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What is ULURP, and why should I care? NYC’s land-use review process, explained

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How the controversial city planning process is crucial to life in New York

Max Touhey

The intricacies of New York City’s zoning laws tend to make even the wonkiest of city wonks’ eyes glaze over, but it’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of those byzantine rules and the impact they have on life in New York.

The city’s zoning resolution divvies up land around the city for distinct uses (residential, commercial, or manufacturing) and dictates how particular sites can be used—preventing say, a power plant from being built within a residential neighborhood. If a developer does want to build something that doesn’t fit with an area’s particular zoning designation, they must go through the city’s lengthy land use review process, known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.

You may be asking yourself, “Why should I care?” Good question! Let’s say a developer proposes a huge new building in your neighborhood, but the transportation infrastructure is overburdened, or your school district is sorely overcrowded—or hey, maybe you really think that the area needs new housing and want that building to rise. Or say the city is planning a neighborhood-wide rezoning in your area; there are a few of those in the cards for 2020, after all.

The ULURP process is where you, the resident of a place, can get involved and make your concerns with or approval of a particular project known. The fewer neighborhood voices that contribute to the conversation, the less likely a development, if approved, will serve the community’s needs.

So if you want to have a hand in shaping the future of your neighborhood, or just want to better understand this complex process, read on.

Okay, help me out: What is ULURP used for?

The vast majority of development in New York is done “as of right,” meaning the proposed use for a project matches a given site’s zoning and can proceed without a separate review. But if a developer wants to construct a residential building on land zoned for manufacturing, for example, the zoning designation must be changed, which is where ULURP comes in.

Basically, name any major development of the past few years—the creation of Hudson Yards, for example, or the redevelopment of the Bedford-Union Armory in Crown Heights—and chances are it’s gone through ULURP.

How does the process work, exactly?

A typical review can take up to a year to unfold: First, a developer must file an application with the Department of City Planning (DCP), and may be asked to submit an Environmental Impact Statement, which shows how a development might impact the surrounding area.

The next stages are where things tend to heat up: Once a proposal is submitted, the local community board gets 60 days to review it before voting on the project, followed by a 30-day period for the borough president to review the idea and offer their recommendations. It’s also considered by the 13-member City Planning Commission (CPC), which votes on the application; if the CPC votes to disapprove, it stops the process altogether.

Of note: While community board’s and borough president’s reviews are purely advisory, their feedback informs the position of the local City Council member, who casts what is often a make-or-break vote at the end of the process. These stages are also where the public gets involved, and where major drama can unfold; heated hearings, protests, and legal challenges are all par for the course.

If the CPC does approve the application, it moves on to the City Council, which typically follows the lead of the lawmaker in whose district a project falls. This gives that councilmember leverage to negotiate changes, such as height reductions or securing other commitments for their constituents. A no vote would effectively kill the proposal, though it’s rare for that to happen by the time something makes it to the full Council.

The mayor can veto the Council decision within five days, but the Council still gets the final word, with 10 days to override a mayoral veto by a two-thirds majority.

How did ULURP come to be?

New York was the first city in the country to adopt citywide zoning laws in 1916, and those rules were eventually superseded by a new code in 1961. In an attempt to further democratize land-use decision-making, voters approved a new City Charter in 1975 that gave neighborhoods a stronger voice through ULURP.

The new process was a rebuke to the era of urban planning czar Robert Moses, who for decades had unchecked power to transform New York City through sweeping infrastructure and housing projects. ULURP represented a move away from the Moses‐era model of ramming projects through with little oversight, and gave community boards an official say in local changes.

Most recently, voters approved a ballot measure in 2019 that gave community boards more time to review a ULURP proposal in the summer months, as well as more time to review a proposal before a ULURP application is certified, all in an effort to give communities more time to understand a rezoning proposal.

Why is it such a contentious process?

Since ULURP is triggered when a developer wants to build something that’s different than what current zoning allows—i.e. a taller or denser building—these projects tend to attract fierce community pushback. (Whether this is warranted, because rezonings can lead to displacement in low-income communities, or the result of NIMBY resistance to change, is another argument altogether.)

In some cases, people who are opposed to an application have succeeded in killing a rezoning before it gets to the approval stages (see: Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn); more recently, opponents of the city-led rezoning of Inwood were successful in getting a judge to annul the decision altogether.

What’s the criticism of ULURP?

The answer varies depending on who you ask. As Hunter Urban Planning and Policy Professor Tom Angotti put it in a report to the City Charter Commission: “The problems with ULURP have to do with quality of public discussion and decision-making, especially in the period before ULURP, and not the quantity of time it takes.”

There’s no overarching public framework driving these land-use decisions; the entities charged with making these reviews are often under-resourced; and the process can exclude residents, especially in low-income communities of color, who don’t have the luxury of attending community forums and public hearings, according to the Regional Planning Association

On the flip side, critics of the process, such as self-described YIMBY group Open New York, see efforts to expand ULURP as drawing out an already lengthy, onerous process to building much-needed housing more quickly.

“Community boards have often served to amplify the voices of people who want to freeze the city in amber, rather than confronting an affordability crisis that is creating new rent burdened and homeless households everyday,” the group said in a recent statement. “They have attempted to sabotage and derail projects that would help address these issues.”

How do I get involved if a project I care about is going through ULURP?

Your best bet is to stay informed. Start by getting involved with your local community board; many developers seek early feedback on project proposals, and DCP will reach out to boards well before a neighborhood rezoning reaches ULURP. Another way to keep on top of things is with this nifty map that lists every ULURP project in your neighborhood. The earlier you’re in the loop, the more chances you have to contribute input on a proposal.

Once ULURP hearings are on your radar, you can show up in person or submit comments within a specific timeframe. Livestreams are also available for certain community board and borough president hearings; the City Planning Commission and the City Council each stream their hearings. Another way to make your voice heard is by bringing concerns directly to your local Councilmember.