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Rezonings transform NYC neighborhoods—but the city doesn’t meaningfully study their impacts

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Rezonings treat New Yorkers as “guinea pigs in badly designed experiments,” said a Queens council member

Downtown Brooklyn was rezoned in 2004 with a projection of 979 new apartments by 2013—thousands more were created.
Max Touhey

The city uses an environmental review process, known as the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR), to predict how rezonings and other major land use actions will impact neighborhoods. It’s used to study changes to neighborhood character, the potential for residential displacement, and strains to existing infrastructure, as well as developing ways to mitigate those impacts.

But that review process is not held accountable for ensuring those predictions are actually accurate, city officials said at a Tuesday City Council hearing.

“We don’t then go back and try and figure out whether precisely what we had projected actually comes to be in 10 years, or 15 years, or five years,” said Susan Amron, the general counsel at the Department of City Planning (DCP). “In fact, there are always unforeseen circumstances, unforeseen influences that can effect the projections of the future.”

Four City Council bills would change that by mandating city agencies study impacts—transportation, school capacity, and secondary displacement—and compare those findings with the predictions that were identified in the final environmental review. If major disparities are found, recommendations would then be made to amend CEQR to increase its accuracy for future actions. Another bill would track city commitments made to mitigate those impacts by adding that information to a publicly accessible online database.

At the moment, there is no mechanism in the CEQR process that mandates officials to re-examine those projections for accuracy once a major land use change has come to fruition. Currently, city agencies review how effective measures to mitigate projected impacts are and make adjustments as needed. The Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination (OEC), which oversees CEQR, makes periodic updates to the technical manual that guides that process—it’s been updated four times since it was initially published in 1993, most recently in 2014—and the agency aims to launch another update in the near future, according to Hilary Semel, the director and general counsel of OEC.

But in some cases, wildly inaccurate CEQR projections have left rapidly growing communities to shoulder the burden of those miscalculations, data shows. The environmental review process predicted that the 2001 rezoning of Long Island City would generate just 300 new housing units, but zoning changes in the neighborhood have led to more than 10,000 new apartments, according to a report by the Municipal Arts Society. At that time, the already-overcrowded Queens Community School District 30 was projected to need an additional 99 school seats; but as of 2018, more have 3,200 new students have come to the neighborhood. It is considered to be the fastest growing community in the country.

The environmental review for Downtown Brooklyn’s 2004 rezoning projected that 979 new apartments would be built by 2013; but as in Long Island City, the growth has far outpaced projections. Some 3,000 apartments were created by 2013, and by 2018, another 5,000 new housing units had been built, according to the Municipal Arts Society’s analysis. Similarly to Long Island City, 446 new students were expected to enter Brooklyn Community School District 13, but nearly 4,400 new students ultimately flocked to the neighborhood.

The environmental review anticipated a boom of mostly office space for this rezoning, and though “it was not precisely” what the city predicted, DCP views it as “very successful,” according to Amron. Semel maintained that the review process tries to “take the most conservative approach” when it comes to predicting future impacts.

“We hope that in most cases we are over estimating the potential for environmental impacts,” said Semel. “But since we cannot predict some trends that are outside of the scope of an environmental review, we are aware that we may not be always pitching a perfect game all the time.”

City Council members criticized the city’s methods Tuesday, questioning how CEQR assessments can be relied on for planning purposes if they have a track record of being inaccurate. “How can you expect us to trust your reports when you’re not fact-checking or double checking your recommendations?” said Rafael Salamanca, who represents the south east Bronx and is the chairman of the Land Use Committee. Alarmed council members also blasted the city’s lack of reassessing its CEQR projections as “arrogant” “irresponsible,” and “cavalier.”

“I think this city isn’t held accountable and doesn’t take responsibility for what it gets wrong and I think it’s very unlikely that it’s going to correct its course by itself,” said Francisco Moya, who represents northern Queens and is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises. “It seems to me that we’re treating New York City residents in primarily low-income, minority communities as guinea pigs in badly designed experiments.”

In 2015, the de Blasio administration announced plans to rezone 15 neighborhoods as part of a push to create or preserve 200,000 units of low-income housing. Since then, East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway, East Harlem, Jerome Avenue, and Inwood have been rezoned, and the mayor increased his goal to 300,000 units. At the moment, Gowanus and Bushwick in Brooklyn, and the Bay Street corridor in Staten Island, are going through the rezoning process, with more on the horizon. Fears of displacement and an over burdening of existing infrastructure dominate in each area.

On Tuesday, a cadre of city agencies expressed willingness for change but spelled out concerns with the proposed bills. The Department of Transportation (DOT) said it does not believe the studies it would be tasked with carrying out “would effectively inform” updating the CEQR Technical Manual and stressed that they would be “highly resource intensive,” according to Naim Rasheed, DOT’s senior director of traffic engineering and planning.

Similarly, the president and CEO of the School Construction Authority, Lorraine Grillo, said “we do not believe CEQR is the appropriate tool to address the concerns” raised in the bill that would prompt school capacity studies. For its part, the Department of Housing Preservation and Developed (HPD) noted that “although displacement is an incredibly difficult thing to track and can occur in many forms, HPD is open to evaluating and updating our tactics to address this issue,” the agency said in a statement.

OEC generally supports tracking mitigation commitments for land use actions to promote transparency, but also does not believe “CEQR is the appropriate tool to address the universal concerns” raised in the other three bills, said Semel. The environmental review process is one of many pieces considered by DCP and the City Planning Commission, Amron emphasized, noting that there are myriad factors causing neighborhood change.

“To focus solely on rezoning as the driver of neighborhood change misses the complex reality of New York City’s population dynamics, and treats neighborhoods as static places,” Amron said. “While we take these issues very seriously, addressing them in the context of environmental review is not helpful, as environmental review is not a panacea to address systematic issues.”