New York City's Community Boards originated in the 1950s, when Manhattan Borough President Robert F. Wagner established twelve “Community Planning Councils,” each comprised of 15-20 members. The councils served an advisory role to the Borough President, primarily for planning and budgetary issues. As mayor, Wagner institutionalized the councils as “Community Planning Boards” in the 1963 Charter Revision, extending them to all five boroughs.
Expanded again in 1968 by Mayor John Lindsay through the passage of Local Law 39, Community Boards acquired their present structure in the Charter Revision of 1975, which established the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and expanded the number of boards to the present 59. Additionally, the 1975 Charter Revision Commission recommendations gave the Community Boards a formal role in three specific areas: (1) Improving the delivery of city services; (2) Planning and reviewing land use in the community; and (3) Making recommendations on the city's budget.
Currently, each Community Board consists of up to 50 volunteer members appointed by the borough president, with half nominated by the City Council members representing that district. Board members are Charter mandated to reside, work in, or have some other significant interest in the community. As the most local form of government, Community Boards serve an essential role in our city’s democracy by shaping neighborhood development and advising government on community needs and interests.
Land Use Powers for Community Boards and Borough Presidents
On November 4, 1975, voters approved changes to the City Charter requiring “applications by any person or agency respecting the use, development, or improvement of real property subject to city regulation shall be reviewed pursuant to a uniform review procedure.” Following Department of City Planning (DCP) certification, the affected Community Board has 60 days to notify the public, hold a hearing, and submit recommendations to the City Planning Commission (CPC) and borough president. However, the recommendations are not binding and are too easily ignored by decision makers. The City should empower its most local form of government to have a greater role in reviewing significant land use changes to their neighborhoods. This means requiring community-driven land use proposals like 197-a plans to be taken seriously. Going further, Community Boards should be empowered to, jointly with their council member(s) and/or borough president, initiate a ULURP.
Greater powers in the land use process, which must include the binding power to veto or initiate a ULURP, will give Community Boards the voice they deserve. But that power is useless without the expertise to properly use it. As we seek to empower community boards with additional powers, we must also provide professional expertise and training so our board members have a better understanding of their power and are more likely to wield it responsibly.
Binding Land Use Power to Initiate or Veto ULURP
To create a 197-a plan requires intense dedication over many years and comes at considerable cost. When completed, the City should recognize these efforts by Community Boards to improve their neighborhoods by adopting the plans and taking measurable steps to act on them. It is telling that only 13 197-a plans from 12 community boards have been adopted since 1992, the last of which in December 2009. Given the cost of producing these plans, the amount of time it takes for adoption, and the City’s history of ignoring the plans in whole or in part, it is no wonder our community boards have all but ceased producing them. 197-a plans should be binding and CPC and DCP should be required to take measurable steps to achieve the recommendations of each plan and refer to the desires expressed by a community board in a 197-a plan when making land use decisions.
Allow Community Boards to, jointly with borough presidents and council member(s), initiate a land use action like a rezoning through ULURP. Once an item like a rezoning is proposed, the DCP should dedicate urban planners to the project to produce the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and other materials and, within six months, respond with all pre-application materials.
A combined “no” vote by a Community Board, Borough Board, and Borough President should have a binding effect and stop a project from moving forward. No projects should be approved against such overwhelming community opposition.