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January 1, 2007

Community Empowerment—Sort of

Hammerman01-CN.jpgMaking the most of a City Charter whose visions are mostly only on paper

Civic News, Newsletter of the Park Slope Civic Council
By Ezra Goldstein

Brooklyn Community Board Six District Manager and Park Slope Civic Council Trustee Craig Hammerman gives his assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the City Charter, which empowers communities (or not) to have a voice in land-use issues in their neighborhoods.

Hammerman discusses the lack of a role for the Community Boards with Atlantic Yards, shortcomings in the realities of community planning, and the need for urban planners on Community Board staffs. [Article in full after the jump.]


Community Empowerment—Sort of

Making the most of a City Charter whose visions are mostly only on paper

Civic News, Newsletter of the Park Slope Civic Council
By Ezra Goldstein

Craig Hammerman has learned two crucial lessons since becoming district manager of Community Board 6 (CB6) in February, 1993. The first is that there are no police enforcing the promises of grassroots empowerment contained in a series of revisions to the city charter. The second is that, despite the vast gap between the charter’s lofty promises and the reality on the ground, neighborhoods are not completely powerless.

Initial changes to the charter, beginning in the 1960s, carved the city into 59 districts by geography and population. Each district was to be represented by a 50-member board drawn from the local population and was given a small budget to rent an office and to hire a manager and one or two support staffers. Initially, the boards’ main responsibility was to provide citizens with a more intimate link to agencies and services than the city’s vast bureaucracy could offer. Subsequent revisions, however, expanded the role of the boards to include, it would seem, a strong say in the character and look of their neighborhoods going into the future.

A plain (or perhaps naive) reading of the city charter gives the impression that New York City is in the lead of a growing movement among reform-minded urban advocates called community based planning. Proponents of the movement argue that when governments or developers make extensive changes to a neighborhood without local consultation, the results are often both inferior and destructive of the social fabric; therefore, everyone benefits when local residents are intimately involved in the planning process.

The charter gives community boards two apparently powerful ways to make themselves and their neighborhoods heard. The first is reactive, through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which mandates public input into major projects. According to the charter, the boards should “exercise the initial review of applications and proposals of public agencies and private entities for the use, development or improvement of land located in the community district, including the conduct of a public hearing.”

And then, in Section 197a, the charter goes even further in what would seem to be a progressive direction by also encouraging community boards to be pro-active: “Plans for the development, growth, and improvement of the city and of its boroughs and community districts may be proposed by ... a community board with respect to land located within its community district.”

A charter progressive on paper, however, has proved far less so on the ground.

The proposed Atlantic Yards project is an obvious example of how easily ULURP can be ignored when it suits the powers that be. In February, 2005, Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff signed a memorandum of understanding giving the Empire State Development Corporation control over the project, and the ESDC trumps all provisions for citizen involvement contained in the city charter.

CB6, joined by Community Boards 2 and 8, which also contain parts of the proposed mega-development, issued strong objections to the ULURP bypass. More recently, CB6 voted against both the General Project Plan and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement issued by the ESDC in August, citing flaws, which it attributed in large part to the lack of community input and involvement.

A decade before the Atlantic Yards project ran roughshod over ULURP, Hammerman and the CB6 board had already learned about serious problems with the charter’s other great promise for community involvement: Section 197a.

In 1994, CB6 finished work on a comprehensive plan for Red Hook, one of several major neighborhoods contained within the district; CB6 covers most of what used to be called South Brooklyn, including Park Slope. The Red Hook plan had taken more than two years to develop and was a model of community-based planning: it tapped the volunteer expertise that exists in abundance within CB6 boundaries, and the plan’s writers listened closely to what the residents of Red Hook had to say.

“We brought divergent views to the table, and forced some hard discussions about the destiny of the neighborhood,” recalled Hammerman, who was in his third year as assistant district manager when work began on the Red Hook plan. “It was a difficult process, and often people walked away unsatisfied, since there were so many conflicting views. But in the end, we had this bold vision that had been articulated by the community.”

Over the next two years the plan worked its way through the Borough President’s office and the City Planning Commission. When it was finally adopted by the City Council in 1996, it was the first 197a plan in Brooklyn and one of the first in New York.

The plan was then shelved and largely ignored by the city, which said that 197a plans are advisory but not binding.

“What became evident almost immediately is that we had a terrific product but no way to implement it,” said Hammerman. “We had no funding, no policy commitments from the city, nothing. We had this bold vision but nothing to back it up, except for people’s hopes and dreams, and you can’t take that to the bank.

“Sure, we can lobby, cajole, beg the powers that be and city agencies to work toward our objectives, but it wouldn’t have been any different than if we hadn’t gone through that long 197a process,” Hammerman continued. “I can’t imagine any of our neighborhoods approaching us now and asking us to go through all that again.”

Still, the 197a document gave CB6 a wealth of information that they have used to leverage changes in the city’s and developer’s plans for Red Hook, so not everything Hammerman and the board learned from the experience was negative.

“If a neighborhood has significant objectives, you don’t need a 197a plan to achieve that. You can work on a much smaller scale,” said Hammerman, who lives in Park Slope and is a Civic Council trustee. “We have become very good at lobbying and advising because we go in with a strong case, we have the facts behind us, we’re not shy about asking for things, and we know who to talk to.”

Hammerman noted as well that by the time the Red Hook plan was approved parts were already out of date. “It was a static instrument, while planning needs to be dynamic, dealing with real-time impacts. The only thing worse than a bad plan is an outdated plan.”

Perhaps, in time, Hammerman and the CB6 board will also be able to take something positive from their experience with the Atlantic Yards project. For now, however, the district manager mostly expresses frustration mixed with bewilderment that the state and the developer, Forest City Ratner, would willfully ignore local input that could have saved the project from its worst problems and excesses.

CB6 is among the organizations and civic leaders who have not condemned the project outright but who have rejected it in its details. “There are so many great ideas that have been cobbled together in this project,” said Hammerman, explaining the CB6 position. “Who doesn’t support affordable housing, jobs? Most people even support some sort of arena.

“But when the official document says that this project is going to cause harm to the community, and that much of that impact cannot be mitigated—a clear and honest admission that there will be a negative impact and they have no plan to fix it—that makes the entire project unsupportable.

“I think a lot of people were looking for things to support that weren’t in the plan at the end of the day,” he continued. “It became a tough decision, that came down to whether people were willing to vest blind trust in government agencies and a private developer that everything would be okay. Some people felt comfortable doing that but we didn’t, because the plan they put out failed so many different tests.”

Also, unlike some critics, Hammerman does not see the project’s genesis—as a plan introduced by Forest City Ratner—as the crux of the problem. “You have to start from some vision,” he said, “and whether it’s the developer’s or the community’s doesn’t matter—as long as all sides recognize that they may not have exclusivity on a particular vision. Whatever vision they have must be inclusive of the public consensus.

“Developers often put out a vision and then work with the community,” Hammerman observed. “That’s what Ikea did in Red Hook. They changed some aspects of the plan, added to it. We came up with a list of conditions that they agreed to abide by.”

The same process could have worked at the Atlantic Yards site, he argued, “if they would have allowed us an active role. There would have been no shortage of interest or talent in the community. It kills me for a developer to have this mindset, that there’s no room for anyone else’s ideas. Worse, they see the community as the enemy and then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“It didn’t have to be that way. Our communities have a reputation for being thoughtful, for being fair, and for working hard. All that energy could have been infused into this project.”

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is pushing a plan to give community boards more actual authority in the planning process and also to make them more professional. He says that some boards are far more effective than others, depending in large part on the skills and energy of the citizens who get named to their boards and join their committees. (The borough presidents appoint board members, half of whom are recommended by the district’s city council members.)

CB6 is counted among the districts that work well. “We have an excellent board that holds the staff to extremely high standards and we pass those expectations along to the agencies and officials we work with,” said Hammerman. “We are known as a very demanding, very professional body, and I am proud to be affiliated with it.” Still, Hammerman endorses many of Stringer’s suggested reforms, especially his suggestion that all boards have access to the services of a urban planner. Hammerman has long dreamed of adding a planner to CB6’s three-and-a-half-person staff, and thinks he may finally be close to finding the money to do so.

“The first thing we’d do,” said Hammerman, “is dump all these projects on the planner’s desk and ask what happens when all these things happen at the same time: Atlantic Yards, Ikea, Fairway, Whole Foods. None of the plans for these projects paints a picture of their cumulative impact on the district. What’s the holistic picture? What impact will all this development have on infrastructure needs like sewers and the delivery of electricity?

“With a planner, we could project out our needs before we reach a crisis. Obviously, it’s much better to do proactive planning and preventive investment then to all of a sudden watch systems collapse around us.”

Despite his experiences with ULURP, and with 197a and the Red Hook plan, Hammerman still believes, at least in part, in the grand visions of community empowerment described in the city charter.

“Unfortunately, the city doesn’t do much pro-active planning,” he observed. “We only get a project to review because a developer proposed it, not because a planner conceived it. The charter is clear that community boards should be pro-active planners. I’d love for us to be able to realize that vision.

“The Department of City Planning is not the Department of Community Planning,” he concluded. “Their agenda may or may not be the community’s agenda. That’s what we’re here for. We’re supposed to be finding out what that agenda is.”

To learn more about community based planning, see the interview with Municipal Art Society President Kent Barwick in the November issue, available at parkslopeciviccouncil.org and on BroolynSpeaks.net.

Posted by lumi at January 1, 2007 11:30 AM