The populist image conveyed by the charter revision commission’s April public hearings will fade in May when invited “consultants, ” commission members, and staff publicly dissect the legalistic, technical, and detailed language of the City Charter at a series of “issue forums.” What are some of the technical issues the experts will examine?
According to commission chair Matthew Goldstein, one prominent goal of this year’s commission will be to find ways to improve “efficiency” in city government. Almost certainly, this will involve identifying procedural and structural changes that can create a more development-friendly environment and help future mayors control key land use decisions. Such changes would seek to prevent recurrence of events such as Mayor Bloomberg’s recent loss to the City Council on the Kingsbridge Armory Mall project in The Bronx, where a dispute over wage rates caused the Council to reject the initiative.
Simplification is not just about speed; it is about removing potential obstacles. The more steps it takes to approve a project, the greater the opportunity for opponents to find a way to stall or kill it. One of the hurdles developers must leap is the regulatory process known as CEQR, which mandates how project sponsors assess the environmental impacts of publicly-funded construction.
Any CEQR reform will hinge on commission member Hope Cohen, a former Parks Department official who wrote an influential 2007 treatise for the conservative Manhattan Institute called Rethinking Environmental Review: A Handbook on What Can Be Done.
Cohen’s prescription for change includes exempting certain projects from CEQR, streamlining the review process for those projects still subject to it, truncating the calendar, and documenting and constraining any “mitigation” commitments — the concessions that developers must make to lessen adverse environmental impacts such as air pollution, noise, or traffic. While not strictly part of CEQR, community benefits agreements — the coin by which developers and communities negotiate community amenities in exchange for support of a project — also are likely to be addressed.
None of this featured prominently at the commission’s April public hearings. But regulating CBAs and changing the CEQR, as well as streamlining its companion body of regulation, ULURP, which defines how the public gets to review and comment on proposed land use plans and changes, are certain to come up at the issues forums. Such changes could have tremendous impact on the future of neighborhoods in NYC. Arguing to preserve community review will be elected officials representing “the public,” arguing to limit it, experts loyal to the real estate development community.
Real estate is crucial to the city’s financial viability. As long as New York City’s municipal revenues continue to depend on taxes generated by Wall Street, mayors will seek charter changes that favor development and bond issuance. City Hall’s presumption will be that such changes are needed to discourage billionaires like Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman and other major developers from deserting the Big Apple for more profitable climes. The threat of their departure has shaped City Hall for decades: Developers want a strong mayor, a pliant Council, and weak community opposition. One way to weaken and distract that opposition: Cut community board budgets. Mayor Bloomberg has done this repeatedly and harshly.
Is all of this something New Yorkers should worry about? It depends on the price we’ll have to pay: in dollars, environmental quality, control over our neighborhoods, and quality of life. We also need to care about whether a development-centric economic strategy is a durable one. As 2008’s mortgage derivatives crisis and the ensuing recession suggest, progressive diversification of the city’s economy would be in everyone’s long-term interest — probably, even developers’.
The challenge, of course, will be how to get there from here without killing the goose that has been laying the city’s golden eggs for four decades. And the immediate question before New Yorkers is whether a charter revision commission appointed by a pro-development mayor is irretrievably committed to policies that will produce gains for developers without incorporating safeguards to preserve New York’s distinctive neighborhoods. Matthew Goldstein, the commission’s chair, suggests his panel has no hidden agenda. Hope Cohen’s 2007 CEQR report — and her presence on the commission — suggest that a mayoral agenda may yet emerge.
The issues forums probably will not be as colorful as April’s public hearings, at which community board members pleaded for funding and respect, borough presidents passionately defended their roles, and angry critics called for eliminating the Beeps entirely. However “technical” the issues forums may prove, New Yorkers will need to pay close attention to them. Ideally, the arrival of the Wall Street Journal on the metropolitan media scene will translate into improved media coverage of the charter commission’s proceedings, and, perhaps, into analysis of the technical details discussed by the commission’s experts and staff. Those minutiae are fully as important as non-partisan elections are to Mike Bloomberg’s plan to make New York an easier place to do business — and are even more important to the rest of us.