City Planning’s Carol Samol on Redevelopment in the Bronx and Reforming the City’s Land Use Review Process

Carol Samol

As director of the Department of City Planning’s Bronx Office, Carol Samol uses zoning tools to promote sustainable economic development in the Bronx. She has also participated as a leader in a broader City effort to reform the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure’s pre-certification process.

Journey to the Bronx. Samol grew up in the upper Ohio Valley near Wheeling, West Virginia and studied English at Berea College, a small liberal arts college in Kentucky. Berea College admits academically promising students who are able to attend for free so long as they work in some capacity for the school. After graduation, Samol moved to the Bronx where she earned a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from Fordham University. Philosophy served as an extension of Samol’s English studies, allowing her to expand her analytic skills. Samol searched for a practical application of her studies, ultimately developing an interest in urban planning. She attended New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and earned a Master’s in Urban Planning. Samol says that she felt an instant and personal connection to the Bronx, the borough where she continues to reside. Ultimately, Samol knew that she would help work towards the borough’s redevelopment.

Bronx City Planning. Samol worked as deputy director for planning and development at St. Nicholas Neighborhood Preservation Corporation from 2000 until 2002, before transitioning to City Planning’s Staten Island Office. In 2006, she shifted to the Bronx Office where she became director in 2007. Samol’s focus in the Bronx, as she explained, is to create a plan for a sustainable future with complete neighborhoods with economic opportunities, jobs, and affordable housing. Her role as director “is guiding the people, planning, and policies to get to that goal.” One goal is to better connect the Bronx to the region. The Bronx has one of the highest reverse commute rates in the country. The Office, as a consequence, has focused on transit-oriented development to better connect Bronx residents to regional job centers such as Stamford, Connecticut and White Plains, New York.

Samol also described a variety of past and present initiatives of the Bronx Office, including recent groundbreakings for new mixed-use developments in the lower portion of the Grand Concourse. The City in June 2009 had approved City Planning’s proposal to rezone the Lower Concourse’s industrial waterfront area. (See CityLand’s coverage of the rezoning here).

The Bronx Office was also behind efforts to change the outdated zoning along the Third Avenue and Tremont Avenue corridors. After the 1973 demolition of Third Avenue’s elevated train, the corridor had remained zoned for warehouse and auto-related uses. In October 2010, City Council approved the Third Avenue/Tremont Avenue Rezoning, which altered the existing zoning to allow residential uses and a broader array of commercial opportunities along Third Avenue, and expands the development potential along Tremont Avenue, the area’s “downtown” shopping corridor. (See CityLand’s coverage of the rezoning here).

The Bronx Office is currently studying zoning in the East Fordham Road area. The area is zoned for auto-related uses, but is a prime area for reinvestment because it is located near the Bronx Zoo and Fordham University. Samol said that the Office is working with the community to come up with an appropriate vision for the neighborhood. A proposal is likely to enter the ULURP process in the fall of 2012.

Click to view DCP’s BluePRint presentation

Pre-certification reform. A slight downturn in the number of ULURP applications allowed City Planning in January 2011 to initiate a review of ULURP’s pre-certification process. Samol took the lead in this effort. The pre-certification process can often be unpredictable and time consuming. A project could remain uncertified for years as the borough office, the environmental review division, the technical review division, and the land use review division separately reviewed the project. City Planning, to remedy the inefficiency and unpredictability of the pre-certification stage, began an initiative to reform the process in 2011, which it dubbed BluePRint. With BluePRint, City Planning is seeking to reduce the time projects remain in the pre-certification stage by improving the way information is shared within the agency and creating clear guidelines for applicants.

Information sharing. It was apparent that there was room to improve communication across City Planning divisions during the pre-certification period. Under a new IT system called imPACT, all application material will now be uploaded onto one online portal which permits all divisions to track simultaneously the progress of an application. City Planning can now track a proposal the moment an applicant steps into a City Planning office. A designated Pre-Certification Manager will oversee the general pipeline of projects to analyze the pace and efficiency of applications. While imPACT is currently internal to the agency, City Planning’s goal is to make it publicly accessible by 2015.

Early issue spotting. BluePRint allows applicants to understand the review process before submitting an application. Prior to submission, an applicant must draft a Pre-Application Statement (PAS), which provides City Planning with the project’s basic information such as the project site and a brief project description. After receiving such basic information, City Planning is able to assemble people from all the relevant divisions into one room to present and discuss issues and ensure a smooth pre-certification process.

Setting standards. BluePRint includes a set of standard operating procedures. City Planning has currently determined eight core application components that cut across all application types. These include a zoning map of the site, a tax map, and a detailed project description. The goal is to standardize the requirements for all projects, regardless of size. City Planning has also created the Standards Coordinator position to assist in formulating standards for a variety of application categories. For example, waterfront projects will have their own tailor-made standards. Samol anticipates that standards will be in place for two-thirds of the most common application types by the end of 2013.

Applicant portal. As of July 2, 2012, all property owners and developers are able to access the Applicant Portal which offers details about the new pre-certification process. Currently, there are five pilot ULURP projects participating in the BluePRint process. City Planning anticipates formalizing the new process and standards through the City’s public rulemaking procedure in 2013.

As Samol explained, by making the pre-certification process more predictable, people will be more likely to seek City approvals to build and invest in the City. This translates into jobs, housing, and amenities for City residents. She added, “If we can help people invest in their properties sooner, we get the benefits sooner.”

– Luna Droubi

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