Let's elect city planning leader


During the Coalition to Save Brust Park’s successful effort to collect 1,000 signatures to protect the park, I have noticed that people around here are all against more building. It’s almost unanimous.

Most people want to keep walking rather than talk to strangers with petitions. But it was surprisingly easy to get them to sign this. Many people thanked me for my effort, and volunteered that somebody needs to stop the overbuilding.

Riverdale is being overbuilt because it’s zoned that way. Back in the ‘60s, someone decided that big buildings would be allowed in many places, never imagining — I’m sure — that they’d be allowed to go up in all those places. And projects would need community approval.

Laws have since changed. Now, if the zoning says it’s OK, no public discussion is needed. It’s called “as of right.” It’s built, and we get more crowded.

Downzoning can theoretically happen, but the city planner has to want it, and that is never the case, as evidenced by the decades of ever-increasing density in this, the densest city in the Americas. And it continues.

Invariable, city planners are real estate and investment people. They see their job as accommodating investors and their bankers, even issuing variances when easy zoning is not enough. Almost all land is zoned for building something. Much of it for big buildings. Some neighborhoods (such as Inwood) even get upzoned against the will of the community.

Imagine you want to downzone a parcel because someone wants to build something hideous there. You and the great majority of your neighbors don’t think it belongs there. The city planner will tell you that you can’t rezone the lot. That would be ruled “spot-zoning,” and somehow illegal. You must rezone the entire neighborhood.

This, he will also tell you, is an impossible, massive lawyer job that will take longer than the builder will take to build. And if you try, he will rule against you. This is why Riverdale’s getting more crowded, hotter, louder, etc.

The city planner has the ability to shape New York City. And we can only live in it, with no say in the matter. This is wrong. City planning is, perhaps, the most important thing the city does. It’s time to treat it with the respect and oversight the position deserves. It’s time to make the head planner an elected position.

He/she needs to tell the people his/her plans for their neighborhoods, and let them vote. Let the people in on these major decisions. And have community board meetings where the people can actually decide things affecting their lives.

Currently, rezoning does take years. The bureaucracy can’t be navigated effectively by civilians, only by real estate lawyers. And it turns out that all real estate lawyers profit from real estate development. There are none who earn a living from protecting our natural areas from builders.

And these few remaining natural places desperately need protecting. So do our neighborhoods. That should be the city planner’s top objective: Serving the residents. And we should pick the person who will.

It would seem that corporations’ rights to build trump our rights to clean air and water, open space, a seat on the subway, reasonable temperatures, a place to park, or a place for your child in a public school. Taxes pay for ever-increasing services for ever-increasing population (or not — then the services suffer).

The rights of a limited liability corporation should be balanced against the rights of the people, and of nature. Now nature is considered the LLC’s property. At least it’s zoned that way. As long as there are millions to be made, the wind will blow toward the LLCs who reimburse no one for diminished quality of life, or property value loss, and then move on with limited liability.

New Yorkers need to take control of zoning. We live here, and would like to stay.


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Jim Wacker,