Regional Plan Association Comments to the New York City Council Oversight Hearing Regarding the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR)

Are CEQR procedures useful for accurately predicting and mitigating impacts of City Planning Commission decisions?

The City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) process requires authorized City agencies to assess, disclose, and mitigate to the greatest extent practicable the significant adverse environmental impacts of projects they fund, directly undertake, or approve. At the same time, the environmental review process often results in inaccurate projections, creating unnecessary work for City agencies, cost overruns for private entities, and planning fatigue across communities. RPA believes that the process as a whole and the guidelines provided by the CEQR Technical Manualcan be significantly improved to ensure accurate disclosure documents are created through a process that does not constrain beneficial development. This is especially important today as the city struggles with a severe, ongoing housing emergency. 

Thelegislative package under consideration (intros 0252, 1487, 1523, and 1531) would bring important improvements to CEQR procedures evaluating the impacts of neighborhood rezonings.These bills would require additional oversight, transparency, and when necessary the refinement of methodologies used by the CEQR Technical Manual.

Intro 0252 is a positive step in bringing oversight and transparency to the provisions of CEQR intended to mitigate adverse impacts. Typically, environmental impact statements (EISs) do not provide sufficient information about proposed mitigation measures, lacking clarity on when and where will they be executed, and who is responsible for implementation. While recent efforts such as the NYC rezoning commitments tracker has improved transparency in this area, CEQR findings and mitigation measures remain disjointed from such requirements. This disconnection disincentives applicants and city agencies from following through with mitigation measures. 

Intros 1487, 1523 and 1531 would in time help to refine and improve the accuracy of methodologies used in the CEQR Technical Manual. In particular, Intro 1487 could help illuminate and address the extensive residential displacement documented by RPA in a report that focused on the impact of rising rents and neighborhood change on low and moderate-income households.In this report RPA demonstrated that the instability caused by indirect displacement has a much bigger impact on the lives of people with few resources to adapt to the resulting financial, social and psychological disruption. 

While RPA supports the legislative package being discussed, we believe the city could go even further. We encourage the city to explore additional efforts that takes into account the following:

  1. The city could develop models for proactive decision making, without having to wait 5 years to conduct an analysis. For example, RPA developed a draft methodology for considering displacement risk in local decision-making. Comparable methods could be used to inform land use changes, grant funding, housing subsidies, tax benefits, and tenant protection programs.
  2. Many inaccurate projections are a result of limited guidelines for identifying and evaluating “soft sites”.Identifying soft sites is the first step in the creation of the analysis framework by which development scenarios are evaluated. Such analysis also serves as the basis for all 19 technical areas assessed by CEQR. The city should develop a quantifiable soft site methodology that considers plausible local real estate market trends, neighborhood accessibility in terms of jobs, infrastructure, and amenities, and the amount development rights granted by zoning, among other indicators. This would provide site-specific criteria for projected and potential development scenarios and a more accurate disclosure document.
  3. While CEQR procedures can provide important analytical information, these should not be seen as replacement to planning tools and long-term vision efforts. In particular, mitigation measures related to transportation impacts should be careful as to not overemphasize approaches that would favor vehicular infrastructure over public transit. Methodologies that heavily rely on level of service and traffic counts at intersections could undermine sustainability efforts. For example, mitigation measures favoring strict parking ratios would be a reversal towards failed transportation policies from the past.
  4. The scope of actions that would trigger the legislative package under consideration is limited to city led rezonings encompassing four or more contiguous blocks. A preliminary analysis suggests that the City has been relying more frequently on spot rezonings on a smaller scale - doubling the frequency of map amendments since 2016, compared to the prior 15 years, for areas that are on average six times smaller. None of these private spot rezoning applications would trigger the improvements aimed by the legislative package currently under consideration. RPA recommends evaluating a broader range of actions that would trigger the transparency and oversight provisions regarding commitments and mitigation measures.

We appreciate the effort the City Council has made to improve CEQR. It is a good first step in a much larger discussion involving decision-makers, the public, and stakeholders to arrive at critical solutions.