Testimony before the New York City Council Committee Meeting

Testimony for NYCC Intro. 241 

New York City Council Meeting

March 16, 2018

Good morning, my name is Pierina Ana Sanchez and I am the New York Director at Regional Plan Association, an urban planning, research and advocacy organization that aims to improve the New York metropolitan region’s equity, health, sustainability, and economy. I am here today to testify in support of Intro 241-2018, which would establish a Charter Revision Commission to draft a new or revised city charter.

A review of the charter is necessary

It has been nearly 30 years since the  city’s charter was last comprehensively reviewed, and the City has changed dramatically. Between 2005 and 2015, New York City had 90% of new jobs with the  within the New York metropolitan region, a complete reversal of 1975-2005 trends. In the past three decades, our transit system was in crisis, came out of crisis, and has gone back into crisis again. All the while, inequality has continued ever upward, with wealth concentration for top earners, wage depression for the lowest income New Yorkers, and persistent inequities along racial and ethnic lines.

All this change requires much more proactive and inclusive planning than the city engages in today. In fact, our land use governance tools and processes are fractured. There is no overarching public framework driving land use decisions. This makes it difficult for us to answer questions like: how are neighborhoods chosen to be rezoned? how will other communities contribute to the citywide goal of addressing the affordable housing crisis? and do sufficient resources exist to aid communities in accommodating the growth without displacement? Next, local entities charged with making land use decisions – our community boards – are under resourced. And, processes including environmental review for evaluating and approving proposed development projects are time-consuming, expensive, and worse, inefficient. Last, but certainly not least, public review often meaningfully excludes many stakeholders until it is too late to affect decisions, especially in low-income communities of color.

The result is that our city is not producing the homes, commercial spaces and other infrastructure sorely needed to continue to thrive. Even beneficial projects take too long or cost too much to reach completion, as environmental review is pressured to answer questions far beyond environmental impact. And for projects that do reach completion, the benefits are often uneven, with adverse impacts often overlooked or unmitigated. At the neighborhood scale, these inefficiencies come together to deepen inequality as wealthier neighborhoods are often able to identify resources to navigate the complex processes, while low-income communities are less able to affect outcomes.

Inclusive City: Strategies for more Equitable and Predictable Land Use in NYC

In our Fourth Regional Plan, we highlighted the need to make local planning more inclusive, predictable and efficient, and over the course of 2017, we participated with the Offices of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council Member Antonio Reynoso and over 40 community and land use experts citywide to identify strategies for reform. Together, the working group released a white paper titled Inclusive City: Strategies to achieve more equitable and
predictable land use in New York City

While the strategies identified were oriented around three topics (dramatically increasing resources for planning in New York City, transparency for the public, and reforming environmental review), Charter Revision is needed to accomplish some of the most important recommendations. Planning comprehensively and empowering communities to have more of a say in their own futures will require a rethinking of the balance of power in the city. 

Recommendations for Intro 241’s Charter Revision Commission

Thus, we support the convening of a Charter Revision Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the New York City Charter, and especially, of land use governance and planning practices. Charter revision commissions may be convened through State or City legislative action, as well as by public referendum, but all except one in New York City’s history have been convened by mayoral action. We are agnostic about the convening entity, yet express the following priorities:

  • Regarding membership: As presently proposed in Intro 241-2018, the commission would consist of 15 members appointed by city elected officials, with a proposed new or revised charter to be submitted to the electors of New York City no later than the second general election after the enactment of the law. We recommend the bill include language that appointees to the commission must represent a diversity of perspectives and have expertise on a variety of subjects, including land use.

  • Regarding inclusive outreach: We also recommend the bill include more language to ensure outreach is broad, inclusive and meaningful. Outreach strategies should make strong use of social media and survey technology, include broad geographic coverage, and partnerships with organizations across the city to ensure underrepresented perspectives are heard.

  • Regarding scope: Finally, we urge that land use governance be a part of the scope.

We commend Speaker Corey Johnson, Public Advocate Letitia James, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Council Member Ben Kallos on Intro 241, and urge the City Council and Mayor to support this bill and sign-it into law.