Monday, March 10, 2014

Zoning, post-Tregoning

[Originally published in the February 16, 2014 edition of The Mail.  Since then, the Zoning Commission has added two public hearings and extended the deadline for submission of written comments to April 25th at 3 pm.]

It was heartening to hear last week that the Zoning Commission has extended the comment period on the proposed new zoning code until April 17th.  Since November, when public hearings on the draft code started in earnest, what we’ve seen is a series of concerns being raised by residents of neighborhoods across the city.   And I think what we’re learning is that it was a serious mistake to do a wholesale rewrite rather than to amend the existing code.   Burying a series of significant policy changes in a virtually unreadable 980 page text is recipe for poor decision-making.  We need issue-by-issue consideration (which, in some cases, will mean neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis) of proposed changes in order to evaluate whether they take us closer to (or farther away from) where we as a city want to be. 

The major obstacle to this kind of deliberative approach has been the Zoning Commission’s reliance on the Office of Planning.  On the one hand, that’s a structural problem – e.g. the Office of Planning serves as the experts that vet the Office of Planning’s own work.  And if the Zoning Commission decides that it wants to see that work done better or differently, it has to rely on the Office of Planning to fix what’s broken.  But this structural problem has been aggravated by the dogmatism and, frankly, the belligerence of the Office of Planning under the leadership of Harriet Tregoning. 

Fortunately, that last obstacle is about to be removed.    Weeks after having lost the Height Act battle and a few days before Bill de Blasio would announce he’d chosen someone else to head NYC’s planning department, Tregoning fled to a job with the feds, rather than go down with the sinking ship that is the zoning rewrite effort.  It’s a wise -- probably essential -- career move on her part.  As long as she doesn’t have to get the new code passed or be held responsible for its implementation, Tregoning can claim kudos for her visionary leadership.  And when, quite predictably, her vision doesn’t translate into reality well, that’ll be someone else’s fault.    Shades of Gabe Klein, Scott Kubly and the streetcar system.  Or, for that matter, Michelle Rhee and DCPS.
At any rate, our challenge now is to take a fresh look both at our zoning code and at what we want from our next Director of Planning.   These are timely questions to raise during this Mayoral election season.

In essence, zoning is about how much of what belongs where.  The answer that Tregoning’s Office of Planning has proposed in this new code is “more of everything, everywhere.”  This approach represents an abdication of responsibility for planning the city’s growth, as well as the abandonment of zoning as a tool for balancing the interests of neighboring property owners and for taming or channeling market forces.   

Outreach on the proposed new code has focused on a few of the latest planning fads – accessory apartments, corner stores, and the reduction or elimination of on-site parking requirements. These issues are, essentially, sideshows -- distracting attention away from both the sizeable giveaways in the newly expanded downtown and the Office of Planning’s failure to address the most important challenges -- affordability, uneven development, retention of new residents, and a series of quality of life issues – we face as a city.

What we need is a citywide discussion about how and where we grow, conducted by a Planning Director who listens to, learns from, and respects the people who live here.  Someone who is a fundamentally a problem-solver, who will appreciate what’s special about our city and recognize what we want to preserve, but who is also willing and able to initiate the long-term efforts necessary to address our most enduring problems.  We’re not going to attract anyone with those qualities or ambitions if their first job will be the unenviable task of implementing a poorly-conceived and badly-drafted new zoning code.