Brian Cook Discusses Land Use Under the Manhattan Borough President

Brian Cook

Brian Cook, Director of Land Use for Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer, first developed an interest in land use while pursuing a degree in Metropolitan Studies from New York University. Cook stayed on to pursue a master’s degree in Public Policy with the hopes of learning how international governments shape land use policy. During his studies, however, Cook says he was “fascinated” by a course that centered on New York City’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), and this led him to focus on land use at the local level. Cook secured an internship with former Borough President C. Virginia Fields. The internship developed into a job as Fields’s public policy advisor, and when Stringer took over, Cook was reassigned as a dedicated urban planner. Last July, Stringer appointed Cook to be his Director of Land Use following the departure of former director Anthony Borelli.

Adding value to ULURP. Within the land use context, Cook describes Stringer’s office as the balance between local community concerns and borough-wide obligations. By applying technical expertise, the office strives to harmonize development with neighborhood issues, always considering how to create “true benefits” for the community when reviewing a project.

According to Cook, Stringer primarily relies on the zoning regulations and a project’s environmental impact statement when forming his advisory ULURP recommendations. Cook believes the office adds value to the land use process by not only combing through the impact statement, but by also taking a thorough look at the technical assumptions behind it. Cook emphasizes that Stringer’s goal is to form a recommendation that it is “responsible to the law and responsive to the community.”

Empowering the community. Cook believes that the community boards play a critical role in the land use process because no elected official on the borough or citywide level knows a neighborhood as well as its local community. In order to strengthen this local perspective, a large part of Stringer’s community board reform agenda is to equip the community boards with urban planners so that the community has the technical expertise “to have a real conversation” within the land use dialogue. An illustrative initiative is Stringer’s Community Planning Fellowship Program, which places a graduate student in urban planning with each of Manhattan’s twelve community boards.

In working closely with the community boards, Stringer’s office will assist them in understanding a technical land use issue or determining whether concerns are connected to the environmental review process. But one thing the office will never do, explains Cook, is tell the boards what to do. Cook says that Stringer seeks only to assist, not influence, the community in its deliberations, and notes that Stringer’s goal is to issue his own recommendation guided by the community board’s independent decision.

Taking the politics out of planning. One of Stringer’s recommendations to the recent Charter Revision Commission involved altering the voting structure of the City Planning Commission. Cook explains that Stringer would like to amend the City Charter to require a supermajority of nine commissioners to approve a project when both the local community board and the borough president have recommended disapproval. Cook and Stringer believe this change will give the local community boards’ recommendations greater weight and incentivize developers to resolve conflicts prior to appearing before the Commission and City Council. Cook acknowledges that the Commission applies “heightened skepticism” when reviewing projects that lack local support, but he says that Stringer would like to see that skepticism “institutionalized” to avoid situations where the public feels that neither the community’s concerns nor the borough president’s concerns were considered.

Stringer has also pushed for a Citywide comprehensive zoning plan. Cook says that an inherent problem with the City’s land use process is its “piecemeal” approach toward planning. Individual agencies participate in the land use process without considering how their actions impact the City on a comprehensive level. No single agency considers the “big picture” when, for example, the Commission approves a rezoning, the Department of Sanitation selects a sanitation facility site, the Department of Education chooses a location for a new school, or the Department of Buildings issues permits. Cook says it is unrealistic for the Department of City Planning to produce a comprehensive plan when it lacks the authority to direct other agencies’ planning actions. Therefore, Stringer has recommended creating a new independent agency, called the Independent Planning Office. As envisioned by Stringer, this entity would be responsible for coordinating the planning agendas of City agencies and community boards and creating a cohesive planning policy for the City.

Once a comprehensive plan is formed, Stringer recommends that it be ratified through a public review process to ensure that the plan truly represents the public’s outlook for the future of the City.    — Eugene Travers

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