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MAS Comments on the Automated City Register Information System

Full Title: MAS Comments for the New York City Council, Committee on Finance regarding Introduction No. 1673 of 2017 in relation to the notification and recording of certain real estate instruments through the Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS).

Position

The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) has a number of recommendations we urge the City to include in Introduction No. 1673. If amended consist with our recommendations, we would support the proposal. The bill must apply to all document types pertaining to the transfer of development rights and zoning lot mergers as a means of increasing transparency and accountability for non-discretionary land use actions. In addition to the proposed notification system, the legislation should also require a quarterly, downloadable digital publication that discloses key real estate information from relevant document types. Finally, the legislation must require improvements to the functionality of the existing online platform, including better searching, filtering, and previewing capabilities.

Background

Introduction No. 1673, introduced by Council Members Rosenthal and Ferreras-Copeland, seeks to codify the Department of Finance (DOF)’s Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS) Notice of Recorded Document Program by requiring that the DOF establish and maintain a system that would allow users to register to receive notifications by email or text message whenever any document (as determined by the Finance Commissioner) affecting an ownership interest in real property is recorded with the City Register or the Office of the Richmond County Clerk.

Recommendations

As identified in our updated Accidental Skyline report, released last Monday, we recognize the importance of improving online resources by making data standardized, comprehensive, and accessible. Therefore, while we fully support improvements to the notification system for ACRIS, we feel the proposed legislation needs to adopt the following recommendations to significantly advance the existing usefulness of the platform to the public and effectively increase transparency with regard to the transfer of development rights.

1. Documents Types Pertaining to Development Rights – Zoning lot mergers and development rights transfers are one of the primary mechanisms developers use to build significantly larger buildings and avoid the scrutiny of the City’s public review processes. Unfortunately, the City lacks a platform that provides clear and accessible information about non-discretionary actions such as zoning lot mergers and other property transactions not subject to CEQR and ULURP. In its current form, the legislation omits these important actions.

As such, the bill should be amended to specifically include documents that record zoning lot mergers; the transfer or acquisition of development rights; zoning lot development agreements (ZLDAs); easement agreements; air rights, or any other similar action pertaining to development rights.

2. Notification Systems – In the interest of increasing transparency to the fullest extent practicable, we recommend that the City be required to submit physical and digital notifications to the local Community Board and Council Member whenever document types pertaining to developments rights are recorded in the Office of the City Register or at the Department of Finance.

In addition, given that air right assemblages are often created over the course of many years or even decades, the Department of Buildings (DOB) must be required to issue a second type of notification whenever building applications that exploit any form of transferable development rights are submitted to DOB.

3. Quarterly Publications and Integration with other Datasets – The bill must require the DOF to publish at quarterly intervals a list of the aforementioned document types pertaining to development rights. The database should be made available to the public in formats that allow analysis and integration with other existing property datasets such as PLUTO (land use dataset compiled by the Department of City Planning).

These publications must be made available through the City’s open data portal in the following formats: CSV, Excel, and/or shapefiles that facilitate geospatial analysis. The datasets must include the City Register File Number, the total number of square feet being transferred, the borough and block-lot numbers of the properties involved, and the dates when these actions were executed.

4. Improving functionality of the existing platform – Although property records and financial documents are posted on ACRIS, navigating the site can be a cumbersome exercise for most users. The document type section of the platform does not allow users to filter documents based on date ranges longer than 31 days and lacks the capacity to allow users to search documents relevant to a specific geographic area smaller than the borough level. Finally, ACRIS does not display vital real estate transaction information without forcing the user to read complex and cumbersome documents that sometimes number in the hundreds of pages.

The bill must improve functionality of the existing ACRIS platform, including searching capabilities that allow for a broader range of dates, such as years or even decades; allowing users to filter document types based on geographies defined by Community Boards and Council Districts; and display the total number of square feet being transferred and the borough and block-lot numbers of the properties involved as a preview in the search results section.

We believe that with the inclusion of our recommendations, Introduction No. 1673 will yield effective improvements to ACRIS that will greatly increase transparency and accountability, and provide the public with a user-friendly portal to critical information about development in the city. Thank you for providing the opportunity to comment on this important issue.