Development defined Michael Bloomberg’s mayoralty. Whether you think the former mayor revitalized a stagnating city with its work at Hudson Yards and the Brooklyn waterfront, or blasted a gentrification superhighway through places like Harlem and Greenpoint—or did some combination of both—Bloomberg’s approach to land use is central to your admiration or critique.
That’s no surprise. Land is the ultimate non-renewable resource and decisions about it shape the city for decades. The tenure of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who as a councilman was not usually a foe of big real-estate projects, will be shaped by how he handles development. What gets built and for whom is a factor that helps drive income inequality and determines the kind of lives the haves and have-nots lead in the city.
On Friday, de Blasio named one of his transition co-chairs, Carl Weisbrod, to be the new chairman of the City Planning Commission and the commissioner of the Department of City Planning. Weisbrod will play a crucial role in crafting de Blasio’s development impact. Everyone will be watching to see how his approach to big projects (like the controversial East Midtown rezoning that the council killed during Bloomberg’s last weeks in office) differs from that of his predecessor, Amanda Burden.
But to some city planners, focusing on zoning will only repeat the mistakes of the past.
“Zoning is only a regulatory framework,” says Tom Angotti, a Hunter College professor and veteran planner. “When we teach planning, we teach the general consensus that zoning should follow planning. First you decide what kind of city you’d like, then you come up with the regulatory framework to support that.”
What Angotti means is that zoning just determines how big the buildings can be and whether you can build a factory or a supermarket or an apartment building (or all three) on a particular corner. It doesn’t figure out where to locate bus lines, or how to obtain the classroom space that new residential buildings will necessitate. It doesn’t figure out how a particular neighborhood’s change is going to fit into what’s happening all over the city.
Some of the Bloomberg administration’s zoning changes did reflect a deeper sense of where the city is going—the planning around the waterfronts are one example. But even these were isolated from broader thinking. Did it make sense to build so much on the water’s edge with sea-level rise more inescapable reality than mere risk? PlaNYC grappled with some of these issues but never drilled down into the details that would make it an actual, comprehensive plan for New York, which is something the city has never had.
And it’s not just the lack of a plan that hurts—it’s the lack of a process. Comprehensive planning (it doesn’t have to be citywide, maybe by borough, Angotti says) would force the city to adopt a process that involved communities early on, inviting them to offer ideas and not just react—usually negatively—to proposals for change that are dropped on them as faits accompli. That dynamic rewards developers, who have the resources and focus to drive the agenda.
“Right now the system works very well for developers, and doesn’t work for others,” says Michael Mintz, like Angotti a member of a progressive Planners Network. “Progressive planning would basically switch that around.”
Critics will say that delving into a years-long, very expensive, inclusive planning exercise will only produce a plan that’s out of date before it’s done. But what Mintz and Angotti have in mind is something more nimble, and ongoing. And let’s face it, not having a plan doesn’t mean there isn’t a plan: It just means the plan is being crafted narrowly and episodically by developers or the few neighborhoods that have access to the levers of political power (like the broad swath of Staten Island that achieved a sweeping downzoning early in the Bloomberg era).
Improving the city’s planning process, and its plan, takes more than principle. The Department of City Planning pulled off quite a feat by rezoning 40 percent of the city during the Bloomberg years on a modest budget. It will need more resources to help the city craft a borader map for our future. De Blasio’s budget, due soon, may indicate whether the new administration will simply give us fewer, or less offensive, development-driven rezonings, or a blueprint into which the aspirations of residents and real-estate companies all fit.