On May 6, the City Planning Commission certified as ready for ULURP review (successively by the community board, the borough president and the city council) a proposed zoning text change that could, from the standpoint of residents of the Riverdale community, drastically and permanently change the Special Natural Area District regulations, and with it, the character of the community.
The SNAD that encompasses much of Riverdale and gives it a distinct character and green environment has, for decades, received special zoning protection. The purpose is both preservationist and for environmental protection. Similar protections are accorded portions of Staten Island, and they, too, would be changed.
Indeed, the pressure for change emanated from the Staten Island homebuilders and developers, whose over-arching concern has been with speed and profit, and the city’s Staten Island regulators who, in turn, complained of excessive pressure and workload. Those concerns — trivial when compared with adverse environmental and community impact — could have readily been addressed at their source, not by a retrogressive citywide zoning change.
That is why Community Board 8, over CPC’s strident objection, has for years demanded bifurcation — with Riverdale and Staten Island separated and subject to completely distinct districts and regulations suited to the particular concerns of each community. All of the affected council members agreed.
One of the most central points of contention in the proposed SNAD changes has been the city’s effort — successful, it seems — to gag community and public review and comment, and importantly, to substitute buildings department “oversight” through creation or expansion of “as of right” development. Thus, dramatic changes are proposed that would minimize, if not eliminate, public scrutiny and comment involving such wide-ranging developments as institutional campus makeovers, or on smaller plots, the replacement or alteration of your neighbor’s home with a grotesque McMansion or invasive air-conditioning equipment facing your home. Or like without according you a right to be heard or your community board an opportunity to mediate (a common event).
In place of those hallmarks of participatory democracy, you would have your “friendly building inspector or examiner.” As of right review would be left to the buildings department, whose predilections and sensitivity need no further comment.
As a formers commissioner of buildings, I know what that unsatisfactory substitution and its outcome would likely be. The brief “delay” in permit issuance that allows participatory democracy to work would be replaced by the well-compensated “expeditor” or professional who has carefully cultivated his DOB “contact” to achieve what his paying development-motivated client wants.
Privately ask any local elected officials and you will be regaled with DOB horror complaints received from their constituents and about which little can belatedly be done.
The city bureaucrats and those professionals dependent on them for a livelihood will tell you “we will retrain and police” this new regime to ensure that the public’s voice and concerns are heard and considered. One obvious answer is clean up the mess first, prove it, and then come back to us.
Consider the following. As the steep slope in the special natural area adjacent to the Hudson River was recently being improperly ravaged and a prominent tree blithely but improperly removed, two DOB inspectors were called to the scene by neighbors. Myopia struck — no violations were issued based on what was visible to all.
As the residents of the Fort Independence area were mercilessly pounded by earsplitting construction work late at night, at the crack of dawn and on weekends, they learned that DOB had routinely issued authorizing permits. That, I should add, is a community-wide concern.
As a potential landmark was being destroyed to avoid preservation and asbestos allowed to spew across the area, permits continued to remain in effect despite protests from neighbors. Other examples abound.
That kind of oversight is not an adequate substitute for the participatory democracy of a community board public hearing that can generate informed action uninfluenced by the “well-connected” and “well-heeled.”
It is true that some of the proposals advanced in the so-called SNAD reforms are merited (i.e., tree protections). It is also true that there are many good people in government, including in the DOB.
However, to eliminate or even reduce the public’s right to be heard in order to lessen the workload of a handful of paid civil servants, or to supplant the brief opportunity of the public to be informed and heard by their fellow citizens in favor of a demonstrably insensitive and inept agency is unconscionable.
Howsoever sugar-coated, this attempt by city planning to silence participatory democracy as manifested by community board and community review of development efforts in an environmentally sensitive area merits resounding rejection.
The author is the chair of Community Board 8’s land use committee.