New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson recently issued a report titled “Planning Together: A New Comprehensive Planning Framework for New York City” and has introduced legislation in the City Council to implement its recommendations (Intro. 2186).

The report criticizes the city's current planning approach as “piecemeal” and “inherently reactive” and argues that it is insufficient for addressing the city's greatest challenges, including disparate health outcomes, homelessness, unmet capital needs and climate change. To address the deficiencies in the city's approach, the report proposes that the city establish a comprehensive planning process that has as its central goal advancing racial and economic justice, reducing disparities in resources and opportunities across the city, and addressing threats from climate change. The implications of its proposals for land use include greater coordination of land use actions with other city initiatives, a more explicit incorporation into land use decision-making of social and sustainability objectives, and a new layer of processes that will be required in order to put together, administer and amend the comprehensive plan. 

More specifically, the report proposes an “integrated” process that would align land use planning and capital budgeting in a recurring, 10-year planning cycle. It describes an “ongoing participatory planning process” conducted by the Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning, with input solicited from community boards and borough-level “steering committees” at several points in the process. The result of the process would be a long-term plan, adopted by the City Council, with specific targets for growth, infrastructure and amenities for each Community District, and recommendations for zoning changes to facilitate these targets. The consideration of the long-term plan would be accompanied by a generic environmental impact statement (GEIS).

Most future land use applications that are consistent with the long-term plan, including changes to the text and map of the Zoning Resolution, would not require action by the City Council in order to become effective; they would be treated similarly to the way special permits are treated today — subject to City Council action only if specifically “called up.” Actions not consistent with the long-term plan, as determined by the Department of City Planning, would be required to be acted upon by the City Council. Because the long-term plan would be supported by a GEIS, environmental review of future land use applications having impacts contemplated by the GEIS would, according to the report, be simpler and quicker.

The proposal comes at a time of increasing frustration among the stakeholders in the city's land use process. On the one hand, the report cites a distrust of government among community stakeholders and a feeling that the city unfairly targets certain neighborhoods to bear the burdens of growth or accept less desirable land uses. On the other, the city's business community has become concerned with the inability of the current land use review process to balance local and citywide needs and to green-light projects that would result in significant private investment, generate job growth, and provide much-needed housing.

Given these concerns, reform of the city's land use process is certainly a laudable goal. But because the devil is in the details, the details of the speaker's proposal merit careful consideration. For now, the open questions include whether the proposal's institutions and processes will be able to balance local and citywide planning considerations; the extent to which the proposal allows these institutions and processes to recognize and account for citywide economic development in their decision-making, and how they would be able to maintain a climate that encourages private renewal of the city's built environment while addressing the disparate allocation of resources among city residents; how landmarks regulation will be affected by these proposals; the potential that the proposals would result in a more complicated, arduous and litigious, rather than a more streamlined, land use review process; why the City Planning Commission is not involved — in fact, it would be replaced by the Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning — in the development of the comprehensive plan; and whether the proposal's goals of a more integrated planning process can be effectuated without the proposal's complex institutional structure. Finally, and most importantly, there is the question of whether it is even possible, in a city as large and complex as New York, to find points of agreement sufficient to form the basis for a plan. 

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