On September 14, 2022, the City Council voted to approve Gail Benjamin and Anthony Crowell to the New York City Planning Commission. Earlier that same day, the City Council Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections also voted in favor following a hearing a week earlier.
Gail Benjamin and Anthony Crowell were originally nominated by Mayor Adams on August 5, 2022. For CityLand‘s prior coverage of the nomination, click here.
On September 7, 2022, the City Council Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections convened to question the nominees, focusing particularly on their personal experience in land use and on the importance of affordable housing. The hearing was chaired by Council Member Keith Powers.
In her opening statement, Benjamin emphasized the importance of affordable housing and noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had only exacerbated a host of preexisting issues. She has 36 years of land use experience including 25 years serving as director of the City Council Land Use Division. She called for deferring to following the lead of local communities in addressing problems unique to particular areas of the city. “No singular solution will work citywide,” she said, “so it is important to listen to all of the voices that choose to speak.”
Crowell spoke to his work in city government and as Dean and President of New York Law School, where he also teaches. His emphasis was on his public service history; he described himself as “a successful consensus-maker and a change-agent,” committed to bringing his leadership skills to the commission, with a focus on policy and establishing best practices.
Both Benjamin and Crowell stressed their upbringings, with Benjamin discussing her childhood growing up middle class in an apartment in Rochdale Village, and Crowell relating his experience of being the first in his working-class family to attend college.
Gail Benjamin Q & A
Speaker Adrienne Adams asked about Benjamin’s response to written questions that the Council sent before the hearing, in which Benjamin urged the Council to disapprove Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) applications for Urban Development Action Areas (UDAAP) not accompanied by adequate information from the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Adams wondered why the Council should bear that political burden. Benjamin answered that it might be necessary for the Council to step in because previous administrations had been derelict in requiring such information, but that the Council’s intervention was an “ultimate option,” a “doomsday scenario response.”
Council Member Keith Powers asked about a recent report from the Citizens’ Budget Commission concerning inefficiencies in the land use review process. Benjamin answered that many of the report’s proposed solutions were undermined by their unlikelihood of coming to pass. Benjamin conceded that the environmental review process in particular had, “over time, become an albatross,” but noted that attempts to abridge that process might touch only a small portion of planning-related delays—and that developers, in her extensive experience, were often reluctant to adopt less rigorous approaches in this field.
Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers asked Benjamin about the decline in New York City’s African American population, and whether land use actions could help retain that population in the city. Benjamin noted that at least part of the decline was by percentage, not number, but also identified the trend as a result of movement outward to the suburbs. She advocated a look at the cost of homeownership and programs to sponsor more works like Rochdale Village, Co-op City, Penn South, other Mitchell-Lama developments, which she said “have done a great job at maintaining minority participation and residency.”
Anthony Crowell Q & A
Council Member Keith Powers asked Crowell to describe his approach to striking a balance between new development and affordability in light of the current housing crisis. Crowell agreed that a balance was important. He praised the goals of mandatory inclusionary housing and called for a closer look at the history of its implementation and “careful consideration with an eye towards exercising and utilizing a broad range of tools….” Aside from new development and conversion of existing housing, Crowell identified the role of outside factors, including inflation, that require “study and action in a very short period of time to make sure we can crack the problem.”
Powers also raised the issue of “a loss of confidence” and “frustration” sometimes seen in public response to the land used process, as well as the more “healthy tension that ULURP creates that is designed to drive toward an outcome.” He asked how the Council, “as public servants, can restore confidence to the public.” Crowell replied that many of those problems were longstanding and stemmed from “a misunderstanding of what the land use process is.” Observing that communities are not always informed early enough in the process, he first cited a need for increased funding and engagement at the community board level. Ultimately, though, Crowell expressed that restoring public faith would require “everyone who’s a stakeholder in that process to have a great deal of trust and dialogue,” including the City Planning Commission itself, with “education, clear communication, [and] transparency underly[ing] everything that happens.” In particular, he decried what he saw as “a warring factions approach” in favor of “a strategic approach citywide.”
Council Member Crystal Hudson asked Crowell about his land use experience. Crowell talked about his education and time as a city attorney, where some of his work involved implementing plans that had been developed, including eminent domain work. Council Member Hudson asked Crowell for clarification regarding his values and how he balances the views between wealthier developers and communities that may oppose certain developments. Crowell responded that, in his 15 years of city service, he “ha[d] fought on behalf of everyday people every single day.” He also stated that he did not want to give the impression of coming to “the role as a City Planning Commissioner with a predisposition toward doing something that is against community interest.” Crowell discussed the importance of understanding the local and citywide interests. He talked about building communities and how his work at New York Law Schools has helped create passionate attorneys who want to serve their communities and promotes both social justice and economic development.
Council Member Gale Brewer asked about using zoning to improve affordable housing. Crowell expressed interest in a review of this history and the efficacy of mandatory exclusionary housing, but was optimistic that a zoning rubric could encourage “the evolution of stronger programs that can, overall, stimulate more affordable housing development.”
“That is what we need more than anything else right now in this city,” said Brewer, “and nobody’s doing it—so between [Crowell], Garodnick, and Benjamin, I assume that we’ll figure this out.”
The Committee voted unanimously to approve both nominations on September 14. The full Council approved Benjamin unanimously, while Crowell was approved 41 to 10. CityLand reached out to council members who had voted in the negative, but none elected to provide further comment.
Benjamin will serve the remainder of a five-year term that expires on June 30, 2025, replacing outgoing Commissioner Richard W. Eaddy. Crowell will serve the remainder of a five-year term that expires on June 30, 2024, replacing outgoing Commissioner David J. Burney.
By: Kyle Hunt (Kyle is a CityLaw intern and a New York Law School student, Class of 2024.)
CC: Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections, Sept. 7, 2022; Stated Meeting, Sept. 14, 2022
Disclaimer: CityLand is a publication of the Center for New York City Law at New York Law School.