I tried to rain on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s parade. I was not alone though. It was me and maybe 2,000 of my fellow community board members. So, who are we? How dare we? And exactly what parade did we rain on?
New York City politics has some quirky institutions, none quirkier than the local community boards. (I serve on Community Board 14, in Brooklyn.) We started life in 1963 as Community Planning Boards, and, though we’ve morphed into multi-issue entities, it’s in city planning, and especially zoning, that we still wield some influence.
We are, however, at the bottom of the food chain, mere appointees of the Borough Presidents and members of City Council. Developers and city officials come to us grudgingly, only because the City Charter mandates our input in certain instances. When a petitioner comes before us seeking a zoning variance, he or she knows that we’re just the warm-up. The critical presentation will take place down the line before the Board of Standards and Appeals, which frequently—and irritatingly—reverses our decisions. Yet, we soldier on. Why? Our meetings provide one of the few venues for members of the public to speak their peace, not only on zoning, but on a variety of important issues.
As for zoning, Community Boards are one of the obligatory hoops that City Planning has to jump through in order to help enact the Mayor’s agenda. If an initiative has citywide implications, City Planning must make the rounds to all of the city’s fifty-nine community boards to present its case. They make more presentations to us than they do to City Council members (51) and Borough Presidents (5) combined.
In the vast majority of instances when zoning is changed, the deliberations involve hyper-local issues. About a year and a half ago, for example, a proposed change to one section would “allow automobile showrooms or sales with automobile repair, storage, and preparation for delivery in Community District 4, Borough of Manhattan…within the Special Clinton District.” The modest scale of such a change befits the brief period of time we’re allotted to review it: 60 days. Within that period, a community board will generally hold two meetings, so the review process is quick and often times far too perfunctory. Not only are zoning changes generally limited to a single section of the code, they’re also infrequent. In 2015, there were just 11 votes on such issues across all of New York City.
Then came Mayor de Blasio’s mammoth re-zoning and affordable housing initiatives.
It’s unwieldy acronyms, ZQA/MIH, stand for “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” and “Mandatory Inclusionary Housing.” The rezoning was presented by the mayor as a way to “encourage better buildings” and create more affordable housing. In layman’s terms, the city wanted to loosen a number of regulations in an effort to encourage those sometimes opposing goals. MIH was a forceful move by the mayor, to be done in concert with ZQA, requiring developers to include affordable housing units in any future developments which would necessitate a rezoning. Both initiatives were integral to his Housing New York plan to build and preserve 200,000 affordable units over the next decade.
As a long-time affordable housing advocate, I found both concepts eminently laudable. I wanted them to work, but the devil is in the details–and what a monumental mountain of details there were.
As a long-time affordable housing advocate, I found both concepts eminently laudable. I wanted them to work, but the devil is in the details—and what a monumental mountain of details there were. The zoning regulations alone required almost 500 revisions. In the past five years, nothing has come close to that scale and complexity.
In early October 2015, a city planning representative made a presentation to our board in support of the mayor’s initiatives. Because of a misalignment of the 60-day clock and our own calendar, it turned out we were unable to deliberate for the full two months. So, just thirty-three days after the presentation, we had to vote yes-or-no on one of the most far reaching rezonings in the history of New York City.
At the presentation, we complained that a proper vetting of the almost endless slate of changes they were requesting could occupy a board for years. Furthermore, we felt that for them to have fully considered all of the ramifications would have taken far longer than de Blasio had even been in office. (I once worked on the rezoning of a small portion of Manhattan, and that required seven years of my Board’s constant attention.)
How could we possibly know what we were voting for?
How could they possibly know the full effects of what they were proposing?
Because each board’s purview is so limited, I will not list all of the reasons why our board decided to vote against the plans. Instead I would refer you to these well crafted statements by our chair, which outline our many concerns. Here’s the zoning summary and the affordable housing link.
In the end, fifty of the fifty-nine boards voted to reject the initiatives. It’s remarkable that the mayor had managed to come up with plans that unified 85% of the community boards, in opposition. Typically, a proposal might pit all of the affluent boards, against all of the poor ones, or all of the Manhattan boards, against all of Brooklyn’s. In this instance, nearly all of us found flaws in the two initiatives that would adversely affect our individual neighborhoods.
We’re never, of course, the last word. After us, City Planning went to the Borough Presidents, and then, finally, to those who would actually vote on the proposals, members of the City Council. As it turned out, the same percentage of councilmembers voted for ZQA as community boards voted against it: 85%. A shade more, 89%, voted to support MIH..
After all of this “public process,” I am left with three fears. First, I am sure that the developers’ land use attorneys have already started poring over the new regulations, ferreting out all of the inevitable loopholes. Second, as these loopholes start to be exploited, the city will have to spend years fixing them, in an effort to reverse the unintended consequences. Last, in light of the loopholes that just our board has identified, I predict that fewer than 10,000 affordable units citywide will be created by these plans, and far more market rate ones. So, for all of the ill will they will have generated at the community board level, the effort will not even begin to make a dent in the 200,000-unit goal to which our Mayor aspires.
The Mayor is not likely to be too concerned. His term expires next year, and, even if he’s re-elected, it may be a decade or more before we can gauge the full effects of his over-ambitious plans. He will not be the one who has to clean up after this. It will be the plebs following behind the parade, sweeping madly.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Community Board 14.