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Experts Examine NYC’s Land Use Process at MAS Conference

program land use audience panel

Last Wednesday, more than 300 community board members, land use professionals, and others concerned with development in New York City gathered at Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts for Land Use and Local Voices: Is the City’s Land Use Process in Need of Reform?, a conference co-sponsored by MAS and Manhattan Community Board 1.

MAS President Vin Cipolla opened the day by posing a series of questions that the three panels and keynote interview addressed, “How does New York City build?  How do the city’s neighbors shape their communities?  What, exactly, is distinct about the way New York City plans its neighborhoods and development?…What changes do we want to see?  What are the consequences of those changes?  What mechanisms are already in place to address shortcomings in the land use process, and are they working?” He continued, “As you can probably tell, today’s program is likely to provide more questions than answers, and that’s ok.  MAS, and others, are going to continue to work on these issues until we are that much closer to solving them.”

The conference’s triad of panels brought together some of New York City’s, and the country’s, leading voices on land use issues, and provoked interesting discussions among the panelists and the audience. The first panel, moderated by Ethel Sheffer, AICP (principal, Insight Associates), addressed what is distinct about New York City’s land use process.  The panelists discussed how the process works both in theory and in practice, from the perspective of the city government, developers, and the community. They then compared New York City’s process with model practices and the land use processes of other jurisdictions country-wide.

In the second panel, moderator Eugenie L. Birch (MAS board member, Lawrence C. Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research and Education, Department of City and Regional Planning, School of Design, at the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research.) invited panelists to suggest ways to improve the city’s land use process.  Suggestions included re-examining and reforming fair share provisions, community board reform, “197-a” community planning reform, oversight of projects not subject to the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), developing comprehensive plans, and the possibility of a future charter revision commission for implementing these changes.

In the afternoon, the third panel, moderated by Vicki Been (MAS board member, Boxer Professor of Law at New York University’s School of Law School and Director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy), took a close look at community benefit agreements (CBAs), which are private agreements between developers and a coalition of organizations meant to represent the local community.  CBAs are an increasingly popular practice throughout the country and generally result in developers providing amenities and improvements to the community in exchange for local support of the underlying development or project.  The panel examined how CBAs attempt to address issues outside of the land use process, and questioned whether or not they are beneficial to developers, communities, and cities, including New York City.

In the closing keynote, MAS Board Member and Chair of Manhattan Community Board 1, Julie Menin, interviewed Eric Lane, former executive director and counsel to the New York City Charter Revision Commission and former chair of the New York City Task Force on Charter Implementation. The interview was a frank discussion on the successes and failures of the 1989 Charter Revision Commission (the last charter revision commission to address land use in a meaningful way), the 2010 Charter Revision Commission, and what land use issues should be considered for charter revision in the future.