Friday, September 24, 2010

Mitigating Circumstances

We have been commenting on the failure of the city's land use review procedure for its reliance on the consultants selected by either EDC or the developer of a particular project. What results from this blatant conflict of interest, is the total downplaying of a develoopment's environmental imapct-and hence a failure to gauge the kind of infrastructure improvements (roads and mass taransit) that would be necessary to mitigate a project's deleterious impacts.

This was particularly egregious in the case of Flushing Commons-where the consultant arbitrarily assigned half of the new trip generation to mass transit without any concomitant examination of whether the Flushing transit infrastructure could handle the massive influx (not even considering the effect of a similar slight of hand maneuver by the same consultant for Willets Point).

This scamming of the environmental review process is why we are supportive of the Comptroller Task Force on Project Benefits. The preliminary report calls for an imdependent consultant who would in essence represent the community's interest. As we said last week: "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."

And now, some council members are also expressing their concern with the issue of collateral damages and mitigation. Intro 314, sponsored by memebrs Brewer, Koppell and Levin, seeks to address this issue head on. As the legislation proposes:

"The Council finds that New York City has undergone and will continue to undergo an extraordinary amount of construction and development, and that much of this development has proceeded without accompanying improvements in infrastructure and services. In order to create communities with adequate infrastructure and support, city agencies need to assess and report to the public through local community boards and the affected Council Member specific mitigations noted within an Environmental Impact Statement where one was prepared for a development project, and whether and how each relevant agency plans to implement such mitigation measures."

So, in the case of Flushing Commons, some agency-and we're not sure whether the MTA is included here, but it should be-would be forced to explain how the thousands of extra mass transit riders, and the pedestrians on the over crowded Flushing streets, would be accomodated. And so we get the following mandate:

"The department of transportation shall establish minimum neighborhood service standards which shall include, but not be limited to, the acceptable average distance to the closest public transportation from a city resident’s home to a bus stop or subway station, and the acceptable frequency of each such mode of transportation during peak and off-peak hours, an acceptable flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic based on an examination of vehicular and pedestrian traffic patterns in order to identify and alleviate vehicular and pedestrian congestion and access to alternative transportation methods, such as, but not limited to, authorized bicycle lanes. The department of transportation shall periodically review and, as necessary, revise such minimum neighborhood service standards."

The Bloomberg administration proceeds pell mell with developement schemes that are simply unsustainable-and one weakness in the council bill is that it too is limited by the case-by-case development process; a process that doesn't account for cumulative impacts that a sane planning process would examine. But Intro 314 does offer the following perscription that could potentially address this cumulative development issue: 

"No later then February 28 of each year, the department of city planning shall submit to the city council a report describing for each project approved by the department of city planning any adverse environmental impacts of each such project that were identified in any environmental impact statement prepared in conjunction with such project, what measures are required to be taken to mitigate those impacts, when each such mitigation measure is required to be initiated and the duration of each such mitigation measure. Such report also shall include for each such project for the first five years for which each mitigation measure is required to be implemented, what actions have been and will be undertaken with respect to each such mitigation measure."

Intro 314, much like the Comptroller's recommendation, lays out a challenge to Speaker Quinn. Both ideas would have the benefit of allowing for a more comprehensive and equitable land use review-one that will aid local communities in protecting the quality of life in their neighborhoods. Quinn's opposition, however, will place her squarely in the corner of the city's big real estate sector-perhaps not the best place to find oneself when 2013 comes along.