With plans for 80,000 new affordable housing units on the table, every neighborhood will have to take its fair share, experts say. This means nearly every community is aware they will have to accept more density, putting some on the immediate defensive.
The administration has stressed that the impending wave of development will be accompanied by sufficient community input; that development will have to suit the communities’ needs. But those familiar with the 150-day review process know time flies by all too quickly, sometimes before community members understand what is going on.
What is ULURP? How much affordable housing should a project bring if an M-1 site is being rezoned to R-8? Waiting for developers or the Planning Department to come in with plans for rezoning isn’t a fair enough approach, some Council members say.
Development is not an easy subject to bring among residents of communities accustomed to the charm of their low-rise blocks, and the series of meetings Council members are arranging is no easy process. Just the idea of talking about zoning can bring skepticism. What agenda are they trying to force on us now, the residents ask. The facilitators then take the brunt of residents’ emotional outbursts.
During the Uniformed Land Use Review Process (ULURP), community boards and borough presidents get a chance to weigh in on development projects, but their notes are all advisory and non-binding.
It’s practically customary for community benefit agreements to be negotiated during this process, like building a new school, making transportation improvements, or even renovating an existing playground.
“But what we don’t have in New York is a way to tie approvals of rezonings to things that make the rezoning work,” like the infrastructure improvements, Byron said.
“Communities can ask for anything … but it relies on the good faith of everyone, including City Council, to make that stick,” Byron said. An infamous example is Willets Point in Queens, where the city promised affordable housing years ago, only to have the recession hit. Now the plans instead entail a mall.
In affluent neighborhoods and areas where architects, planners, and lawyers sit on community boards and have access to their elected officials, they tend to be more successful in these negotiations, Byron said. “In neighborhoods with less money and access to political power, it’s easier for developers to come in and not [have them] ask the hard questions.”
Byron likens the negotiations to playing poker, except with an educated community the developers sit with their backs to a mirror.
But by giving community members tools to better understand the economics of zoning and affordable housing, the Council members are telling their constituents to hold them accountable for responsible development.