Our Advocacy , Policy

Preservation Groups Oppose Top Down Centralized Planning

On Tuesday, February 23rd, the City Council will be holding a public hearing on Intro 2186, which proposes a requirement for the City of New York to undertake periodic comprehensive planning for all areas of the city and details a completely new process for the city to accomplish this new task. The new comprehensive plan for the city will be generated from and overseen by the Director of the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability (OLTPS), a Mayoral agency formed in 2006 which was previously responsible for the production of the Bloomberg Administration’s PlaNYC (released in 2007 and updated in 2011). The new Comprehensive Long-Term Plan (CLTP) is to be informed by data collected by the City which will track:

  • racial and socio-economic disparities
  • access to opportunity
  • displacement risk
  • short- and long-term risks to the City and its vulnerable communities
  • the impacts of prior development and budget decisions and
  • current and projected infrastructure needs

OLTPS will then consult with various community stakeholders before presenting a CLTP to the City Council. The CLTP, once adopted, will streamline development proposals which are in accord with its priorities, essentially making them “as of right” for the duration of the CLTP, which will be revisited every 10 years. Council members will retain the right to bring specific proposals for public review and planning proposals not in accordance with the CLTP will continue to use the existing Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

As organizations dedicated to protecting New York City’s historic buildings and neighborhoods by empowering New Yorkers to have a voice in the future of our city, we [LIST OF GROUPS] have studied this proposal and have many questions and concerns about it.

To begin with, we believe that a full public engagement process has not been undergone. While the Council has made the authors of this legislation available for presentations in recent weeks, a proposal of this magnitude which purports to empower communities should present to each and every Community Board at the very least. This sort of action is precisely why community boards, originally called community planning boards, were created to begin with. This is especially important in that this bill, if adopted, proposes a great deal more work for the volunteer Community Boards. Will the Community Boards be provided adequate resources to properly engage with this additional work?

Furthermore, this bill does not empower the communities it purports to serve. At each conjuncture in the CLTP process, community stakeholders have, at best, advisory roles. In the final adoption of the CLTP, the Director and the Council explicitly have the authority to overrule community planning and in fact, the community is required to consider three different proposals for their community district provided by the OLTPS for their advisory opinion. At the same time, community voices are only advisory under the existing ULURP law, which proposals will be continuing to use. As one of the principal complaints we hear from communities is that the planning process in New York City is already weighed in favor of developers, how does layering another level of bureaucracy which sidelines community input improve planning? How will the reduced public review of proposals which align with the CLTP benefit the communities the CLTP is meant to serve?

Currently development in New York City, especially private development, operates under the existing Zoning Resolution (ZR), which is an admittedly imperfect planning instrument. There are oversights and loopholes throughout the ZR, the most egregious recent example are the yawning mechanical voids which have appeared in buildings proposed and built in Manhattan’s high-density residential districts. Despite widespread agreement that such flaws must be fixed, this proposal does nothing to fix them other than require the OLTPS to examine the ZR as part of its data review. What role does the Department of City Planning (DCP) play in all this planning? As the expert agency which determines the shape of New York’s future, it would seem a proper and appropriate use of municipal resources for the agency to take an active role in this initiative. Furthermore, the City Planning Commission (CPC) provides a broader representation for oversight of the ZR than the proposed long-term planning committee which will provide an oversight role for the OLTPS. Even if their representative qualities were made equivalent, why create duplicative but conflicting structures?

In practice, this bill will not correct the perceived flaws in how development gets approved in New York but instead will encourage eventual collusions between municipal objectives and procedures. Along those lines, the bill does not at any point consider the existence of designated New York City landmarks and historic districts. Looked at on a municipal scale, the amount of properties which fall under the oversight of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) is negligible, under 4% citywide. However, as opponents of landmarks are fond of saying, many of our city’s designated properties fall within transit-rich areas in our city’s core, areas which are explicitly targeted in the bill. The reasons for this inequity in designation have more to do with the city’s historic development patterns than implicit bias, although the LPC has been trying to redress that failure in recent years.

The focus on areas of rich opportunity could have an unforeseen consequence on our city’s future. By design, density already follows transit lines, many of which have not changed in decades. If these neighborhoods are deemed the areas of opportunity, it only further favors highly-developed districts and leaves the less-served neighborhoods areas increasingly less served. As described, these dense areas with transit should take additional density and by extension, be the first in line for the new schools and infrastructure resources that the city builds. This will do nothing to improve the comparatively less-advantaged areas but further starves them, displacing residents to statistically “better” neighborhoods – which will require more resources as population and density further increases. This is not a scenario which leads to greater equity. How does this plan guard against the consequences of new development which might meet growth goals but damages neighborhoods? Why are growth goals a priority for this bill?

Finally, by institutionalizing the long-term land use powers of the Mayor and the Council, how does this bill interact with the restricted term limits of those officials? As the CLTP is conceptualized in 10-year periods, but grants its ultimate authority to officials with 8-year life spans, how will this structure actually function? What guarantees do we have that this long-term project will remain adequately and consistently funded? Will newly-elected officials will have an adequate understanding of a plan which they will only oversee a portion of? There will be no ribbons to cut on this masterplan and meeting years-old projected benchmarks is hardly thrilling stuff. How will the continuity needed to insure its success be secured in a governmental world which is upended every 8 years?

We are preservationists. By training and inclination, we plan for the long term; that is what preservation is. We believe that long-term comprehensive planning by a municipal body, by New York City, is a laudable goal. As preservationists, we believe that long-term comprehensive planning by New York City is a laudable goal. However, this bill would basically rezone the entire city every ten years through a central authority, with local communities only given the option of an advisory opinion of three different versions of the proposed rezoning for their community. This dramatically diminishes the leverage and role of local communities in the planning process, and undoes many of the post-Robert Moses reforms put into the NYC planning process. The structural flaws in this bill and its implementation make it an inadequate roadmap to New Yorkers’ best future.