Political observers have thought that the recently appointed Charter Revision Commission was impaneled primarily to make good on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s promise to re-reform the term limits the city's elected officials. But buried in the fine print of the agenda is the opportunity, among other things, to overhaul the city’s Uniform Land-Use Review Process, or ULURP, the lengthy public evaluation that weighs in on many new projects, from massive developments like Hudson Yards to tiny ones such as new playgrounds for city parks.
“If charter revision is going to do its job, it has to look at land-use,” said Richard Anderson, president of the New York City Building Congress, a development, business, and labor group. Currently, ULURP applications are sent out from the City Planning Commission to the local community boards, the borough president, back to the commission, and then City Council, though only the last two have binding say.
The chance to do it differently is tempting to many, sometimes with interests clearly at odds.
The city’s developers would like to see the process simplified, with less toilsome environmental reviews and limits to what they see as the rising influence of disgruntled locals. Michael Slattery, senior vice president for the Real Estate Board of New York, the influential developers group, believes ULURP is already too involved. “It seems to have morphed beyond a land-use process to a political or legislative process, and that’s not the way it was designed to be,” he said. Among the issues concerning developers as beyond the scope of ULURP are the rise in Community Benefits Agreements and demands for higher wages at completed projects, issues that Slattery said have nothing to do with land-use protocols.
Meanwhile, planners want much the opposite, including greater community involvement and input. This includes having the council instead of the City Planning Commission trigger ULURP, thus incorporating community concerns at the beginning, not the end. Planners would also like to see community benefits agreements formally integrated into ULURP, giving them binding power.
There have been efforts in the past to mandate greater community oversight, though the results have been mixed. The 1989 Charter Revision eliminated the Board of Estimate, and created the city’s 59 community boards, which were meant to wield power over the process, but it in the end the City Planning Commission and council emerged with the strongest voice.
Adam Friedman, executive director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, does not see a conflict between his group and the development community. “Nobody can be happy with the current process,” Friedman said. He believes that even if heightened community involvement does add an additional layer of oversight, it will also give clarity to the entire process, eliminating the potential for often costly community opposition.
“It always comes down to a struggle at the City Council,” Friedman said, citing the final phase of the seven-month ULURP process. “There will be a bunch of issues on the table and maybe some get addressed. It shouldn’t be jobs versus housing versus parks versus schools. These should work together and all get equal weight, not be a zero sum game.”
Slattery maintains that land-use and the legislature should not mix when talking about development. He points to the Kingsbridge Armory, a massive mall proposed for the Bronx that was scuttled over wage disagreements, which he believes had no role in the process. Yet Friedman also holds the project up as an example. If concerns about wages for perspective employees had been considered by the developer from the start, he contends, the money spent planning the project would not have been wasted.
Some hope the commission leaves ULURP well alone, with at least one planner saying any changes would almost certainly be in developers’ favor. “It’s a lightning rod issue,” the planner said. Still, there are also influential backers. Council Member Brad Lander, who ran the Pratt Center prior to Friedman, said he would “fight tooth and nail to prevent the weakening of the community’s role in the process.”
Whatever the outcome, it would appear the time is ripe for overhaul. Ever since the zoning text was created in 1961, land use reform has occurred roughly every decade, including 1975, when planning commission lost much of its power, and 1989, when planning got it back. Yet some believe the current reform proposals are not nearly enough. “The whole process is broken,” said Jerilyn Perine, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Commission. “We don’t just need to fix ULURP but zoning and planning for the entire city.”