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Communities Can Take Back Power in City Planning

Tom Angotti discusses the lack of community power in city planning and zoning processes.

"[City Planning] approaches a community to do a zoning study, and many community board people say, okay, let's do a study. But the blueprint is already laid out; the formula is already clear," said Tom Angotti, director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development. (Photo: Condo Construction via Shutterstock)

Although low-to middle-income residents are most affected by zoning and land use decisions in their neighborhoods, they are rarely given real power in the city planning process. Instead, city planning departments and developers rig the process so that their interests are served, at the expense of local residents. The problem is, most times, residents don’t know they’re getting played.

“Throughout the city, community groups tend to be seduced by what city planning claims is an open process,” said Tom Angotti, director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development. “The truth of the matter is, a lot of communities don’t know zoning. [Information] is filtered through planners who have a stake in the game, which is to get the zoning through.”

Angotti understands zoning. He is a professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College, at the City University of New York, and has written extensively about community-based planning. Angotti has been frustrated by the lack of community voice in city planning and has been an advocate for more accountability to local residents.

“City Planning approaches a community to do a zoning study, but the blueprint is already laid out.”

“The city department has a formula for rezoning,” Angotti told Truthout. “Increasing density on wide avenues where more housing units and more developable square footage can be built, and downzoning on side streets, protecting residents.” That doesn’t sound so sinister, but what ends up happening is the value of the housing stock goes up, and most low-income residents are priced out, or forced to move out of the area due to rising costs. What’s more is that the formula doesn’t change from neighborhood to neighborhood. But residents don’t know that, and the Department of City Planning capitalizes on this lack of information.

“[City Planning] approaches a community to do a zoning study, and many community board people say, okay, let’s do a study. But the blueprint is already laid out; the formula is already clear,” Angotti said. “The City Planning Department has already had a discussion with developers who know the pattern. So they have already moved in and bought land. Property owners have already been alerted to the possibility to an upzoning. So there is a tremendous up-value of the land, and [all these players] can make a killing.”

Meanwhile, the community is tied up in a zoning study that can take up to a year, when the official rezoning project takes around seven months. Angotti explains that while the study is going on, the rezoning is already happening and the developer has moved in. “It’s a done deal,” Angotti said.

So do residents have any say at all in what happens in their neighborhood? Yes and no. Enter community boards.

Community boards (CBs) are the one way in which residents have formal input in the zoning process. In New York City, CBs advise on issues as diverse as land use and zoning to city budgets to local service delivery. Each board consists of about 50 volunteer members, each appointed by the local borough president and many nominated from the district’s City Council members. Fifty-nine community boards exist in New York City, 18 of which reside in Brooklyn.

But community boards act in an advisory capacity only, meaning that they have no official authority to make or enforce laws. “The problem is citywide,” Angotti said. “[CBs] don’t have the resources to influence what goes on. They don’t have the power. Their decisions on land use are considered by the city as advisory. Advisory, meaning, it doesn’t matter.”

Community boards become a way in which City Planning can show that they have consulted with the community.

Angotti is clear that the problem is bigger than the individuals serving on CBs. “There are a lot of good people on community boards,” Angotti told Truthout. “There are activists, hoping and expecting that they would have more influence, but when you get there, you can find yourself bogged down.” The problem is that CBs have very little power to change the overall model. “They can make some changes, but they don’t affect the overall [process of] rezoning,” Angotti said.

Instead, community boards become a way in which City Planning can show that they have consulted with the community. In actuality, community boards are given two options: the fire or the frying pan.

“The developers are going to [rezone] anyway,” Angotti said. “The City Planning Department, City Hall – they are all very skillful at securing the support of City Council in advance.”

“By the time the community board hears [the city plan], the people who make the decisions, the decisions that matter, have already weighed in. The community board is [only] in the position of yelling and screaming, and voting no, and even then it has no bearing.”

Angotti explains that there are many cases in which the community board has voted against items, and they’ve still passed. “Either [CB members] jump and scream or they try to get some tiny concessions from the city.” Concessions may include separate zones for residential and commercial development, or 20 percent affordable units in the luxury towers being put up by developers. But the damage is already done. The neighborhood has been rezoned, and many people will be displaced if the area was already in danger of being gentrified.

Furthermore, CBs tend not to be truly representative of the community. “The members are appointed by the borough president,” Angotti said. “If you look at the composition of the community boards citywide, they don’t represent the diversity, age, gender, race and ethnicity that [one] would expect in a representative body.”

So the problem is structural, inherent in the way that City Planning enacts its zoning formula.

Community groups want a study that takes into account the needs and wishes of local residents.

That’s what intrigued Angotti about a study requested by grassroots Brooklyn organization Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP), based in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. “I was approached by MTOPP and some other groups in the neighborhood last year,” Angotti told Truthout. “I felt that they were taking an approach that very few community groups have taken in the past,” which is why he said he and the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development have committed to work with the organizations.

What’s so different about their approach? MTOPP and some other Brooklyn organizations oppose City Planning’s formulaic rezoning policy. Instead, they want a study that takes into account the needs and wishes of local residents.

Angotti has just had a meeting with the Brooklyn-based groups that are supporting the study. They walked on Empire Boulevard and the surrounding area of Prospect-Lefferts Gardens that is to be a subject of that study. “There was a discussion on what people would like to see, [and] what they saw as problems,” Angotti said. “We are doing research about possible alternatives to what already exists,” an alternative to City Planning.

“I can guess what City Planning would come up with,” Angotti said. “The City Planning study is only a zoning study. Zoning is not planning. They only look at how zoning can be done, but it’s only one tool to change a neighborhood.”

“One of the most powerful tools is when people get involved.”

What might be the different approaches taken by the zoning study as opposed to a community plan? “There are all kinds of things that a community plan can address, including potentially what new development might occur, but also what can be preserved, and what you can’t preserve through zoning,” Angotti said. “It can look at open space, traffic [and] circulation. It can look at community facilities and services. [We] can look at many things and come up with proposals.”

“City planning doesn’t do that,” Angotti added. “They only consult with people about rezoning.” And even then, residents don’t get much power in the process.

This is perhaps the largest difference between the typical City Planning studies and the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens study; the latter is backed by local grassroots community groups. Instead of a study being thrust on residents by the city, groups like MTOPP have requested this partnership with Angotti to assess the community’s vision for their neighborhood. This is alongside the grassroots mobilization and organizing MTOPP has engaged in to fight against the gentrification of their neighborhood.

Angotti believes that community involvement and leadership is key to positive neighborhood change. “One of the most powerful tools is when people get involved, set out to organize and make the changes to stimulate the change themselves,” Angotti contends. Even though the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens study is preliminary, it offers an alternative to the business-as-usual, rigged process of City Planning. It’s an alternative that is sorely needed.

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