Wednesday, May 11, 2005

ULURP Needs Major Overhaul

The city’s Uniform Land Use Review process, known affectionately as ULURP, is badly flawed and needs fixing if adequate planning and the protection of the public interest is the objective. Under the current system, a developer who seeks to build a project that doesn’t conform with the land use rules for an area must submit a plan to the Department of City Planning for a preliminary review. Quite often, very few people outside of a small circle are aware of the size and scope of the planned project.

This internal review and dialogue allow for no public discussion of the project and potential stakeholders – community residents, small business owners and companies with similar interests to the proposed tenants in the new development – are consciously kept out of the process. Exacerbating this situation is the fact that all of the technical questions asked of the developer, issues involving traffic and economic impact, are in turn answered by a so-called expert hired by that same developer.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: for the past thirty years a coterie of environmental consultants has emerged whose only interest is serving the narrow needs of developers seeking to garner public approval. These experts, all seemingly from the same firm of Dewey, Cheatem & Howe, are paid by the developers and invariably minimize potential impacts of the projects they are paid to analyze.

This is the system that needs to be changed. Consultants should be hired for their unbiased expertise and should be chosen at random from a list of approved vendors. Once hired, it should be made clear that they work for both the city as a whole and the community that will host the new development. As in other jurisdictions, the developer would still be made responsible for picking up the tab.

That is, however, not the only change that should be made in ULURP. What should also be changed is the certification process. Under the current system, the full scope of the new project and all of the technical analysis is unveiled to the public after a project is certified by City Planning. Once that happens the so-called ULURP clock starts and all hell breaks loose as stakeholders pro and con fight to quickly assert their positions.

This doesn’t make sense. ULURP should require, minimally, a three month pre-certification period where the details of a project would be fully vetted. If opponents have the wherewithal to do independent critiques and analysis this pre-certification period would give them the time to do so. More importantly, it would create a timeframe for the beginning of a legitimate and proper public debate. Too often a developer, knowing full well in advance all of the important details of a project, spends a great deal of lead time quietly lining up support for a development. Once the ULURP clock starts opponents are already laps behind.

BJ’s in the Bronx as an Example

This is precisely what happened in the Bronx at Community Board #10. Members of the Board, wined and dined by the Related Companies for months, actually expressed resentment that opponents were raising serious objects “at this late date.” At the same time, Related’s consultants presented voluminous material on traffic that no one on the Board had any ability to analyze.

When opponents hired a respected consultant to analyze the data and help provide the community with a contrasting perspective, the ability to present this countervailing view was compromised by the limited time available under ULURP. Thankfully, the City Council provided opponents with the opportunity of presenting data that convincingly demonstrated the shortcomings of the developer’s data. As a result, the project was resoundingly defeated. In the process, however, serious flaws in ULURP were vividly highlighted.

ULURP and the Bronx Terminal Market

Which brings us to the nettlesome Bronx Terminal Market issue. Related has been busy developing data on an Economic Impact Statement for its Gateway project and is pushing for certification in June. One thing we’ve already learned about Related’s consultants is that they’re adept at ignoring any traffic impacts on adjacent highways to their projects. While we don’t think they’ll be able to do this with the Deegan, we know that they will be up to their minimizing tricks. We travel down the Deegan everyday and as it becomes more clogged by the minute we feel like telling Related, as Desi would say to Luci, “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do.”

Traffic, however, isn’t the biggest problem with Related. Even if we ignore the secret nature of the BTM deal and the favoritism that promoted it, we are still left with the outright gall of a company that refuses to fully disclose, before this project is certified, who is tenanting the Gateway development. The refusal of Related to tell even those elected officials who will eventually sit in judgment of the project is telling. Clearly, unwillingness to disclose is an unmistakable sign that Related knows that it has a tenant(s) who will cause a firestorm of reaction.

What the Alliance will be doing, of course, is to press the city, the borough and Related to unveil this development scheme so that all the potential stakeholders can be properly informed. Full transparency is the only correct course.