The first case Shekar Krishnan took after finishing law school lasted ten years and two mayors.
“So much came out about how much of a failure the city’s land use and rezoning processes are,” says Krishnan. “We got a lot of information through our litigation and it really revealed a lot about how much the city doesn’t do when it comes to land use.”
Krihsnan had come to work for Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, one of several legal aid groups representing a consortium of low-income tenants and neighborhood organizations called the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition. They were fighting against a city-sponsored rezoning of nine city-owned blocks, covering 18 acres in a former industrial area surrounding a long-shuttered Pfizer plant.
When Krishnan arrived on the team in 2009, the rezoning was in the middle of the city-charter mandated land-use approval process, known by its acronym ULURP (pronounced “you-lurp”), which stands for Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. It had already been several years since the city started holding public meetings about rezoning and transforming the area. The “Broadway Triangle” writ large includes 31 acres at the confluence of the Williamsburg, Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods that were already in the midst of the gentrification for which they are virtually synonymous today.
The Broadway Triangle Community Coalition opposed the city-sponsored rezoning on the grounds that the redevelopment plan for the city-led sites was racially exclusionary and would perpetuate segregation — in direct violation of federal fair housing laws that are supposed to govern the federal funding the city planned to access to subsidize redevelopment of the rezoned sites. Regardless, the rezoning sailed through ULURP, with city council stamping its unanimous approval in December 2009.
“I remember viscerally, sitting in City Council that day, exhausted, demoralized, all of us,” says Krishnan. “But the next day we marched right into court, got a temporary restraining order stopping the entire rezoning. That was huge.”
Ten years and two mayors’ worth of negotiations later, the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition lawsuit ended in a historic settlement that united the community.
Krishnan is now running for city council in his home district, in Queens, and overhauling the city’s land use approval process is at the top of his mind. It’s going to be the wildest local election in years for New York City. Not only is Mayor Bill De Blasio term-limited from running again, but 35 of 51 council members are also term-limited.
The executive director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board told local NY1 news she expects some 500 candidates to be running for council — boosted in part by a public campaign finance matching system that now offers $8 for every $1 in qualified donations to participating candidates. The primary election, scheduled to conclude in June, will be the deciding factor in most races.
Krishnan is hopeful that connecting the land use process to other issues will help him and maybe other candidates stand out.
“It’s a situation where you pull at one thread and it all begins to unravel, because it’s all connected to these larger, institutional failures,” says Krishnan. “I don’t think it’s any coincidence low-income communities of color are all over-policed and are all the ones being rezoned. The inability to pay rent is also a product of course of the pandemic, which hit hardest in those communities, the same communities that have been subjected to rezonings and unaffordable housing for years.”
New York City’s land use approval process isn’t working for anyone right now, even for private developers and corporations.
Just over the past two years, community organizing has helped derail multiple high-profile, large-scale developments. Amazon’s HQ2. The Industry City rezoning to overhaul a historic former industrial waterfront complex into a destination retail hub. A plan to build three 70-100 story mostly luxury housing towers in a primarily working-class and immigrant waterfront neighborhood. A city-backed plan for the erstwhile HQ2 site has already been proposed and dropped.
Krishnan’s first case out of law school foreshadowed one of the key issues that have had working-class communities of color increasingly rising up in opposition to proposed land use changes, whether it’s the city or private developers seeking those changes. It starts long before ULURP.
Like in many cities, in New York City the first step for a land use application is an “environmental review,” which originally focused on pollution and sewage impacts but have since become an umbrella covering a broader range of factors.
NYC’s environmental review process tries to account for a complex web of federal, state and local laws and regulations, resulting in an 800-page manual for how to conduct an environmental review in NYC. Called the City Environmental Quality Review Technical Manual, or CEQR (pronounced seek-er) Technical Manual for short, it covers 19 analysis areas, from air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, water & sewer, sanitation, noise, public health, to the more ethereal “neighborhood character” and socioeconomic conditions.
The applicant pays for the environmental review, whether it’s the city or private developers. They’re usually conducted by an outside consultant firm. The results can sometimes be brief documents, but are very often hundreds of pages of urban planning jargon and boilerplate language meant to show compliance with the manual that every factor was considered — including both direct and indirect displacement of residents and businesses.
But the loopholes in the manual’s definition of displacement are so big “you could drive a truck through,” said Elena Conte, deputy director at the Pratt Center for Community Development, in an earlier interview with Next City. And as the Broadway Triangle case pointed out, nowhere in the CEQR Technical Manual is it required for land use changes to analyze the potential for displacement or disparate impact based on race — or what has come to be known more broadly as “racial equity impact.”
A deputy commissioner for the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development even admitted in her testimony for the Broadway Triangle case that the city failed to consider the racial equity impact of its rezoning plan, even though it is required to do so as recipients of federal funds.
“Buried in the [CEQR Technical Manual] details are a number of flaws that we can see have led to badly missed predictions of results,” says Emily Goldstein of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, a citywide network of tenant groups and community development organizations. “It just helps to reinforce a system in which problems are not being anticipated in the official process, which could and should be anticipated and frankly are anticipated by lots of everyday people, not just organizers.”
Looking back at two earlier rezonings, the group Churches United for Fair Housing found evidence of massive displacement of working-class Latino and Black communities in favor of wealthier, whiter populations. Other opposition to rezonings in other neighborhoods have since based their arguments on the city’s failure to conduct racial equity analyses of proposed land use changes. (The real-estate industry argues that the city shouldn’t be, in the words of one real estate lawyer to City Limits, “required to parse through every sub-issue that is part of that broader issue of socio-economics.”)
“One huge issue is there’s no look-back requirement,” says Sylvia Morse, an urban planner in New York and co-editor of “Zoned Out: Race, Displacement and City Planning in New York City. “If you look at studies around rezonings, they’re wrong all the time. Nobody goes back and says here’s why this methodology was wrong and let’s fix it. No law that says you were wrong, you misled the public, and now there’s a fine or some kind of remediation.”
The city already punted on a key chance to do something significant with its land use approval process — the New York City Charter review, a roughly two year process that resulted last year in only minor changes to ULURP.
There may be another chance under an overhauled city council. Last year, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams introduced a bill in New York City Council that would require the Department of City Planning to conduct a racial impact analysis when it considers rezonings. The bill remains stalled in committee. Williams is up for re-election next year as public advocate, a citywide position that has the power to introduce bills but not vote on them in city council.
Even with the current system’s shortcomings, Morse says new city council members should also be thinking about how they influence planning and land use through the budget process.
New York City relies heavily on its annual budget process to dole out subsidies for community development, from affordable housing and economic development projects to cultural venues and community centers. It requires a lot of resources just to shepherd projects through. As a result, many community-driven projects, which rely heavily on these subsidies in New York’s real estate market, never even make it to any stage where they might go through ULURP.
At the Pratt Center, Conte and her colleagues also want to start a conversation about resourcing development differently in New York. With an eye toward next year’s elections, they recently released a proposal that broadens New York City’s approach to leveraging private development.
For years, the primary mechanism for leveraging private development in New York City has been inclusionary zoning. Under Mayor Bloomberg, developers could voluntarily build higher than the current allowable density in exchange for setting aside a small percentage of affordable housing units. Mayor De Blasio’s administration adopted mandatory inclusionary zoning, and then set out to rezone more than a dozen neighborhoods for higher density and thus “triggering” the development of mandatory affordable housing units.
Rather than giving away density through a rezoning in exchange for a small percentage of units designated as “affordable” housing, the Pratt Center is proposing the city shift to a system where developers in targeted areas would purchase higher allowable density, generating a stream of revenue that would go toward preservation and development of existing low-income housing nearby, including public housing.
It’s not exactly a new idea. Before 2008, under a different program, developers in New York City could obtain a property tax break by purchasing affordable housing certificates generated by developers of other affordable housing projects. Chicago and other cities also have programs where developers can purchase additional density in downtown areas or other hot spots, generating a pool of funds that later get deployed to projects in disinvested areas in other parts of the city.
“A lot of these ideas either have been pursued in other cities or have been talked about here in NYC for years,” says Pierina Ana Sanchez, senior policy fellow at the Pratt Center.
Sanchez is also running for city council to represent her home district in the Bronx. She too has seen her neighborhood battle against a rezoning that the city council eventually approved unanimously. Like other cities, city council members in New York generally stick to the tradition of voting along with the councilmember or members whose districts encompass the land use application at hand.
Krishnan wants to put an end to the practice. He’d like to see a more comprehensive view of every land use decision. New York City is notorious for not having a comprehensive plan of any sort for councilmembers to judge their land use decisions against or be held accountable for delivering through the budget process.
“Member deference is really a problem because these rezonings have much larger impacts than the neighborhood they sit in,” says Krishnan. “There’s no doubt that rezonings in other parts of the borough have a huge impact on other surrounding neighborhoods as well. It’s true all over New York City. One of the biggest problems is how city policy has never acknowledged that.”
Editor’s note: We’ve corrected Sylvia Morse’s quote about look-back requirements (she said look-back, not loop-back). We’ve also corrected the spelling of Shekar Krishnan’s name.
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi.
Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.