We deserve a government that takes planning seriously


(re: “Neighbors fight to shield their backyards,” April 8)

City council Speaker Corey Johnson, together with 11 council members, recently introduced Intro 2186 that would establish — at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars — a city planning structure that, in the Speaker’s words, would end the current inefficient “piecemeal and ad hoc approach” to planning.

At the council’s public hearing on the bill, Planning Commission chair Marisa Lago — in opposing the proposal on behalf of the de Blasio administration — countered that Johnson’s proposal would, essentially, create a parallel and duplicative planning commission that would be unfeasible, expensive, and would “make it more difficult to build affordable housing, or to site essential city services.”

Both Johnson and Lago suggested the other’s approach would foster inapt “top-down planning” that disregards communities and is harmful to the city, its businesses and residents.

Both were right!

One thing is clear: The city council measure and the debate it has engendered is one of the most significant and far-reaching in decades. One that gives hope for a materially changed process and structure for planning in New York City.

The issue is not simply one of process, but whether communities should have a substantive role in the process and a place at the table in fashioning their future.

Planning on a meaningful local level is, and for many years, has been moribund — especially in the Bronx, and other outer boroughs.

Throughout this administration, top-down planning has been the order of the day, a centralized governmental approach having little to no regard for substantive community input, much less community efforts to plan for their own more livable neighborhoods.

While the Johnson proposal is deeply flawed, it has achieved one vital objective. It has focused long-overdue attention upon the absence of meaningful planning by and for the city’s localities and their inhabitants, especially those who reside in the boroughs outside of Manhattan, and the watchful gaze of the media.

When community boards were legislatively created by Mayors Ed Koch and John Lindsay, both bottom-up and top-down planning were mandated. Indeed, the boards — composed of unpaid volunteers from among community residents and businesses — were appointed for two-year terms by the borough presidents and city council members, and descriptively called “community planning boards.”

All city agencies in the board planning districts were legislatively directed to regularly and fully coordinate with them. Cooperative coordination and resultant positive interaction eventuated. Times Square was revived, and Midtown decay was stemmed. Affordable housing in targeted areas — and on a livable scale — was initiated in every borough.

For some years, the sense of cooperative coordination in planning for and executing on community-initiated proposals has eroded. True, under the able leadership of some — like Amanda Burden — varying efforts to revive sound planning were made, but the essential fully participatory role of communities and their representative entities was not enabled.

Community boards have increasingly been effectively deprived of any meaningful role in planning, but only in statutorily mandated review of and readily ignored advisory comment upon notions advanced by the citywide “Big Brother” commission.

Even the word “planning” has disdainfully been expunged from the boards’ name. Indeed, when it has come to enforcement of existing local environmental constraints like the Special Natural Area District, only constant community pressure aided by the supportive demands of some local elected officials has bestirred begrudging action.

In sum, community-oriented neighborhood-by-neighborhood planning is anathema to the bureaucrats now charged with planning for the future. And the results are immediate and obvious.

Hard-working blue-collar workers — particularly minorities — have for decades found for themselves Community Board 8 neighborhoods in which they can afford the dream of home ownership, like in Kingsbridge. Yet those areas are choice targets for developers. Efforts to save them have lacked vital support, unaired by the planners.

Planning for truly affordable housing — in fact, not just in name — which could, with sound planning, be constructed in vacant, under-developed and even mis-developed areas of the city is, at best, an unrealized dream. Planning for the revitalization of our neighborhoods is non-existent.

With a citywide primary and general election scheduled in a few short months, the planning process and planning issues should be in the forefront of the debate. A vital and vibrant city has many inexorably intertwined parts: residential neighborhoods with first-class parks, schools, shops and other facilities, especially decent and well-maintained affordable housing available to all New Yorkers, as well as viable and accessible commercial hubs and transit-friendly financial and office centers.

Few independent observers will deny that, at the very least, all this is in jeopardy, and that for some time, planning for a sound future has lacked vision and sound effort. The exclusionary forces of top-down, centralized planning bear considerable responsibility.

Given the will and the election of truly committed individuals, important changes are readily possible to ensure at least the beginnings of bottom-up planning functioning in conjunction with top-down planning. Yet, to date, achievement of that goal has not been in the forefront of the political debate.

The striking silence of candidates who seek local and citywide office on that critical issue tells us a great deal about them and their shallow perspective. Their time to commit to planning for a city fit for living and for people, as well to advance that cause, is now at hand.

Those candidates who fail to take a reasoned and meaningful stand and articulate thoughtful positions — not just glib political jargon — simply do not merit nomination or election.

Thomas Jefferson is said to have observed, “The government you elect is the government you deserve.”

That says it all. Perhaps sadly.

The author is chair of Community Board 8’s land use committee.

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Charles Moerdler,