The New York City charter is being revisited by not one, but two revision commissions.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the first commission to review the city charter during his State of the City address in February. The stated intent of the mayor’s commission was to examine campaign finance and improve democracy in the city, but over the course of several public hearings, commissioners also examined local engagement through community boards and, in turn, the level of input that residents have in city land use decisions. That commission plans to wrap up in time to have proposals on the ballot in November.
Ultimately, substantial changes to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure – the standard public review process for city land use decisions – are unlikely given the commission’s narrow focus and short time frame. In its recently released preliminary staff report, the commission acknowledged the complexity of the matter and recommended not pursuing it further. The report defers consideration to future commissions, and recommends they conduct more outreach on the issue.
Unlike other years, another charter revision commission exists that can effectively pick up where the first leaves off. The second commission, convened by the New York City Council, will get started in earnest as the mayor’s commission finishes its work. The issues identified but not directly addressed by the first commission could offer a preview for what may come up in the second commission. The testimony on land use in particular offers insight into an important matter for New Yorkers. It was only one of two topics of interest that the commission identified without recommending any action on yet, with the other being public safety.
Gail Benjamin, the chairwoman of the council’s commission, said that land use may be a hot topic brought up by people like Council Speaker Corey Johnson, but said it is not the commission’s sole mandate, nor is it guaranteed to be addressed at all. Her commission is tasked to look at the charter broadly. Public hearings to gather testimony from residents have not even begun for the council’s commission, so the direction it will take is unknown.
During hearings held by the mayor’s commission, much of the expert testimony regarding land use boiled down to getting community members more involved. The mayor’s commission made a preliminary recommendation to make more resources and support available to community boards when it comes to urban planning, while leaving the actual ULURP process unchanged.
ULURP was created by the State Charter Revision Commission of New York City, along with community boards, in the 1970s. The current process, with the decision-making powers about zoning and development projects lying with the City Council, was established in the 1989 charter revision that eliminated the Board of Estimate, which used to have broad influence in those decisions.
Currently, the city’s community boards act only in an advisory manner. They are given land use proposals early on in the process so they can review them and make recommendations. However, any decisions they make are nonbinding and the City Council can ignore them.
Some people testifying sought to empower community boards and give members of the affected neighborhood more influence. City Councilman Ben Kallos, chairman of the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions, testified that the combined “no” vote from a community board, borough board and borough president should have a binding effect and stop a project from moving forward. A community board, Kallos said, should also be empowered to initiate a rezoning or ULURP on its own.
Others called for more transparency in the pre-ULURP phase, overhauling the process itself to be more community-oriented, or making changes to what happens post-ULURP. While many agreed that changes should be made, there was little consensus on what exactly those changes should look like.
The Real Estate Board of New York argued against adding more bureaucracy and steps into an already complicated process and proposed returning decision-making power in land use matters back to the City Planning Commission.
There were some who, while advocating change, also expressed caution about the correct way to go about it. Jessica Katz, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, testified that while community input is essential in the land use process, the benefits to the neighborhood must be balanced with citywide benefits.
“Rather than simply putting more potential roadblocks in the hands of those who would oppose any change,” Katz said, “the city should make adjustments to its planning procedures to make new housing a positive asset for communities and their existing residents.”
Former New York City Councilman Kenneth Fisher, who currently works for the law firm Cozen O’Connor, agreed. “I don’t think anyone wants to give community boards by themselves the power to block a project because very few controversial matters would ever get approved no matter how much benefit they might provide simply because communities tend to be reactive and conservative,” Fisher told City & State.
Fisher warned that additional bureaucracy, or giving too much power to neighborhoods, could discourage developers from applying to build projects necessary to the city’s growth. He said the negotiations are a give-and-take between those developers and the communities they build in, between long-term and short-term benefits.
Fisher added that most council members follow the recommendations of their community boards and then use those recommendations as leverage when it comes to a council vote. In general, the legislative body defers to the council members that represent the affected communities.
Kallos told City & State that ensuring community engagement and deference to neighborhoods is necessary from start to finish in the planning process for new developments, so they can be built with support rather than resistance. He pointed to a supportive housing development he helped get built his district as one such example of combining local and citywide interests.
“We worked with the community, we lay the groundwork and when we got supportive housing in the community on 91st Street, across the street from (three public schools), we actually brought the students, the principals, the parents, every elected official and faith leaders and people who live on that block and across the street to gather to do a welcoming ceremony with (former City Council Speaker) Christine Quinn,” Kallos said.
City Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., the chairman of the Land Use Committee and a former community board district manager, shared a similar sentiment. He told City & State that in his experience, members of the community did not always feel adequately represented in the ULURP process, but that doesn’t always have to be the case.
“I think that when you have a good developer and they go to the community board months before they certify their application, they are viewed differently by the community board,” Salamanca said. “Because they know that, hey, they really want to get input from the community.”
Without getting into specifics, Salamanca said he expects land use to be a major topic in the council’s Charter Revision Commission and he hopes that revisions to the city charter will result in greater community engagement across the board in city government.
Ultimately, the council’s commission, should it take up the issue, will need to find a balance between empowering communities, satisfying developers and reconciling multiple points of view.