News From the Human-Scale City: October 24th, 2019

`What’s In This Policy Issue?

“Why is it what communities decide, developers can override?”
– Debbie Stoller of ‘Gowanus Is Dirty”

  • Events and Actions You Can Take
  • Fun Stuff
  • Two Urban Legends About Community Boards (with data)
  • Under De Blasio, City Council only says no to 1% of Real Estate Projects that go through ULURP
  • Articles of Interest for the Humanscale Agenda
  • Roundup of News from Battlegrounds
  • Donate to Humanscale NYC



Events and Actions You Can Take



1. Join a Rally to Protest the Department of City Planning


When: Thursday, October 24, 5:00 pm (not 6 as it says on the flyer)

Where: Zucotti Park, NYC


DOC protest


2. Last-Minute Rally Today for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act

When: Today, October 24, 11:00 am

Where: Corner of 31st and 8th Avenue

Sponsored by Small Business Congress and Community Control of Land Use

Fun Stuff

1. Last week’s New Yorker contained a remarkable photo essay of a massive dystopian “new city” built in Iran. The housing falls into the category of ‘you build it, they won’t necessarily come.’ The Iranian government began constructing these Soviet/Le Corbusian high-rise housing complexes outside the capital in response to a housing shortage. Yet tens of thousands of these apartments remain vacant, suffering from inadequate sewage systems, heating, and access to water and preferences of people to live in real cities (The New Yorker)


New Yorker’s eerie dark image of New York’s messed up skyline and darkened streets



Two Urban Legends About Community Boards (with data)



Under de Blasio, City Council only says no to 1% of Real Estate Projects that go through ULURP


A very small percentage of real estate projects in our city (still looking for exact figures, but an unnamed expert source said 10% or less) go through an official public review process known as “ULURP.” That stands for “Uniform Land Use Review Process.” It is at most a 6-month long process in which community boards, borough presidents, the department of city planning, and the City Council separately review the project, and give their opinions about it. Each entity can either vote yes (with or without non-binding modifications), no, or no with non-binding modifications. The Community Board’s opinions and the Borough President’s opinions are non-binding.

So we extracted the information and built our own spreadsheet to figure this out, using the City’s data to do so. We examined all the completed ULURP actions that have taken place since De Blasio was sworn into office.

Legend 1: The Real Estate Industry Hates ULURP and ULURP Slows Down the Building of Housing

There is a widespread urban legend that real estate industry officially despises the ULURP process because there is a “risk” of the project being changed or rejected by the City Councilmember. But how real is that urban myth? Is it just a REBNY talking point from its public relations playbook? Zachary Bernstein, a member of the “REBNY Zoning Committee” has clearly and unequivocally stated that reforming ULURP was unnecessary and that “the process works pretty well” for the real estate industry (see minute six of this video here.) He added that the only thing REBNY might change – if they had their way – would be to get rid of the veto power that City Councilmembers have on ULURP actions. Developers hate democracy, don’t they?

We concur with Mr. Bernstein. ULURP works really well for Big Real Estate. Our analysis of every single completed ULURP action since De Blasio was sworn into office shows why developers don’t have to worry about ULURP. Of the 403 actions in the City Planning database, the City Council only rejected 1% of them (six, to be exact) and only 4% of projects were “withdrawn” (although many were re-submitted and passed). No wonder Mr. Bernstein says the ULURP process works pretty well for developers!

Legend 2: Community Boards Matter in ULURP

Another legend is that community boards have influence over real estate projects and can supposedly make them better with their wise input or can get them rejected by bending the ear of their City Council member. But the data under De Blasio does not support this legend. Of the 374 projects for which there is a record of community board input under De Blasio, the Community Boards voted yes a whopping 82% of the time, and of those yes votes, only 25% of the votes were “yes with conditions.” Did those conditions matter? Not really: Community Boards requested modifications of projects in 95 cases, but only 15% of the time did the City Council also insist on modifications. It is not at all clear if the Council’s modifications were the same as the Community Board’s requested modifications).

As we’ve seen with the ZQA/MIH controversies, the neighborhood rezonings, and the new jails, Community Boards can vote NO until they are blue in the face, the Council just ignores them.

Sure, some believe that developers also sound out projects in secret with City Council members before even initiating a ULURP, but that also is a legend for which is there is just no data so there is no way to verify the truth of the belief. If someone does have data on those secret meetings, let us know.

Articles of Interest for the Humanscale Agenda


Thank our new intern, Aiden Elias, for organizing this week’s Articles of Interest and to the Orchard Street Block Association for sending Aiden to us.


Glass buildings kill 90-230,000 [sic] Birds every year: “Birds that collide the most are white-throated sparrows, warblers, kinglets, and thrushes. Read the excellent article in AMNY here. Given the Times related coverage of a widespread annihilation of birds across North America (see “Birds are Vanishing from North America” ) we have a problem.



Sunlight: We are definitely losing sunlight to overdevelopment (remember the quaint old days when zoning was supposed to assure light and air to all residents?). Turns out that Manhattan is home to all 10 of the darkest neighborhoods in the city, according to a series of studies conducted by that analyzed the sunniest and most light-deprived neighborhoods in the five boroughs. The study reported that many midtown streets get less than an hour of sun a day in winter, and that, surprise surprise, Hudson Yards is that Manhattan’s sunniest neighborhood!

sunlight graph



Homeless Shelters: An op-ed by an organizer with the Ridgewood Tenants Union compassionately advocates for homeless shelters, shaming residents who oppose new shelters in Queens (City Limits). City Limits also tried to map some, but not all, of the shelters in the city here. and has done some very good coverage of the issue here. By way of background: on October 7, CB 5 held a public hearing in Middle Village regarding a proposed DHS shelter that will provide beds to 200 adult men who’ll receive social services. It is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to build 90 new homeless shelters and expand 30 existing sites. Hundreds showed up to what very quickly became an angry mob, as reported in the Gothamist. Members of that mob were quoted as making the most appalling statements, such as: “They’re drug addicts and sex offenders”; “Put them in an (unintelligible) away from society. They should be locked away forever”; “best place for the shelters are the ghettos like Harlem”; “If they build this shelter, I hope someone burns it down.” The crudity of what happened and what was said prompted Ridgewood Tenants Union to call on Speaker Johnson to investigate CM Holden in the same manner that it disciplined CM Ruben Diaz.

To inform this discussion, note the photos below of one of New York Rescue Mission’s oldest homeless shelter locations in the city, in Tribeca, one of the most expensive zip codes in the city. The building was expanded in 2012 to fit 240 beds, without any objections from Tribeca residents.

Interestingly, in 2008, Mayor Bloomberg declined to renew the lease Trinity Church had at another lower Manhattan shelter managed by Trinity Church. It was at a city-owned building at 42 Beaver Street and was the only Financial District shelter. It was called the John Heuss house, operating as a 24-hour drop-in shelter from 1988-2008. The building is still there (see bottom photo) and looks like an amalgam of some old brownstones that never got torn down. Locals wanted the shelter to stay open. If anyone knows the history of the property at 42 Beaver Street, please let us know.

(Below, shelter at 42 Beaver Street, a city-owned property, closed in 2008)



Is Trump Weakening the Fair Housing Act? “The Department of Housing and Urban Development is proposing to significantly raise the bar for civil rights groups seeking to prove that a landlord, insurance company or lender is guilty of housing discrimination.” The proposed rule and “supplemental information,” including the background, rationale, and explanation of the rule can be found at this link:



The Luxury City Rolls On: According to a report by PropertyShark, Hudson Yards has officially become the priciest neighborhood in New York City. (Crain’s). meanwhile, we learn that our city has 15 “billionaire’s rows” According to PropertyClub, the homes on 15 streets in New York City have median sale prices over $2-million. (Patch) And under the category of “we knew this already” The Forbes 400 list reveals that 72 of America’s richest billionaire’s live in New York. (Patch). Of course they do.



More over-scaled buildings Coming Near You: The Big Real Estate firm and major donor to De Blasio “Fisher Brothers” pre-filed plans for a 255,000 square foot mixed-use complex in Long Island City. (The Real Deal)



On Subsidizing Developers: The Real Deal reports on declining rates of applicants for J-51 tax breaks, which have dropped 69% in the past decade. (The Real Deal) as well as on a proposal to change the program here. But should we be alarmed? Plenty of researchers would argue that J-51 is responsible for a huge amount of gentrification and displacement, see for example Joel Schwartz’s book, “The New York Approach” or Alex Vitale’s book, ‘City of Disorder” or Alesandra Busa’s book “Creative Destruction of New York.”



Lawsuit Watch: According to an interesting new lawsuit filed in the New York County Supreme Court, developer Miki Naftali’s plans for an 18-story development on the Upper East Side is under legal challenge. It is very close to the adjacent co-op, and violating zoning laws. This case might have implications for us all as it could end up requiring the Department of Buildings to actually respect the State Multiple Dwelling Law (The Real Deal). (image from the Real Deal).



Speculation on Rezonings Continues! The Real Deal reports that Avery Hall Investments, in partnership with Tavros Holdings and Charney Development & Construction, purchased three properties in Gowanus for $55-million – anticipating the city’s plans to rezone 80-blocks around the Gowanus Canal to allow for mixed-use development. (The Real Deal)



Another angle on the small business crisis: despite an overall downward trend in retail rent prices throughout New York City, steadily increasing property taxes – which are passed through to retail tenants – continue to hinder small businesses. (Patch)



“Preparing for Battle”: Real-estate lobbyists and tenants groups prepare for battle as next year’s legislative session approaches. (The Real Deal) The upstate-downstate coalition of tenant groups has released their platform for the next legislative session. We will cover that platform next week!



Parks: New York City’s “Parks Without Borders” program, a $50-million initiative to re-design the edges and entrances of certain parks, has been met with significant resistance from communities throughout the city. (City & State NY)



Yet another reason to change the way air rights transfers are regulated: in an unprecedented deal, NYCHA agreed to sell almost 100,000sf of air rights at the R.V. Ingersoll houses in Fort Greene to a private mixed-use residential development next door. (Brooklyn Daily Eagle)



Are landlords warehousing again? The Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), a group representing owners and managers of over 400,000 rent-regulated units, released a statement that claims landlords are keeping thousands of rent-regulated units vacant. (Crain’s)



The Digital City: Shannon Mattern, Professor of Anthropology at the New School for Social Research, cautions urban planners, policy-makers, data analysts, and urban technologists, against “smart city” models which promise the seamless integration of cutting-edge digital technology into urban life. (Urban Omnibus)



Some good news at last: a new law NY state law will require LLC’s purchasing residential properties containing one-to-four units to publicly disclose its membership. (Gothamist)



Roundup of News from Battlegrounds



The Jail Disaster: In a devastating but predictable turn of events, the City Council voted for wasting $11 Billion in taxpayer money on building four new tower jails (to be run by the disgraced Department of Corrections) where the CBs unanimously opposed them. Even though there is nothing the city to close Rikers to close in order to build the new jails, the mainstream media (we’re looking at you NY Times) has disingenuously packaged the vote as a “victory” for “closing Rikers”. The New York Times coverage can be found here. Patch reports here on some backroom deals made to transactionaly give something to residents in Queens who opposed the jails.

Below is how the City Council members voted on the jails. Of the 16 Councilmembers who will NOT be term-limited out in 2021 (highlighted in blue), 11 voted for the new jails. But, voter beware: be on the lookout for staff of Councilmembers who are termed out and who run for their boss’ seat. You might just get more of the same rather than something better. For example, even though Councilmember Margaret Chin is termed out, her Chief of Staff is running for her seat in 2021 and Chin, of course, voted yes on the new jails.

roundup chart



Can This Quality of Life Campaign Do Anything for Hell Square?
Neighborhoods United reports that the Mayor has announced a plan to teach etiquette to the people who drink too much in the area of the Lower East Side that is so over-saturated with bars that it is called “Hell Square”. Power-washing the vomit and urine from the streets is apparently also part of the plan. Lower East Side Dwellers tweeted: “What is needed, which this neo-liberal policy does not address, is an effort to tackle the lack of retail diversity, loss of culture, economic, and social displacement of locals, predominately POD and working class, as a result of nitelife monoculture saturation.” Orchard Street Block Association tweeted its disdain as well: “Power Washing? Later garbage pick-ups? NYC Links spouting pre-recorded messages? Those are the changes for the residents? Nothing about noise control, more policing, better enforcement of laws and SLA stipulations? Nah, that would be too meaningful.” Learn more here.



Lenox Hill: Three groups on the Upper East Side have joined the effort to oppose Lenox Hill Hospital’s planned expansion. Criticisms stem from the size of the hospital expansion and the planned residential tower that hospital officials say will help fund the project. (renderings from YIMBY). Patch’s coverage is here.



Donate to Humanscale NYC

Recent Posts