Testimony of NYC Comptroller Scott M. Stringer Before the Charter Revision Commission
June 19, 2018
Good afternoon Chair Perales and members of the Charter Revision Commission. Thank you for convening this forum on Community Boards and Land Use. Community boards play a central role in shaping neighborhood development and advising government on the needs and interests of our communities. I commend the Charter Revision Commission for examining ways to strengthen and support community boards in fulfilling their mission, and would like to offer recommendations for this commission to consider based on my experiences with community boards as Manhattan Borough President.
Community boards were originally established as Community Planning Councils by Manhattan Borough President Robert F. Wagner in 1951 to conduct comprehensive community-based planning for the growth of the city. In 1975, the Charter Revision Commission extended community boards citywide, with 59 community boards representing the same number of districts. The Charter revision aimed to decentralize service delivery and make the new Community Boards into what Mayor John Lindsay had called “little city halls.” It ensured that service delivery, such as parks and sanitation, were coterminous with community boards, established district service cabinets, and officially created the district manager position. In addition, it gave community boards other advisory functions such as budget analysis, capital needs recommendations, oversight of City service delivery, and the creation of district needs assessments.
While the Charter laid the groundwork for local planning through the creation of ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) and 197-a plans, it wasn’t until the 1989 Charter Revision Commission that these powers were fully expanded. Specifically, the new Charter required the City Planning Commission to define and adopt rules regarding the review of 197-a plans, gave community board representatives the right to attend meetings regarding the environmental impact of proposed land use proposals, and gave boards the power to make recommendations relating to the opening and closing of City facilities. And most importantly, the new structure highlighted the role of Community Boards in ULURP as the local focal point for responding to zoning changes.
While the community boards had a dual mandate and many tried to focus on both service delivery and community-based planning, due to limited resources proactive planning often took a back seat to service delivery. However, simultaneously, many other elected officials began to professionalize their operations, in part as a reaction to scandals like Watergate. They created district offices and hired professional staff to deal with constituent services. As a result, today constituent services are effectively delivered by a host of government actors. Council members and Assemblymembers have full-time district offices that provide these services, and with the advent of 311 in 2003, New Yorkers have more places than ever to report noise complaints or get potholes filled.
Rather than continuing to focus on constituent services, we should be empowering community boards to fulfill their intended role as neighborhood planning bodies. As the current development boom reaches deeper into the boroughs, affordable housing has become increasingly scarce, and our transit system is bursting at the seams – neighborhood-based planning that takes the diverse needs of local communities into account is more essential than ever. With community boards working as partners, the City might have an easier time passing zonings, siting shelters, and moving forward a host of other initiatives to help our city stay fair and affordable for the people who helped build the very neighborhoods that are now targets for development.
Community boards, however, have historically lacked the resources, capacity and expertise to fulfill their community planning role in a consistently meaningful way. That’s why Community Board reform and empowerment was a signature effort of my eight years as Manhattan Borough President. My office’s vision was to restructure the appointment and training process to ensure that community boards were comprised of well-qualified members, and equipped with the skills and knowledge necessary to navigate the complex issues facing their communities.
The reform initiatives we undertook during those years had positive results, and this testimony offers recommendations that the Charter Revision Commission could consider to strengthen and empower the community boards.
Community Planning Fellowship
One of the central responsibilities of community boards is to enable community-based planning and make recommendations on land use. However, community boards face challenges in their ability to adequately review and analyze land use matters due to a lack of resources and expertise. Most boards do not have trained urban planners on staff, and must therefore rely on their volunteer members to analyze land use proposals and to develop recommendations. And yet we expect them to argue their positions against $800-an-hour lawyers hired by major developers in front of the City Planning Commission.
In an attempt to level the playing field, our office created the Community Planning Fellowship program which placed graduate urban planning students in community board offices. The program enhanced the ability of community boards to undertake research, analysis, and mapping, allowing them to better evaluate development proposals and provide sounder recommendations. Planning Fellows also generated proactive studies allowing community boards to fully engage in community-based planning in a way they had not previously had the resources to do.
During my time as Borough President, Fellows created a community-based zoning proposal for the East Village in Community Board 3, analyzed residential conversion of Class B office space in Community Board 5, and helped Community Board 10 in Central Harlem update their 197-A proposal. The Fund for the City of New York has continued the program in a select number of community boards, but it should be expanded so every community board in the city can benefit.
As valuable as this program is, it was developed as substitute for what is truly needed: a full-time urban planner on the staff of every community board. The sole responsibility of this planner would be to support the board’s analysis in developing recommendations on land use matters and to coordinate community-based planning activities. The expertise of the urban planner would better enable community boards to conduct comprehensive community planning under Section 197-a of the Charter.
Community boards require dedicated support and expertise to fulfill their purpose of conducting community-based planning. The Charter should require that community boards appoint a full-time qualified urban planner with a degree in urban planning, architecture, real estate development, public policy or similar discipline and include the necessary budget appropriations to fund this position.
Training in Land Use and Zoning
In addition to creating the Community Planning Fellows program, my office also invested in training and continuing education for community board members. Once appointed, new members we required to attend trainings on the New York City Zoning Code, ULURP, land use actions, and planning concepts. Returning members were also encouraged to regularly attend these trainings to refresh their skills. This continuing education helped appointees build their knowledge base, better preparing them for the work on the boards, and it ultimately made them better informed about the public review processes and more successful in their advocacy.
The trainings equipped the board members to have meaningful impacts on a host of ULURP applications. Communities were able to successfully advocate for meaningful changes in private developments like Columbia University’s expansion in West Harlem, and City-sponsored developments like the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) development on the Lower East Side. The advocacy around these projects resulted in better projects, with more services, affordable housing and significant community benefits.
Trainings were also provided in conflicts of interest law, the city budget, and parliamentary procedure to all community board members on a regular basis.
Community boards require ongoing training and education to successfully carry out their urban planning duties. The City should be required to provide training, support and educational opportunities in land use, zoning and other topics for community board members.
Community Board Recruitment
In order for community boards to reach their full potential, they must be independent, highly trained, and representative of the neighborhoods they serve. But recruiting qualified community board members is a challenge for every Borough President. Many New Yorkers are unaware that community boards exist, let alone that they are eligible to serve. As Manhattan Borough President,
our outreach and recruitment strategy was comprised of four components: individualized recruitment plans for each community board, broad outreach to community organizations, public information sessions, and using all forms of traditional and social media to reach the public.
The individualized outreach and recruitment plans were developed through consultation with Community Board Chairs, City Council Members and other elected officials in an effort to ascertain the strengths, needs and priorities of each board. This individualized understanding, along with an examination of the census data for each district, allowed my office to create targeted plans to recruit applicants who represented the diversity of their neighborhoods and possessed the skills and experience that particular boards might need.
For example, the 2000 Census showed that 35.2 percent of Community Board 3 identified as Asian or Pacific Islander. Yet in 2006, only eight percent of the board, or four of the fifty members, were Asian American. This meant that the recruitment strategy for Community Board 3 needed to focus on outreach within the Asian American community. As a result of this focused outreach, we were able to steadily increase Asian American representation on the board, tripling it to 24 percent, or 12 members, by 2011. We took the same approach to tackle the lack of LGBTQ representation on boards outside of Greenwich Village and Chelsea, the lack of Black and Latino representation on boards south of 96th Street, and the very few White members on the boards representing Harlem.
To ensure quality, transparency and diversity in community board appointments, the Charter should set additional standards for community board recruitment, including:
- Substantial public outreach conducted by the borough presidents including translating the application form into multiple languages, holding public information sessions, making the application available in government offices and online, and mailing applications to civic and community groups.
- Annual reports issued by each borough president on the composition of community board membership and strategies used to conduct outreach and recruitment.
Community Board Appointment
Our office not only focused on transforming the community board recruitment process, but also on reforming the appointment process. Community boards had historically been governed by the same appointees year after year, allowing limited room for new voices and views. Dozens of vacancies and conflicts of interest among board members presented additional challenges.
The centerpiece of these appointment reform efforts was the creation of an “Independent Screening Panel” comprised of leaders from good-government groups, civic associations, and community- based organizations. The panel had two major functions. First, it helped to assure the public that appointments were merit-based. Applicants were screened by the committee using a uniform set of criteria, and only those who received a recommendation from the panel advanced in the selection process and received an interview. Second, panelists actively partnered with my office on recruiting applicants from their organizations, constituencies or communities, essentially serving as ambassadors for community board reform. These efforts broadened the scope of our outreach significantly.
All applicants, including those who had previously served on the board, were required to complete an application and interview with my office, effectively ending automatic re-appointments. Attendance and participation were taken into consideration for all re-appointments, and those with poor attendance were often replaced by new applicants who brought unique perspectives and renewed vigor to their service.
While we endeavored to appoint committed candidates, midterm vacancies invariably arose. Vacancies hurt the boards by leaving them with fewer members to perform their duties. That’s why our policy was to fill every vacancy within 30 days. By and large we met this goal, and while some vacancies took longer to fill, we were committed to ensuring that vacancies were filled as quickly as possible.
The results were overwhelmingly positive. Over eight years, 715 new appointments were made to the borough’s 12 community boards, giving hundreds of New Yorkers the chance to participate in shaping the future of their neighborhoods. African American, Latino, Asian American, and LGBTQ representation on community boards increased by over 40 percent.
The Charter should set additional standards for a citywide process and timeline for community board appointments, including:
- A written application process administered by the borough presidents, a specific application timeline, and interviews for all appointees.
- Set specific timelines for borough president appointments of board members following term expirations and vacancies.
The greatest challenges facing community boards today are insufficient budgets and a lack of consistent, dedicated land use expertise. It is essential that community boards are able to hire full time urban planners to further their work. Without this resource, boards will always struggle to keep up with the review and analysis of land use projects that come before them, and will be inhibited from doing the forward-looking planning that our neighborhoods so badly need.
Community boards are one of the most dynamic and vital parts of municipal government, and I commend the Charter Revision Commission for exploring how their full potential can be realized. I hope the commission will consider the resources, training, and funding that community boards need to fulfill their mandate, and think creatively about how their role in local government can be strengthened and enhanced.