Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Developmentally Challenged

We have been writing about the defects in the city's land use review process-and singled out Intro 314, a bill that would create more transparency in the review, particularly in the area of economic development. Now City Hall Newspaper focuses in on the legislation and its intent: "Recent bruising battles over large-scale development projects in New York have spurred some politicians to call for an overhaul in the way the city grows. Weeks after the Bloomberg administration’s most recent coup—the approval of the new Domino Sugar Factory highrise development in northern Brooklyn—Council Members Steve Levin, Gale Brewer and Oliver Koppell introduced legislation that would make the preapproval process for development more comprehensive and, theoretically, slower. The bill would require city agencies to provide the Council and community boards with details on the projects’ potential environmental impacts and plans to mitigate them before a development could be approved by Council."

And nothing could underscore why this is a compelling need than the manner in which NYC EDC snookered the local Flushing community board and the community surrounding the development at Flushing Commons. In this case, EDC quickly certified a completely different project than the one that had been negotiated with former council member John Liu, and without any discussions with the community stakeholders advanced the plan through the ULURP process.

What Flushing Commons demonstrated was the extent to which the current review procedures are flawed-and how a ULURP process fails to address the kinds of issues that Intro 314 seeks to redress. As City Hall points out: "Levin said that large-scale rezonings and developments were much harder to vote down after going through the City Planning Commission. He and his mentor, Assembly Member Vito Lopez, had initially opposed the Domino plan, but in the end had cut a deal, lowering the height of the proposed building and forcing a promise of more affordable housing units in exchange for his vote. “In a place like Williamsburg, this development over the past 10 years has had a cumulative effect, and if we’re able to have some further checks and balances, then we could have foreseen some of the challenges that we’re facing today in terms of infrastructure,” Levin said."

Translation: development needs to be more thoroughly vetted so that a project's impact on things such as roads, mass transit and schools can be properly evaluated-something that, as we have pointed out, Comptroller John Lui's public benefits task force also looks to address: "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."

Complementary with what Intro 314 wants to do as well-as City Hall highlights: “The bill is not intended to stymie development,” said Koppell, who cosponsored it. “The intention is just to understand the impact on the community of major developments before they’re approved,” adding that the bill had grown out of concern over major developments approved without such foresight."

In our own observations to the newspaper, we make the point: "If the environmental mitigation bill passes and if the comptroller’s office task force recommendations are implemented, it could slow the mayor’s agenda, all but ending the possibility he’d be able to accomplish the massive projects of his third term. That could be good for the mayor who hadn’t foreseen the deleterious effects of projects like Willets Point and the empty condos along the Brooklyn waterfront created by his re-zonings, Lipsky said. “He sees things in terms of collateral benefits,” Lipsky said, “but never in terms of collateral damages.”

And City Hall rightfully sees all of this as a push back to the council's rather supine relationship with the city's chief executive: "After nine years of swift development and “yes” votes from the City Council on nearly all Bloomberg-sponsored rezonings and large-scale developments, a pushback has begun. The first inklings came late last year, when plans for redeveloping the Bronx’s Kingsbridge Armory were rebuffed by the City Council and community activists. The upward trajectory of the mayor’s development agenda across all boroughs seemed to be slowing."

So, with Intro 314 and the comptroller's report coinciding, we have begun what should be a more intense debate over economic development policy-and if the speaker is reluctant to play, shall we say, a progressive role, than Lui will be staking out a community friendly position that will only accrue to his ultimate political benefit-and at the speaker's expense, we may add.