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Essay: Analysis of the Department of City Planning

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  • Published: 15 October 2019*
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The Department of City Planning is located in Manhattan at 120 Broadway and contains borough planning offices in all five boroughs. The department consists of 335 salaried employees and serves a population of approximately 8.5 million people as of July 2016. The department serves all 59 zoning districts within the city and the population of each district ranges from 50,000 to over 200,000.

DCP is New York City’s chief land use agency and is highly involved in constructing the city’s physical and socioeconomic structure. The agency’s mission is “To plan for the future of NYC,” and to more or less make it a more pleasant place to live. Its strategic objectives include the facilitation of “long-term neighborhood improvement” by means of strategic planning, supporting “housing production, affordability, and quality,” and promoting “economic development and job growth.” The agency also aims to increase “resiliency and sustainability of neighborhoods,” ensure reliability, timeliness, and responsiveness in land use reviews, and to “supply objective data and expertise to a broad range of planning functions and stakeholders.”

One critical aspect of DCP is zoning, which is the means by which it accomplishes these objectives. Zoning aims to provide a reasonable method of development by separating industrial, commercial, and residential areas in order ensure a pleasant environment. Interestingly enough, the first zoning law in the country was actually established in New York City in 1916 when fifth Ave. merchants were unhappy that workers from nearby factories would flood the streets during lunch hour, scaring away their wealthy customers. As such, the merchants lobbied heavily for the city to council to separate different land uses that were perceived as incompatible. Consequently, the rest of the country followed suit, dividing up towns and cities into various zones (Choo, 2011).

The DCP provides the policy and regulatory basis for land use and development, as mandated by state and local laws. It regulates and determines limits on the use of land and building size, shape, height, and setback. The current Zoning Resolution was adopted on December 15, 1961 to apply citywide, and when necessary, periodic updates and amendments are made. As established by the resolution, each plot of land within the city’s jurisdiction has a zoning designation and is labeled as residential, commercial, or manufacturing. Moreover, there are many zoning districts mapped in the city’s diverse neighborhoods to preserve density and character. Established zoning limits help give shape to neighborhoods and predictability to their future, and the city continues to adapt the Zoning Resolution as land use patterns change through private and public actions. One of DCP’s great attributes, in my opinion, is its online GIS application, which provides the public with current zoning information.

The department has been praised in recent years for its completion of 101 rezonings between 2002 and 2011, addressing “the city’s long-term economic health and local communities’ needs” (Chen, 2011). In 2011 Chen also praised DCP for its waterfront development plan as well as for rezoning neighborhoods in such a way that increases development near transit centers. However, Chen likewise criticized the agency for encouraging “automobile use by requiring most new developments to provide off-street parking” (Chen, 2011). In Herbert Muschamp’s New York Times article from 2002 where he criticizes the city’s 9/11 rebuilding efforts, he claims the DCP is severely understaffed and that it “has steadily deteriorated into an engine for economic growth” (Muschamp, 2002). In another article from 2002, Marks argues that the city’s zoning laws favor the wealthy and displaces underprivileged residents to areas with more environmental problems, creating income-based health disparities (Marks, 2002).

In a more recent article from 2013, Roberts outlines some of the criticisms as well as achievements of Samuel Hornick, who had recently retired and worked for the DCP for nearly four decades as a major strategic thinker, consultant, and decision maker. Hornick was involved with many major plans under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, including the city’s highly praised plan to transform the waterfront, its long-term plan to address climate change called “PlaNYC,” and its rezoning initiative which rezoned over a third of the city. However, Roberts quotes Hornick’s former teacher, Ronald Shiffman, a professor at Pratt Institute and critic of Hornick and the DCP. Shiffman states that Hornick and the DCP “resisted a progressive economic development policy” by favoring office and manufacturing development while opposing “mandatory inclusionary housing programs.” He argues that the agency frequently caters to the wishes of developers and that its rezoning policies displace low and moderate-income families and manufacturing jobs. Furthermore, Shiffman criticizes Hornick for accepting “the general wisdom of the department that projected past trends rather than pursue desired goals.”

Regardless of these differing views, it seems the one thing that many experts can agree on is that the city and the DCP are on the front lines of climate resilience and adaptation. One aspect of the city’s plan to address flooding, rising sea levels and climate change is the “Flood Resilience Zoning Text Amendment.” After Hurricane Sandy, when thousands of homes in NYC coastal areas became flooded, it became painfully obvious that the city needed to improve upon its coastal flooding mitigation efforts. As such, FEMA issued new, non-binding flood maps for NYC, reflecting the best available info for the city’s flood risks. The maps included higher flood elevations, a larger 100-year flood zone, and twice as many buildings. NYC’s 1% annual chance floodplain now includes 71,500 buildings and 400,000 residents, and it is predicted that it may double to 808,900 residents by 2050. The primary causes of flooding include tropical storms, nor’easters, intense rainstorms, and extreme high tides. Projections indicate flooding from these events will get worse over time and that sea level rise will cause frequent, sometimes daily, tidal inundation in some low-lying areas, causing significant long-term impacts, which will be difficult and costly to manage.

One way the city is confronting these challenges is by rethinking its zoning laws in flood-prone areas. By removing zoning barriers, flood risk is reduced in existing and new buildings, and DCP can support resilient neighborhoods by encouraging sensible design methods to make elevated homes more pleasant to look at via porches, stairs, plants, etc. The Flood Resilience Zoning Text Amendment aims to promote rebuilding and increase resiliency to climate-related events, coastal flooding, and storm surge. It began as a proposal after Hurricane Sandy and was adopted October 29, 2013 by the City Council.

The amendment, which is temporary until FEMA issues mandatory flood maps for NYC, was in response to a change in the NYC Building Code. The Building Code was updated on January 31, 2013 to match NY State standards for flood protection, requiring new and severely damaged buildings to protect to a level one or two feet higher than the current FEMA-designated flood elevation, depending on building type. Single- and two-family homes in the 1% annual chance floodplain are now required to provide two feet of extra protection above flood elevation while most other buildings are required to provide a foot. The Flood Resilience Zoning Text Amendment encourages flood-resilient building construction throughout designated flood zones and removes regulatory barriers that would hinder or prevent reconstruction of storm-damaged properties. It also enables new and existing buildings to comply with new, higher flood elevations issued by FEMA, and new requirements in Building Code. Furthermore, it reduces vulnerability to future floods and helps avoid higher flood insurance premiums.

As stated, the text amendment is temporary until FEMA issues mandatory flood maps for NYC, but there is currently an ongoing effort to make the zoning rules permanent called the “Flood Resilience Zoning Update.” The update aims to address concerns with the current amendment, facilitate recovery from future storms, and promote long-term planning for the floodplain. The improvements are based on lessons learned from the rebuilding process, DCP climate resiliency work, and community input.

As it stands, property owners may lose “subgrade” spaces when complying with FEMA standards because they currently can’t relocate a below ground area to an upper level due to height limitations imposed by zoning. Additionally, DCP wants to ease zoning laws for property owners who may want to over-elevate in order to address future risk and to potentially reduce their flood insurance premiums. Other problems DCP wants to address includes easing zoning laws for homeowners in manufacturing districts, who may not be able to rebuild after damage from a storm, and for property owners of older homes on small lots, who are often limited by zoning laws that don’t allow them to build higher. Lastly, in neighborhoods where many buildings are elevated, DCP wants to improve the streetscape and make homes and businesses more visually appealing.

In addition to the Flood Resilience Zoning Text Amendment and to the ongoing Flood Resilience Zoning Update, DCP has several other more specific neighborhood and industry geared climate resiliency initiatives. The first one is “Special Regulations for Neighborhood Recovery,” which was approved on July 23, 2015 and is geared towards speeding up post-Hurricane Sandy recovery in targeted neighborhoods. DCP’s “Resilient Neighborhoods Studies” reports were released in 2016 and 2017, and studies 10 neighborhoods to identify locally-specific and Citywide resiliency strategies, including zoning recommendations. “Resilient Retail Study and Resilient Art Spaces” reports were released in 2015 and 2016, and studies a range of retail corridors and art-related businesses to identify building-scale resiliency strategies, and provide zoning recommendations. Another report that is scheduled to be released in the near future called “Resilient Industry Study” is a study of several industrial businesses to identify strategies that can reduce vulnerability to flooding. “Hamilton Beach and Broad Channel Special Coastal Risk District and Rezoning” is a zoning text amendment that was approved on June 21, 2017, and is meant to limit future development in two areas highly vulnerable to sea level rise. Lastly, “East Shore Buyout Areas Special Coastal Risk District and Rezoning” is another zoning text amendment that was approved on September 7, 2017, and is meant to limit future development and to ensure compliance with open space plans.

Though NYC has been generously praised for being one of the first cities in the country to formulate major, city-wide plans to address climate change, DCP’s flood resilience plans are not without their shortcomings. Revkin argues their plans do not go far enough in getting people out of harm’s way and that we must evacuate from certain areas in order to reduce costs and casualties in the long-term. After Hurricane Sandy, Governor Cuomo actually proposed a 400-million-dollar plan to evacuate highly vulnerable areas, but as one might expect, the proposal was very unpopular and eventually rejected. I, for one, happen to believe that at some point we must cut our losses and evacuate from certain areas. As an environmentalist, I tend to look down with antipathy upon the “nature will not defeat us” attitude.

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