run the gauntlet, the outcome is never clear. Sometimes the community wins, and sometimes the developer — but rarely is the public interest served on any consistent, responsible and predictable basis.

The problem lies not with our elected officials or government agencies. Rather, the problem is that all involved are subject to the vagaries of something called ULURP, the city’s uniform land use review procedure. A well-intentioned process designed to ensure that communities have a voice, ULURP — in practice and application — has had the unintended consequences of being both non-uniform and ultimately not equitable.

It has all the trappings — required public reviews by community boards and the borough president and approvals by the City Planning Commission and City Council — but it is distinctly non-uniform. The results are haphazard and uneven, at best. There is little in the way of standards and every outcome is the result of a protracted negotiation that takes place at every level of the process. The skilled community board may extract more local benefits, while the politically connected developer may push through or recoup their loses at the last moment. Many projects are approved without the critically needed services and amenities that a community desperately needs and frequently there is not significant mitigation for projects that have enormous impacts to a community.

It is a delicate dance with sophisticated developers often asking, for example, for more density than they need, or holding back on benefits that they might conceivably be able to offer. Sometimes the developer can provide the right giveback or sweetener needed at the conclusion of the process to make a final deal.

Since a community board vote is only advisory, it may have negligible impact unless the board also has access to powerful political levers to enforce its will at the Council level. Sometimes community boards try to strike an early compromise, while they are still active players in the process. They may seek to negotiate a community benefit agreement with developers to assure that a needed school annex, library, park or community center is built in conjunction with the development in question. It is a path that we have frequently followed at Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan as the most certain in the planning free-for-all that often follows. As a result, we have built schools, community centers, libraries, playgrounds and other critically needed services.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a better way, in fact, one which already exists as a workable model in San Francisco. There the city’s planning process does not depend on the vagaries of the moment, but is rather predictable and codified. The City by the Bay has introduced a variety of requirements or impact fees intended to offset the impacts of new developments and/or to address perceived social needs.

These are spelled out as a matter of law, not left to hit or miss negotiation. For example, residential developers must provide an explicit proportion of affordable housing on site (or contribute to a fund to build such units elsewhere). Similarly they must pay a proportionate square foot impact to the local school district. Commercial projects must pay a parks fee and provide public art equal to one percent of the project’s hard costs. New developments must also pay proportionate fees to offset their impacts on the city’s transit system.

The process works well according to both community and real estate leaders. The community gets what it needs according to an overall, predictable plan, while the developer knows the costs up front.

Introducing this rational planning process here would require a change in the City Charter. It would mean adopting mandated standards, based on sound, comprehensive land use planning, requiring developers to provide a proportionate amount of affordable housing, school seats, park space, transit aid and contributions to public art.

As chair of Community Board 1, I have seen all too well the problems with our current system.

I have spoken with Manhattan councilmembers and community board chairpersons at the Borough Board and there has been a lot of enthusiasm for a standardized planning formula. This type of system, if adopted, would depoliticize a process that is now overly dependent on lobbyists, political pressure and community tenacity. With Mayor Bloomberg estimating one million new residents in the next 20 years, it is surely time to adopt this kind rational and effective pro-active planning process now.

Julie Menin is chairperson of Community Board 1.