Reforming New York City's Land Use Review Procedure

JURIST Guest Columnist Alfred Williams, Jr., St. John's University School of Law Class of 2014, is the author of the seventh article in a 10-part series from the staffers of the Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development. Williams explores issues with New York City's current land use procedure and offers a possible solution...
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Decisions concerning land-use often have impacts that resonate throughout the community. These types of high-stakes decisions can be extremely difficult for local officials who are attempting to balance competing interests. In New York City, community boards are also involved in land-use decision making, adding an additional layer of complexity. These community boards emerged in the 1950s and quickly gained momentum until the city amended its charter [PDF] and created the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) [PDF] to: (1) increase public participation in reviewing land-use applications; and (2) increase efficiency in processing such applications.

However, the ULURP has fallen short in achieving those objectives. Although the community board is involved in land-use decision making, its authority is limited to preliminary non-binding recommendations. In contrast, during the later stages of ULURP review, the City Planning Commission (CPC) and City Council are empowered to make binding project modifications.

Proponents of this current structure may find it appropriate in light of the duties and responsibilities designated to members of each representative body. Whereas community board members are unpaid volunteers and advocate strictly for neighborhood interests, CPC members are appointed and play a comprehensive role in the city's overall growth and development. Accordingly, proponents argue, the CPC is better situated to present binding project modifications to the City Council for final approval.

However, when the CPC and City Council fail to consider the input of the community board, local residents often become disgruntled, and are able and willing to challenge the legality of the ULURP determination. In fact, a number of community interest groups recently have challenged municipal land-use decisions, increasing the burden on court dockets and interfering with development efforts that stimulate the local economy. For example, community groups have recently challenged, among other development projects, the Hudson Yards, Atlantic Terminal, new Yankee Stadium and expansion of New York University (NYU)'s campus.

Most recently, on July 25, 2012, the City Council, by a near-unanimous vote, approved a project to allow NYU to expand its campus by six million square feet. The project, known as NYU 2031, was estimated to add ten thousand jobs and $1.1 billion in taxes to the local economy. However, prior to approval, Community Board 2 (CB2) recommended, by a unanimous vote, that the city reject NYU 2031. Speaking on behalf of New York's historic Greenwich Village, CB2 voiced concerns about the project's impact on the historic Bohemian character of the neighborhood.

In response to the City Council's approval, local groups filed a petition asking the court to overturn the decision on the grounds of abuse of discretion. Such legal action will likely put the project on hold for months and cost the city and underfunded groups tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

To avoid these inefficiencies, all ULURP participants should collaborate when making binding project modifications. Working together, participants would have to consider recommendations made by all stakeholders during the decision-making process, decreasing the need for subsequent legal action. Additionally, the process would be more efficient because it would eliminate the current need for a 60-day non-binding review period designated strictly for the community board.

If the parties are unable to reach a collective resolution, they should be required to mediate prior to litigating the issue. An experienced mediator could: (1) help identify and understand opposing interests; (2) avoid the prospect of contentious litigation; (3) alleviate some burden on court dockets; (4) reduce and/or eliminate litigation costs; and (5) increase the ULURP's internal capacity to manage conflict.

With real estate development on the rise in New York's recovering economic landscape, officials are certain to make critical decisions regarding land use. To put these officials in the best position to make such decisions, the ULURP should be reformed, according to this proposal, to increase public participation and efficiency in land-use decision making and promote growth and development favorable to the community at large.

Alfred Williams, Jr. is the 2013-14 Managing Editor of the Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development. He has worked as a summer associate and law clerk for Tarter Krinsky & Drogin LLP since 2012. In 2013, he also interned for the Honorable Arthur Spatt in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Siena College.

Suggested citation: Alfred Williams, Jr., Reforming New York City's Land Use Review Procedure, JURIST - Dateline, Nov. 19, 2013, http://jurist.org/dateline/2013/11/alfred-williams-land-use.php.


This article was prepared for publication by Josh Guckert, an assistant editor for JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at studentcommentary@jurist.org

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