C.B. 1 ready to give up its wheeling-dealing ways
By Julie Shapiro
Tired of taxing and unpredictable battles with developers, Community Board 1 is proposing an overhaul of the city’s land-use process.
“We just do not have a good comprehensive planning system,” said Julie Menin, C.B. 1’s chairperson. “We’ve done this dance so many times over the years…and communities don’t necessarily win.”
It’s not that C.B. 1 has been unsuccessful at getting concessions from developers — in fact, Lower Manhattan has an enviable record of securing schools, a library, a community center, open space and more. But there are no standards for such agreements, and with each new development, the community has to start the fight anew, with no guarantee of success. And many as-of-right developments offer no community benefits at all.
“We’ve worked hard and done the right things,” said Jeff Galloway, chairperson of C.B. 1’s Planning Committee, “[but] a lot of this is luck.”
Menin and Galloway hope the Charter Revision Commission Mayor Bloomberg recently appointed will take up the issue of development planning and add some standards. The city’s current process, called the uniform land use review procedure, “is anything but uniform,” Menin said at a Planning Committee meeting March 4.
Menin wants all new development to include provisions for affordable housing, school seats, public transportation, open space and public art. She also wants the community to reserve the right to negotiate additional amenities from developers, including libraries and senior services. The Planning Committee passed a resolution supporting these ideas.
For inspiration, the community board is looking to other cities with more advanced planning processes. In San Francisco, developers must pay “impact fees” that go toward public art projects, schools, parks and affordable housing. In Minneapolis, developers have to abide by a points system, adding benefits like off-street parking (10 points) or a dog run (1 point) based on the scope of their project. Matt Viggiano and Kasey LaFlam, Columbia University urban planning students who have worked for the board through the borough president’s office, researched those cities and several others.
Menin said she has spoken to both developers and community advocates in San Francisco, and both sides like the planning system because they know what to expect.
However, Galloway, playing devil’s advocate, wondered if standardizing the community benefits might actually hurt Downtown.
“We’ve been pretty successful with ULURP,” Galloway said. “Standardization could spread the wealth.”
Galloway cited the deal C.B. 1 and former Councilmember Alan Gerson struck in 2004 on the 5B and 5C development sites near P.S. 234. In return for two new residential complexes, the community got the promise of a new K-8 school (now the Spruce Street School), a new community center (now Manhattan Youth’s Downtown Community Center) and an annex to alleviate overcrowding at P.S. 234.
“Did we get better than [we could expect] under any reasonable standard?” Galloway said.
Michael Levine, director of land use and planning for C.B. 1, said the community board might not secure such big deals under a change to the city charter, but in the long run the community would be better off because of the accumulation of smaller benefits. The changes the board is proposing would force the city to plan new school seats and other basic services in concert with new developments, which does not always happen now.
Part of the problem with the current system is that the community board only has a voice — and an advisory one at that — when a developer requires a major action by the city, like the sale of public land or a modification of the zoning code. Those projects comprise only about 5 percent of all the construction Downtown, Levine said.
The other 95 percent of projects are as-of-right and do not have to go through ULURP, so the community rarely has any leverage when asking for benefits.
In San Francisco, Minneapolis and other cities, there is no such thing as large-scale, as-of right development — all developers doing big projects have to contribute to the community.
Levine said the city and state have resisted restricting as-of-right development, and as a result, New York’s laws are far behind many other states.
“We have a lot to overcome if we want to catch up,” he said.
The idea of a more standardized approach to development is not a new one — Borough President Scott Stringer has mentioned it, and Comptroller John Liu last month called New York’s haphazard negotiation system “an embarrassment.”
Still, it is unclear whether the Charter Revision Commission will take up land-use issues at all. C.B. 1 members were heartened to hear that the 15-member commission includes three former community board chairs. The commission is chaired by Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the City University of New York.
For the city that originated the idea of urban planning, there could also be some pride at stake in fixing up the city’s development rules.
“New York came up with zoning,” said Viggiano, the Columbia planning fellow. “Are we really going to be beat out by other states in terms of how to do development efficiently?”
The Charter Revision Commission will hold its first meeting Thurs., March 18 at 5:30 p.m. at New York City College of Technology, 300 Jay St., Brooklyn.