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Corey Johnson Wants to Tame the Giant Squid of City Planning

Photo: Predrag Vuckovic/Getty Images

There is a contingent of New Yorkers who hold out the eternal hope that their city can be made to make sense. And for a subset of policy wonks, the perfect, elusive mechanism for producing that logical city is a Comprehensive Plan: one glorious document that would guide developers and elected officials in building apartments where they’re needed, opening new schools before the old ones become overcrowded, and mapping out how many people are likely to be commuting where. Today, city council speaker Corey Johnson announced that he’s introducing legislation to mandate that all-over approach. A new law, laid out in a report compiled by council staff, would provide an antidote to the messy, piecemeal collection of stutter-steps that currently substitutes for a planning process. It would rationalize New York’s process for figuring out its future, bringing it into line with many other municipalities all over the world. Individual neighborhoods would start by compiling their varied needs and aspirations. The city would assess broad, long-term goals for attracting business, fixing bridges, and climate-proofing the coastline, and compare them to actual conditions. Planning and budgeting would be brought under one procedural roof. The goal is to avoid screw-ups like constructing Brooklyn Bridge Park before fixing the BQE, which made a highway overhaul infinitely more complicated and expensive.

Many sages and committees have produced such panoramic visions in the past, but they’ve always been a hard sell, or else they’ve gotten mired in vagueness. “Comprehensive long-term planning has never truly gained credence in New York City,” reads the report intended to give comprehensive long-term planning credence. A few years ago, the commission established to revise the city charter considered embedding such a process in New York’s basic operating system — and found itself so bombarded by conflicting agendas and incompatible proposals that it punted. The real-estate business bristles at new rules that might infringe on developers’ freedom to buy and build, block by block, as they see fit. Neighborhood activists look with suspicion at top-down efforts to impose, or even encourage, new construction. Separate city agencies might be reluctant to give up the right to make decisions that conflict with other agencies’ decisions. And yet all of them can agree that the current system is awful, and all of them want predictability and relief.

Comprehensive planning might have a better shot than it has before because in a crisis, the human costs of inefficiency become impossible to ignore. The city’s government is a giant squid of bureaucracy whose right tentacles don’t know what the left tentacles are doing. In Downtown Brooklyn, an area theoretically rezoned as a business district produced only residential towers, which swamped (and effectively segregated) the local school. During the Bloomberg years, waterfront areas got residents but no transit, transit-rich areas won promises of no more growth, and developers were forced to build unnecessary and counterproductive parking. Later, de Blasio’s affordable housing push that was supposed to promote equity instead wound up being seen by many residents of low-income neighborhoods as a form of racist colonization. Every large-scale rezoning is treated as a singular event — an opportunity by some, a scam by others—totally disconnected from what’s happening in other parts of the city.

Would a single, big citywide plan resolve all these contradictions? Unlikely. But it could bring some much-needed predictability to the question of what gets built where. Even more important, it could bake social equity goals and community needs into a process that has largely ignored them. Right now, any neighborhood has the theoretical right to come up with its own development strategy and submit it to the city for certification. In practice, that rarely happens and when it does, the city planning department generally ignores the result. A new framework would aim to triangulate more efficiently among local needs (more grocery stores, better health care, a faster bus line!), citywide priorities (the jail/wastewater treatment plant/tow pound’s got to go somewhere), and developers’ desires (to build as much and as high as the market will allow).

Even if Johnson’s effort is fantastically successful, the chaotic status quo still has a long reign ahead. The current city council has a scant year left before two-thirds of its members (including Johnson) lose their jobs to term limits. And even if the legislation passed before that deadline, the new law would launch a ten-year cycle in 2022 and yield its first actual set of guidelines four years later. What we have for now is a plan to consider how to make a plan for making future plans. It’s a start.

Corey Johnson Wants to Tame the Giant Squid of City Planning