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Max Touhey

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The real answer is ‘maybe’

Why “YIMBY” vs. “NIMBY” is no way to think about the most complex human creation: the contemporary city

The acronym NIMBY, meaning “not in my backyard,” and its opposite, YIMBY, for “yes in my backyard,” entered the lexicon sometime in the early 1980s. The first NIMBY mention I can find in the New York Times comes from a 1983 article detailing Colorado farmers’ fight against a hazardous waste site from being placed near their land. The first YIMBY came five years later; in that 1988 article, an executive of a disposal firm proposes making toxic waste dumps portable, so they could be moved from place to place on the back of trucks. His answer to NIMBY was YIMBY or “Yes, in many backyards.’’

However, in the volatile world of New York City development, the battles of “NIMBY” versus “YIMBY” have been going on forever. You’ve got to assume that when the plan to overlay most of Manhattan with a uniform street grid was introduced in 1811, there were some New Yorkers screaming “NO” and others screaming “YES.” Certainly every public meeting I’ve been to over the course of nearly three decades has unspooled that way. The first such meeting I ever attended was about a redevelopment plan for Times Square in the 1980s, and the most recent had to do with building a new high-rise jail in Brooklyn. But it’s always the same scene.

“It plays out like theater,” says Park Slope-based City Council member Brad Lander, formerly the director of the Pratt Center for Community Development. Indeed, the way the drama is supposed to resolve itself—whether the contested object is a high-rise condo that threatens to overshadow the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, or the wholesale rezoning of a neighborhood—is that after enough people scream “no,” the developer or planner backpedals slightly, shaves some height off the tallest tower or some density off the new zoning, and everyone feels as though community engagement has occurred. “The opportunity for meaningful dialogue about what’s actually needed is really hard to have,” Lander observes.

In recent years, the formula has changed somewhat. For one thing, YIMBYism has taken on a life of its own. The need for housing, especially affordable housing, is so acute in places like New York, the Bay Area, and Silicon Valley—where job growth far outstrips the rate of residential construction—that arguments against development have begun to look shortsighted and, often, immoral. And YIMBY and NIMBY sides don’t line up neatly with conventional political identities like Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative. In May, after a California bill that would have allowed multifamily housing in single family neighborhoods was shelved by the State Senate, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo argued: “…Because the largest American cities are populated and run by Democrats—many in states under complete Democratic control—this sort of nakedly exclusionary urban restrictionism is a particular shame of the left.”

Today’s YIMBYs often wear the pro-housing label with pride, while NIMBY is still an epithet, one associated with a mulish, backward-facing outlook. Damon Rich, a partner at the Newark-based urban design firm Hector, recalls picking up another acronym, circa 1998, from Claire Shulman, who was at the time the Queens Borough President: “BANANA,” or “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.”

YIMBY vs. NIMBY often feels like just another culture war, but it shouldn’t be that way. I see it more as a predictable response to a system that forces discussions about the most complex of human creations—the city—into narrow conduits, in which most people affected by a given project come in at the end, when the substantive decisions have already been made. And this dichotomy for and against the building of anything anywhere makes no real sense; not all development is good and not all development is bad. We don’t live in a binary world; most of the development issues we deal with are more like “yes, but” or “no, but.” The problem is that it’s hard to figure out how to express those shades of gray and still be heard.

In a recent essay, “Leaving the REBNY vs. NIMBY Doom Loop,” Lander and Brooklyn Councilmember Antonio Reynoso focus on the Real Estate Board of New York, the industry’s trade organization. (In Lander and Reynoso’s argument, the group is a proxy for the developer-led YIMBY stance.) In particular, the legislators critique the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) that kicks in when a developer wants to build something that exceeds the limits of existing zoning. The process begins with an application to the Department of City Planning, and moves at a stately pace, like cud through the compartments of a cow’s stomach, from the local community board to the borough president and the City Planning Commission, finally ending with City Council approval and the mayor’s signature. Each phase of this 150-day pageant comes with its own, often contentious, public hearings.

“Codified in 1975 when the city’s challenge was abandonment rather than growth, ULURP has become reduced to a shrill tug-of-war between the pro-growth forces of the Real Estate Board of New York (who profit on each development, and therefore rarely worry about which ones make long-term sense for the public good) and neighborhood activists whose Not In My Back Yard advocacy (rooted in a variety of motivations) leaves no way to figure out where and how the growth we need to address the scale of the housing crisis should take place,” Lander and Reynoso’s piece argues.

ULURP is, by definition, reactive; it’s always a response to someone’s agenda, whether that someone is a private developer or the city itself seeking to transform a given neighborhood. “Right now, when the ULURP process comes for your neighborhood, you don’t have any reason to know why or to have any presumption that it’s fair or thoughtful or reasonable,” Lander tells me. “The people screaming ‘no’ believe they’re being targeted,” Reynoso adds.

The two councilmembers see just one way out of this impasse: New York City needs a comprehensive plan, an overall strategy for the future development of every square inch of the city. By this they don’t mean the 1961 Zoning Resolution that more or less governs land use in the city. What they have in mind is a much grander document, one that espouses New York City’s values, maps out a strategy for coping with rising sea levels, and determines exactly how much new housing, commercial development, and infrastructure each neighborhood should ideally accommodate. “With a comprehensive plan, no one feels they’re being targeted,” Reynoso reasons.

The city gave it a shot in 1969, when an epic plan in six oversized volumes (an introduction and a book for each borough) was drafted and issued by its planning department. Among other things, the plan called for a westward expansion of Midtown (driven in part by a new crosstown subway line at 48th Street) and adding landfill to extend the reach of lower Manhattan; Battery Park City was already planned for the west side, but similar developments, never realized, were envisioned for the east side. It advocated for more preservation of historic neighborhoods and fewer cars in Midtown, and assured readers that by 1972, “there will be direct rail service to Kennedy Airport from Penn Station.”

While Ada Louise Huxtable found it to be pleasingly “folksy” and “plain-spoken,” and an appealing departure from the “scientistic-Utopian” approach to the master plans of the day, others argued that it wasn’t a plan at all, just urbanist William “Holly” Whyte (who wrote most of it) laying out his view of the city. It was chewed up and spit out by the newly established community boards and was, by 1973, regarded as passé. Or as Rich, who retrieved his copy of the plan from a Parks Department dumpster, notes, “it’s a really weird but beautiful document.”

Part of Lander and Reynoso’s argument for a comprehensive plan—which they pitched unsuccessfully before this year’s Charter Revision Commission (the group charged with updating the document that serves as New York City’s constitution)—is that changes that seem onerous if they affect just one neighborhood are less so if they are shared by every neighborhood in the city. They point to a unified 2006 plan that more fairly distributed waste transfer stations throughout the city. And they point to Minneapolis, which last year agreed to eliminate single family zoning citywide.

“The single-family housing element is the best example of why you have to do it comprehensively,” Lander tells me. “What neighborhood would have agreed to be the first one? Any neighborhood would have fought back.”

To allow two-, three-, or four-family homes in every one of that city’s neighborhoods, Lander insists, was the key for Minneapolis. However, urban planner Marc Norman, an associate professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, points out that this particular zoning change was the product of a long, citywide education process. “They did a racial equity plan in advance of it and held community meetings for three years to talk about why single family is inherently exclusionary and the ways that affects the city,” Norman explains.

The labor-intensive process advocated by Lander and Reynoso to knit New York into a harmonious whole clearly can’t just be the work of professional planners. A comprehensive plan, to be effective, would have to be accompanied by a citywide master class in civic values. (Which, come to think of it, is not such a bad idea.)

Other mechanisms, of course, exist to allow New Yorkers to play a role in the city’s planning process. In 1989, the city’s charter was revised to allow what were known as 197-a plans, officially sanctioned grassroots visions for a given neighborhood developed under the auspices of local community boards. According to Tom Angotti, a former city planner and professor emeritus of urban policy and planning at the City University of New York, 17 of those plans were officially approved, but nothing much came of them. For example, there was a 197-a plan painstakingly devised for Williamsburg-Greenpoint that envisioned a low rise waterfront that would continue to embody the neighborhood’s historic industrial character. The plan was approved by the City Council in 2001 and then, in 2005, largely dismissed during the Bloomberg administration’s rezoning of the area which called for a waterfront dominated by high-rise housing. “To make a long story short…the city planning department quashed every one of them,” Angotti laments. “There have been no new 197-a plans for over a decade.”

Gowanus, Brooklyn, which may soon see changes enacted as part of a comprehensive neighborhood plan.
Max Touhey

The de Blasio administration, for its part, issued a “Neighborhood Planning Playbook” in 2015 intended to teach local activists to follow a five step process—“Organize. Learn. Create. Finalize. Implement”—with the end result being a “neighborhood plan.” The playbook was created by Gehl Studio, founded by renowned Danish architect Jan Gehl, and GoodCorps, an offshoot of Good Magazine, and it’s a thoughtful guide to community planning. But the pathway it offers to implementation is light on the crucial concept of amassing and wielding political power.

Lander himself has been involved in a bespoke plan for the neighborhood of Gowanus which, in 2008, was on the brink of being rezoned in a way that would have prioritized upscale housing. Fortuitously, that rezoning was abandoned when the area’s most notable feature, the Gowanus Canal, was declared a Superfund site. Beginning in 2013, Lander worked on a project called Bridging Gowanus with neighborhood groups like the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice to craft a plan calling for “sustainability, affordability, a mix of uses, strengthening and preserving manufacturing as well as residential.” It also encompassed “canal clean up goals and providing the infrastructure needed to sustain growth for schools and transit and open space.”

If the Gowanus plan succeeds in becoming the official blueprint for the neighborhood—and it very well might—it may be because the Bridging Gowanus consortium didn’t follow the rules. “We decided to work together and build something more like political power,” Lander says, “to go to City Hall and say ‘Here are the principles we support. If you are willing to live up to those principles, then we could support a rezoning.’”

While Lander has clearly given much thought to short-circuiting the “doom loop,” it was Rich who gave me some real insight into the problem. Early in his career, he founded the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), which exists to “demystify complex policy and planning issues” for school kids. He later spent eight years as the head of city planning and urban design director for Newark, and has since gone into private practice. Two years ago, he won a Macarthur Genius Grant. I’ve long admired him for his scrappy, spirited approach to planning.

In a recent conversation, Rich sounded nostalgic about the bygone concept of urban renewal. He suggested that in Jane Jacobs’ habit of juxtaposing “big plans and little people” there was an us versus them situation—through another lens, NIMBY versus YIMBY—in which “them” was represented by the bulldozers. Rich, who was not yet born in the heyday of urban renewal, admires the “visible group politics” of the era. What I think he’s suggesting is that what everyone was fighting about in the 1960s was the broad perspective rather than narrow self-interest. If so, he’s saying what Landers is saying: that the way out of the stupid yes/no dichotomy is to have shared, societal goals and encourage development that advances those goals.

Easier said than done.

But Rich also understands the value of working small. In Newark, he offered boat rides on the Passaic River so that residents could see the potential of the city’s long-shunned waterfront. And just recently, in Detroit, he’s been working on a “Youth-Centric Neighborhood Framework” for Cody Rouge and Warrendale, neighborhoods some 11 miles from downtown. The overall concept is to engage the community members who don’t usually show up for meetings, and broaden the range of players in the public process. To this end, Rich’s team hired local teenagers as “investigators” to research the ways their neighborhoods work and don’t work. Often, these teenagers also run the public meetings; the tone of those events, documented in videos, is different from the meetings to which I’m accustomed.

The kids involved in the project, says Rich, “make adults look like deficient versions of teenagers, because adults have so many well-worn ways of avoiding the issues at hand. If one of the goals of a productive planning and design process that gets beyond NIMBYs and YIMBYs is actually being able to talk about class structure and antagonisms, teenagers are great people to do that.”

We are currently so mired in polarized discourse that I don’t see how we’ll ever will get past the binary of NIMBY versus YIMBY. But it occurs to me that a comprehensive plan of New York City written by the teenagers who live here would be eye-opening. Certainly they wouldn’t be any more self-interested or short-sighted than the developers who, by default, do much of this city’s planning. And such an approach could reanimate the conversation and serve as a catalyst for an adult version or, at minimum, produce another weird but beautiful vision for the future.

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