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John Petro

The Role of Community Groups in City Planning

A recent article in the Gotham Gazette argues against New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to cut the city’s budget for the 59 community boards by 17 percent. Helen Rosenthal, who heads Community Board 7, makes the case for preserving the current level of funding:

“The 59 community boards are the people's most direct line to city government, the most effective way to participate in discussions about public policy and quality of life issues -- the closest thing to direct democracy that we have in the city.”
The article put me in mind of something that I had read a year ago. At the time, City Council member Tony Avella was planning on introducing legislation that would strengthen the role of community boards by making the planning documents that are created by the community boards, called 197-a plans, legally binding.

Currently, 197-a plans are advisory documents only. The community boards draft the plans, which are then reviewed by the City Planning Commission for approval. Even if they are approved, the 197-a plans do not carry the weight of law. This was demonstrated in 2007 when Columbia University’s expansion plan was approved by the City Council even though the expansion contradicted the neighborhood’s approved 197-a plan.

Councilor Avella’s proposed legislation, which was never introduced, had (has) the support of the Campaign for Community-Based Planning, a part of the Municipal Arts Society. The Campaign’s website states:

Based on the premise that the people who live and work in a neighborhood are among the best-equipped to plan for the future of that neighborhood, the Campaign for Community-Based Planning is laying the groundwork for the formal adoption of community-based planning as official New York City policy.

Community-based planning is a tricky concept. When making planning and land use decisions, it is important that the city be able to both accommodate the preferences of individual neighborhoods and retain the ability to go against the wishes of a single neighborhood when a policy reflects city-wide goals.

The question is: are the members of a community the best-equipped to plan for the future of that community? How are these plans to be reconciled with city-wide needs? To be sure, city government doesn’t always make the best planning decisions (ahem, Atlantic Yards). Communities need to have a powerful voice when it comes to development in their neighborhood, one that won’t be ignored outright. At the same time, we need to make sure that community-based planning doesn’t just empower NIMBY’s from stopping all new development or blocking the construction of needed city facilities, such as waste-transfer stations.

How do other cities address this dilemma? Seattle and Minneapolis are both regarded as having a strong community-planning process. Seattle has a Planning Commission made up of 15 citizen members that “advises the Mayor, City Council and City departments on broad planning goals, policies and plans for the physical development of the City.” Minneapolis also has a planning commission as well as a Neighborhood and Community Engagement Commission, both with advisory roles.

It seems that New York already has a relatively strong community-planning process. Perhaps the answer is in giving community boards a veto power over certain land-use decisions, but one that can be overridden by the Mayor and City Council.

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Posted at 5:15 PM, Mar 18, 2009 in New York | Urban Affairs
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