in LTCP, Politics and Plans

Planning Together: Part I

New York City is not the center of the universe. Recognizing that it contains the most complex issues facing any community in the nation should put it there. Notwithstanding this desire, a conservative and narrow view toward solutions prevails. There are progressive answers to injustice, and for many, they are well known, yet this knowledge alone fails to lead us toward resolving the difficulties of implementation. Another form of action is required. Is this something that might be available in the four-year implementation plan outlined in the “New Comprehensive Planning Framework?” It is time to take a patient look at the possibilities of accountability.

The Report

Overview

The New York City Council launched an idea called “Planning Together” in December 2020. So far, we offer a two–maybe a multiple-part examination of the concept. Part One uses the GOS-3P-RE™ format to develop a review that accepts or rejects the statement of “the problem” as well defined. That is, NYC does not have a comprehensive plan, and it needs one to fix the current chaos and a boatload of new problems just over the horizon that need a long-term view. Call it the “first agreement.”

The second part will critique the bias and questions developed in part one, and the assumptions built into the problem. This analysis will offer suggestions and decide whether our natural period of skepticism can become the leverage required to support the work outlined in the New Comprehensive Planning Framework (NCPF) Report (it should be the Long Term Comprehensive Plan (LTCP), but the authorizing legislation will be tabled. Requiring, authorizing such a thing as a comprehensive long-term plan (here) is moot in an election year. Still, the long look is important, the question is how vital. Again, here is the Full Report a link to the Legislation, and here is a link to a pdf-plain language summary. The term MEGO should come to mind for “my eyes glaze over.”

The legislation represents one final public decision – a comprehensive long-term plan is needed. Imagine the law has passed, the plan will be launched and an LTCP will be sent to the Council for approval in about three years. As the saying goes if it is authorized, how well will it be allotted?

The small group of people who were involved in this idea are like those Margaret Mead described. You remember, something like “small groups can change the world’, and it is the only way it happens. There is no reason to believe all such efforts are for good. Therefore, it is sensible to review the plan’s inherent goals, objectives, and strategy. Examine the policies and list of programs or projects for a sense of priority. Finally, the resource demands and implications of the work itself require an evaluation.

GOS-3P-RE

All of 2021 is available to examine the implications of an authorizing decision before the proposed official launch in February 2022. The first group of the “accountable” will be 13 people on a steering committee. The first major product is working and underway by City Planning — as the legislation calls for a report from the director about the city’s “long-term planning and sustainability efforts” on December 31, 2022. (ongoing initiatives found here).

The current versions of data and needs statements for all 59 Districts (here) for review. The needs statement sections are available in portable document format (pdf), as shown in the lower right corner of the image below

one of the authors of the proposed legislation lives in this district

Start with District Needs (Statements and Data)

The first chart (below) covers a four-year implementation for continuing public participation. The second chart covers the proposed ten-year cycle that begins September 15, 2022, with the Needs Statements containing declarations of continuing support for existing programs and capital projects, a limited number of needs given high priority, plus the specific rationale for new or reprioritized necessities in the each District. The current versions for all 59 Districts are (here) for review.

Please take a moment to review the charts.

Steering committees are advisory bodies composed of experts with experience on issues, such as budgets, new projects, policy, strategies, and project management concerns. The thirteen chosen to work with the Speaker, the Director, the Agencies, and the Mayor will be the first indicator of “seriousness.”

Goals

The introduction of a New Comprehensive Planning Framework (NCPF) tells us it may not be concrete or technical. Therefore, it is a political one. The origin in the New York City Council of the NCPF indicates an emphasis on “needs” and “goals.” It is not a poor step, just one that can get very slippery, especially in the last few weeks among a bevy of term-limited Council members or when a major capital investment group frightens the residents in a member’s district. Still, that crunchy ethical detail will be saved for Part II.

Comprehensive planning is hugely complicated yet easily simplified into electoral goal setting. Such plans have only two uses: to outline our faults in a positive way and to elude commitment. So it all fits. Goals are vital, but only if they can be widely shared. Take a couple of examples regarding the importance of demanding the future perfect tense to set goals.

By the end of each fiscal year, the City will provide proof of:

  • strong support for modern and sustainable public hospitals in an expanded health system
  • innovative financial mechanisms, and support for a growing supply of affordable housing

Many similar goal statements can quickly achieve a substantial base of consensus.  When objective measures are set to define the public health system fully, we see it as writhing in debt.  In NYC, this system continues to represent billions in baseline losses.  By 2024  the debt will double to $2 billion/year, which was pre-pandemic. Or what if the massive increase in the direct cost of homelessness became a priority measure?  DHS expenditures have grown since 1994 from $500M to $2.4B in 2020.  These goals have a long-standing public policy lineage, yet we stand today in this condition.  Why? They still stand because they are without accountability to progress.

Objectives

There are two hot-button examples of how a plan’s purposes easily disconnect from the available resources without a specific prescription for a solution.  As described above, goals may fail to be achieved. Still, the promise of every “new plan” initiated by political representatives should be capable of such acknowledgments. Making events happen differently, as if there was never a plan, is not new. It is tiddling. 

In other words, a goal is only as good as meets the concrete definition. A good plan can transform itself the way New York City often does—with self-confidence and occasional aplomb. A plan can be agile, its proponents willing to hang together (vs. separately) yet unafraid of the fearful truth. Still, it isn’t a plan if it does not remain accountable. 

Measures of the cost of services do not define complexity well, but dollars do provide a follow-up path.  Unlike previous decades, substantial increases in information flow to measure success and failure provide benefits.  The process of evidence-based, outcome-driven, and measurable performance practice is well understood in public and private planning offices. One of the most important discoveries of expanded data management capacity is that traditional problem discovery, defining, and solving processes no longer work well.  Using data-crunching techniques to examine precise changes in system conditions is helpful.  The framework condition “A” becomes condition “B” using appropriate time intervals.

The benefit of this new sensitivity to system conditions changes and facilitates a relatively rapid regulatory solution. The “City Conditions” should reflect the investments required and minus the amount deployed by day, month, and year. When objectives are met quickly, the tasks involved are more easily mandated by law to achieve a timely response. Understanding system conditions leads to system change. These activities will become subservient to ongoing system evaluations as the pace of new stable measures is set and objectives are met. All of this is coming, and it is well on the way.

Strategies

A good strategy follows concrete objectives.  It provides accurate comparisons of what is different and why.  Plans can do well on this point of period-to-period comparison.  However, the planning studies that express specific interests such as preservation, open space, and the waterfront establish an automatic constituency.  In these cases, the place matters, and vested interests are exposed alongside the people most directly affected by the anticipated change.

A cyclical ten-year planning cycle is promised.  It encourages integration and efficiency. However, a path to equitable and sustainable growth is not promised. Perhaps it’s a little too scary. Therefore, the test will be how meaningfully City Planning powers connect to the City’s budget process in annual cycles. The purpose of planning is not to make things work in the abstract. Its purpose is to define how well or poorly it meets needs in its overall spatial effect.  

Inequity has latitude and longitude.  The city planning power can deal with discrimination, injustice, and inequality in its capacity to manage and govern new land-use choices.  It should not allow these superpowers to negotiate floor area mechanics for fungible cash arrangements.  A New Comprehensive Planning Framework’s promise must outline its goals and objectives with strategies that see all families’ needs at the end of each day. Priorities, projects, and policies should focus on the most vulnerable as a simple matter of honor because it leads to knowing and deciding who we are. However, the City also enters an era of “climate change roulette,” coupled with viral infections.  External forces like these can destroy life anytime and everywhere; thus, every action must prove hope is alive for all.

Policy, Projects, and Priority

Using the term streamlining suggests reorganizing the planning and budget-related actions required by law.  What drives the demand to improve coordination across City agencies for this new outcome? Statements of proof for demand from agencies are needed. What is the evidence of benefits from reorganization?  Who will activate the performance measures? A typical product offered is a reduction in time and direct costs. If these efficiencies are proven, how and with whom are savings shared to balance inequities over the prescribed 10 years?

Community-based planning at the neighborhood level is a resource for establishing a shared vision, a goal that cannot be a waltz-in-waltz-out, three charrettes effort among the 59 districts. The term charrette is not found in the legislation. How is the concept of “shared vision” measured? The plan’s approval is limited to adoption by the City Council.  In the context of proving a broader consensus, it would be presented to the City’s people by the Community District using District Need Statements. Are the presenters and charrette facilitators representing Council Districts? The budget will be examined in Part II.

Here is a fun test. What strikes you as “comprehensive” in the following list of some of the significant work conducted by City Planning over the last half-century.   Please, take a moment. 

  1. Plan for New York City. A Proposal (1969) (Critical Issues)
  2. Neighborhood Preservation in New York City (1973)
  3. The New York City Waterfront. (1974)
  4. New York City Waterfront Revitalization Program (1982)
  5. Waterfront Public Access in New York City (1986)
  6. New York City’s Waterfront: A Plan for Development (1988)
  7. Open Space and the Future of New York (1988)
  8. New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan (1992)
  9. Plan for the Manhattan Waterfront (1993)
  10. Shaping the City’s Future (1993)
  11. A Greenway Plan for New York City (1993)
  12. Shaping the City’s Future: NYC Planning and Zoning (discussion report) (1993)
  13. New York: The City’s Land Uses (1995)
  14. Comprehensive Manhattan Waterfront Plan (1997)
  15. Recreation and Open Space in New York (1997)
  16. The New Waterfront Revitalization Program (1999)
  17. PlaNYC Greener Greater New York (2007)
  18. New York City: A City of Neighborhoods (2009)
  19. Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan (2009)
  20. Vision 2020. New York Comprehensive Waterfront Plan (2011)
  21. Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) 2013
  22. The New Housing Marketplace Plan (w/HPD) (from 2003 — 2014)
  23. Housing New York 2.0. (2014) and all of the Consolidated Plans
  24. OneNYC(2014)
  25. One New York. The Plan for a Strong and Just City (2015)

That is correct; of the twenty-five significant planning efforts listed, “waterfront” is ten titles. In seven other studies, it is powerfully connected to plans for greenways, bikeways, and integrated open space networks supporting recreation and people’s health.  Finally, there are plans for resiliency and hazard mitigation. It is vital to learn if these improvements can be kept as commitments.

That is the “water is coming” knock on the door?  Did you hear it?

In contrast, “housing” gets two titles in the nod that led to mandatory inclusion as a housing subsidy tool. On March 22, 2016, the City Council approved the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing zoning text amendment. It produced a vehicle for permanent affordability from new construction. Some would call these small victories with modifications sufficient to glaze over an ordinary resident’s eyes regarding what is affordable. Most are unaware of the affordable housing roller coaster of this policy. It would look like this in the last CPD “snapshot.”

Resource Evaluation

The last part in preparing a plan is to examine the costs. The Report has yet to see “the budget” that implements the New Comprehensive Planning Framework, but there is a lesson learned from Number One on the list of major plans. The first comprehensive plan didn’t make it. It took too long. Time passed it by in the ashes and politics of a rapidly changing city for one reason. It was in crisis. Whole neighborhoods were dropping dead.

It is still a topic of conversation among planners. It still is a beautiful and reasonable “snapshot” of the city’s neighborhoods. The descent “Critical Issues” by Commissioner Beverly Moss Spatt (pdf oral history) is one of the best parts of that work. It even gets a quote in this new City Council version. The 1969 plan professed to be based on an interventionist role of government, claiming the coordinator role.  It would treat the City’s physical, social, and economic development as a unified whole. So that never happened.  But when one door closes, another one tends to open.

Walk into that room. Enter the New York City Council’s acquisition of land use powers in 1989 to comply with a successful lawsuit demanding a constitutionally reorganized government. Twenty years later, you will find Planning Commissioners known to openly ridicule the community voice while buttering their morning toast and responding to texts about tweaks in the city’s behemoth zoning resolution. 

Notwithstanding Mayor David Dinkins’s three years as mayor, the Planning Commission became dominated by two Republican Mayors (Giuliani and Bloomberg) through 2013. Both men were quite willing to support system conditions that allowed the city to conduct uninhibited negotiations with “market forces” to shape the city’s development. This remains the game in town today.

Implications

The resource implications of this initiative’s implementation are unclear. With a bit more wiggle room in the De Blasio administration, members of the City Council have responded to the comprehensive plan idea. We read. It is a good idea to take a big-picture look at New York City. Spending a lot of money on that kind of planning is a bad idea.

The Office of Strategic Initiatives publication outlines a change in the power relationship. Louis Cholden-Brown, the deputy director, and Annie Levers, the assistant deputy director, were responsible for developing the opportunity for that change. As of August 2021, Levers became Senior Advisor to Brad Lander’s run for NYC Controller. The office is not listed in the city’s Agencies and Administrative Officials Listing (here).

Without a doubt, this is Brad “Spanky” Lander’s effort to an unknown degree. Some insight into his work as a council member is (here). He is term-limited out of the City Council and has a Master’s Degree in City Planning. Anne Levers was his Budget and Policy Director, and a few years before that, she served as a Policy Fellow in his office. Credit for contributions to this initiative also goes to the Council’s Land Use and Finance Divisions. The two major committees and three subcommittees share four members—more on who, when, where, why, and how much in Part II.

One of the 1969 City Plan products became a lasting institution. The addition of Community Districts to the political landscape and a rough idea about the “coterminal” — creating common boundaries with all other service-providing agencies. The groundwork for an expansion of democratic practices in neighborhood government was envisioned. It was conceived as a place where a neighborhood could self-study with agency professionals and define and solve their problems without marching into City Hall. They remain as goals, functional shadows in the fog of the city’s culture war. However, the city now appears to be less unwilling to look at its systemic racism in the face.

The Department of City Planning has the police power to regulate and a responsibility to be responsive.  The question is, who is it sharing that power with, and how responsive is this agency? Is there a balance? If a new citywide planning comprehensive process were earnest,  the map of community-based planning would have more than nine ongoing efforts.

If charged with launching a significant four-year initiative across a highly populated and diverse region, the agency would have a larger pre-engaged constituency to help get the ball rolling.  Before launch, a director would have sought commitments (MOUs) for multiple agency support for at least thirty community-district locations on local issues of concern. (The legislation does speak to this point.)

The Report sees the need to secure time from community-based nonprofit organization staff with active work in all or some of the 55 sub-borough areas for a baseline data approach to housing issues in partnership with the Furman Center and others. Reaching out for individual sit-down meetings with the Chairs of every City and Regional Planning Graduate and Undergraduate program in the region to talk about the possibilities of participation would be prudent.  Conducting interviews with all community board members, staff, and managers, current and retired, regarding their opinion of the planning process should be formal. Checking off the boxes on impacts and outcomes of initiatives by the Department of City Planning and other agencies as the conversations and locations dictate is important homework.

A long-standing criticism is that the Community Board Appointees do not represent the community well. How accurate is that critique? These outreach efforts can reveal two crucial things: the emotional and factual basis for supporting a comprehensive planning effort. It would be a simple up or down vote—an act that board members are pretty familiar with. These and other actions may claim to be engaged, but the resources deployed appear frail now.

Outreach is vital to getting a broad basis for content built on participation. By definition, these steps involve a short-term two-way community education process.  In the long term, the viability of content will depend on two components.  The plan would acquire a commitment to setting goals using words well-heard and understood in every community.  Second, evaluating the resource implications implied by the programs would be recognized as the essential constraint to not getting everything everyone wants.

Planning Together – Part II

As a teacher, this reporter asked what problems you want to define during the next fifteen weeks. I would write GOS-3P-RE on newsprint. The Report takes a plan-to-network point of view to the City Council’s initiative. If you were one of my students or a subscriber interested in this issue, you might recall this exercise. The activity is designed to expose personal goals first and a go-to-network next.

The headings in this narrative follow that structure, exposing team biases and a planning approach to evaluating the NCPF. If it develops into the LTCP, the network component seeks to manage the development of “the plan” to examine with others who share a common interest or desire for knowledge. It was apple fun then, and it is orange fun now.

Part II will take a more detailed look in late February or March.

You know what to do if you are interested in this particular rabbit hole (contact). Read: Part IIthink Part III

Part II starts with a bold assumption. We are looking at apples and oranges. Perhaps. We have always known NYC planning exhibits the exquisite practice of disjointed incrementalism, also known as zoning. That description was coined here in NYC, and we rarely pretend it to be otherwise. That would be the big apple on the left. That would make that precise-looking gameboard on the right the orange. The use of the octagon traditionally expresses renewal, rebirth, and transition. Do you see the dice rolling across it? All the stuff on the left remains in play. It has been reasonably well resourced. Now, is this initiative trying to stuff that apple into the orange or simply trying to make them both sweeter. That will be our next task.

Go to Part II (here) or back to Index

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