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Planning Together

Towers in the South Street Seaport Historic District. Upzoning in SoHo and NoHo. An out-of-scale hospital on the Upper East Side. Upzoning in Inwood and Gowanus. A tower that shadows over the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. New Yorkers are dealing with a cascade of controversial developments that seek to be approved before Mayor de Blasio leaves office a year from now.

Long established zoning is being challenged amid debates over density, affordable housing, and the value of historic districts. What kind of City do we want to live in—and who decides. The knock has always been that the City doesn’t plan–it zones.

New York City Hall

Council Speaker Corey Johnson wants to change that. He recently introduced “Planning Together,” a bill requiring ten-year cycles of comprehensive Citywide planning focused on equitable distribution of resources and development.

Under the plan, the Mayor would set Citywide goals and district level targets covering everything from housing, open space, schools, infrastructure, and amenities. A Long-term Steering Committee and Borough Steering Committees would be created—but only as advisory. Each district would be presented with three plans to meet local targets and asked which they prefer. But the Council would have the final decision. If a future development conforms to the plan, public review would be streamlined or eliminated.

After years of calls for a greater say in how their areas develop, residents would have even less input. The plan doesn’t mention historic districts by name. But it would continue current efforts to loosen zoning.

The legislation set off a flurry of thoughtful, detailed emails this past weekend from planners, advocates, and former City officials. They debated the pros and cons of the proposal, remembered failed past attempts at long-term planning, differed over what that type of planning should include, and cited the constant emergencies that distract officials from long-term goals. Some questioned the focus on development in areas that are already so dense. Others asked what should happen in outer areas of the City. Should single-family zoning be eliminated. While others questioned the focus on moving people to “amenity-rich” areas instead of bringing good schools, libraries, and open space to more neighborhoods.

In the midst of pretty wonky discussions, some people on the email chain offered wisdom from Yogi Berra. “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” How true. But this is New York’s future. Our future. The issues raised in the email flurry deserve to be heard and debated. Is the Speaker’s plan workable? Fair? We need to figure that out. And it has to be “Together.”

Peg Breen, President
The New York Landmarks Conservancy

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