Friday, September 17, 2010

Comptroller Challenges Land Use Status Quo

The WSJ has a peak at the task force report on community benefits for Comptroller John Liu-and without any real analysis of its contents, the blow back has started: "A task force commissioned by City Comptroller John Liu is poised to call for a major change in the way that the city determines what amenities—such as affordable housing and parks—to extract from real-estate developers in exchange for approving their plans.Those decisions are among the most controversial parts of the city's rough-and-tumble land-use approval process and are often criticized for the inconsistent way in which they are made. A draft report by the task force, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, recommends that new groups made up of community representatives—and monitored by the comptroller—negotiate benefit deals with developers involving major rezoning decisions."

Without giving away the store, since we participated in the effort here, what reporter Eliot Brown misses-and welcome to the Journal Eliot-is the most significant proposed change in the way land use is done. What the task force is proposing is that an independent consultant be made integral to reviewing the development plans-and this consultant would be an advisor to the community stakeholders and the local community board.

If implemented, this would mean a predevelopment phase that would allow for a more complete vetting of the project's impact-as well as a greater opportunity to create community coalitions as stakeholders in the land use process. In the consultant, what you would have in theory is a person who can see the development through the eyes of the local community that will be forced to live with whatever impacts the development would have on the surrounding neighborhoods.

This would create a sea change from the developer-hired experts now setting the agenda-and whose conflicts of interest yield environmental reviews that could easily win Pulitzer Prizes for fiction. It's little wonder that the counter attack is building: "A city official said the Bloomberg administration would oppose the recommendations as drafted, saying it would hinder investment and marginalize the roles of elected officials and community boards. Council Speaker Christine Quinn has expressed concerns about the legality of the proposals, according to a person familiar with her position."

Opposed sight unseen basically by the two biggest cheer leaders of the real estate status quo. We aren't overly optimistic that, given the positions of the mayor and the speaker, this will have political legs in the short term-but long term it sets the agenda for the next election cycle; and allows Liu to separate himself from a speaker whose once liberal credentials have been tarnished on a wide assortment of fronts. Put simply, once released, this task force report will throw down a gauntlet-and help frame the next great city wide debate.