Statement on the Charter Revision Commission 2018 - Community Boards and Land Use

The Real Estate Board of New York is a trade association with approximately 17,000 building owners, developers, residential and commercial brokers and managers and other professional active in the real estate industry in New York.  We are proposing  changes to that portion of the City Charter dealing with land use and community boards that reflect the concerns of the real estate industry and the interests of the City of New York.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, the city has embarked on an unprecedented period of growth and prosperity.  We are on the verge of having 4.5 million jobs and in the next decade approximately 9 million residents.  To accommodate this record setting job and population growth we need to plan wisely and comprehensively.  We need to think courageously and creatively as this mayoral administration has done with its Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program.  However, equally important, we must preserve and strengthen as of right development, which is under attack in a variety of venues, to meet the needs of this growth and to address our affordable and market rate housing needs.

Here are our recommendations:

  • Put the City Planning Commission in charge of developing, as it was prior to 1977, the capital budget to allow for greater coordination of citywide planning/rezoning and city capital investment to support these initiatives. It is our understanding that the current City Planning Commission has been involved in this process, but there is no guarantee that this will always occur or be allowed.
  • Amend the City Charter to provide that the City Planning Commission (CPC) makes final determinations on all administrative land-use permits (such as certifications, authorizations and special permits).  Administrative land use actions permitted by CPC special permits are as of right and permitted under the Zoning Resolution.  The findings to be met as a condition for granting the special permit are objective standards.  If these standards are met, the permit should be approved.
    • If we want to promote comprehensive planning and as of right development, then CPC approval should be the final action for all special permits.  The current practice is for these items to go to the City Council. City Council action to uphold a special permit is redundant and can undermine the planning purpose of the special permit provisions and impede as of right development.  The City Council currently has a role in this process, they must approve the special permit requirement.  Here is a concrete illustration of this issue.  Presently a text amendment is proceeding through the public review process.  It would require a special permit for new hotels in all M-1 districts.  This proposal contains findings which identify conditions under which a new hotel in an M-1 district should be permitted.  If the City Council agrees with the text amendment, it should approve the item.  However, after this amendment is approved, the special permit for a new hotel in an M-1 district would be an administrative action (not a discretionary one) and if approved by the CPC that determination should be final.
  • Redesign the process for designating landmarks and historic districts.  We cannot plan comprehensively if land use actions, such as landmarks and historic district designations, are decided solely on criteria unrelated to the city’s broader needs.  Historic preservation is a critical contribution to the character and quality of life of our city.  However, as our landmark reports and the report of other organizations have shown, these extremely restrictive land use regulations have led to the curtailment of affordable housing production and rental housing preservation as well as communities that are less economically diverse.  Here are some suggestions to address these concerns:
    • Landmark Preservation (LPC) should become a division of the Department of City Planning (DCP) to ensure that landmark and historic district designations are viewed in the context of a comprehensive view of the city and its needs.  Along with considering historic merit, the proposed designation should be required to consider economic factors, such as development potential of the site or an area, an owner’s plans for individual property and property within districts and the age, condition and the cost of maintenance and the needs of our city for housing.
    • Another approach to landmark designation that would balance landmarking and other city needs would be to require LPC to perform the planning analysis (adding the necessary staff to conduct this work) in close cooperation with DCP.  This proposal should be formalized, the results made publicly available prior to the initial hearing and include public testimony on these issues as part of the public record for the designation.
  • In all cases, whether merging into DCP or mandating the LPC conduct their own planning analysis, we recommend the following changes to the landmarks process.
    • A draft designation report should be publicly available prior to the first public hearing on an individual landmark and a proposed historic district designation, and if required to perform a planning analysis, include the results of its planning analysis.
    • A historic district should not be considered designated until it is approved by the City Planning Commission and the City Council.  The City Planning Commission review of historic districts should be much broader and take in a fuller analysis, such as the conflict between the designation of low rise buildings in areas zoned for high density development and whether broader city planning, economic and environmental goals would be impeded by the designation.
    • The City Council should be given wider latitude to judge the suitability of designations on both historic, planning, economic and “best interests of the City” grounds.
    • Consideration should be given to paying the LPC commissioners (CPC commissioners are paid)
  • Update the Landmarks Hardship criteria.  Hardship determinations should be based on the Fair Market Value of the improvements on the property at the date of application.
  • Emphasize public benefit in landmark regulation. The LPC should only have the authority to regulate the portions of landmarks that are visible from the public way within a ¼ mile radius.  Since the buildings are preserved to provide a public benefit, only those portions visible to the general public should be under strict regulation.
  • Institute new findings for a Board of Standards and Appeals variance that adequately distinguish between bulk and use variances (replacing ZR 72-21 and putting variances more in line with the rest of NY State.)
  • Establish timelines for BSA review.  This process has been taking too much time. The delay in decision making is undermining development and making this a forum for communities who oppose a project to turn to BSA in an effort to stall a project in hopes that it would be abandoned or lose its financing.
  • Project Mitigation: Communities frequently seek to impose requirements that address pre-existing issues such as school crowding on a project as a condition for its approval.  The most recent new development in a neighborhood should not be expected or required to solve neighborhood issue that exist prior to the development.  Any required mitigation for a project should have a clear nexus to the impacts of the project.
  • Community Board Appointments: The Mayor should appoint some of the Community Board members along with the other officials who appoint.  One quarter of Community Board members should represent businesses in the area to ensure broad and diverse representation.
  • Community Board Schedule: Community Boards should be required to meet once a month. Customarily, most Community Boards recess for the summer months. This recess delays land use and other business-related applications.
  • 197a Plans: Institute a sunset date for all adopted 197-a plans, so that renewal is required (to reflect changing conditions)