Brooklyn Boro

Not one city-backed land-use app was rejected in 19 years. What’s that mean for the jail plan?

July 25, 2019 Noah Goldberg
Members of the City Planning Commission. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg
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The next stop on the mayor’s effort to close Rikers Island, which requires opening or expanding four jails in each of the city’s largest boroughs, is a relatively obscure panel called the City Planning Commission. The panel’s 13 members, appointed by the mayor, the borough presidents and the public advocate, have the ability to stop, change or greenlight any plan in New York City that seeks to bend, even slightly, any rules about land use within the five boroughs — as most large development plans do.

For those looking to predict how the commission might vote this fall, they need only consider that in nearly 20 years the commission has not rejected a single plan put forward by the city — and they’ve modified only a handful.

The commission’s approval is a critical step in the process of land-use applications — known as ULURP — that come from both the city and private developers seeking changes to standing zoning laws. Applications come in front of the commission after community board and borough president input, both of which are advisory and non-binding. The commission’s stance on land-use applications is legally binding — meaning that if they vote against a city land-use proposal, it’s dead on arrival before it can even go to the City Council for a vote.

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While it is anecdotally known in New York politics that the City Planning Commission usually votes in favor of the city’s land-use applications, it turns out the commission has approved every single city application since 2000.

Related: ULURP, explained

It has approved 56 of those applications with modifications and another 588 without modifications. A spokesperson for DCP did not provide statistics dating back further than 2000, but said that most of the applications are not controversial, like the renewal of day care centers and the subdivision or expansion of hundreds of single-family homes in Staten Island.

Of the 1,771 total land-use applications since 2000 — including both private and city-proposed applications — the commission disapproved of only 11. Every single one of those came from private developers.

The commission does have the power to modify projects, and it uses that power. In 56 approvals since 2000, the commission has approved of city applications with modifications, not simply pushing applications through without revisions.

Councilmember Stephen Levin, who supports the mayor’s borough-based jail plan, said it makes “total sense” that the commission has green-lighted the last 644 city-proposed applications.

“Because the Department of City Planning staff works with every rezoning application and doesn’t really even proceed without checking at least on the technical side of things whether things are meeting their standards, it does not surprise me then that the City Planning Commission would then vote to approve all of the applications,” Levin told the Brooklyn Eagle.

“I think that there’s probably an understanding that if something is going to be disapproved, it’s probably going to be by the City Council… [The commission is] not a rubber stamp, but they’re part of the same agency in a sense. It’s not surprising.”

While Levin said it’s not impossible that the commission could vote no on a city-proposed plan, he said that would effectively mean that the commission was voting against its own staff at DCP.

Related: Everything you need to know about the plan to expand the Brooklyn jail

When voting earlier this year on a city-proposed ULURP to limit excessive mechanical voids to 25 feet, for example, the City Planning Commission decided to modify the application to increase the limit to 30 feet, saying that it was more reasonable. The goal of the application was to stop developers from building excessive voids to make their buildings taller so they could charge more for people on the highest floors.

But the City Council ultimately brought the limit back down to 25 feet, showing that ultimate power over land-use applications rests with them.

The commission also voted to approve the controversial Inwood rezoning in June 2018 with modifications. They amended that application to encourage open waterfront space and to “loosen requirements for non-residential ground floor use,” according to City Limits.

“If you say no, maybe somebody will listen.”

Commissioner Joseph Douek, who serves on the City Planning Commission as Borough President Eric Adams’ lone appointee, said he does not see the fact that all city-proposed applications have gone through as a problem — and stressed that the modifications the commission makes are key.

“That’s the beauty of the ULURP process — is that modifications happen,” he told the Eagle.

“The ULURP process is a very open and inclusive process. And while you and people presume it’s going to go through, it’ll probably go through with modifications based on the public input that we got. The public has a great say in what’s going to happen and the borough president,” Douek said, referring to the borough-based jails proposal.

Douek agrees with most of Borough President Adams’ recommendations on the application and said he would like to see a 900-bed Brooklyn facility, as opposed to the current proposal of 1,150, which is down from the initial proposal of 1,437. The current Brooklyn Detention Complex has 815 beds.

Douek said one reason that so few land-use applications are denied is that extensive work by the Department of City Planning goes into the applications before they even begin the ULURP process. He also said no one wants to go through the time, effort and expense of a ULURP process for a proposal that will be rejected.

“By the time it gets [to a vote] it’s rare that it hasn’t already been looked at. It’s not at the vote. That’s not where agreement happens,” said Eva Hanhardt, a professor at Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment. “The understanding that it’s something coming from the mayor’s office as policy has taken place prior to the ULURP itself.”

Related: Closing Rikers: All the jails, all the plans

The city’s jail plan, proposed by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and the Department of City Planning, has faced pushback during the process so far from community boards, borough presidents and activists across the city, with all four affected community boards voting against the plan and three of the four borough presidents at least technically rejecting the plan.

Brooklyn Councilmember Stephen Levin agrees about the citywide agenda, saying the far-flung borough-based jails ULURP shows the urgency and need to act to close the jail complex at Rikers Island — even if it means cramming four jails into one application.

Not everyone agrees with that. Ronald Shiffman, a former commissioner of the City Planning Commission, told THE CITY that grouping the four jails in one application was “a very questionable action” that should affect how commissioners vote.

John Shapiro, another professor at Pratt’s GCPE, said that city proposals being approved by the City Planning Commission is just the “system working as intended.”

“It’s a system under a strong mayor. It works as the intention of a strong mayor system but with the checks and balances and things are debated either in public or among technocrats,” Shapiro said, noting this system puts a focus on citywide goals at the expense of leery community members.

Any power for those community members, he said, often rests in their “no” vote, which may be non-binding but does the job of scrounging up attention and publicity for their cause. “If you say no, maybe somebody will listen.”

Correction (12:30 p.m.) — This article has been updated to clarify that not all the City Planning Commission members are appointed by the mayor.

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