Conflicting Interests and a Broken Planning System

This past week, amidst flooded streets, blackouts, overheated jails, and subway failures, New Yorkers saw the consequences that result from a failure to engage in strategic long-term planning for the future of our city. In the final decisions of the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, we also missed a big chance to do something about it.

The dangers of failing to invest strategically in the infrastructure that sustains our city will grow in coming decades, as temperatures and sea levels rise. Meanwhile, even as our infrastructure strains, the city’s population continues to grow. So our housing affordability crisis is on track to get worse – exacerbating displacement, inequality, and the unfair imposition of our city’s burdens on low-income communities of color.

It’s clear that we need a better way to make infrastructure and land-use decisions that take climate change, affordability, and the challenges of growth seriously. Our piece-meal planning system is not up to the task.

Currently, the process of developing a capital plan to invest in our infrastructure constitutes just making a big list – a list that is in no way informed by plans for rezoning or development. How can we plan which neighborhoods should get resilient infrastructure like levees and seawalls when land-use and growth decisions are happening elsewhere? Shouldn’t we include capital budgeting for infrastructure like transit and schools as part of the process of planning for the new residential growth that will require it?

Meanwhile, New York City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) is a reactive, project-by-project process for considering changes – bereft of strategic vision, shared values, or a connection to long-term infrastructure planning.

Codified in 1975 when the city’s challenge was abandonment rather than growth, ULURP has become reduced to a shrill, tug-of-war between the pro-growth forces of the Real Estate Board of New York (who profit on each development, and therefore rarely worry about which ones make long-term sense for the public good) and neighborhood activists whose Not In My Back Yard advocacy (rooted in a variety of motivations) leaves no way to figure out where and how the growth we need to address the scale of the housing crisis should take place.

The process ensures that decisions are driven by the interest group with the most powerful political connections, creating a planning rationale that reflects and reinforces systemic inequities.

If we are going to plan for the future that’s coming, like it or not, we need a way out of the REBNY vs. NIMBY doom loop.

The 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission — which last week issued its final decisions on ballot proposals to go before voters this November — had the chance to plot a better course forward. The Charter Revision Commission heard more complaints about New York City’s land use process than any other topic. Commission members and staff acknowledged “a level of public disillusionment” and that “the somewhat scattered approach the Charter currently takes to its various planning requirements exacerbates this disillusionment and confusion.”

But, even with all the signs pointing to the need for better long-term planning, they failed to propose any meaningful changes. When we vote in November on charter changes, addressing our disparate and dysfunctional planning processes won’t be on the ballot, though 19 other proposals will be.

When the commission began its work last fall, we proposed a real step forward. Together with the Thriving Communities Coalition of community-based groups, affordable housing, environmental, and planning advocates, we asked the commissioners to require New York City to undertake a comprehensive planning process, in which we would work together to set a broader citywide framework for land use and infrastructure decisions.

The process would begin with data-driven, citywide analyses of our challenges. We would then have a public conversation about the values that should shape decisions — values like fairness across communities, making sure people can stay in their homes, mitigating climate change, investing in resilient infrastructure, new modes of transit, and closing the Rikers Island jails. We could do it every ten years as they do in so many other cities, or every four years to coincide with our mayoral election cycles.

Together, we would set a citywide framework for the tough job of balancing citywide needs and neighborhood preferences. Communities would get a real voice, but not a veto. The City Council would vote on this broader framework. After that, zoning actions, development proposals, and infrastructure investments aligned with the comprehensive plan would move more smoothly. Those that conflict with the plan would not (or, at least, would have to clear extra hurdles).

We would plan for increased transit capacity alongside increased housing density, budget for new parks equitably across the city, and take a holistic look at where we need to take further action to plan for rising sea levels and more 100-degree days. Communities could be able to have confidence that promises made to them – for new parks, schools, libraries, or transit – would actually be kept.

Comprehensive planning is not a panacea, but evidence from other cities suggests that it is an essential component of fair and rational progress. As part of their process last year, our friends in the Minneapolis City Council voted to get rid of single-family zoning across the city, and upzone their transit corridors citywide to address their housing shortage (at the same time, they voted to strengthen tenant protections to protect renters from displacement as growth occurs).

Let’s be honest: there is no way Minneapolis would have done this with a process like ULURP, which goes one neighborhood or project at a time. What neighborhood would have agreed to be the first one to give up the privilege of single-family zoning? Not one.

By comparison, of the ten neighborhood rezoning processes initiated during the de Blasio administration, nine have been in low-income communities of color. This would not have happened if we had developed a comprehensive plan, with fairness across communities as one of its principles.

The Charter Revision Commission failed to get the job done. But the heat wave and its impacts reminded us that, in the longer term, we really don’t have a choice. So in the coming months, we’ll be working in the City Council to do what we can through legislation. And in the coming years, we’ll try to make sure that the 2021 city elections focus on issues that matter the most, even if they don’t always make the daily news cycle.

Comprehensive planning may not top the polls. But if we are going to meet the collective challenges of rising temperatures and sea levels, growing population, aging infrastructure, keeping people in their homes, and addressing deeply-rooted inequality, we’re going to have to start doing it.

 

By Brad Lander & Antonio Reynoso