Councilman: Resume land-use reviews — but just for Rikers

Costa Constantinides asks de Blasio to restart mapping of Rikers Island

New York /
May.May 15, 2020 02:51 PM
City Council member Costa Constantinides and Rikers Island (Constantinides by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

City Council member Costa Constantinides and Rikers Island (Constantinides by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A City Council member thinks it is time for the city to restart its land-use review process for one plan only: Rikers Island.

Costa Constantinides, whose district includes the city’s notorious jail, wrote this week to Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Planning Commission Chairwoman Marisa Lago supporting their mid-March suspension of land-use reviews, but seeking an exception for the Rikers Island Public Place Mapping.

“It is the only land use action that truly ensures the 90-year practice of incarceration on Rikers Island ends after 2026,” he wrote. “We made a promise to all New Yorkers — especially the families whose lives have been torn apart by our criminal justice system — that, by law, in less than a decade, no person will be held in bondage on this stain on our city.”

For the Rikers application only, he said, the City Planning Commission should use “telecommuting technology” rather than the usual public meetings, he continued.

The de Blasio administration announced plans to close the jails on Rikers Island and build new facilities by 2026 in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. Critics complained that the City Council approved it without guaranteeing Rikers would close, so the Council moved to rezone the island for non-jail use.

However, the urgency of the Rikers rezoning is not apparent: No project is planned for the isolated isle near LaGuardia Airport, and the measure would have no effect until 2026.

Representatives for City Hall did not respond to a request for comment. City Planning spokesperson Joe Marvilli said in a statement that the review procedure, known as Ulurp, remains on pause and that the department is “working to determine next steps, engage the community and ensure public participation.”

The real estate industry, meanwhile, is eager for Ulurp to resume — for actual projects.

Ken Fisher, a real estate attorney at Cozen O’Connor and former City Council member, called Constantinides’ sentiment admirable but said resuming Ulurp for Rikers would mainly be symbolic.

It would make more sense, Fisher said, to resume the review process for all projects, which would provide construction jobs and help New York’s economy recover.

“Approving projects, reaffirming that the city is confident in its future I think will send a powerful message that needs to be delivered,” he said.

Fisher said City Hall should beef up City Planning’s ability to handle applications given the backlog the agency will likely face. It would have to maintain public participation if the proceedings were done virtually. Other government bodies, including the City Council and the Rent Guidelines Board, have continued their public processes with video-conferencing.

“They have to do it soon, but they have to do it in a meaningful way so that we just don’t have a trickle of approvals over what’s left of the de Blasio administration,” the land-use lawyer said, referring to the end of the mayor’s tenure in December 2021. “They need to be moving as quickly as possible to get as much into the pipeline as possible because that’s critical to our recovery.”

Three top lobbyists — Suri Kasirer, Michele de Milly and Jonathan Bing — concurred on a webinar Wednesday that resuming the rezoning process should be a priority.

Many public entities have continued with their processes, de Milly noted, including the City Council, community boards, Landmarks Preservation Commission and Board of Standards and Appeals.

“I don’t really see why the Ulurp process could not be convened,” de Milly said.

But Constantinides, who disputed that the Rikers action would just be symbolic, said it is not time for the city to resume Ulurp across the board.

The Queens Council member has a particular interest in Rikers: a infrastructure plan he calls Renewable Rikers Island that would allow for the closure of secondary power plants and aging wastewater treatment plants throughout the city.

“I just think we can’t wait any longer,” he said. “We just cannot continue to allow this to languish.”


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