ULURP — What It Is, How It Might Affect You, Why You Should Care
If you live in New York City and have never heard of “ULURP” before, it may sound like the name of an alien species touching down on Earth or a failed Brooklyn neighborhood acronym like ProCro, RAMBO or BoCoCa.
Although ULURP is neither of those things, it does have to do with foreign entities touching down upon neighborhoods, who may alter them to the point where the community feels like they should step in. ULURP, which stands for Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, was formed in 1975 to prevent mega-development projects inspired by Robert Moses from occurring without a community’s input and the involvement of local government. It can also be used to change the zoning code to have limits on what can be built, because ULURP can change the way land is used. An example of this is the failed rezoning in Bushwick that would have required ULURP to curb out-of-context development and preserve affordable housing in the area.
“The purpose of the Bushwick rezoning was to change our area from an R6 zoning to a more appropriate zoning that fits the context of the area,” said Community Board 4 member and the Principal Broker at Push Forward Realty, Joshua Brown. “With the current zoning, you could buy three houses next door to each other, tear them down, and build a massive building, as opposed to if you have a zoning that is catered to the neighborhood.”
If one wants to commence a ULURP, they must enter a six-step process that involves the consultation of several city agencies and organizations.
According to the Department of City Planning, the ULURP process starts with the agency certifying the ULURP application. It then goes on to be reviewed by the City Planning Commission, which is an independent body that conducts public hearings related to city planning. Its 13 members are appointed by the mayor, public advocate, and borough presidents. When the CPC holds this hearing regarding a ULURP application, the public can join in, but does not have the ability to testify. Review sessions are currently conducted online due to the pandemic.
The CPC then gives the OK for the application to be reviewed by the respective community board that is affected by the proposal. If the rezoning proposal spans more than one community board, it will be reviewed by all those boards involved. Community boards have 60 days to review an application at their own public hearings, and can submit any suggestions they have for the development proposal. However, these suggestions are only advisory, and the applicant is not mandated to make these changes to their plans.
The ULURP application is then forwarded to the borough president, who then has a 30-day timeframe to submit their feedback on the proposal. Keep in mind, this is still only advisory.
The application is then returned to the CPC, where another public hearing is held. This second CPC hearing, the public is allowed to give input, unlike the first one that takes place before the actual review process begins. The CPC gets sixty days to vote on an application, possibly have follow up meetings to discuss feedback from public hearings and may vote at a later date. The commission can either vote to approve, modify, or disapprove, and if it disapproves, that marks the end of most ULURP rezoning proposal applications.
If approved, the proposal moves on to the City Council, where the same is done in terms of public hearings and a vote on approval. The council’s decision can be vetoed by the mayor, and the council can override the veto by a two-thirds vote.
Although the ULURP process is meant to include the voices of the community a rezoning proposal may affect, some Brooklynites who have experienced ULURP proposals in their communities feel that the process does not do justice to community voices. Sandy Reiburn is a 31-year resident of Fort Greene and is no stranger to the controversy of ULURP. Reiburn has fought alongside activists in the 960 Franklin Ave rezoning that wishes to bring 34-story towers to Crown Heights, and is now facing a possible ULURP rezoning proposal in Fort Greene, where Brooklyn Hospital plans on expanding upward.
“Everybody knows about the baloney of the seven-month routine of the ULURP, but what most people don’t know is all the back door stuff that happens before it [a ULURP proposal] becomes official,” said Reiburn in a phone call interview, referring to the preliminary process in ULURP that takes place before public review.
Reiburn says that the development proposals are already a “sealed deal” even before the review process begins, due to developers hiring lobbyists to target city agencies or local politicians.
The Lobbying Bureau of the Office of the City Clerk upholds New York City’s lobbying law, and through its website, anyone can access a link to e-Lobbyist, an application system where information on lobbying reports is held. According to e-Lobbyist, in 2019, a lobbyist client under the name of “Franklin Ave Property Owner LLC” consulted with the lobbyist entity, 99 Solutions LLC, to lobby District 35 City Council member Laurie Cumbo — whose district falls within the
proposed 960 Franklin Ave ULURP rezoning area. Franklin Ave Property Owner LLC’s “principal officer” is listed as Ian Bruce Eichner, who is the founder of Continuum Company LLC. Low and behold, Continuum is the applicant for the 960 Franklin Ave ULURP rezoning proposal. Former staff member of Cumbo, Crystal Hudson, was also listed as a “target” in the report alongside Department of City Planning’s Brooklyn Borough Office director, Winston Von Engel.
According to a 2010 report on ULURP by Tom Angotti, Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College, directed to the City Charter, many developers gawk at the idea of dragging through the public review process in which they know a rezoning proposal will receive opposition. So, they organize what Angotti calls “side agreements”, with city agencies before the actual public review process.
Two examples he gives of the “side agreements” are Community Based Agreements (CBAs), and a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Angotti defines CBAs as “contractual agreements, normally between developers and/or government and community groups, that purport to guarantee specific public benefits.” CBAs contracted in New York City, include the Kingsbridge Armory Project in the Bronx and Atlantic Yards Project, although the latter did not include a ULURP process.
The issue that lies with CBAs is that there is no public or government oversight with these deals, unlike ULURP, allowing developers to get what they want without public scrutiny.
Another controversy that surrounds ULURP is related to transparency and whether the community is getting full access to representation when it comes to public review. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, all scheduled ULURP hearings were postponed until they resumed in September over virtual platforms. However, in some communities where ULURP was up for discussion, community groups are saying that a virtual hearing is not accessible to everyone.
“They’re not doing the process correctly,” said the founder of Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP) Alicia Boyd in a phone call interview, a Crown Heights community activist whose organization is fighting for transparency in the 960 Franklin Ave ULURP process. “For example, they had a hearing and it was supposed to allow the entire community to come to the hearing and ask questions, to be able to view the information, and yet, the community board had a 100-person limit.”
Boyd says that within a minute of the meeting opening, the virtual room was occupied to the capacity of 100 persons. Boyd claims that the virtual meetings are also unfair because a large number of residents in the area do not have access to platforms such as email, Zoom or simply do not have Wi-Fi. According to an April 2020 study by the Citizens’ Committee for
Children of New York, 500,000 New York City households lack internet access. In Community District 9 where the 960 Franklin proposal lies, between 5,821 and 7,709 households have access to the internet only by using cellular data.
“I know this because I go out there and speak to them, I get them to sign my petitions,” said Boyd. “I ask them, ‘Do you have an email address?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you have Wi-Fi?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you go on the computer?’ ‘No.’ There’s a lot of people who are poor, that are not spending money on internet — they are spending money on food and rent.”
As of March 5, the ULURP process for virtual hearings regarding 960 Franklin has been halted by a temporary restraining order. A Brooklyn judge ordered the TRO in March after MTOPP filed a lawsuit against the city, arguing that it violated city law concerning public hearings. The judge, Katherine Levine, has halted the process until it can be determined that virtual ULURP hearings are in accordance with city law.
Alicia Boyd says if New Yorkers want to see reform within the ULURP process, they have to rally in masses just as they did in the 1970s when ULURP was originally introduced to amplify community voices.
“You need a lot of people who want to change something to collectively come together and put pressure on elected officials to change the law,” said Boyd. “A lot of people have to be upset enough to organize and protest on a consistent basis until you get what you might call a city charter reform.”
A city charter reform would allow provisions in the land use review process, as reform to the city charter was what allowed ULURP to be formed in 1975. Amendments to the city charter pertaining to ULURP came in 2019, where community boards were given an additional 15 to 30 days to review a ULURP application, but only for those submitted in June and July. The reform also requires the DCP to provide a detailed statement on the proposal that will affect the given community board and borough president, 30 days before it is subject to public review.
Despite the 2019 changes, Sandy Reiburn believes a more serious “cleansing” of the City Charter should be done to bring more accurate community representation when it comes to land use review. Reiburn calls the “two ingredients” for serious change to occur are different community groups and activists joining forces and “uncorrupt” politicians.
“If different civics groups, leaders and activists join together and say, ‘No, you just can’t do this, we are going to change the city charter and make sure this ULURP process is reformed or dismantled for a much more democratic process,’ that would be a great thing,” said Reiburn. “That would be the goal.”
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