By Eve Baron
The year 2001 was a landmark one for electoral politics in New York City. Due to the first-time imposition of term limits, two-thirds of the City Council’s incumbent members would lose their seats, making room for the biggest freshman class since the inception of the institution. New York City ’s liberal four-to-one match of campaign finances also allowed those less traditionally endowed to run for office. These two factors combined to give candidates running on advocacy platforms opportunities to win big at the local level, and advocates across the city some reason to be optimistic that their views might be represented within the political system.
As elections neared, the Campaign for Community-Based Planning—a collaboration of environmental justice advocates, academics, grassroots planners, community board members and representatives from civic organizations—was formed. Campaign participants recognized that the time was ripe for a change in the way New York City planned for its future development Themes well-known to advocates of civic planning were echoed in their concerns: sustainability; equal access to power, representation and resources; equitable distribution of city resources and burdens; and recognition of locally-based knowledge. The group sought to enlighten City Council and Mayoral candidates about the opportunities for building a livable New York by first providing communities with the resources to plan for building livable communities.
In July of 2001 the campaign coordinated a Candidates’ Forum, which heard the candidates speak of their commitment to community-based plans as building blocks for the development of citywide and regional plans, policies and fiscal commitments. In the winter of 2001, City Council members-elect were presented with an analysis of the content, process, efficacy and level of governmental support for community-based plans. A Community-Based Planning Technical Advisory Committee was formed in April of 2002 to assist the Task Force in drafting policies to institutionalize community-based planning in New York City. This committee comprised individuals from academic departments, planning firms, advocacy organizations and city agencies.
In order to assist communities in planning, the Campaign initiated both a free online consultant directory and matching service, and a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping support program. The consultant directory contains a list of planning and architecture firms, academic departments, advocacy organizations and individual consultants and serves as a resource for community-based groups working on planning projects. The matching service pairs community groups seeking planning and other forms of assistance with local universities seeking projects for studios, classes or internships. The GIS mapping support program provides technical support to community organizations creating their own GIS projects and developing unique neighborhood-level data sets for planning and analysis.
The Campaign for Community-Based Planning is now in its fourth year. One of the most notable collaborations of the citywide campaign is The Briefing Book of Community-Based Plans, prepared by the Municipal Art Society Planning Center. This document contains the platform for community-based planning and descriptions of over seventy community-based plans developed in neighborhoods throughout the city. The compendium consists of short entries, illustrated with photographs and GIS maps that provide a quick and vital understanding of each plan’s goals and recommendations. The publication outlines the common themes and development goals that many communities share (e.g., waterfront access, open space development in areas underserved by parks).
Community Plans Not Recognized
The size and complexity of New York City renders a strictly centralized planning process inadequate. On paper, New York City has what appears to be strong support for community-based planning—the City Charter empowers its fifty-nine community boards to draft neighborhood-based “197-a plans.” But this commitment is less apparent in reality. The City Charter’s original intent was that when public policies are formulated, 197-a plans are to be folded into the city’s planning decisions. In practice, however, they are often adopted by the city and then ignored or used only when their recommendations align with city priorities. City agencies give scant assistance to communities’ planning efforts, whether through 197-a plans or any other plans, and only rarely implement their plan recommendations. In fact, rather than seeing community-based plans as building blocks in the development of public planning policy, some have regarded community planning and policy planning as separate, even conflicting, interests. Only eight 197-a plans have been approved in more than a decade.
Considered both individually and in the aggregate, community-based plans represent some of the best planning being done in New York City. In many poor communities, they are the only planning efforts. Since government provides no staff or financial assistance, l ow- and moderate-income communities have turned to foundations, banks, planning schools and technical assistance providers for support in developing their plans. Yet even after they have managed to complete their plans, many of these communities find it difficult to get the publicity and support needed to have these plans taken seriously and integrated into official plans, policies and investments.
In some places, as in parts of the South Bronx and Brooklyn, community-based plans have resulted in almost miraculous urban transformations. But most of these successes have been achieved only after many years of effort involving:
- fundraising to hire technical planning assistance;
- waiting for the Department of City Planning (DCP) or other agencies to share public data (and in some cases having to use freedom of information requests) or having to redo existing research;
- convincing DCP to accept innovative proposals as valid and worthy of inclusion in a plan;
- organizing and applying pressure to convince the city to consider plans that do not coincide with market pressures;
- lobbying, protesting and litigating to stop other plans and proposals from being implemented before community plans have been adopted or before adopted plans have been implemented;
- identifying and securing implementation funding (sometimes without the assistance or support of municipal decision-makers);
- pressuring decision-makers, one by one, to take community plans off the shelves and implement the recommendations by using them to shape and influence capital and expense investments and land use and zoning proposals and approvals.
Today’s Neighborhood Planning Challenges
Despite these obstacles, communities continue to advocate for their plans. Two of the best examples of neighborhood-based planning processes and plans—the Williamsburg Waterfront 197-a plan and the Greenpoint 197-a plan—were adopted by the City Planning Commission and the City Council in December, 2001. Even before the Williamsburg Plan was adopted, its utility was demonstrated: The community used it to help convince New York State to allocate Environmental Bond Act monies for acquisition of part of a vacant industrial site to develop recreational and open space. Yet it remains unclear what the future holds for implementation of the Williamsburg plan. Measures to protect the remaining manufacturing in the neighborhood’s mixed-use economy were virtually removed at the insistence of the city. And despite explicit recommendations in the plan for high performance manufacturing, mixed-use development and affordable housing, the city’s major rezoning proposal for the area is being driven by the market. Land use variances (from manufacturing to residential use) are granted with barely a nod to the plan. A proposal for the siting of an energy generation plant for the waterfront is being considered by the state. The community is forced once again to mobilize opposition, even though they have already used the methods prescribed by the city for proactive planning.
Some progress has been made on the part of the city to take neighborhood plans more seriously. The Department of City Planning has engaged a community-based task force in Greenpoint and Williamsburg to respond to a major rezoning proposal for the area. DCP has also made use of its own environmental impact statement to include review of a community-created alternative to its plan for the west side of Manhattan. Residents and advocates are being asked for input in advance of a planning study DCP is formulating for 125 th Street in Harlem.
But there are other examples that dramatize that there is still a need for communities to create their own plans and for these plans to be recognized. A large-scale re-zoning for Downtown Brooklyn, which will have an extensive impact on surrounding residential neighborhoods, will be joined by a private developer’s plan to construct a massive development—a basketball arena, commercial space and 4,500 units of housing. The two plans, taken together, will transform the face of Downtown Brooklyn from civic center and local shopping district to major regional commercial hub and recreation destination, with the inherent risks of increased vehicle traffic, overwhelmed public transportation, spiraling real estate costs and displacement. The local community board had started a 197-a plan, yet the process stalled due to lack of funding. The board was expected to review DCP’s behemoth development proposal in sixty days, without the benefit of any professional planning input or economic feasibility analysis. The board failed to achieve consensus by the time it had to register a vote in the official public review process. The plan continues its way through the land use review process without the benefit of even the meager advisory role afforded the community in this process, much less an expression of a community vision culled from a community-based plan for the area.
In New York City there is an urgent need for timely development of affordable housing, open space and economic development opportunities. As an inflated real estate market in Lower Manhattan forces the attention of developers to areas elsewhere, many communities are concerned that redevelopment inevitably results in their displacement. Community-based plans, with their emphasis on these pressing issues, frequently offer the best answers. When working in coalitions, communities have even developed the only truly comprehensive citywide plans for issues such as solid waste.
The Next Phase: Transforming Community Boards
The Campaign has now shifted its focus away from candidates and toward building grassroots support for and participation in the creation of strategies for its core mission: building the capacity of the fifty-nine community boards to represent all constituencies in their respective neighborhoods; increasing resources so that the boards can actually plan; and increasing resources for the implementation of neighborhood-based plans. The goals of the campaign now are to:
- Build awareness about community-based planning as the most viable and effective means of developing housing, jobs and recreational amenities in New York City’s neighborhoods;
- Advocate for specific ways in which city government can provide concrete support to communities undertaking community-based plans of all types, from developing and promoting their plans to implementation;
- Build awareness of community-based planning among elected officials and their staff.
Eve Baron is a planner with the Municipal Art Society Planning Center.