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Office of Council Member Antonio Reynoso

Proposal to Increase Community
Engagement in Private Development Plans
November 2016

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Note: This paper is a working document. The recommendations within are based on our experience in the 34
District, and on conversations with planning professionals and community stakeholders who have considered this
issue. It is by no means exhaustive, and your feedback, suggestions, and criticisms are welcome. Contact
ltauber@council.nyc.gov and bsantos@council.nyc.gov.

The Issue
There is no question that New York City is currently facing an affordable housing crisis. With nearly
60,000 people in the shelter system, and even middle-class families struggling to stay in their homes,
most of the city’s communities agree that affordable housing development is a priority. Mayor de
Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) plan is a key tool that the City can use to further its
affordable housing goals. Yet recently, two proposals that would have utilized MIH in private
developments were voted down/withdrawn due to local opposition, and other current proposals are
threatened by a lack of community input in shaping development plans. Engagement with communities
earlier in the process of private development could go a long way toward improving planning outcomes
for neighborhoods and for the city as a whole.
The Private Application Process
Currently, the NYC Department of City Planning (DCP) allows any developer seeking a rezoning to file a
private application. Recently, DCP implemented a new system called BluePRint, intended to streamline
and speed up the pre-certification process1, which includes the following steps:
1) The applicant sets up an informational meeting with their corresponding DCP borough office,
presents basic information to DCP staff, and submits a Pre-Application Statement2. DCP then
works with the applicant to refine the proposal and to determine what level of environmental
review will be required.
2) The applicant submits a draft Environmental Analysis Statement (EAS) and a Land Use
Application. The EAS provides an initial analysis of the environmental impact that the
development may have on the surrounding area. If the EAS results in a “negative declaration” of
adverse impact, no public input is required at this phase.
3) If the EAS finds that the proposal will potentially have an adverse environmental impact, the
applicant must prepare a more detailed environmental review, known as an Environmental
Impact Statement (EIS). The preparation of an EIS requires a public hearing to introduce the
scope of work to all parties that may be affected.
4) Once the EAS and if necessary the Draft EIS are complete, DCP may certify the application for
the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). 3
ULURP formally starts at the time of certification of the application, and mandates that the proposal be
reviewed within no more than 215 days. The local community board and borough president hold public
hearings on the proposal and make non-binding recommendations. Then, the City Planning Commission
and City Council hold public hearings on the proposal, and ultimately either disapprove it or approve it,
often with changes.

1

http://observer.com/2012/06/a-new-blueprint-city-to-speed-up-land-use-reviews/
Available online at https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/applicants/applicant-portal/preappstatement.pdf
3
http://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/applicants/applicant-portal/application-process.page
2 | Proposal to Increase Community Engagement in Private Development Plans
Office of Council Member Antonio Reynoso
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Engagement with Communities: Public vs. Private Development Proposals
As the process above indicates, members of the affected community have little, if any, opportunity to
engage in shaping a proposal until the ULURP process begins. Yet by the time the application reaches
ULURP, many of the substantive decisions about how the development will look, what affordable
housing it will include, etc. have been made.
Across the city, community members are tired of the traditional, top-down approach to planning that
characterized the Bloomberg administration. Now, from Gowanus to East Harlem to Far Rockaway, from
the Bronx to Bushwick, meaningful community input is starting to define how and where development
takes place, particularly in proposals that have been initiated as partnerships between community
stakeholders, local elected officials, and City agencies. The Department of Housing Preservation and
Development’s Neighborhood Planning Playbook provides a useful guide for ensuring meaningful
community/agency partnerships in City-initiated, neighborhood-level plans.
However, the lack of these participatory processes in shaping private development proposals has
resulted in negative outcomes in terms of affordable housing creation. In August, City Council Member
Ydanis Rodriguez led a Council vote against the proposed Sherman Plaza project, which would have
provided 175 (50%) affordable apartments. Local community members expressed concerns that this
development would encourage gentrification, that affordability levels did not meet community need
and additional subsidy was not guaranteed, and that the building could set a negative community
precedent for building height. This proposal entered ULURP with no previous community input, since

4

http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/applicants/applicant-portal/dcpprocessmap.pdf
3 | Proposal to Increase Community Engagement in Private Development Plans
Office of Council Member Antonio Reynoso

the City determined that it did not require a full EIS despite community assertions that one should have
been completed.5 This was the first development incorporating MIH to be rejected by the Council.
The next month, developer Phipps Houses withdrew their application to build a 209-unit, 100%
affordable complex in Long Island City, Queens, in Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer’s district.
Many of Van Bramer’s constituents opposed the rezoning because Phipps Houses received many
complaints about the poor management of their 472-unit complex located across the street from the
rezoning site. Phipps withdrew the application understanding that Council Member Van Bramer would
have encouraged the Council to vote against the project given his public opposition to the
development’s size and concerns about the applicant’s record of poor management.6
These are not the only examples of community frustrations affecting developments proposed since MIH
took effect. Community members in Brooklyn recently shut down a scoping hearing for a proposed
development in the controversial Broadway Triangle to protest their lack of input into the plan. Such
situations could be avoided, or at least mitigated, by giving communities meaningful input before
project details are codified.
Identifying and Addressing Issues
In the cases noted above, early engagement would give the public an opportunity to examine and shape
proposals, raise potential issues early, and identify elements that they think should be analyzed in an
EIS, before these issues become controversial.
For example, organized labor is particularly concerned with the issue of prevailing wage and union jobs,
and the unions are often a loud voice in negotiations over proposed developments. This becomes
complicated by the fact that labor agreements cannot legally be codified into zoning text. If engaged
early, a union might suggest, for example, that an EIS’s analysis of socio-economic impacts include how a
development’s using non-union labor could exacerbate the need for affordable housing in the
community, and/or an estimate of the number of jobs a development will create by industry. A
developer that commits to addressing these issues early could avoid conflict later.
Gentrification, displacement, and fair housing are other common issues that can lead to community
opposition of a project. As mentioned above, stakeholders recently shut down the scoping hearing for
Rabsky Group’s proposed development at the Pfizer site in the Broadway Triangle, located on the border
of Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. The controversy surrounding this site
stems from a 2009 rezoning approved for the area that favored the construction of low-rise buildings
with large unit sizes, meaning the number of affordable housing units was not maximized, and the units
that were planned would be inaccessible to those without large families. A coalition of groups from the
surrounding communities of color sued the City, and in 2012, a judge issued an injunction ordering the
City to stop this development plan because it violated Federal fair housing regulations. To date, the
5

http://www.mas.org/summary-of-public-review-for-sherman-plaza-project-c-150438-zmm-community-district-12-4650broadway/
6
http://sunnysidepost.com/van-bramer-to-block-phipps-210-unit-development-plan-essentially-kills-proposal
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Office of Council Member Antonio Reynoso

lawsuit has not been settled, and no new plan has been created. While the City interprets the injunction
to only apply to the City-owned sites in the Triangle, the community feels that a truly inclusive,
community-based plan should be created for the entire area, including the privately owned sites.
Public engagement during the pre-scoping phase of Rabsky Group’s proposal could have identified these
issues, and, short of stopping the proposed project before it began, could have at least encouraged the
developer to include in the scoping documents a commitment to addressing the City’s affirmative duty
to further the Fair Housing Act by studying disparate impact on communities of color in the surrounding
neighborhoods.
Other Issues with Environmental and Public Review
New York City’s current environmental review process, though more robust than that of many other
cities, remains flawed. A recent article in City Limits outlined a number of instances where the EIS failed
to predict negative outcomes. For example, in the 2005 rezoning of the Williamsburg-Greenpoint
waterfront, DCP issued an EIS stating that the largely manufacturing-to-residential rezoning would have
“no adverse impact on business displacement.” However, by 2014, a study showed that three of every
four manufacturing businesses had been displaced.7
Additionally, the EIS process fails to take into account the cumulative effects of rezonings on a citywide
level. While, it does require an analysis of “cumulative impacts (i) included in any long-range plan of
which the action under construction is a part; (ii) likely to be undertaken as a result therefof; or (iii)
dependent thereon,” this definition is unclear and limited in scope. It does not take into account, for
example, that rezonings undertaken during the Bloomberg administration tended to decrease capacity
for development in more affluent neighborhoods, while concentrating development opportunities in
low-income communities of color.8 Affordable housing should be considered a community resource, and
all neighborhoods should contribute to implementation of the Mayor’s housing agenda. The City does
have “Fair Share” criteria for siting of City facilities, but no similar requirement for rezonings.
Additionally, as mentioned above, EISs should, but often do not, include analysis of compliance with
Federal fair housing requirements.
Once a project is approved, the enforcement and monitoring mechanisms within the current
environmental review process are unclear. The requirement that negative impacts be mitigated “to the
maximum extent possible,” is not defined, and the extent to which the mitigations that are proposed
are implemented is loosely monitored.9
The current structure of ULURP is also problematic. As mentioned above, by the time a project enters
ULURP, the major decisions about a project have been made, and the “scope” has been set. The
negotiation between the Council member, the developer, and the administration, therefore, only allows
minimal changes that keep the project within that scope.
7

http://citylimits.org/2016/09/26/skeptics-say-citys-enviro-studies-understate-damage-from-development/
http://furmancenter.org/files/publications/Rezonings_Furman_Center_Policy_Brief_March_2010.pdf
9
http://citylimits.org/2016/09/26/skeptics-say-citys-enviro-studies-understate-damage-from-development/
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Office of Council Member Antonio Reynoso
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City Council’s Role

This map shows Community and Council district boundaries, as well as the boundaries of the 2005 Williamsburg/Greenpoint
Waterfront rezoning and 2009 Broadway Triangle rezoning, as well as the current proposal. It illustrates that multiple Council
districts may be impacted by a single proposal.

The City Council has an unwritten policy that, when voting on land use proposals, members almost
always defer to the member in whose district a project is located. This policy generally makes sense,
since members understand their community’s needs best. However, the fact is that the impact of
changes on the ground does not always conform to district boundaries, and decisions regarding one
member’s district can impact another member’s district.
The Broadway Triangle rezoning is an example of this; as mentioned above, the Bloomberg
administration’s 2009 rezoning proposal faced fierce opposition from a community that shared the
same community district (Brooklyn Community District 1), but not the same Council district, with the
site. The Latino community on Williamsburg’s Southside (located in the 34th Council District) was already
feeling the impact of the 2005 waterfront rezoning, which has resulted in the displacement of thousands
of Latino families to date.10 The Council member who represented the 34th District at the time
supported the community in their call for creation of a plan for Broadway Triangle (located in the
neighboring 33rd Council District) that would address the needs of the area’s diverse populations. She

10

According to the US Census, the Hispanic/Latino population of Community District 1 decreased by 13,437 people between
2000 and 2010.
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Office of Council Member Antonio Reynoso

opposed the administration’s rezoning proposal and spoke out against it, yet it passed the Council by a
vote of 36 to 10 (with 1 absence and 4 abstentions), at least in part due to member deference.
While this example was a City-initiated rezoning and not a private one, it again illustrates that if the
adjacent communities had been at the table as this plan was developed, the subsequent lawsuit could
likely have been avoided and a better plan could have been created, negating the need for the Council
member to go against member deference in opposition to the project.
Conversely, it is worth noting that, if the goal of reform is a more affordable and equitable city, there is
inherent risk in giving more power to communities. In some cases, stakeholders take a NIMBY (“not in
my backyard”) approach to new development, despite or even because of the fact that it would provide
more affordable housing, and/or further the City’s fair share goals. Historically, these voices have had
an outsized influence in the planning process, and the result, as noted earlier, has been that more
affluent communities have been able to “protect” themselves from new development, while less
politically influential communities have bared the brunt of it, and experienced the associated negative
effects of gentrification and displacement. Early input from communities would identify these potential
issues, and the public nature of this engagement could alert other Council members to the situation.
They could, in turn, go against member deference and vote for a project despite community opposition,
in the interest of citywide equity and affordable housing development.
Recommendations
The most ideal planning outcome, in which a community is meaningfully engaged in creating a
comprehensive plan for its future that is then implemented, would actually negate the need for private
ULURP applications, since development that is in line with the community’s goals would then happen asof-right. Although there is deep citywide interest in strengthening the role of communities in planning,
reform to ULURP would require changes to the City Charter. Mayor de Blasio should appoint a Charter
Revision Commission tasked with examining ULURP with the goal of creating meaningful reform that
encourages genuine community planning.
Meanwhile, immediate changes can be made to the process of development pre-ULURP, as follows:
Pre-Scoping
All affected stakeholders should be given the opportunity to express what they desire in a proposal
earlier in the process, and thus obtain the necessary changes to either mitigate the impact of the
proposal or modify the scope of the proposal before it enters ULURP.
1. When the Department of City Planning determines that a developer’s Pre-Application Statement
is complete, copies should be shared within a set timeframe with the associated community
board, borough president, and Council member, and be made public online.
2. By request of any of those three entities, before submitting the EAS, the developer should be
required to hold a public visioning session to share their proposal and solicit input. The proposal
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Office of Council Member Antonio Reynoso

should be shared online as well. Community members should have the opportunity to provide
comments at this event and in writing for a period of 30 days, which the developer should use to
inform the EAS. The developer should then present a revised plan to the community with
feedback incorporated.
3. For large projects involving creation of residential density, this session should be accompanied
by at least two educational workshops to be provided by local groups on topics such as: zoning,
affordable housing, economic development, transportation, open space, and neighborhood
resources.

Environmental Review
1. City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) standards outline required content of EISs. In its
Housing New York plan, the administration indicates that it will “review the CEQR process to
make it more efficient and make Environmental Impact Statements more comprehensible to the
general public and affected communities. It will examine how environmental reviews are
undertaken in other jurisdictions in order to incorporate best practices into the New York City
process.”11 The City should prioritize this recommendation and involve the public in this update.
2. In the CEQR review process, The City should update its metrics for required calculations to
reflect current market conditions, and should consider adding a number of new elements,
including: the cumulative effects of rezonings in surrounding areas, compliance with Federal fair
housing regulations, number of jobs a project would create in specific industries and whether
11

http://www.nyc.gov/html/housing/assets/downloads/pdf/housing_plan.pdf
8 | Proposal to Increase Community Engagement in Private Development Plans
Office of Council Member Antonio Reynoso

the employees would be hired locally, amount of economic benefit that the developer would
obtain from rezoning, and any community benefits being provided.
3. The preparation of an EIS requires analysis of possible alternatives to the proposed
development. Currently, this alternatives analysis generally only covers the continuation of
existing conditions, which is essentially an unfettered market. If a community-based
plan/vision/set of principles exists for the associated area, a development scenario that fits into
the parameters of such plan should be considered as a third alternative.
4. DCP should not certify projects for ULURP until the Final Environmental Impact Statement
(rather than the draft) has been completed.
5. The City should include agreements regarding private developments and mitigation strategies
proposed in all EISs in the publicly available database it has promised to create that will track
neighborhood commitments made during rezoning negotiations.12
Conclusion
To date, private development proposals have been all but foregone conclusions for communities, with
extremely mixed, but often negative, outcomes. Stakeholders across the city have proven themselves to
be engaged and active partners in shaping their visions at the neighborhood level and in City-initiated
projects that include meaningful engagement. Yet private applications remain a source of controversy
and the contention they can create threatens to slow development further and delay the goals of the
Mayor’s ambitious housing agenda. Together, we can ensure that development happens with, not to,
communities, and that we achieve our shared goals of solving the affordable housing crisis and
stabilizing our neighborhoods.

12

http://citylimits.org/2016/06/08/city-plans-database-to-track-promises-made-during-rezonings/
9 | Proposal to Increase Community Engagement in Private Development Plans
Office of Council Member Antonio Reynoso