A Tale of Three Northern Manhattan Communities: Case Studies of Political Empowerment in the Planning and Development Process

By Bass, Richard; Potter, Cuz | Fordham Urban Law Journal, January 2004 | Go to article overview

A Tale of Three Northern Manhattan Communities: Case Studies of Political Empowerment in the Planning and Development Process


Bass, Richard, Potter, Cuz, Fordham Urban Law Journal


Three recent development proposals in Northern Manhattan highlight community participation and empowerment in the planning process. The following will detail community empowerment in the planning and development process and provide a clear definition of some of the issues challenging these communities. In addition, it will explore the three development proposals as case studies defining the success, limitations, and frustrations of community empowerment.

I. ZONING--A DEFINITION

Modern zoning began with the passage of the New York City zoning ordinance in 1916, which regulated the use and location of buildings throughout the city. (1) Though the art of zoning has become more sophisticated since then, zoning basically regulates three fundamental aspects of the developed urban environment: i) type of land use (residential, commercial, industrial, community facility or a mixture of uses); ii) intensity of the land use (how much can be built on a site, usually described as a Floor Area Ratio or FAR, a number multiplied by the lot size to determine maximum development potential); iii) and shape of the land use (governed by lot coverage, set backs, maximum building height, etc.). (2)

II. CREATION AND INSERTION OF COMMUNITY BOARDS INTO THE PLANNING PROCESS

The creation of New York City's fifty-nine community boards in 1975 (3) marked the city's return to neighborhood-based politics. (4) The urban machine politics of the late 1800s and early 1900s had also once relied on decentralized, neighborhood support from the city's new immigrant groups in return for the effective delivery of municipal services, (5) a practice perfected by the rule of Tammany Hall, (6) but brought to an end during the fiscal crisis of the 1930s at the hands of urban reformers and Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia. (7) To counteract the clientelism under the previous political order, this new reform government, institutionalized as the "welfare city," concentrated administrative power and control in semi-autonomous central city agencies. (8) From there, professional bureaucrats, theoretically isolated from political influence, made decisions intended to benefit the city as a whole, rather than any particular neighborhood. (9) Thus, from roughly 1930 to 1965, New York City's administrative apparatus was decentralized along functional, rather than geographic, lines. (10)

The emphasis on city over neighborhood, however, led to the alienation of lower income groups. (11) Resultant ethnic strife and conflict between the urban bureaucracies and their clients in the late 1960s and early 1970s initiated a second major readjustment in New York City's political order, (12) as black and Hispanic protest groups organized communities around neighborhood issues. (13) John V. Lindsay's successful effort to ally these groups with business elites ushered him into the mayor's office in 1965. (14) From there, he introduced a series of measures to geographically decentralize the city's political system, (15) including community control of schools. (16) This shift back to community input into politics and neighborhood service delivery culminated in the City Charter Revision of 1975, (17) which gave communities broad, unprecedented powers. (18)

A countercurrent to the predominant tendency toward geographic centralization of government under the mid-century reform regime did exist, however, and ultimately evolved into the community board system. (19) Starting in the late 1940s, some local governmental reform groups called for community planning. (20) Manhattan Borough President Robert F. Wagner, Jr., finally heeded this call by establishing twelve Community Planning Councils within the borough of Manhattan in 1951. (21) Each council had fifteen to twenty members and was intended both to serve as an official place for local residents to register their views on public decisions that would affect their communities and to advise Borough President Wagner on budgetary and local planning matters. …

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