A Call for Transparency in Development Approvals

Hunter College professor Tom Angotti wants more transparency in the city’s current rezoning process.

Speaking at a meeting of the City Charter Revision Commission Thursday evening, Mr. Angotti was the only one of a five-person panel of land use experts to take serious issue with the way the current rezoning process–known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure–now operates.

The problem, he said, is not what happens during ULURP but rather what happens before a rezoning application is certified–before ULURP, which over the course of seven months determines how a piece of land can be used, officially begins.

“What happens in the pre-ULURP process is that there are agreements made between public officials and communities that occur outside the sunshine of the public process, many of them behind closed doors,” he said. “They are informal arrangements, informal meetings, and quite logically they happen before the ULURP process because no applicant wants to go through a seven-month process with all the time and effort that it involves and find that in the end their application is going to be turned down because they didn’t anticipate the opposition of certain groups.”

He said that because important decisions are made before ULURP even begins, community boards are left with the queasy feeling that their participation in the process is only for show.

“This leads to frustration, cynicism, division and anger within communities because they perceive that what’s presented is a fait accompli,” said Mr. Angotti, who has done consulting work for groups opposed to city-led redevelopment projects. “They feel that the time and resources that they invest in ULURP’s process are wasted, and they’re constantly reminded that the community board’s vote is only advisory.”

David Karnovsky, general counsel for the Department of City Planning, who also sat on the panel, defended the current procedure.

“A savvy applicant, whether a city agency or a private party, will touch base with the parties of the process–community board, borough president or council member–well prior to the commencement of ULURP, in order to gauge reactions, consider comments and make changes and adjustments to the proposal,” he said. “This is exactly what the Department of City Planning itself does with respect to its own proposals. We do early outreach to the community board and others that’s critical to the successful outcome of the zoning process.”

Paul Selver, a partner at the law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, which represents many of the city’s largest developers, also defended the rezoning procedure.

“ULURP–and I include what’s called the pre-certification period–isn’t perfect, but its basic structure is sound,” he said.

Columbia professor Vishaan Chakrabarti echoed chairwoman of the City Planning Commission Amanda Burden’s recent argument.

“I categorically believe that ULURP works. I believe that it works because everyone comes out of the process somewhat unhappy,” he said. “And that is probably some kind of sign of success.”

walden@observer.com