New Yorkers have too many worries at the moment, perhaps, to think about urban planning. But the breakdown of the city’s land-use process should loom large for all of us.
Last week brought the news that Industry City, an applicant for a zoning change in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is considering withdrawing its application and pursuing investments that stay within the limits of its existing outdated zoning, unchanged since 1961.
Industry City is making this choice after unsuccessfully negotiating with Carlos Menchaca, the local councilman, over conditions to secure his support. Councilmember support is seen as a necessary precondition to full City Council approval, required by the City Charter.
Such developments threaten the city’s future.
Ever since the creation of the modern city in 1898, Gotham has relied on real-estate investment to create jobs, raise revenue and grow housing stock. But in a high-regulation town, growth doesn’t just happen. The land-use-approval process needs to allow it.
When that process fails, the city can’t grow and change — including in response to a crisis like the one we’re in now. Real estate could lead the Big Apple out of the COVID-19 recession, especially with interest rates at rock bottom. Yet if proposals can’t get through the process, the downturn will last longer; the city will be less competitive in the future.
Industry City is the latest in a long list of zoning proposals, some by the de Blasio administration and others by private applicants, that have failed to advance to the land-use process or failed once in it. This year, the council turned down a rezoning application for Lenox Terrace, a 1,600-unit, mixed-income housing proposal in Harlem.
A few weeks ago, local Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer sharply criticized a new proposal by four developers for the 28-acre Long Island City site formerly proposed as a second headquarters for Amazon. The Amazon project was proposed, unsuccessfully, for approval through an alternate state-managed land-use process — precisely because the online-retail giant had no faith in a successful outcome through the city’s process.
The sclerosis is new: It happened under Mayor de Blasio. Prior administrations, going back to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, had failures from time to time, but most zoning and other land-use applications were approved. The Board of Estimate and, beginning in 1990, the City Council demanded changes in projects approved by the City Planning Commission to address community concerns but, for the most part, recognized the city’s continuing interest in growth and investment.
What went wrong? De Blasio bears some of the blame. More than his predecessors, he was willing to yield to aldermanic privilege, granting councilmembers an absolute veto over what goes on in their districts. It’s an inversion of the framework envisioned in every major City Charter revision since 1936, when the City Planning Commission was created.
The commission, a majority of whose members are appointed by the mayor, is supposed to represent a citywide interest in well-planned growth that transcends local anti-growth politics. The mayor needed to use the considerable powers of his office to assemble legislative majorities. This framework never worked perfectly, but it worked well enough under previous mayors.
De Blasio, a former councilman, seems unwilling in many cases to force the issue when the local councilmember makes demands the applicant simply can’t meet, effectively killing the project. And fearing their left flank, councilmembers are often loath to agree to any deal that could be seen as a compromise with developers.
De Blasio won’t change. But the next mayor needs to put together a political coalition on the council in favor of sensible investment and renewed growth. That coalition can threaten a councilmember who demands too much without conceding anything.
No councilmember is going to care more about sustaining the city’s revenue-raising potential than about loud and well-organized opponents to any proposed project. But the words we always want to hear are “I got the best deal I could.” That means there is a deal — and that the process is working once again.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
Eric Kober is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He retired in 2017 as director of housing, economic and infrastructure planning at the New York City Department of City Planning. Follow him on Twitter here.
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