NYC planning is a nightmare — here comes a plan to make it worse

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In 1936, New York City adopted a new city charter, creating the City Planning Commission and charging it with drafting a master plan that would “provide for the improvement of the city and its future growth and development and afford adequate facilities for the housing, transportation, distribution, comfort, convenience, health and welfare of its population.”

Somehow, the commission never got around to producing this master plan, but the next version of the charter, in 1961, was even more ambitious, adding “business,” “industry” and “recreation” to the list of “adequate and appropriate” facilities to be included in the plan. Mayor John Lindsay, elected in 1965, was determined to produce a plan as called for by the charter; in 1969, the Plan for New York City was released as a draft in six volumes.

This mighty master-planning process produced nothing of much consequence. Certainly, there was a splendid Mass Transit Program, but little of it was ever built. There was also an Arterial Highways Program, but little of that was built, either. Most of the plan was merely descriptive of the city; little was suggested of the wrenching social and economic changes the city was about to undergo. The plan was never adopted. In the next major charter revision, in 1975, the requirement for a master plan was deleted.

This history offers context for reviewing a new report issued by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, titled “Planning Together: A New Comprehensive Planning Framework for New York City.” Johnson’s report, supported by other councilmembers, has a cogent critique of current planning efforts for zoning changes and capital improvements. The current process is fragmented, with various agencies responsible for critical pieces, and coordination is weak. “Without a coherent citywide framework or shared understanding of citywide challenges and goals,” the report states, “proceeding with neighborhood-by-neighborhood and lot-by-lot rezonings has become increasingly contentious.”

That judgment is correct, but the report’s analysis takes a wrong turn: “New Yorkers’ lack of confidence in our planning processes is partly attributable to the city’s failure to provide meaningful opportunities for communities to proactively plan for their neighborhoods . . . Communities’ increasing aversion to rezonings and growth is also rooted in deep skepticism that the city will adequately invest in the critical infrastructure needed to meet neighborhoods’ existing budget needs, let alone the investments needed to support significant growth.”

The idea that the city’s problems could be solved if only communities were allowed to plan for themselves — to develop solutions appropriate to their own needs — has a long history in New York. A whole section of the current charter allows communities to develop plans; the report even cites it, saying that it has “largely failed to create a meaningful avenue for communities to plan for their futures . . . due to lack of funding, support, and encouragement” from the city.

The Johnson report’s solution: a “ten-year comprehensive planning cycle” for the city. One notable aspect of the proposal is that it would disempower the Department of City Planning and the Office of Management and Budget, the principal professional agencies charged with ensuring that the city’s zoning and spending proposals reflect citywide priorities set by the mayor.

Instead, the process begins with the appointment of a Long-Term Planning Steering Committee, which “would be required to include people historically underrepresented in planning and land use decision-making processes who have expertise in the fields of planning, transportation, sustainability, resilience, housing, public utilities, social services and economic development.”

This committee “would advise on issues related to the Long-Term Plan and adopt citywide and district-level targets for housing, commercial and industrial space to support a diverse mix of jobs, open space, resiliency infrastructure, city facilities, schools, transportation, public utilities and other infrastructure, including the criteria and methodology for determining them in the citywide goals statement.”

The report describes the new process as culminating in a long-term plan that would be adopted by the council but not the City Planning Commission. When considering an application for a zoning change, the City Planning Commission would be required to determine if it is consistent with the long-term plan. If it is consistent, the council could let it pass without a vote — though the council is likely to do this only for noncontroversial proposals. If it isn’t consistent, then the application would go through the normal uniform land-use review procedure, or ULURP, culminating in a vote by the council.

The Johnson report outlines a vast, costly new multiyear process to produce a citywide comprehensive plan, very much in the vein of the old master plan. The plan would be prepared outside the control of the professional agencies that ensure that plans and priorities are realistic and consistent with budgetary resources.

Communities and activists would get the opportunity to draft unconstrained plans, but in the end, the budget process and ULURP would govern, with a new array of promises made but unable to be kept. The speaker’s proposed long-term plan promises only trouble, so it’s unlikely that any mayor would agree to fund it, just as most mayors had the good sense not to pursue a master plan — and any sitting council would likely agree with that assessment.

Master planning failed 50 years ago, because Gotham is too big and diverse to achieve a citywide consensus on change. The speaker would make that consensus easier to achieve by firing naysayers; stakeholders could get their fullest wish lists. But the constraints remain.

The city needs growth, both to balance its budget and to provide the services New Yorkers want. The mayor and the city’s planning agencies need to do a better job of showing that the locations where growth is to be encouraged are fairly and equitably chosen. Voters need to hold the mayor and City Council accountable for improving services commensurate with community needs. But the idea that contentious decisions can be avoided through more community consultation and empowering outsiders to set priorities is just a dream.

Eric Kober is a former New York City planner. Adapted from City Journal.

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