New York City faces its greatest economic challenge in a century, worse than the Great Recession, 9/11 and the ’70s fiscal crisis. So it’s urgent to avoid discouraging investment and development — yet many politicians are still stuck in the pre-crisis past.
One longstanding barrier is the city’s cumbersome Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP — a multistep public-review process that delays even affordable-housing projects, with a series of hoops that can derail even no-brainer change. The lockdown has frozen all ULURP action, with no clear restart set.
Yet some progress may be completely stamped out. City Councilman Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn) last week announced his intent to kill the Industry City rezoning and its promised 20,000 jobs, new affordable housing and so on.
The developers seek to preserve manufacturing and attract some $2 billion in private investment — without the expenditure of any public funds — as well as generate hundreds of millions of dollars in badly needed tax revenue. But Menchaca treats it as some mass violation of human rights in Sunset Park. Is defunding the police the sum total of his idea for protecting his constituents’ future?
In theory, rezoning requires only a majority vote by the City Council, but tradition gives members a veto over changes in their individual districts, making it near-impossible to create any rational citywide development plan. And that’s something a city on its knees can’t afford.
The courts pose an added threat: Judges of late have intervened against development even when the politicians go along, overriding the discretion legally granted to city officials. In December, for example, a judge tossed out the city’s rezoning of Inwood — bowing to local activists determined to keep change out of their neighborhood.
Last month, an appellate court tossed that ruling, with all five judges agreeing the rezoning should go ahead. But opponents plan to appeal, and the delay can only add risks at a time when the city needs all the growth it can achieve.
Meanwhile, the city and another set of developers are awaiting a similar ruling in the case of Two Bridges — three projects along the East River in lower Manhattan that promise 2,275 new housing units (plus 694 affordable ones). It complies with current zoning, so it has no need for ULURP. Instead, opponents made an issue of the heights of its towers — and got a court to annul the City Planning Department’s approval last August.
The judge actually wrote: “You can’t just do this because the zoning allows it.” But that’s what zoning means. Such judicial activism, if unchecked, will undermine any chance the city has of emerging from pandemic-induced economic crisis.
Meanwhile, a host of other projects are on hold, such as 510 Broadway, an affordable housing project, as well as rezonings in Soho and Gowanus — plus a waterfront rezoning in Long Island City’s Anable Basin that would bring up to 12 million square feet of commercial, residential and open space.
All are in limbo until City Hall figures out how to get ULURP moving again — say, by converting in-person meetings to a remote system.
The mayor’s minions say they hope to resume the process by early fall. If the city is to have any hope of an economic recovery, they need to do a lot more than hope.
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