Zoning Reform Planned for New York – But will it be Progressive

Part of Staten Island Zoned only for Single Family

Gotham Gazette

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on Wednesday unveiled legislation that would overhaul New York City’s long-term planning processes, eliminating duplicative procedures, streamlining agency coordination, and establishing a more proactive, holistic approach to land use and budgeting that prioritizes racial and economic justice. 

For decades, the city’s zoning, land use, and development have been subject to disparate sets of mandates and guidelines, some overlapping and redundant, in the City Charter, the city’s foundational governing document. There are more than a dozen planning documents that determine how infrastructure is built and how communities and boroughs grow. 

Over the last two years, Johnson and his colleagues, particularly Council Members Brad Lander and Antonio Reynoso, have been attempting to reform those processes into one centralized comprehensive approach that would act as an overarching strategy for everything from housing creation to school construction, public spaces, transit access, and economic development. The approach would bring about more equitable and sustainable growth across the city, addressing long-standing disparities and needs, particularly in Black and brown communities, while also meeting citywide goals.

Council members along with the Thriving Communities coalition of advocates and experts unsuccessfully proposed such a comprehensive planning framework before a Charter Revision Commission last year. They sought to have the commission present the policy to voters in the form of a ballot question, but the commission decided against including it in its final list of ballot proposals. 

“We have a piecemeal and top-down approach to land use and planning and we can’t afford to carry that ineffective approach into our future. The stakes are just too high,” Johnson said Wednesday, as he announced the new legislation and released an accompanying report, “Planning Together.” The report outlines the city’s broken planning procedures that have created inequities and critiques city government’s inability to realistically evaluate, budget, and build major infrastructure projects through the capital budget.

The report and the legislation, Johnson said, would “give us tangible and useful tools to plan for our future…We’re going to have clearly-defined, measurable, citywide goals, and every neighborhood is going to develop their own land use plan. These are real concrete things that New Yorkers can actually wrap their heads around.” 

The new legislation, which includes City Charter amendments, would incorporate and re-jigger all the current elements of city planning into a comprehensive planning strategy over ten-year cycles, mandating a regular effort at thoughtful, coordinated growth and that decisions on land use and the city budget actively seek to rectify historic inequities across the city for low-income communities of color and to prevent the displacement that may be caused by forces of gentrification.

The plan will be a living document, changing every five years to keep up with the evolving needs of the city and based on regular engagement with communities. If the legislation is passed in 2021, the ten-year process would begin in 2022, with a Long Term Planning Steering Committee and an assessment of needs from community boards. The plan itself would first be published in 2025, and then amended in 2030 as citywide goals, needs and land use actions are reassessed.

It would require regular appraisals of infrastructure needs, short- and long-term risks and the impact of land use decisions. The proposed bill would require that the city prioritize community input and create new, local decision-making bodies to weigh in on land use and development processes. And it would set quantifiable targets for “housing, jobs, open space, resiliency infrastructure, schools, transportation, and other infrastructure.”  

A comprehensive plan – New York is the only city never to have had one, even Houston which doesn’t have zoning has one, is a good thing. However the process is unlikely to result in an uplift in New Yorks low development rates.

To understand you have to understand the background of the Bloomberg era. This saw targeted upzoning of some areas, mostly poorer areas in Harlem, and downzoning in areas such as Staten Island and Lower East side. This had little to do with accessibility. Most of the downzoning occurred in places close to stations.

You also have to understand that very little of New York is zoned for conservation. Only around 3% of lots are in historic districts (equivalent to conservation area). Overall New York could easily triple their coverage IF it reduced the two thirds of the lots zoned for single family dwellings. Formally ‘redlined’ areas are underepresented.

Of course residents of well heeled brownstones can lobby harder for protection. But the problem is not protection but downzoned and lowzoned areas not worthy of protection.

The risk is a thread amongst ‘left nimby’ discourse of ‘hey if white people can get downzoning in the name of racial and social justice so should everybody else’. The totally discredited idea that the best way to stop gentrification is to stop development.

Planning Together

The City’s piecemeal approach to planning responds best to the neighborhoods with resources to agitate for change, which has resulted in an uneven, unequal, and unfair distribution of zoning policy—and the de-prioritization of the needs of low-income people, immigrants, and people of color. Over the last several decades, many of New York’s well-resourced neighborhoods have successfully advocated for restrictive and exclusionary zoning that prevents the development of critically needed affordable housing in transit-rich neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, less privileged communities with fewer resources to organize have often either been left with outdated zoning that encourages car-centric urban design and includes no housing affordability requirements whatsoever—or targeted for increased density with little explanation or citywide rationale for why their neighborhood must bear the burdens of growth over other neighborhoods. These restrictive, exclusionary rezonings and uneven applications of zoning policy across diverse neighborhoods have exacerbated racial and socio-economic inequality in New York City.

Although in and of itself the Planning Together document is spot on on the issue of injustice it says nothing about the biggest injustice, the shortage of homes and places of business. As such it could be used simply to pressure for downzoning of racially diverse areas and create a backlash in historically valued neighbourhoods. As we know in so many cities this doesnt end well and can exacerbate tensions.

The rezoning process needs to be done very carefully and they should start now with a comprehensive historical and character survey of New York as background evidence.

The way I advocate to zone to to classify areas on a two dimensional matrix, the first axis is suitability for density and the second is suitability for change. On the first you classify areas against transect (Central urban to suburban fringe), accessibility to transit and accessibility to services, and the other you classify areas as with Intensify, manage or conserve. For each classified area you specify the acceptable form, either contextual or an appropriate form for intensification. There would then be no ‘special zoning districts’ pickling areas like most of Staten Island as one dwelling per lot.

Also I would drop emotive terms like ‘upzoning’ and use the term ‘Urban Living’ which Bristol invented. Urban living being basically areas where you can live without a car and have appropriate urban form to create the population density to facilitate this. The key question in the neighbourhood consultation being – what FORM of urban living is appropriate here.

Though there are many that have said that zoning in New York has become so legally complicted it will never have a comprehensive plan the massive rezonings on form based lines in cities like Florida and Milwaukie suggest it can and should be done.

‘Levelling Up’ Regional Policy under a New Name?

The first thing ministers should do with their newly free bandwidth after the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations is to work out what “levelling up” really means. They all have slightly different definitions, which suggests that if Johnson knows what it means, he hasn’t shared it with his senior ministers….Levelling up is in danger of becoming the sort of nebulous political catchphrase like the “big society” that David Cameron waffled on about. “It is an utterly meaningless, meaningful-sounding phrase,” complains one senior backbencher.

Isabel Harman Guardian

No it isn’t. How is it anything different for example than regional policy, or the definition of it by the EU which terms it ‘‘Cohesion policy‘.

Cohesion policy is the European Union’s strategy to promote and support the ‘overall harmonious development’ of its Member States and regions.

Enshrined in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (Art. 174), the EU’s cohesion policy aims to strengthen economic and social cohesion by reducing disparities in the level of development between regions. 

Spatial economic disadvantage needs to be seen through the lenses of competitiveness and the economics of agglomeration. Agglomeration economies has two components. Industrial – cost advantages of industries locating close to each other, and urban – innovation spillover effects from concentration.

Across Europe the areas which saw the greatest agglomerations were mainly coal mining areas. It is sometimes claimed the locational decisions of industrial pioneers were arbitrary, for example Wedgewood did not locate at St Austell where his clay came from. However that was not the main transport cost – that was coal. After all the Lancashire cotton mills were not located on the Missisipi.

Regional policy has had its ups and downs in the UK but is now on a resurgence. Its focus and policy tools have shifted. For a while the focus was ‘levelling down’ forcing relocation via tools such as development certificates and wrong headed policies such as preventing the growth of Cambridge or even Birmingham. Elements of this even persisted recently, for example John Prescotts disastrous view that you you shouldn’t plan for 20 years housing in the South East as by then people would be moving north. In the event the Blair Government has highly successful in reviving the economies of the Core Cities but this simply generated more housing need in the North and has done nothing to create a flow of South-North migration.

The term ‘levelling up’ does not mean ‘squashing down’ so it implies a rejection of policies to restrict housing or employment growth in the South. I’m not sure MPs in the south see it that way.

At a time of deindustrialisation it made sense to concentrate on urban economics of scale. There has been some cluster development in the North – for example financial services in London and Leeds, but other attempts at cluster development – such as for Culture and sports in Sheffield, have been less successful.

The core cities do not have a housing problem which is all the more odd why housing targets policy are concentrating on them. Apart from Bristol and Brum/Wolverhampton they are all exceeding their targets even the new ones. Therefore the new standard method will do nothing towards levelling them up, rather it is maintaining the cap on authorities in the South East with high affordability problems.

The real problems are in the rings of mill and manufacturing towns in the north around the core cities. It should be noted that most of England does not have the problem prevalent in Europe of depopulation in remote areas and rural hinterlands of industrial conurbations. This is because few areas in England are truly inaccessible and the ability of many to set up business in rural areas, often from home. In England its often escape to the Country rather than escape from it.

Expanding urban economies of scale will be difficult with the centrifugal shifts exacerbated by covid. However many northern towns are poorly connected to Urban Cores and cities to each other.

Two issues stand out – the lack of a rapid transit system in Leeds /Bradford – easily the largest conurbation in Europe to lack one, and of course the core Northern Powerhouse goal of better connecting Leeds and Manchester. There are also a number of potential ‘quick wins’ such as the potential to kick off Wirral waters through restoring the Birkenhead Docks branch as a streetcar system. Here the DOT should do a deal, we will fund it for a share of land value uplift on sales.

Across Europe the plan for most ‘peripheral’ deprived towns has been planned decline of population with considerable public monies spend on scrubbing up form coal and steel areas. England is unusual in having a number of good practice cases of reversal of population decline. Most notably Corby -aided by its central location and many shovel ready inward investment plots made by the former New Town Development corporation, as well as European Money to restore the former steel site. This does suggest that public intervention at key locationally attractive sites can make a difference.

For areas lacking in connectivity there are opportunities to make new links. I am not one normally to argue for new Motorway Links but the M65 was cut short and stops at Colne having crossed the Pennines and doesn’t get to Bradford. It was extended in the 1990s then momentum ran out. The DOT is now studying a link.