New proposed legislation aims to streamline the New York City’s fragmented city planning process, currently spread across various government agencies and planning mandates, could permanently change our neighborhood.

The legislation, introduced by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson this past December, focuses on merging land use decisions and city planning. The legislation draws from the concurrent release of a report called “Planning Together,” which chronicles historic inequities within the past 100 years of municipal planning within New York City, and offers up solutions to be codified into the city’s Charter. The legislation has the support of both North Brooklyn’s City Council Members, Stephen Levin of District 33 and Antonio Reynoso of District 34. 

“The legislation will also require the City to connect its policy and land use planning to the City’s budget priorities,” according to a statement from Johnson’s office. The proposed legislation would allegedly “center racial and economic justice within a full range of budget, land use, and policy tools.”

One way this would be done would be through the creation of a Long-Term Planning Steering Committee that would work with the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability (OLTPS). This committee would have to include representatives from historically underserved communities.

According to the “Planning Together” report, the committee would be responsible for identifying City and District Level Targets “that would distribute growth, infrastructure, amenities, and services equitably throughout the city.” The targets would be chosen specifically to correct “historic disinvestment.” 

A map illustrating Brooklyn land use policy in 1969 (New York Public Library)

Without a comprehensive plan, the City often relies on very localized zoning disputes as a piecemeal approach to planning. According to Tom Angotti, professor emeritus of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, “Zoning encourages the city’s decision makers to look only at individual proposed projects in limited areas,” which is why people hope to coordinate the planning process. 

The proposal has received pushback from North Brooklyn community members. They argue that the plan is a top-down approach that leaves room for developers and real estate interests to have an outsized influence on the process. The comprehensive planning process will be spearheaded by a director, a role that some see as essentially a Robert Moses-style, all-powerful “master builder” who will have final say over many decisions.

The report says that “an ongoing participatory planning process would provide opportunities for New Yorkers to help decide where and when the City will distribute that critical infrastructure in their neighborhood over the next 10 years” and that the public will be engaged in the process “at all levels.” But critics say that there is no binding mechanism for the public to make their voices heard, just the chance to simply relay their input – no referenda or chance to vote on plans.

“My main gripe about ‘Planning Together’ is it’s still a top-down demand, not a bottom up investment in community,” local activist and candidate for City Council Victoria Cambranes said. “Non-privileged communities feel the constant umbrage of white wealthy voices overcoming our own, and inflicting their perspectives on how to improve our little lives. We can speak for ourselves. We can think for ourselves. We can make planning choices for ourselves too.”

Fellow candidate for City Council Lincoln Restler is slightly more optimistic about the plan’s potential, but believes it could go further. “This plan is a step in the right direction, in that we need to be thinking about city-wide goals for housing creation, job creation, and more,” Restler said. “But in my opinion, this proposal doesn’t do a good enough job incorporating community input in what’s happening in our neighborhood. I would hope that a comprehensive planning process might allow for stronger protections for the industrial and manufacturing areas in Greenpoint and East Williamsburg, to preserve and grow those good local jobs.”

The legislation failed to win the support of the De Blasio administration, who cite its complexity and cost concerns as infeasible, estimating that it could end up costing $500 million over the next decade. Speaker Johnson has dismissed that number as “inaccurate and absurd.”

It’s clear that major reforms are needed in city governance as it relates to more equitable and sustainable development. It’s unclear if this plan is the solution.

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