Negotiating Land Use
Though it remains unlikely that the Charter Review Commission will recommend major changes come November to New York’s complex Uniform Land Use Review Process, the recent debate that has emerged in issue forums that will continue to be held throughout the summer between the city, developers and community advocates suggests that there is much room for discussion. A seven-month review process, ULURP governs the procedure through which the city examines potential zoning changes and development projects, involving community boards, borough presidents, the City Planning Commission and the City Council.
The current chairwoman of the Planning Commission asserts that the current process functions just fine, and sees no reason to make adjustments. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Tom Agnotti, a professor of urban planning at Hunter College, has emerged as the most vocal proponent of initiating significant changes to the city’s land use approach. He argues that in order for community boards to have real power, they must have the proper resources (increased funds and staff) with which to grapple with complicated land use decisions. He also contends that urban planning in New York City occurs in fits and starts, and not as a result of comprehensive projects.
Agnotti’s proposal that makes the most sense, and that has the most room for consensus, concerns not ULURP itself, but instead what occurs outside of its official purview. In addition to developments that bypass ULURP completely, much of what is presented to the land use review process has already been decided. Fearing that projects could be completely derailed in the middle of the seven-month evaluation, developers meet with public officials and community advocates before ULURP is legitimately commenced. As a result, the agreements that materialize occur out of the public eye and beyond the reach of the city’s land use regulations. The environment review portion, as well as the community benefits agreements that are often brokered between developers and neighborhood organizations, are hammered out with little transparency. By the time that official negotiations begin, the major decisions and blueprints have already been decided. While ULURP may amend various aspects of a development, it very rarely rejects a project entirely. This, surely, is one aspect of the process that we can all agree warrants another look.