Council speaker proposes overhaul of land use process

Corey Johnson to introduce legislation governing development

City Council speaker Corey Johnson (Getty; iStock)
City Council speaker Corey Johnson (Getty; iStock)

For decades, politicians and advocates have tried and failed to take a more comprehensive approach to land use decisions in the city. But now the City Council speaker himself has mapped out a plan.

Corey Johnson released a report Wednesday calling for a 10-year, citywide planning framework that sets long-term goals for housing, transportation, public space and other community needs.

It also adds opportunities for the public to weigh in on what happens in their neighborhoods. The speaker is expected to introduce related legislation Thursday.

The plan gives City Council members broader authority to set the long-term future of their districts, but ostensibly takes away their de facto ability to kill applications submitted through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.

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Under the proposal, a newly named Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability — currently the Office of Sustainability — would draft a long-term plan that includes land-use scenarios for each district.

Borough presidents, community boards and members of the public could express opinions on the scenarios, but the City Council would ultimately decide the plan for each district.

Ulurp, the city’s seven-month land use review process, would also no longer require all rezonings to get City Council approval. But there is a loophole that would let the chamber retain its control over the process.

Applications would have to include a “statement of alignment” demonstrating how the proposal fits into the district’s approved land-use scenario. The City Planning Commission would then determine if the application is in step with that scenario.

The loophole is that in cases where the City Council disagrees with City Planning’s decision, members could still take up the proposal — and reject it.

The overall idea, according to the report, is to incentivize developers to submit applications that align with the scenario to avoid additional approval steps. But it is not clear why City Council members would forgo their chance to vote on it. Land use is a critical source of members’ power.

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When asked during a press conference on Wednesday if Council members would give up their final vote on Ulurp applications, Johnson said it was difficult to say.

“Members have different viewpoints,” he said, adding that the conversations leading up to the Ulurp process would likely lead to fewer applications being heard by the council. “There would have been a proactive process that I would think Council members would be engaged with,” he said.

City Council members have been asking for more power over the process, not less. They often complain that their options are limited when developers pitch projects, especially when there is an as-of-right alternative that the member deems unacceptable.

Developers would also potentially be able to avoid certain environmental reviews if their plan complies with a broader environmental impact statement completed as part of the city’s long-term plan. An environmental impact statement, currently required for many projects, adds months and huge costs to projects, and limits developers’ ability to change plans.

The proposal also seeks to reform the city’s “piecemeal approach to planning,” saying that it has “largely neglected brown and Black neighborhoods, immigrants, people with disabilities, and low-income New Yorkers.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing initiative, specifically rezonings under the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program, has been repeatedly criticized for targeting low-income neighborhoods while not asking wealthy enclaves to shoulder more of the city’s affordable housing burden.

The report calls for the formation of a steering committee which would create a series of citywide goals that would be required under the City Charter to “reduce and eliminate disparities in access to opportunity and the distribution of resources and development across race, geography, and socioeconomic status.”

The steering committee and sustainability office would also create district-level targets to “correct segregationist policies.”

The proposal, however, doesn’t outline specific zoning legislation or policies to rectify the maladies it identifies in the city’s current system. Much of the heavy lifting is left to the early stages of the framework, which include studies on the city’s most urgent needs.

The report recognizes that since at least 1930, multiple attempts have been made to address city planning in a more holistic way — with little success. The report says the Bloomberg administration’s PlaNYC 2030, which also set out to create a more comprehensive long-term planning process, fell short because it lacked “specificity with respect to land use, zoning, and capital planning.”

Passage of Johnson’s plan is far from guaranteed. It would, at the least, require the approval of city legislation and likely changes to the City Charter. Johnson is expected to discuss the report and proposed legislation during a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

At the same time as the conference, several groups are planning to protest outside City Hall, calling for a pause to all remote Ulurp meetings. According to the Village Sun, the groups are opposed to the administration’s proposed rezoning of Soho and Noho.

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