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The New York Times


Building Blocks

August 05, 2007

By Hope Cohen

IN the 1980s, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority began fixing decaying subway stations and upgrading underpowered trains. This mighty undertaking would have been delayed by untold years had the authority not managed to win exemption from the state’s environmental review law, which adds time, cost and unpredictability to projects. And New York City’s version of the state rules is even more burdensome. Now, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ambitious plan to improve infrastructure and housing throughout the city, it is time to take the unwieldy review process off the table for some projects — and make it meaningful for others.

As with many examples of government inefficiency, environmental review was created in the 1970s with good intentions. Project sponsors seeking money or approval from public agencies would have to tell public officials what effects their proposals would have on the environment. The officials, in turn, could plan for necessary changes to public services. The city would grow, while the trains, power and water supply, schools and the police force would keep running smoothly.

But today, environmental review serves mainly as a way for project sponsors to shield themselves from litigation. Builders produce weighty studies that describe every imaginable “impact” on the broadly defined “environment” in an effort to forestall lawsuits accusing them of inadequate disclosure. These technical documents cost tens of thousands of dollars to prepare and take months to get approved.

Worse, this does nothing to protect the environment. When there are significant environmental implications, the developer must suggest ways to “mitigate” them — build an additional subway stairway to relieve crowding, plant grass and trees in a vacant lot to provide needed parks, change signal timing to ease traffic flow. But the city has no mechanism in place to ensure that changes are actually made.

Meanwhile, applicants for smaller projects seldom need to propose any mitigations (their environmental impact is too minor to matter), yet they must take the time, effort and expense of review before beginning construction. That’s because New York City uses the state’s one-size-fits-all interpretation for project review. But the city is not the same as the rest of the state. A small apartment building, overwhelming in rural Greene County, fits easily into our dense urban fabric.

Compounding the problem, the city has abandoned a positive feature of the state law. The state places limits on how long its agencies have to examine documents submitted by developers; the city excuses itself from these timelines. This means that small proposals get held up indefinitely, as agencies face a backlog of submissions.

What’s more, even as New Yorkers cry out for affordable housing, review requirements burden its developers, while leaving alone the builders of luxury buildings. For example, Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem features new construction developed under the city’s Cornerstone program, using low-cost land and below-market financing from the Housing Development Corporation. Because the land had been city-owned, the developers spent four to six months conducting reviews that would not have been required for private-to-private land transfers and development of market-rate apartments. Furthermore, in what is now standard practice, the developers had to prepare full environmental analyses with extensive testing and specialized disposal of debris from their sites. The price tag was hundreds of thousands of dollars — and no environmental hazards were found.

Environmental review contributes to New York’s phenomenal construction costs, but it does not do what most New Yorkers think it does, nor does it do what the city needs it to do to meet the demands of a growing population. The problem will worsen in coming years as people move into previously underdeveloped areas of the city — areas that require projects to improve and expand schools and transit, sewage treatment and electricity service.

The good news is that the mayor can improve the situation with a stroke of his pen. Many of these difficulties were created by executive orders and could be reversed by new executive orders. The mayor could, for example, exempt many small projects altogether. This includes subsidized housing developments entangled because of their acceptance of city subsidies. Exempting small projects would expedite the process, and free up city examiners to concentrate on proposals that really need official attention.

And for remaining applications, the mayor should insist that city agencies adhere to state time limits on the turnaround of documents. Finally, the mayor needs to establish a system to ensure that mitigations are actually made — getting promised parks and subway stairs built shouldn’t have to depend on community groups keeping tabs on developers year after year.

With these commonsense reforms, the mayor can make environmental review useful at last. The changes would focus resources on planning for the city’s growth, while allowing small enterprises some regulatory breathing room. As the Bloomberg administration focuses on New York’s sustainable future, this is the perfect time for the mayor to make environmental review truly meaningful.

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