A tale of three Northern Manhattan communities: case studies of political empowerment in the planning and development process.

AuthorBass, Richard

Three recent development proposals in Northern Manhattan highlight community participation and empowerment in the planning process. The following will detail community empowerment in the planning and development process and provide a clear definition of some of the issues challenging these communities. In addition, it will explore the three development proposals as case studies defining the success, limitations, and frustrations of community empowerment.


    Modern zoning began with the passage of the New York City zoning ordinance in 1916, which regulated the use and location of buildings throughout the city. (1) Though the art of zoning has become more sophisticated since then, zoning basically regulates three fundamental aspects of the developed urban environment: i) type of land use (residential, commercial, industrial, community facility or a mixture of uses); ii) intensity of the land use (how much can be built on a site, usually described as a Floor Area Ratio or FAR, a number multiplied by the lot size to determine maximum development potential); iii) and shape of the land use (governed by lot coverage, set backs, maximum building height, etc.). (2)


    The creation of New York City's fifty-nine community boards in 1975 (3) marked the city's return to neighborhood-based politics. (4) The urban machine politics of the late 1800s and early 1900s had also once relied on decentralized, neighborhood support from the city's new immigrant groups in return for the effective delivery of municipal services, (5) a practice perfected by the rule of Tammany Hall, (6) but brought to an end during the fiscal crisis of the 1930s at the hands of urban reformers and Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia. (7) To counteract the clientelism under the previous political order, this new reform government, institutionalized as the "welfare city," concentrated administrative power and control in semi-autonomous central city agencies. (8) From there, professional bureaucrats, theoretically isolated from political influence, made decisions intended to benefit the city as a whole, rather than any particular neighborhood. (9) Thus, from roughly 1930 to 1965, New York City's administrative apparatus was decentralized along functional, rather than geographic, lines. (10)

    The emphasis on city over neighborhood, however, led to the alienation of lower income groups. (11) Resultant ethnic strife and conflict between the urban bureaucracies and their clients in the late 1960s and early 1970s initiated a second major readjustment in New York City's political order, (12) as black and Hispanic protest groups organized communities around neighborhood issues. (13) John V. Lindsay's successful effort to ally these groups with business elites ushered him into the mayor's office in 1965. (14) From there, he introduced a series of measures to geographically decentralize the city's political system, (15) including community control of schools. (16) This shift back to community input into politics and neighborhood service delivery culminated in the City Charter Revision of 1975, (17) which gave communities broad, unprecedented powers. (18)

    A countercurrent to the predominant tendency toward geographic centralization of government under the mid-century reform regime did exist, however, and ultimately evolved into the community board system. (19) Starting in the late 1940s, some local governmental reform groups called for community planning. (20) Manhattan Borough President Robert F. Wagner, Jr., finally heeded this call by establishing twelve Community Planning Councils within the borough of Manhattan in 1951. (21) Each council had fifteen to twenty members and was intended both to serve as an official place for local residents to register their views on public decisions that would affect their communities and to advise Borough President Wagner on budgetary and local planning matters. (22) The administrative boundaries of these councils were chosen to match boundaries drawn up previously by the City Planning Commission to facilitate delivery of public services. (23)

    This concept was extended to all boroughs of the city in section 84 of the 1963 City Charter, (24) which renamed the councils "Community Planning Boards." (25) The new City Charter created fourteen boards in the Bronx and seven in Brooklyn. (26) These were followed in 1966 by the creation of thirteen boards in Queens and four on Staten Island. (27) Subsequent additions brought the total number to sixty-two by the time of the 1975 Charter revision. (28) Since the community districts were not coterminous with city council districts, each board was made up of all council members who held seats in districts that lay wholly or partly within the community district plus five to nine representatives who served without compensation at the pleasure of the borough president. (29) The City Charter defined each board's responsibilities as advising the borough president "in respect to any matter relating to the development or welfare of its district." (30)

    Though many supported the extension of the Community Planning Boards throughout the city, (31) the specific provisions of the 1963 Charter were criticized as inadequate. (32) Because the provisions did not provide clear methods for selection or removal of board members, (33) board members were at the mercy of the borough presidents and could not develop independent political support. (34) The description of responsibilities and implementation was vague and established a limited role for the Community Planning Boards as non-binding, advisory entities. (35) Thus, the boards effectively functioned as vehicles for top-down communication from city or borough officials. (36)

    In 1968, as part of a larger effort to decentralize New York City government, Mayor Lindsay proposed Local Law 39 to replace section 84 of the City Charter. (37) Local Law 39 strove to address demands for genuine decentralization by more clearly delineating both the role of Community Planning Boards (now renamed "community boards" to reflect their expanding responsibilities) in land use and service delivery questions and the regulations for nominating board members. (38) As in previous legislation, community boards were not given decision-making power and were mandated to advise public officials on matters that related to the welfare of the district and its residents. (39) Local law 39 went much further, however. The new law explicitly dictated a planning function for the boards, though this also remained non-binding, (40) and gave the boards authority to hold public hearings on matters that would affect their districts. (41) Additionally, a community board was:

    to cooperate and consult with local administrators of city departments and agencies;... to cooperate with other boards on matters of common concern; keep a public record of its activities ... and provide the borough president with copies of all such records; render an annual report to the mayor and borough president; ... keep the public informed on matters relating to the welfare or development of its district; meet at least once a month; employ such assistants as it may require with funds appropriated or contributed for that purpose. (42) Local Law 39 also restructured the recruitment and appointment of board members, limiting the influence of the borough presidents over the boards. (43) First, Local Law 39 increased the maximum number of members on each board to fifty. (44) Second, members were to be appointed only after consultation with the district councilors. (45) And finally, members could only be removed by borough presidents for cause, limiting the borough presidents' power over these appointees. (46)

    Although Local Law 39 established most of the core components of community boards as we know them today, additional pressures for decentralization and participation in the early 1970s (47) pushed forward the 1975 City Charter revision. (48) Mandated to increase citizen participation in local government and to improve local government responsiveness, (49) the State Charter Revision Commission for New York City considered a variety of plans for redistricting the city, including one that would have created 150 boards of roughly 50,000 people. (50) This was rejected as too unwieldy, and the board recommended forty to fifty community boards representing from one hundred thousand to two hundred fifty thousand persons. (51) Then Mayor Abraham Beame's administration, however, is generally believed to have failed to resist special interests, (52) and as a result, the Board of Estimates (53) wound up approving fifty-nine Community Districts. (54)

    The maximum size of the community boards was maintained at fifty, but the recruitment and appointment procedures were once again refined. The 1975 Charter revision, which went into effect on January 1, 1977, dictated that borough presidents appoint all members, but also that one-half of them had to be nominated by the community district's city council members. (55) Community boards also rose in stature within the administrative system. By receiving line-item budget allocations, community boards obtained independent agency status, placing them on the same level as other city agencies, while constraining their autonomy by subjecting board hiring practices to the city's Department of Personnel review process. (56)

    Though there have been suggestions that community boards simply insulate City Hall from neighborhood concerns, (57) the strengthening of community boards' position within the New York City government has notably boosted their influence in land use decisions. (58) In the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure ("ULURP"), which was also initiated through the 1975 Charter revision, community boards are given sixty days to review and make a recommendation on an application before it progresses to...

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