The Real Estate Board of New York to The Committees on Governmental Operations and Land Use and the Subcommittee on Capital Budget of the New York City Council Concerning Intro 2186 – Comprehensive Long-Term Planning

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The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) is the City’s leading real estate trade association representing commercial, residential, and institutional property owners, builders, managers, investors, brokers, salespeople, and other organizations and individuals active in New York City real estate. REBNY thanks the Committees on Governmental Operations and Land Use and the Subcommittee on Capital Budget for the opportunity to submit feedback on Intro 2186, which proposes to create a ten-year comprehensive planning cycle connecting budget, land use, and strategic planning processes.

We support the goal of comprehensive planning for the City of New York. With over a century of exposure to past efforts for comprehensive planning for the City, REBNY and its members have seen how plans such as the Lindsay Administration’s efforts in the late 1960’s, or more modest wholesale reworkings of the Zoning Resolution, such as the uniformed bulk proposal, have fallen short in addressing conflicting priorities between local needs and citywide goals. We should and must be willing and able to have a robust discussion around best practices.

We must plan better. New York City’s success depends upon increasing our supply of housing, strong infrastructure, and a skilled workforce. Yet, the city has not kept pace with the housing needs of our existing population. This pressure on existing supply has driven up housing costs throughout the New York City region, which has impacted various races differently, due to disparities that include educational attainment and income. Our city remains deeply segregated despite its diversity strengths in people. As New York continues to fight COVID-19, we also need predictable and transparent city regulations to create a sustainable economic recovery, especially in development. The real estate and construction industries are vital to New York’s livelihood, creating thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in tax revenue.

There are several laudable goals espoused in the proposed legislation, Intro 2186. Infrastructure, services, and land use planning should be coordinated; stakeholders at all levels of government should have appropriate input into the planning process; and New York City should strive to advance public and land use policies that promote racial and economic equality. REBNY strongly believes that policy makers should make decisions based on facts and data so that there are better informed decisions about the City’s growth and equitable development. There is also support for the overarching goal of addressing the inherent frustration surrounding ULURP that often fails to address the how, where, and why we develop in the city.

The challenge is process design. Past forays into such a comprehensive planning effort in New York City have failed for a variety of reasons while other world renown cities have accomplished a comprehensive planning effort. The engagement strategy will be critical and should be standardized. Otherwise, there will continue to be an unwillingness to account for experience, expertise, and a true balance of the needs of the individual with that of the greater whole.

The Council is not a mere bystander, but a principal in the current land use process. It has the power to turn down applications through ULURP, to modify zoning text and zoning map changes, to chart the course of streets and parks through the city mapping process, and to act, collectively as a body, for the well-being of the New Yorkers it represents.

This legislation does not address this underlying principle. The historical precedence of councilmember deference is seen as one of the most cherished powers provided to an individual seat in the body. While this proposal provides for a vehicle to remove Council approval from the process, it is disingenuous to imply that future councilmembers would not want to continue to call up discretionary applications and nothing in this process prevents nor curtails the current practice of a single councilmember’s vote. As a result, this instead introduces an additional layer of review for discretionary applications, which already range in cost from the hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions and doesn’t account for the fact that goals and circumstances will undoubtedly change within the 10-year timeline, creating the need for applications that don’t exactly align with what was already envisioned.

Along with member deference potentially undermining any citywide planning effort, the proposal’s failure to establish a framework to resolve competing priorities between localized community needs and the citywide goals will result in a document that does neither. There are also serious implementation concerns regarding cost, timeliness, accuracy and availability of data, and lack of comparative studies for new types of analysis. If you take the typical cost of an environmental study done for a recent neighborhood wide rezoning and multiply it to take into consideration the number of studies this proposal requires, it easily amounts to over $400 million, if not more. Serious consideration must be paid as to whether the benefits from such a potentially large expenditure are warranted given the fiscal straits the city finds itself in.

Finally, there is no process to reconcile existing community driven plans, other statutory strategic plans, and pending legislation that looks at discrete challenges such as fair housing is unaccounted. This plan also fails to account for the sweat equity already put into existing 197-a plans, and more recent initiatives and community bargains such as those in East Harlem and Brownsville. It is also unclear how this would interact with pending legislation such as the racial disparity impact study or the city’s affirmatively furthering fair housing effort, Where We Live NYC. This document does not incorporate the “master plan for streets “previously referenced by the Speaker, and/or municipal control or lack thereof of the transit network.

There are also jurisdictional and potentially legal issues related to current charter granted powers and the lack of jurisdiction over significant parts of the built environment, such as mass transit. Unlike many of the cities that have undertaken comprehensive plans, New York City lacks jurisdiction over multiple land uses and areas of the city. For example, transportation infrastructure is the lifeblood of the city, yet it is largely in the hands of the state. Further explanation is needed as to how to enact productive institutional arrangements with these state agencies such that the transportation network may sufficiently grow with the City.

Moreover, the legislation removes the Department of City Planning (DCP) and the City Planning Commission (CPC) from any role in the comprehensive planning process it establishes and has their responsibility shifted to the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability (OLTPS) and the newly created Long Term Steering Committee (LTSC). The new structure appears to shift power away from the Mayor’s Office, the one branch of government that has a truly citywide perspective, and to the Borough Presidents, whose votes on the LTSC have the power to decide whether the Mayor or the City Council will prevail on any individual issue. Taking power away from the Mayor’s Office appears to be inconsistent with the legislation’s goal of creating an integrated plan for the City as a whole.

As for Community Boards, after agonizing over five separate planning documents, will have the decision unilaterally made by their councilmember without justification to the who or why, and then leave final authority with an individual with no professional requirements to reconcile the nearly 300 distinct documents generated from this process into a single, cohesive plan. Everyone will have to make sense of an environmental review document that examines hundreds of permutations of the land use scenarios.

Surprisingly, this proposal has been painted as a boon to the real estate industry. It is assuredly and most definitely not. Others have sought to paint this proposal with progressive bona fides to grass roots community planning. It is most definitely not that either. While in some instances this semblance of compromise or balance may strike the tone of sound policy, this is not one of those cases.

With this said, we must work together to find opportunities to plan better, and we hope that this bill language will be significantly revised with robust engagement and discussion to do so. Thank you for the opportunity to share these concerns with the committees.