A Masterplan for Manhattan

ulie Menin, former Chairperson of Manhattan Community Board 1.

Julie Menin, former Chairperson of Manhattan Community Board 1

For Manhattan to remain the vibrant center it is today we need a smart plan for long-term growth. The current land use process leaves communities fearful of being overrun by development that is poorly planned, harmful to communities, and undermines the character of our borough. This is why I have proposed a “Master Plan” for Manhattan to ensure that we grow our borough sensibly.

Cities across the United States are implementing Masters Plans, from booming west coast cities like San Francisco and Seattle to neighboring Newark. A Master Plan is a comprehensive document that outlines long-term neighborhood needs. Downtown Manhattan, for example, is short nearly 1,000 classroom seats, while East Harlem has only 0.3 acres of active open space per 1,000 residents and many of Manhattan’s neighborhoods are almost completely bereft of affordable housing.

Under a Master Plan, developers looking to build in these neighborhoods would be apprised of the community’s needs, bringing more certainty to a convoluted system and ensuring a community’s concerns are accounted for.

I have witnessed first-hand that our current land use system is not working. I chaired Community Board 1 in downtown Manhattan for seven years in the aftermath of September 11th. We worked hard to revitalize a devastated neighborhood that many doubted would ever flourish again. During my tenure, I was struck by the complete lack of standards in the development process and by the absence of a holistic vision. Some major development projects were approved without addressing vital community needs, others with a grab bag of oft-unenforceable concessions to community interest groups.

Recent developments involving university expansions, Chelsea Market, South Street Seaport, and Hudson Yards demonstrate the volatility of the current process. The latest rush to re-zone East Midtown similarly fails to fully consider transportation infrastructure concerns, and the otherwise very sound call to move Madison Square Garden west to fix Penn Station is being made without a broader discussion of how West Midtown should fit into a larger vision for Manhattan.

A Master Plan would provide a comprehensive, borough-wide assessment of community needs, and would be done in partnership with Community Boards, advocacy groups, businesses, elected officials, and other stakeholders throughout the borough. New York City abandoned its last attempt at a master plan in 1969, and has since relied on its 51 year-old Zoning Resolution. While PlaNYC was guided by noble aspirations, it was not officially adopted by the City, and its use after 2013 is uncertain. As borough president, I would make the creation of a Master Plan a top priority, and aim to complete it within two years using the office’s existing resources.

Well-designed Master Plans are informed by grassroots work at the community level. Based on a model used successfully in Los Angeles, Community Boards should execute “Community Plans” that detail the needs for resources in their own local neighborhoods. I would empower Community Boards with the planning resources needed to take this proactive measure.

The combination of a Manhattan Master Plan and Community Plans will send a clear roadmap both to elected officials and developers about the needs facing communities across the borough that must be addressed. Developers deviating from the Plans would need to explain their reasons for doing so. This will reduce the need for side bargaining behind closed doors and improve transparency for all parties involved in the land use process. The Plans would end the pernicious and all-too-common practice of “Community Benefit Agreements,” which are legally questionable and give communities false assurances.

Having a Master Plan and accompanying Community Plans will not solve all of our land use issues, but they will bring stability to the city’s unpredictable and inefficient development process, and set a path for Manhattan to fulfill its promise as a great place to live, work, and visit.

– Julie Menin formerly served as Chairperson of Manhattan Community Board 1.  She is presently a candidate for Manhattan Borough President.

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