Land use overhaul faces challenging path forward

Real estate attorneys see issues with Council speaker Corey Johnson’s proposed framework

Corey Johnson (background) and (from left) Ross Moskowitz, Ken Fisher and Paul Selver (Getty)
Corey Johnson (background) and (from left) Ross Moskowitz, Ken Fisher and Paul Selver (Getty)

The City Council is taking the first step toward transforming how land use decisions are made in New York, but it has a long road ahead.

Council Speaker Corey Johnson will introduce legislation Thursday that would create a new framework for city planning by setting long-term goals for housing, infrastructure, climate resiliency and other resources. The bill lays out a 10-year planning cycle that incorporates more opportunities for community members to weigh in on land use decisions in their neighborhoods.

The proposal follows a series of controversial rezonings and mounting pressure from Council members to change the city’s land use review process. During a press conference on Thursday, Johnson said he didn’t have a timeline for passage of the measure, but that it’s a priority before his term ends next year. He said he is hopeful that the new framework would put communities in a “proactive position” in shaping land use decisions.

Land use attorneys agreed that a more holistic approach is needed, but said executing a 10-year plan — and maintaining momentum as mayors and council members change during that time — will likely prove a challenge.

“The idea of additional community input into each of these aspects raises two questions, the most important of which is, how do you balance citywide needs with local concerns? That is a fundamental conundrum,” said Kenneth Fisher, an attorney with Cozen O’Connor and a former City Council member.

“Neighborhoods tend to want to remain the way they are,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily lead to them becoming what they need to be for the overall city.”

The second question, he said, is how the city can allocate the necessary resources to engage a meaningful cross-section of each community. He said, however, that a citywide approach to planning is long overdue.

The legislation would shift more responsibility to the head of the mayor’s Office of Sustainability, which would be renamed the Office of Land Use and Sustainability. The office would be required to study the zoning resolution, recommend potential changes and draft a long-term plan for the city.

The plan would include at least three potential land-use scenarios for each district, proposing possible residential, commercial and other uses. The City Council would vote on the final land-use scenario for each district after receiving input from borough presidents, community boards and members of the public.

The framework also seeks to incentivize developers to submit rezoning and other land use applications that align with each district’s scenario to potentially shorten the approval process.

Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, the city’s seven-month process, would no longer require Council approval if City Planning deems the application abides by the land-use scenario. But Council members could still opt to vote on the proposal.

Ross Moskowitz, a partner at Stroock who represented the development team in the controversial Special Flushing Waterfront District proposal, said he can’t imagine Council members opting out of a final vote on significant decisions.

“That’s not going to happen,” he said. “[Constituents] would take the Council member to task for not taking up the conversation.”

Holding up approval provides members leverage to extract concessions from developers, even if their proposal has won City Planning’s support.

Moskowitz said the report raises important questions about how to balance citywide and neighborhood priorities and how to address conflicts between them.

Paul Selver, co-chair of Kramer Levin’s land use department, agreed that the report’s goals, such as addressing inequities in access to transportation, housing and other resources, are critical, but can’t necessarily be addressed solely through a land use framework. But he supports the idea of making citywide objectives a bigger part of the planning process.

“I think that land use planning has to be more closely coordinated with other city policies.” he said. “Today there’s really no effective process for doing that.”