OPINION: What community planning looks like

BY LYNN ELLSWORTH | The phrase “We The People” in the Constitution still has the power to wake the sleeping idealist within us. It’s a clarion call to our better nature, to get off our asses and bend the arc of history toward something better, to come together to make decisions for the general welfare. It evokes raised hands at town halls, voting booths, Athenian debating assemblies of 5,000 people, and ancient fields where men assembled and banged their shields to indicate their assent — or not — to a call to war.

“We The People” conveys fairness: a political community with the right to gather and figure things out. It is why we are so enraged that the Electoral College renders our vote pointless, why newcomers to New York City are shocked to learn they cannot elect community board members, why women gathered in Washington, and why disenfranchised groups throughout history took to the streets demanding to be part of “We The People.”

The founding fathers had it right in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

It is also why many New Yorkers are contemptuous of the use of the fake participatory community-planning “processes” that have become popular among city politicians. There are many types of such processes, ranging from the participatory-budgeting sideshow that even Brian Lehrer on WNYC has made fun of, to the tightly curated and controlled “working groups” set up to create the illusion of community approval for rezonings. Such groups were used for the South St. Seaport, Midtown and East Harlem, and a new one has been set up for the unneeded Soho rezoning. Now there are also the micromanaged “neighborhood advisory groups” that the mayor created to thwart opponents of the expensive new tower-jails.

Representative and indirect forms of democracy make sense when the geography is vast and communication difficult. Scholars think that is why our founding fathers created the Electoral College in the first place. How else to manage national voting in a vast country with rough roads and no Internet?

That also means that representative, indirect democracy makes little sense when the geography is as small as a neighborhood. Athens at the peak of its democracy only had 30,000 people! So, surely, city dwellers in the modern era can find a way to have some substantive direct democracy at the neighborhood level. Technology like Placespeak makes neighborhood referenda easier than ever. And even Los Angeles manages to have elected neighborhood councils, so why don’t we? Of course, city politicians will resist local democracy: It would take some powers on local matters away from them. But it has to happen. On local matters, appointed commissions, boards and advisory groups just lack the basic legitimacy that comes from direct democracy. So it is worth imagining: Which powers and decisions might be delegated to elected neighborhood councils or made via local referenda?

For example, we might give neighborhoods more power over the management of public spaces — sidewalks, street parking, stoplights, the placement of crossing guards, the organization of trash pickup, street trees, bike racks, parks, public-private plazas. We could also give residents power to veto egregiously out-of-context buildings, the right to say no to buildings that require spot rezoning and the right to veto air-rights transfers that result in an excessive breach of contextual height limits. Use your imagination!

Our city democracy has become too representative, taking too much power away from “We The People” at the most local level. To change that, community-based planning must begin with democracy at the neighborhood level, with every resident having the right to raise their hand or bang their shield on local issues that matter.

Ellsworth is chairperson, Tribeca Trust, and president, Human-Scale NYC

29 Responses to OPINION: What community planning looks like

  1. So many great points made in this op-ed, but basically, it comes down to: There are better ways to govern this City! But I can't get too worked up about the bad ways: working groups, advisory boards, etc., because it always comes down to a vote (if you can get one) in City Hall. And our votes are being robbed by backroom schemes that pay no heed to community engagement processes.

    Just ask community leaders in Morningside Height, East Harlem, and recently revised parts of Brooklyn, etc., and they will all tell you that the things they agreed on during the process were out-the-window when it came time to vote. They ended up with even less than their compromises. Council members horse-trade the community right out of every agreement. Cowardly CMs always differ to the district's member no matter what. Laws and resolutions end up looking nothing like the community's proposals. It's so disappointing that we wanna give up.

    In this one-party City, I fear that "We the People" is not going to be enough until we turn our primary elections into our general elections. I don't know if it's ranked voting or some other process, but we've got to have candidates on the ballot other than those who the council members want on the ballot. We need candidates to run against each other, but right now, they rarely do. Only new laws will change their fall-in-line, wait-your-turn party. We've got to have real choices. And we must have a law that allows for Council Members to be recalled, if they don't keep their promises.

    And it should start with our faux-progressive mayor and his ignorant manipulation of the DCP, BIS, LPC, etc. I've never been more disappointed in a politician… even when he was in town. Iowa and New Hampshire have no idea how they are being conned. Good riddance to him.

  2. I agree – the one-party part of the problem I did not consider, but I do love the possibility of recalling City Councilmembers (among others). And the fake community planning processes go on and on, such as the one called Bridging Gowanus. Here is a quote from a participant there who said it best on the "Pardon Me For Asking" blog: "As a long time resident of Gowanus, I took part in the Bridging Gowanus process and was alarmed at one meeting by what I saw happening. Tables of mixed participants including developers, realtors, many pro-development people, some residents, both owners and renters. Very few people from NYCHA housing. Most attendees were white and appeared to be middle class or above. The process was heavily directed. I sat at a table with Buddy Scotto who monopolized the discussion and worked to convince a young couple they should be pro-development because they could buy an apartment. We were told to look at a printed list of options that included an a la carte menu of amenities we would like such as schools, art galleries, parks, etc. and for each one, we had to add multiple stories to the zoning. The lowest option possible was 8-10 stories, well above the current zoning for the area. There wasn't a soul in the room who was a resident who wanted the 28-story towers they are now proposing. What we currently have are a bunch of speculative developers who have paid hundreds of millions of dollars for land around the Gowanus and are waiting, gnashing their fangs to get at developing it into towers that will make the building on Bond between 2nd and Carroll look like a single family home. While Lander claims he is shepherding a democratic process. The representative of Pratt who was at my table (and every table had one or someone from Lander's office) was not shepherding democracy. They were directing us what to do. "Do you want a park? Do you want new schools? Transportation?" Oh and by the way, that will cost you 12 more stories. There was no option for keep it the same, make it a historic district, make it an arts and industry area. It was also clear from how the questions were phrased that keeping the area above 3rd Street industrial was out. The language only included south of 3rd Street (a much smaller area) as industrial. Shame on you Brad Lander."

    • I've spoken to Brad Lander a couple of times recently. What the hell happened to him? Such a disappointment. He had such potential, but is now just another shill for the greediest real estate folks. Too, too bad.

  3. To figure out when a “participatory process” or an advisory group is something useful for community planning or a scam to avoid “We The People”, here are a few questions:

    •Who initiated the process, “We the people” or someone else?
    •Do the politicians get to control membership in the advisory group?
    •Who hires, fires, and manages the “facilitators”?
    •Who controls the agenda?
    •Are opponents, critics, or credible threats kept out?
    •Who curates the information the advisory group sees?
    •Who edits and writes the final report and who approves those edits?
    •Are dissenting opinions allowed in the final report?
    •Can the advisory group “Just Say No” to the idea or proposal?
    •To what extent are “We the people” involved in voting on the idea?

  4. City Charter Commissions fret about low voter turnout, looking for answers in better voting rules. But the real source of “disengagement” might be that our city democracy has become too representative, taking too much power away from “We The People” at the most local level. If we cannot raise our hands on anything at all of substance in our neighborhoods, we soon shrug our shoulders, think about something else, and shove aside our natural desire to attach ourselves to our neighborhoods. We stop caring about its fate

  5. Land use restrictions violate owners' rights. Direct democracy doesn't excuse the petty tyranny of local interests.

    • That's not true. For example, zoning has been upheld in the Supreme court and is not a 'takings'. And we know since the Grand Central case that real estate interests do not have a constitutional right to the speculative value of their property. Property rights, as a matter of fact, have never existed in the Blackstonian fantasy of "despotic dominion", a phrase massively misinterpreted by generations of legal scholars – it referred to Adam and Eve's old testament despotic dominion over the fowl and fishes and beasts of the world, not Gary Barnett's right to build as high as he wants.
      And on your second point, well-said! However, I am not sure how we are to know when local interests are being tyrannical. I guess in the case of the Jim Crow South, it was pretty obvious, but for most of the land use battles in NYC , it is not so morally obvious as to which side is being tyrannical.

    • "Land use restrictions violate owners' rights." — Tell that to people in the suburbs who have to paint their house a specific color, can't park on the street, must mow their lawns or be fined, can't have non-yard items in their yards (cars, trailers, etc.), are require to have a specific type of mailbox, etc. The list goes on. You don't get to do whatever you want with your property unless you live on a planet by yourself. Try that!

  6. Katherine O'Sullivan

    The Inwood Library charette/charades were the same. Residents wanted an option of "no action" or an option "within the R2 zoning". Neither were allowed.

  7. Bravo Lynn for calling it like it is. I have been to many of these so called "community engagement" meetings in East Harlem, Long Island City, Chinatown. Oh and there was the one for the BQX that I decided to skip to save my blood pressure. They call them "visioning" sessions and have crayons, literally crayons to make the community think they are involved. They treat "We The People" like 2nd graders in their own home. SOMETHING has GOT to Change! Between bogus visioning sessions and the feds new "opportunity zones", the mayor's (or should I say the EDC's) Mandatory Inclusionary Housing/Zoning for Quality and Assurance (MIH/ZQA) our city and our communities sre literally under attack and people who have lived here for generations are being pushed out and the city'a history is being erased. The people have GOT to GET INVOLVED .. it's literally the ONLY way to stop the juggernaut of The Real Estate Industry (REBNY) that his hell bent on erasing us!

  8. New York is suffering a crippling housing shortage––we've had an emergency vacancy rate since 1974 and build less housing on a per capita basis than San Francisco (not to mention Baltimore or Indianapolis, hardly economic powerhouses themselves). We should be making it easier to say "Yes" to desperately-needed housing, not empowering voices from the city's wealthiest neighborhoods to block it for purely aesthetic reasons.

    • New York City has more low income housing than any other city in the US. Building more would only drive others to move here, and then your problem would be worse, not better. The massive 1950s immigration into suburbs with the rise of car ownership took away the financial resources to keep up this city. NYC's bankruptcy was an emergency in the 70s & 80s, not the vacancy rate. But then gas prices and mortgage interest rates drove people back into cities.

      This is a temporary and perennial in/out flow that has already began to reverse (NYC saw a decline in population this year). Real estate development has never changed this flow, and it sure won't now. To call it "crippling" is to not understand the bigger picture and a symptom of inexperience. There are plenty of places in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn where inexpensive housing could flourish, but if you'll only live in SoHo or some other historic district, then who's really the asshole?

      • Building more would allow others to move here, yes, and knowing that New York is an engine of opportunity I think we have a moral obligation to allow that. And regardless of the amount of dedicated low-income housing that currently exists, there isn't enough, and it's ridiculous to imply that New York doesn't have a serious affordability problem. To handwave it away is a sign of cynicism and indifference.

        It's equally ridiculous to suggest that new construction has no role to play here, or that a new equilibrium can't be reached. Everyone in the country is not going to move to New York, no matter the number of apartments we allow. But in the 1920s and 1950s we built enough to keep up with demand, and Tokyo does it today. There, they build 160k apartments every year, and the average two-bedroom apartment goes for $1000. I want that for NYC.

        Finally, I agree that the outer boroughs should also allow more housing, but I find wealthy neighborhoods like the Village and SoHo to be the worst offenders in terms of opposing it, especially with these crocodile tear-laden concerns about aesthetics. Given that they are literally among most in-demand neighborhoods in the city, building there would offer a real chance to cut displacement off at its source, not to mention fund deeply affordable inclusionary housing. And allowing similar densities to Yorkville would hardly render them unlivable.

        • "we have a moral obligation to allow that" — No, it doesn't. Where is that written? It's not. We already have more housing than the City infrastructure can handle, thus the subway problems, bus problems, crumbling bridges, collapsing tunnels, congestion, pollution, garbage. The list goes on. Maybe you should focus on getting City resources back to, well, I'll settle for average, and then see if we can handle more housing. If we had less housing we wouldn't need congestion pricing, taxi surcharges, etc. Lacking a holistic view of the City is exactly what has gotten it trouble in the past. Maybe learn some about the City's history before just grinding one ax.

          "1950s we built enough to keep up with demand" — what demand? White flight solved your made-up issue back then. Apples and oranges to today. As for Tokyo, more apples and oranges, so good luck selling developers and rich people on the idea that living in tiny camped apartments is good for either their bottom line or luxury tastes. And if you think that building more in the Village and Soho is going to create anything other than more luxury housing, you don't understand politics, money, or their nexus. Too simplistic to debate.

          • I seem to remember something about "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" being associated with New York, but maybe you think that history is apples and oranges too.

            Personally, I think that New York is nowhere close to being full––especially as we're not even at our peak population. Manhattan is one of the most desirable places to live in the world, but somehow we can't bring ourselves to allow the densities of Greenwich Village in the outer boroughs? For someone claiming that I lack a holistic view of our city, you're not considering any of the benefits of density––more people means more diverse businesses, neighborhoods and cultural offerings. And the idea that housing is at the root of all New York's problems is silly––Yorkville is hardly a hellscape for its comparably loose zoning. Not to mention that more people *also* means more taxes to address any infrastructure needs that arise.

            As for my history, there was still demand to live in New York City proper in the 1950s and 1960s, and which developers built for. It only fell off precipitously in the late 60s, which incidentally happened to be after the stricter zoning code of 1961 was adopted. Not to mention that then, the suburbs were still growing, while many now permit homes at the rate of Detroit. I'm not arguing either that New York will always be booming, but why not get all the housing we can in the boom? I don't care if developers lose money.

            Regarding Tokyo, I'm sure many people would live in smaller studio apartments (or even SRO units) if they were cheaper and available––in many cases, they're just illegal to build. So if your argument is that no one would want to live in them, then simply legalizing micro-apartments shouldn't be a problem.

            Finally, I believe that in the Village and SoHo, even expensive buildings have a positive impact––there, every person living in a new building is one fewer person gut-renovating a previously-affordable place in the Alphabet City or the Lower East Side. I'm very aware that many of the single-family townhouses in the Village used to be more affordable multi-family homes. And that's not even broaching how these buildings in more desirable neighborhoods can more deeply subsidize inclusionary units.

          • Human-scale NYC is absolutely in favor of building more apartments in NYC. However we favor a gentler affordable housing policy than now exists, one that favors an incremental build-out at human-scale and with buildings that are 100% affordable and permanently affordable to those with incomes at the lower side of the median income. We disagree profoundly with the Glaeser "build tall, with shock and awe" trickle-down theory of how to affect housing prices for those who are at the bottom of the housing ladder. That theory has never worked anywhere. We also disagree profoundly about the need for subsidizing developers to build buildings that have 30% affordable units. Rather, the city is free (given Supreme Court rulings) to oblige all developers to build 30% affordable" units for every single building that goes up, without subsidy, and then turn our attention to investing public resources in the aforementioned humanscale build-out.

          • William Thomas

            I'm happy that you agree that we need more apartments, and eagerly await the day you actively support a new project. Count me skeptical, however, knowing you opposed the 123 deeply affordable units at Haven Green. Some might even suggest you support a 100% affordable mandate solely on the basis that fewer projects could be profitably built, period. I hope that's not the case, and you would be willing to support a lower inclusionary rate if it won us more affordable apartments in the end.

            That said, I am also skeptical of a "human-scale" build-out for other reasons––it strikes me as akin to sprawl by another name. New highrises are almost universally more environmentally friendly on a per-capita basis than the older low-density buildings they replace, not to mention the suburban sprawl they also preempt. Furthermore, I don't think legalizing the density of Yorkville in the Upper East Side is particularly extreme. It is a very nice neighborhood!

            Lastly, regarding the impact of housing supply, I think you are discounting the experience of Tokyo, which again, has far looser zoning than NYC, builds 160k apartments every year (many in high-rises), and has far lower rents. It also has only ~1200 homeless people, despite your claim that the less-fortunate wouldn't benefit.

            Here's a link. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/07/14/nati

    • According to HPD, there are more housing units than ever on record since the housing survey began in 1965, including an additional 69,000 units since 2014.

      • Yeah but the problem is that there are also more people––since 2009, 500k people have moved to NYC but we've only built 100k apartments. And when you're talking about a city of millions, 69k in four years isn't that much. Again, San Francisco, which everyone knows has a housing supply problem, builds more than NYC on a per capita basis. We have to do better ourselves.

        • NYC population is declining. You need stats that are less than a decade old. come on, man.

          • My stats are from the Comptroller's 2018 housing report, not 2009. We've essentially reached a point where the cost of living is so high that people are starting to leave. That doesn't disprove that undersupply of housing drove that high cost of living in the first place.

          • There is no evidence whatsoever that people are leaving because of housing costs. A more likely hypothesis: the baby boomers are starting to cash out and retire to greener pastures.

          • William S Thomas

            The ability to "cash out" is driven by higher housing costs

    • The New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey is conducted every three years by the U.S. Census Bureau and is used by the city to determine if it’s still in an official “housing emergency” with housing vacancy rates at or below 5 percent. The 2018 survey found a record-breaking 245,000 vacant units were considered not available for sale or rent in 2017— a 34 percent increase since 2014. 32 percent of those units were unavailable because they were undergoing or awaiting renovation. Another 30.5 percent were unavailable because of occasional, seasonal, or recreational use, according to the survey.

      • If you keep reading that report, it continues by noting that "as previous HVSs have shown, most of these units undergoing or awaiting renovation will be either occupied or vacant and available for sale or rent by the next HVS." We're not awash in hoarded, empty housing, and the vacancy rate itself is accurate.

        Similarly, those units unavailable due to occasional, seasonal, recreational use represented "a similar share of the total stock that was vacant but not available for sale or rent" as to 2014.

        Again, I would love for all of those units to hit the rental market, but barring a ban on vacation homes, I feel like the best solution is to build more, so the rentals that are available are enough.

        • Building more will only create more vacation properties, more vacant investment properties, and more fake claims of renovation. The 2008 recession scared people with money. They are avoiding the stock market for fear of losing it all again. So they moved to real estate. The ROI is about the same, but the risk is far less. Implementing your proposals will not achieve your goals. People with big money have brushed aside smartasses long before you came along.

          • In Japan, enough housing is built that it acts like a car or any other consumer good, and loses value as someone lives in it. It's possible to build enough that real estate is a bad investment, at least compared to the stock market, and I think we should move towards that kind of market.

  9. FYI, Human-scale NYC thinks the benefits and burdens of density need to be distributed more fairly in this city. Alas, nobody at City Planning wants to do the intellectual work of figuring out what the range of optimal densities ought to be in NYC. Those who live in Douglaston, for example, if they do not want the burdens and benefits of density, need to pay taxes accordingly, even if they are in a historic district.

    Density is a really interesting subject, because there is a density that is too low and a density that is too high. The public needs to be part of the discussion of what that range is, and planning policy needs to consider those ranges.
    We can't just have Alicia Glen and Vicki Beene trying at every moment to "shove more density" wherever they can.

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