Corey Johnson takes on city’s land use failures with vision of comprehensive planning

Council Speaker Corey Johnson (left) and Boerum Hill Councilman Steve Levin.
John McCarten/New York City Council

Council Speaker Corey Johnson unveiled legislation on Wednesday that would completely overhaul the city’s land use process, which critics have long derided as “broken.”

The legislation, accompanied by a report dubbed “planning together” that details the failures of the current land use process, aims to spur mutually beneficial growth after decades of disinvestment and disparities in communities of color, according to the Council speaker’s office.

“Our planning process is completely broken,” Johnson said in a statement. “As we seek to recover and rebuild in the wake of COVID-19, our increasingly contentious and unproductive planning regime will continue to undermine our ability to equitably respond to the challenges we face.” 

The legislation would require the city to consolidate its planning mandates into a single procedure in an effort to simplify the current process, which sees the city’s strategic planning, budget, and land use processes spread out over a web of different documents, reports, plans, and agencies. 

A comprehensive planning process would help the city address its affordable housing and homelessness crises, aging infrastructure, and vulnerability to climate change, Johnson said. New York City is currently the only major American city that does not engage in some form of comprehensive planning. 

“Comprehensive planning will bring a cyclical and fully integrated framework for us to work with that balances citywide and community needs to take on our challenges together,” Johnson said. “This is how we get things done.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing goals have largely been stymied due to the city’s current planning process, by which the de Blasio administration selects a neighborhood to incentivize a mixture of market and rent-regulated development, and is inevitably met with a barrage of opposition by communities fearing displacement or harm to “neighborhood character.”

Johnson’s bill would require the city to come up with a ten-year comprehensive planning system starting in 2025. The system would develop a land use plan for all New York City neighborhoods in partnership with those communities — a far cry from the current Uniform Land Use Review Process, which takes a piecemeal approach to individual neighborhoods and lots, and often leaves communities feeling like they are being planned for, not planned with.

The ten-year plan would also require the city to regularly review and update zoning in response to the failures and successes of existing zoning, incentivizing development that aligns with the long-term plan. 

Civic gurus say comprehensive planning is a worthwhile goal — if done right — and that it is long past due for the city to abandon its piecemeal approach.

“Comprehensive planning, done by many big cities across the country, would be a proactive way to develop our city,” said Tom Wright, President of the Regional Plan Association. “Done right, it could create an equitable framework — one that aligns citywide and community values to establish shared targets, ensuring prudent planning for existing and new communities.”

Johnson has the support of a number of Council Members, including Brooklyn Councilmen Brad Lander, Stephen Levin, and Antonio Reynoso, and the backing of organizations including the Ascendant Neighborhood Development Corporation, the Riders Alliance, and the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, but will face an uphill battle against chopping up a bureaucracy as entrenched and complex as the city’s land use and planning processes.