The word “community” is bandied about a lot these days in New York City. It’s an obligatory buzzword, a box to check for any city agency or real estate developer’s initiative. Getting the “community” seal of approval carries moral weight, and proceeding without it can be bad public relations, or even doom a project.
In theory, the vehicle for this democratic input is the city’s community boards, a system which is unique to New York. There are 59 of them, each with around 50 members appointed by their respective Borough Presidents. They are charged, among other things, by the City Charter to serve as advisory planning entities, both reviewing applications from private developers and advocating for neighborhood plans.
But community boards, limited by funds, authority and time, are often underprepared for this complex mandate and overruled by more powerful forces, leading many engaged (and frustrated) residents to look for ways to augment the neighborhood’s voice in city government. One step towards this goal would be for the city to fund the hiring of professional planners by community boards.
This idea is not unrealistic, and is actually expressed within the City Charter. “We’re not looking to oust anyone from the process,” says Craig Hammerman, who has been Community Board 6’s District Manager for twenty four years. “But if the city really values having a community voice in government, then they need to put their money where their mouth is.”
The Way It Is
Community boards accounted for $17.1 million of the city’s $81.1 billion preliminary budget for fiscal year 2017, or 0.02%. Each community board receives a base budget of $234,000 for personnel and other expenses. “We’re talking about a fraction of a percent of the city’s budget that’s spent on supporting the community’s voice in government,” Hammerman says. “That’s really quite a sad and telling figure.”
With this money, CBs must hire a district manager and whatever other staff they may need—Brooklyn CB 6, which covers five different neighborhoods in southwest Brooklyn, also has a full-time assistant district manager and an office manager.
This modest staff is in stark contrast with what it is they do: draft the board’s positions and develop their policies; set up meetings and public hearings; track correspondence and handle residents’ complaints; distribute agendas and minutes; coordinate the efforts of service providers in the district, such as local police, fire, and sanitation; submit annual budget requests to the mayor; act as the interface between the community, the board, and the city’s complicated bureaucracy; and finally, support the board in one of its primary tasks: evaluating land use decisions.
Land use expertise is, of course, the single most significant and least sexy tool neighborhoods have in safeguarding their communities from the complex and powerful forces shaping New York real estate development. In a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP)—the typical process for developers interested in large scale projects that require amending the city’s zoning or obtaining exemptions—the community board has no more than 60 days to evaluate proposals.
“We’re expected to immediately come up to speed on something that could have taken years to prepare, and then react to it in a thoughtful way that tries to convey the community’s values and needs,” says Craig Hammerman, the District Manager for CB 6, in Brooklyn.
“And so here we are, behind the eight ball with a time clock clicking away,” Hammerman says, “and we’re expected to immediately come up to speed on something that could have taken years to prepare, and then react to it in a thoughtful way that tries to convey the community’s values and needs, and how they might be reflected in the ultimately approved project.”
A near-impossible task, really, especially since part of that process involves public hearings of both a committee and the full board which, for controversial or large projects, are often full of opinionated residents. This is also complicated by the fact that once the board votes to approve, reject, or “approve with modifications,” the whole conversation moves entirely out of the boards’ purview. “When the application leaves the community board, there may be opportunities for further negotiation,” Hammerman says, “but we’re not at the table at that point.”
The Way It Could Be
In an ideal world, Hammerman would have a “fleet” of professional planners on board, one for each of CB6’s committees. “We would want to have a primary urban planner,” he says, “and under that planner we would have others that would have subspecialties that could be assigned to each of our committees, so that our committees would each have the kind of professional support that they would need.”
Hammerman mentions an intersection within the district, at Union Street and 8th Avenue, which has been a problem for as long as anyone can remember, and which has been tinkered with at least a dozen times during his tenure. “If we had a professional planner that specialized in transportation, we would have them sitting out there, collecting data, coming up with a plan, and a recommendation that they could then work on with the folks at the Department of Transportation,” he says. “It’s a great example of how if we had the resources to get more into the weeds of the problems that people are presenting us with, we could be doing more to help solve them ourselves.”
In other words, having planners at the community board level would allow the city’s most intractable local riddles to be solved by those on the ground. This would allow communities to be more proactive in their approach to land use, as opposed to merely reacting to whatever proposal or application happens to appear in the district.
The average salary for land use planners in New York State is $43,810 per year. If we gave every community board in the city one planner, it would cost around $2.5 million (not including benefits). Five planners would cost $12.9 million. Again, community boards are neighborhoods’ only nonpartisan voice in city government, and the preliminary budget for this year was more than $80 billion.
A dedicated community planner could also strengthen the existing land use process both upstream and downstream of the community boards’ 60-day window. Hammerman would like to follow the lead of Manhattan Community Board 1, which has gotten involved with the Department of City Planning in the pre-certification phase, before projects are formally referred to the community board.
“The majority of cases involve projects that are already fully thought out, fully conceptualized, fully envisioned, and sometimes months or even years go into the planning for these kinds of projects,“ Hammerman says. “In the pre-certification phase, before there’s a time clock, there is more of an opportunity for the community to learn about a project, and to get into an actual conversation with the developer about it.”
A dedicated planner could lead those conversations to better serve their community board. Hammerman would like to see community boards more involved “downstream” as well. When proposals and applications get modified later, through discussions with the borough president, the city planning commission, or the city council, “that should be a trigger to bring the community board back into the conversation.”
“Once we’ve reviewed something, conducted our public hearing, once our committee has made a recommendation and the community board has adopted a resolution, and we’ve submitted it, that’s it, the train has left the station!” Hammerman says. “There’s no reason why the agency, the borough president’s office, and the community board can’t sit all together in one room and have a conversation about these things.”
This change would require a change in the ULURP process, but it’s certainly within the community boards’ mandate and would be impractical without the added staff resources having a dedicated planner would provide.
Investing in community
New York City—and Brooklyn, in particular—is in the midst of a long, almost existential transformation. “The gentrification conversation is more complex than people want to deal with,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said to a recent roundtable of real estate professionals. “Many of the projects that we have planned, and many of the projects that are underway, are being held up because there’s an angry public. There’s a public that believes that development equals displacement.”
The surrogates of that rightfully fearful public are the community boards. They play a critical role in the city, and they deserve the resources they need to do their work. “Elected officials come and go, agency people come and go, but we’re the community,” Hammerman says. “We’re the constant.”
Featured image via nymag.com.