How East Harlem Wrote Its Own Development Plan – Next City

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How East Harlem Wrote Its Own Development Plan

Residents responded to the mayor’s housing strategy with a strategy of their own. Will it work?

Story by Oscar Perry AbelloTwitter

Published on Jun 20, 2016

With their weathered red brick exteriors, the 14 buildings of the Lincoln Houses look like almost every other New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) public housing community. Most of the buildings are 14-stories tall, towering over the trees, playgrounds, pathways and parking lots planted below them, in the prevailing towers-in-the-park style of when they were built in 1948.

Here in East Harlem, however, Lincoln Houses and the rest of the neighborhood’s many public housing communities carry some unique reminders of the immense wealth in other parts of New York City. They have street names in common with the city’s billionaires who live on the Upper East Side: Fifth, Madison, Park, Lexington, Third, Second and First Avenues. Metro North’s 289,000 daily commuters can see Lincoln Houses when they cross over the Harlem River into Manhattan, coming in from the city’s affluent suburbs in upstate New York and Connecticut to Grand Central Terminal. A sign along the elevated Metro North tracks facing Lincoln Houses says, “Welcome Aboard,” but there is no station here.

Esther DeVore has lived in East Harlem for 34 years. She’s raised six kids in the neighborhood. On September 14, 2006, DeVore joined Community Voices Heard (CVH), an East Harlem-based advocacy group founded in 1994 by low-income residents, mostly women of color. She joined CVH because she believes housing is a human right, and she has been an active volunteer in their affordable housing advocacy work ever since, organizing to oppose policies that might cause displacement of existing residents.

Esther DeVore has lived in East Harlem for 34 years. (Courtesy of Esther Devore) 

“I let people know they’re going to be displaced. I go to the doctors and hand out flyers,” DeVore says. “One lady told me she used to live in Williamsburg and she got kicked out, and now she’s here. Ten years later they’re doing the same thing here. All they’re doing is moving us from borough to borough.”

One night last fall, CVH gathered a group of residents at Lincoln Houses, as part of an effort to change the story in East Harlem.

Down some steps from the street, near Park Avenue, in the well-used Lincoln Houses Senior Center multipurpose room, they gathered around tables each with a game board covered in building blocks laid out on a map, loosely reminiscent of the neighborhood surrounding them. Gazing down at tabletop cityscapes, the residents listened as Ingrid Haftel and Oscar Nuñez, from the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), described the rules of the game. CUP is a nonprofit organization that works with groups like DeVore’s to create educational tools — a game in this case — to help people better navigate the city’s decision-making structure and advocate for their community’s needs.

Neighborhood residents, Haftel says, “have the power to make change and be part of the decision-making process. Our tools, paired with the organizing happening on the ground, can be support structures for residents.”

Haftel explains the game played last fall in Lincoln Houses in simple terms: The mayor of a fictional city wants to build more affordable housing, and the way he’s going to do that is through a rezoning that allows developers to build more, and build higher, as long as developers dedicate a percentage of the development to affordable housing, a term that she and Nuñez then define with the group.

“We use a lot of the information and some of the visuals we have from our Affordable Housing Toolkit to stop right there and say, ‘what is affordable housing?’” says Haftel.

Then she introduced some new blocks to each table of residents, some of them color-coded to represent affordable housing units. Each group had to decide where to place the market-rate and affordable housing units, at a ratio of four market-rate units to every one affordable unit, up to a certain height limit. The groups discussed where to put units, and why. After a few minutes, Haftel and Nuñez introduced new rules designed with real-life development precedents in mind. By the end of the game, each group had decided how to negotiate the various needs and wants to alter the fictional neighborhood staring up at them from the table.

Lincoln Houses, an East Harlem public housing community, was built in 1948. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

“We have a conversation about that, about the bad, the fears, some people bring up the potential benefits. In that Lincoln Houses workshop, and this has not been uncommon, I remember residents saying no, that means the neighborhood is going to change,” recalls Haftel, a former curator for the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Haftel had been looking for a way to merge her love of art and design with her interest in urban justice and housing issues when she met CUP’s director, who was in Chicago for a meeting with community groups about adapting the group’s affordable housing workshop for use in their city.

Haftel says that the game CUP and CVH brought to the Lincoln Houses was a new one, developed specifically to address the development plans of New York’s real-life mayor, Bill de Blasio. Indeed, the scenario laid out that evening in Lincoln Houses’ multipurpose room is essentially the one that East Harlem residents face in real life, with one key difference — there is no guarantee that residents will always have a seat at that particular table.

THE MAYOR’S GAME

In May 2014, de Blasio released his plan to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. The ambitious outline included the creation of 80,000 new affordable housing units, a goal that would be met through the introduction of two new policies: mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH) and zoning for quality and affordability (ZQA).

MIH requires developers building in certain areas to make a share of new housing units permanently affordable. ZQA is the catch; it alters the city’s zoning map to create the areas where developers can build bigger buildings with the caveat being that they will have to include affordable units within the new, supersized buildings in the rezoned area. The city only gets the affordable housing it needs if developers take the bait to build big.

When de Blasio proposed East New York as the first neighborhood where buildings would soar higher in exchange for including affordable units, many in the neighborhood responded with wariness. That trepidation greeted him again in 2015 when he proposed four more neighborhoods for upzoning, all of them mostly low-income, mostly communities of color, including East Harlem.

“The most destructive part was never having an honest conversation about whether should this happen in a working-class neighborhood of color,” says East Harlem resident Andrew J. Padilla, a documentarian who has been producing a series of short films about gentrification. “I remember right after Mayor de Blasio was elected, [Deputy Mayor] Alicia Glen had been on NY1, rattling off neighborhoods that were going to be slated for rezoning. Right away the neighborhoods they targeted were working-class communities of color.”

Nearly every community in New York City opposed the mayor’s plan. The crux of progressive opposition to MIH/ZQA was this: The most affordable level in the mayor’s plan sets aside 20 percent of residential square footage for households earning 40 percent of NYC’s area median income (AMI), yet 40 percent of New Yorkers fall below that threshold, equal to $34,500 a year. The plan didn’t promise any affordable housing for the most vulnerable New Yorkers.

That community opposition didn’t matter in the end. The mayor’s plan passed into law in March 2016. The game was on, in real life.

A PLAN FOR THE NEIGHBORHOOD, BY THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Not long after, the city named East Harlem as one of the proposed neighborhoods for upzoning, and still many months before MIH/ZQA became law, CVH began asking around to see if anyone knew more about the city’s plan to rezone East Harlem.

“They cannot come in our neighborhood and build and we’re not going to benefit from it,” DeVore says. “Where are we going? We’re going in the [homeless] shelters? That’s what’s happening now.”

Not finding many answers, CVH reached out to the second most powerful person in NYC government, who happened to also represent East Harlem: City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

“We thought that it was necessary, one, to get ahead of it, and two, because we are in the speaker’s district, how can we use all of our tools to ensure that any plan that comes out actually has valued community input in the plan,” recalls Aaron Jones, mass engagement director at CVH.

Mark-Viverito was quick to agree. She has a history of community engagement; she was one of the first four NYC council members to introduce participatory budgeting in their districts.

“You want to make sure the voices of the people you represent, the people that are impacted by the decisions that the city makes, that they’re the ones involved in those conversations,” says Mark-Viverito.

In May 2015, at El Museo del Barrio, a landmark cultural institution in East Harlem, across Fifth Avenue from Central Park, Mark-Viverito convened with around 400 community members and community-based organizations, including CVH, to kick off a process to create the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, a neighborhood-led vision for the proposed upzoning of East Harlem. The game played last fall at Lincoln Houses was part of that process.

The plan would eventually cover more than just which parts of the neighborhood to upzone. Released in February 2016, the final plan includes 232 recommendations covering 12 topic areas: arts and culture; open space and recreation; schools and education; pre-K, daycare and afterschool; NYCHA; housing preservation; small business, workforce and economic development; affordable housing development; zoning and land use; transportation, environment and energy; safety; and health and seniors.

The plan might alternatively be described as a community benefits agreement tied to a community vision for upzoning.

“It’s not going to be a panacea, it’s not going to fix everything, but we can do something to try to replace the number of affordable housing units we’re losing and to bring other additional benefits into the community as well,” says Mark-Viverito.

Despite all of the challenges and pitfalls of putting such a comprehensive, complicated plan together, the process took just nine months. The fast pace was intentional. According to estimates laid out in the plan, if nothing is done, East Harlem will lose 282 units of affordable housing a year over the next 15 years. That breaks down to five units lost every single week. “Anywhere you look, there’s pressure that’s happening, that already exists, and we’re not doing anything,” says Mark-Viverito.

Then there is the additional pressure of Mark-Viverito’s term limits; she will be leaving office in 2017 no matter what. But urgency also comes from the city’s process for making changes to zoning, which leaves precious little time for community involvement.

A LAND USE PROCESS BORN OUT OF RACIAL CONFLICT

New York elected its first black mayor, David Dinkins, in 1989. Over the next several years, voters also approved a series of sweeping changes to the city charter. The number of city council members increased from 35 to 51, at-large council members were eliminated, and the new district lines were drawn with an eye toward making sure council members would be more representative of the city’s racial demographics. Two-term limits were also imposed on city council. All of the above paved the way for the 2005 election of Puerto Rico-born Melissa Mark-Viverito to represent East Harlem in city council.

But also in those same city charter revisions of 1989, was the revision of something called the Universal Land Use Review Process, or ULURP. It provided for a seven-month timeline to review and approve all zoning changes at the citywide, neighborhood and site-specific levels.

ULURP is where the rubber hits the road when it comes to how the community can provide input into major land use and planning decisions in NYC. While it was passed as part of a series of progressive changes to the city charter, its history is spotty when it comes to progressive goals like creating more affordable housing or equitable economic development.

In order to understand ULURP, you first have to understand the players. Some would be familiar in most cities. There’s the Department of City Planning. There’s the City Planning Commission, an oversight board of 13 political appointees. There’s the mayor and city council members.

Then there are the borough presidents. NYC’s five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island) are in fact five separate counties incorporated into one city. Each county elects an executive, known as the borough president, who has various but limited powers. One of the most important powers that borough presidents have is co-appointing members of the city’s 59 community boards.

“You want to make sure the voices of the people you represent, the people that are impacted by the decisions that the city makes, that they’re the ones involved in those conversations.”

Community boards are also part of the ULURP process. These volunteer groups of residents are co-appointed by the borough president and a council member whose council district mostly overlaps with the community district. Council and community districts are not co-terminus, as there are 59 community boards and 51 council members. Community boards have some official powers, such as handing out liquor licenses, but most of their power is informal. They issue letters of support or opposition to certain laws or projects or other items. They can request meetings with city agencies to follow up on various issues they’ve written letters about. Their role in the ULURP process is theoretically one of their most important functions, but the process isn’t set up favorably for them.

“The way the process is laid out, and the role that DCP [Department of City Planning] tends to play, really limits local communities’ ability to be decision-makers in what’s going to happen in their neighborhood,” says Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), a citywide membership-based organization of CDCs and resident organizing groups.

The ULURP process officially begins after the DCP certifies an application to make a zoning change. The certification stage has no set timeframe, and may include an environmental review or other requirements. Most importantly, the certification stage is not public. It’s conducted in a black box of sorts, generally a behind-closed-doors negotiation between DCP and the developer.

“Most major zoning changes require an environmental impact study before ULURP,” Goldstein says. “It takes serious resources to do that. Big developers can pay for that when they apply for a rezoning, and the city can do that, but even the most well-resourced community group can’t do that.” Developers apply for a rezoning for various reasons, such as to build higher on the lot than the existing zoning for that lot allows, or to change the use of a lot from commercial or industrial to residential.

Once DCP certifies a plan, it’s handed to the community board. This stage is the first opportunity for communities to voice their concerns on any given proposal. All community board meetings are public, and announced on each community board’s website. Some community boards are better about announcing meeting agendas in advance than others, giving residents the chance to see if there will be a ULURP application to weigh in on. The community board has 60 days to adopt and submit a written recommendation to the City Planning Commission, the applicant and the borough president (and sometimes the borough board, another appointed body of volunteers). At the end of 60 days, no matter what, the application moves on to the next stage: borough president review.

The borough president then has 30 days to submit a written recommendation to the City Planning Commission. If an application involves more than one community board, the borough board may also adopt and submit its own written recommendation. At the end of 30 days, no matter what, the application moves to the next stage: City Planning Commission review.

The City Planning Commission then has 60 days to hold a public hearing and approve, approve with modifications or disapprove the application. City Planning Commission hearings are generally held twice a month, on Wednesdays. Applications need seven votes to pass, unless the borough president has recommended against an application, in which case it needs nine votes to pass.

If the zoning change application passes the City Planning Commission, it moves on to City Council, which votes on each and every ULURP. It might sound like a moment for chaos, but convention has come up with a solution.

“There’s a very strong tradition that City Council defers to the local council member. It’s their district, whichever way they vote, the rest of City Council will back them up,” explains Goldstein. “That’s partly out of respect for them in their local district, it’s partly wanting the same deference when it comes to their own local matters. So the local council member actually has a lot of power.”

Often times, Goldstein says, the best route for influencing what’s going to happen in a local rezoning, for local community groups, is to influence their local council member who theoretically has electoral accountability. “There is such a thing as a no vote. It happens very rarely, but it can happen,” she adds.

While ULURP may sound onerous, “there are a lot more rezonings that happen in the city than anyone really realizes,” Goldstein says.

Developers aren’t the only ones that have to take applications through the ULURP process. De Blasio’s housing plan, since it required changes to city zoning, had to go through ULURP, giving all 59 boards the chance to adopt and submit recommendations on it. Fifty community boards rejected MIH/ZQA as initially presented to them, compelling the mayor to add deeper levels of affordability into the plan (though still not nearly as affordable as needed to provide housing for the most vulnerable New Yorkers).

The city’s upzoning plan for East Harlem will also have to go through the pre-certification phase and the rest of ULURP. According to the timeline presented on May 17 to Manhattan Community Board 11, which represents most of East Harlem, DCP begins its pre-certification process for East Harlem’s official rezoning this month, with the East Harlem rezoning ULURP process slated to begin in the first quarter of 2017. In order to be relevant, the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan needed to be finalized before all of that.

Tenants with Movement for Justice in El Barrio protest the upzoning of East Harlem at a Community Board 11 meeting. (Courtesy of
Andrew J. Padilla/”El Barrio Tours” Gentrification USA)

MAKING THE SAUSAGE

The East Harlem Neighborhood Plan’s project partners sought to create a process that would inform the actual rezoning plan for East Harlem that the city will eventually take through ULURP, as well as any future site-specific ULURPs in the neighborhood, while also influencing other flows of public and private resources that might find their way into East Harlem.

Community Voices Heard, Mark-Viverito’s office, the Manhattan borough president and the Manhattan Community Board 11 came together to lead. To broaden ownership, Mark-Viverito invited 21 organizations to serve on a steering committee.

“We wanted to make sure there was a representation of a variety of experiences on the board, people that were long-term members of the community, organizations providing services, have a level of respect in the community,” says Mark-Viverito.

It was still not clear at that point how the process would work. Hester Street Collaborative, an NYC nonprofit that specializes in community engagement, agreed at the beginning of the process to come on board as an independent facilitator.

“It was all happening at once,” says Dylan House, director of community design at Hester Street. “We were tasked with making some sense of this process, and creating a way for community voices to be engaged in this.”

In parallel, a funder collaborative had formed earlier in 2015, also in response to the city’s rezoning proposal, called the Neighborhoods First Fund.

“Obviously the lower income the community is that’s targeted, the greater the disparity in access, information and sense of ownership and empowerment in that process,” says Joan Byron, who coordinates the nine-member consortium. “Funders were interested in seeing how they could coordinate their resources to support engagement by the communities that were going to be affected [by rezoning].”

Funders in the consortium include Ford Foundation, Surdna Foundation, Deutsche Bank, M&T Bank, Mertz Gilmore Foundation, Altman Foundation, NY Community Trust, NY Foundation and the Scherman Foundation. (Ford and Surdna have provided grant funding to Next City.)

CVH received a grant from the consortium to support their organizing efforts related to the plan, while five other organizations received grants as technical assistance providers to the project partners leading the plan. Hester Street received a grant as one of the five, as did CUP, ANHD, the Pratt Center for Community Development and the Urban Justice Center.

“The idea is to support both organizing and technical assistance,” Byron explains.

At the outset, the project partners began having weekly phone calls, every Tuesday at noon. They decided to hold six community visioning workshops, each one meant to cover one or more of the eventual 12 topic areas in the plan.

“When you are proposing a zoning change on the scale of what we are looking at in East Harlem, it means you will need more services like schools and parks, you need to account for the impact on transit, and public health, and education, and all these things that we think of when we think of what makes a neighborhood great to live in,” House says.

CUP’s Lincoln Houses game was one of several CVH invited CUP to conduct, to help prepare residents for a community visioning workshop on affordable housing development, zoning and land use.

“We thought the CUP workshops could be a way to get people more prepared to participate in the visioning sessions that we were having, and really grasp what it is we were talking about and what this means for the community,” says Daisy Gonzalez, who, as sustainable communities organizer at CVH, was the primary staffer involved with creating the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan.

Nearly 200 people came out for the community workshop. They participated in a series of exercises, facilitated by Hester Street, designed to convey the complexities of the questions at hand about zoning, affordability and density, in order for participants to generate feedback and priorities for the neighborhood.

“There was some cognitive dissonance,” House recalls. “People say yes, we need more affordable housing, but then they say no to more density.”

At the same time, House says, a lot of current private, by-right development is already happening without any affordable housing. Mark-Viverito supported the mayor’s housing plan in belief that the tradeoff of height for affordable units is necessary if the city hopes to remain inclusive.

“If you walk up and down the corridors of my district, you see all this development that is happening where it’s all luxury housing,” she says. “There’s nothing that is being given back to the community and that’s already happening on its own.”

DeVore was at the workshop. “The only thing I can agree with is that we need to make the buildings taller. If we don’t, we won’t be able to get in. We’ll just be wasting our time. Need room for people making under $23,000,” she says.

But while she left the workshop sure of the need to upzone, the affordability levels in the mayor’s plan remain a huge concern.

“We need to abolish the phrase ‘affordable housing.’ It’s low-income housing,” DeVore says. “We can’t make the whole building 100 percent low-income, because they have to pay for maintenance and upkeep, but maybe 30 percent could be rich people and the rest on down, from people earning $50,000 down to $15,000. These people have been here a long time, some wasn’t lucky enough to have the education, so you can’t push them out.”

Many of her neighbors share her concerns. Knowing how difficult the conversations would be and that getting from those workshops to recommendations and finally, a plan, the project partners also decided to bring in a second facilitator to facilitate subgroup meetings, steering committee meetings and the actual drafting of the plan. For that, the speaker’s office put out an RFP, and NYC-based architecture and planning firm WXY won the bid. They had been part of smaller community-based plans in NYC before, including one to connect a series of existing and not-yet-existing parks along the East River.

In June 2015, after the first community visioning workshop on arts and culture, WXY began to work closely with the project partners and Hester Street. Both WXY and Hester Street participated in the weekly project partner calls.

“A lot of the work together with Hester Street ended up being more fluid and sharing roles across the way,” says WXY’s Adam Lubinsky. “What we really wanted to do is set up a process by which the visioning workshop findings would go back to these subgroups that were built around the themes, and they could digest the results, present those results to the steering committee, get feedback from the steering committee and then start to formulate draft recommendations.”

Steering committee members volunteered to lead the subgroups, of which there were 11. Many other organizations based in East Harlem, and some from outside but with programming in East Harlem, participated in the subgroups.

“Anybody that was part of subgroups was encouraged to reach out to their networks and make sure that people knew that this was happening,” says Mark-Viverito. “Ideally we’d have loved to see double the amount of people participate in any situation, but we had over the course of the nine months, well over 2,000 people participate.”

Subgroups were responsible for combining input from the community visioning workshops with their own research and discussions to formulate recommendations to present to the steering committee. Technical assistance providers like ANHD, Pratt Center and the Urban Justice Center participated in subgroup meetings when invited, to help answer questions as they came up.

The steering committee voted to approve each recommendation in the plan. A supermajority (16 out of 21 members) was required to vote yes on each recommendation for it to be included in the final plan.

It took a lot of trial and error, at first. Steering committee meetings got very tense, according to Lubinsky. “What we started to do as our meetings in the steering committee got very long, is we started to send them the draft recommendations in advance for them to vote on before they came in,” he says. “It streamlined things but it also focused people’s minds on being a decision-oriented body, and I think that was very, very good for the steering committee members.”

The project partners decided not to make subgroup and steering committee meetings public, and no notes from those meetings have been shared. In part to address transparency concerns, the final plan release contains four extensive appendices of documentation used during and created by the process, including one appendix that has all the notes from every table at every community visioning workshop. City agency staff, including DCP staff, were present at community visioning sessions as well as some subgroup discussions.

Transparency in the steering committee and subgroup meetings was a concern for some in East Harlem.

“One of the concerns for me and some other folks, while this process was in place was that the meetings where the plan was actually being drawn together, were never open,” says Padilla. “Of course if you have a photo or video, you would think there’s community planning right there. But you really wouldn’t know the context of what that was about, and those residents weren’t the ones making the final recommendations, those were happening in meetings that were not public.”

Throughout the process, CVH took on the primary responsibility of making sure residents of East Harlem participated meaningfully at every step of the way, including the closed-door meetings.

“CVH had members in all of the subgroup meetings that we participated in,” says Gonzalez.

CVH member John Medina, for instance, participated in the affordable housing development subgroup and small business/jobs subgroup meetings, as well as some steering committee meetings.

“In the subgroups, we would go over the total census of what was accumulated in the visioning workshops, compiled it, then we would make a report and we would send to everyone to review it,” says Medina, a former union carpenter, and a veteran and fifth-generation East Harlem resident.

Medina’s “everyone” includes CVH’s members who were interested to be involved with the process. CVH set up its own internal working group to come up with feedback and questions to bring up in subgroup and steering committee meetings.

“We worked very tirelessly, with not enough sleep,” Medina says. “We’d make person-to-person contact, phone calls, taking time out to double-check and follow up with residents. Inviting them to future meetings, and to engage in public hearings like the workshops or other community meetings.”

If the CVH members in its internal working group did not vote a majority to support a recommendation, they registered that opposition publicly.

The ability to publicly register a no vote, if so desired, was key to the process. “It made certain members of the steering committee feel a bit safer in being in the process,” Lubinsky says.

CVH ended up registering public opposition to seven recommendations. Meanwhile, Union Settlement Association, another steering committee member, opposed one recommendation regarding workforce; while Mark-Viverito’s office abstained from one recommendation on affordable housing. Opposition votes and abstentions are marked with an asterisk in the final East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, and also listed in one of the four appendices to the plan.

A PLAN WITH IMPACT

With the plan completed, the Neighborhoods First Fund is interested in how it can support continued organizing to ensure its implementation. It’s still not certain whether DCP will take the plan wholesale through the ULURP process, or if not, to what extent will DCP make reference to the plan and how much of it will it include in its official plan.

“There’s a huge amount of work to be done to translate that plan into actions that city planning and other agencies take that lead to rezoning and other implementation steps to hold the city accountable to. That’s at least another year of work,” Byron says. “In the case of East Harlem, we’re open to what people may come back to us with.”

There has been some evidence so far of institutions taking up the plan in their work. The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene plans to award $275,000 in grants to 10 local organizations for projects that are helping to achieve recommendations from the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan. The New York Academy of Medicine is conducting a health impact assessment in conjunction with the plan. The parks department is kicking off two resiliency studies recommended by the plan.

In April 2016, the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), which is in charge of city-owned property, held a visioning session for a large city-owned lot on East 111th Street in East Harlem, which has been in use as a community garden, but is now slated for development. In the final report from that visioning session, HPD cites recommendations from the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan and promises to evaluate proposals partly on how they respond to the priorities articulated by the community in the plan.

A large city-owned lot on East 111th Street has been in use as a community garden but is now slated for development. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

The plan process officially wrapped at the end of January, with a community forum that involved around 350 participants. It, too, was designed to provide some feedback. Subgroup leaders staffed tables with all the recommendations from their topic area, to answer questions from participants.

“The level of ownership of those subgroup leads was tremendous. I’ve never been a part of a public process where that sense of ownership was so disbursed to the people who were all from [community-based organizations],” Lubinsky says. “That completely removed the pressure on us. I didn’t have to do anything at that event.”

Each participant received a limited number of tokens used to vote for which recommendations they felt should be prioritized above others. Two top vote-getters in each topic area gained listing as a priority recommendation in the plan.

As DCP’s pre-certification process continues, with the anticipation of next year’s ULURP process to officially upzone East Harlem, a lot still lies on the shoulders of Mark-Viverito. “Every level of government has a role here,” she says. “But for a large percentage of what can happen, the influence does fall on the city council member. So it is what it is.”

At the same time, with the speaker’s term expiring next year, the community may still be its own best hope to hold future leaders accountable for the plan. The steering committee will continue to meet in order to coordinate follow up with city agencies, advocate for recommendations and set up an evaluation process for the plan. It’s also now open to any resident to apply to join the steering committee.

“I think we’re in a new era of city accountability,” Medina says. “Not only elected officials but contractors, developers, I think we’ve reached a point where people want more transparency and accountability. We’re tired of wasted taxpayer money not doing what it’s supposed to be doing. This is just the first phase. We have a long way to go.”

This article is part of a Next City series focused on community-engaged design made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Oscar is a Next City contributing writer, and was a Next City 2015-2016 equitable cities fellow. A New York City-based journalist with a background in global development and social enterprise, he has written about impact investing, microfinance, fair trade, entrepreneurship and more for publications such as Fast Company and NextBillion.net. He has a B.A. in Economics from Villanova University.

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