Two decades ago, New York City set out to protect neighborhoods like Hunts Point from being overburdened by facilities that serve the rest of the city. But advocates say those "fair share" provisions added to the city charter in 1989 did not go far enough. This year, they pressed the Charter Revision Commission to strengthen fair share and bulk up another vital tool, the community planning mechanism known as "197-a."
Last Wednesday, the advocates—including environmental justice groups, community boards and urban planners—won a partial victory. The charter commission overruled its staff and agreed to put on the November ballot a question about expanding the scope of what city agencies are required to consider when weighing each neighborhood's fair share.
"This is a good first step," said Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYCEJA). "If they had adopted more of our recommendations, it would have been helpful. We're still pushing."
Spreading the burden
The current city charter calls for the city to locate facilities in a way that furthers "the fair distribution among community of the burdens and benefits associated with city facilities." The city is supposed to aim for this fair distribution through a combination of public notification (publishing all its plans for facilities in the Annual Statement of Needs, so that community boards can weigh in on location decisions that affect them) and analysis by city agencies.
In the early 1990s, the Department of City Planning produced rules for how agencies would implement the fair share rules. An agency planning a waste management facility, for instance, is supposed to "take into consideration the number and proximity of existing city and non-city facilities, situated within approximately a one-half mile radius of the proposed site, which have similar environmental impacts.”
Critics of the current system say vague language in the charter and flaws in the City Planning rules have made fair share less potent than they were meant to be.
For one thing, many city projects never make it onto the Annual Statement of Needs. Critics of the fair share system couldn't name recent examples of the city bypassing the annual statement for a facility with an environmental impact. But the city has pursued other kinds of facilities without giving communities an early heads up, even in cases where the projects' timing or scope seemed well-suited to full notification, like the movement of Correction headquarters from Manhattan to Queens and the location of the city's counterterrorism headquarters in a building on Broadway.
Advocates also say that the current rules constrain the view that agencies take of the environmental challenges facing particular neighborhoods. The rules deal with the concentration of similar facilities, and not with the total burden a neighborhood faces from different kinds of polluting infrastructure. Facilities that are funded by the city but owned by a private company that gets the bulk of its business from other sources—for example, an international waste transfer conglomerate with a couple transfer stations in Brooklyn—may not be subject to the rules. And while agencies' analysis is supposed to consider both city and non-city facilities in determining a community's environmental burden, one key resource for that agency analysis—the Atlas of City Property—only lists city property, as the name implies.
In its testimony to the Charter Revision Commission, the NYCEJA called for mandating that city facilities be listed in the annual statement of needs, that “all polluting infrastructure” be included in the Atlas and that fair share analyses take explicit account of public health data in location decisions.
The Department of City Planning told City Limits that agencies need the flexibility to proceed with facilities even if they miss the once-a-year deadline for the Annual Statement of Needs. And a City Planning official insists that city agencies look well beyond the Atlas to learn what facilities a neighborhood hosts.
The ballot question approved last week by the charter revision commission asks whether “the location of transportation and waste management facilities operated by the state of New York or the federal government, or by private entities that serve as the city’s counterparts in providing public services” should be added to the city map.
Even that modest victory was problematic for environmental justice advocates: They wondered why power plants hadn't been included.
The best-laid plans
The 1989 charter also created a mechanism for community boards, borough presidents and others to create “plans for the development, growth and improvement of the city and of its boroughs and community districts.”
Named “197-a” plans after their section of the charter, the plans can apply to a single neighborhood or to an entire community district, and typically revolve around how economic development should proceed, what transportation infrastructure and policies are desired and how zoning ought to be changed. If a community board originates such a plan, it goes to the borough president for a recommendation, then to the City Planning Commission for approval and finally to the City Council for adoption.
Thirteen plans have been adopted to date, the most recent being Sunset Park's plan, which was approved by the City Council last December and includes detailed recommendations on which under-used city parcels ought to be targeted for development, where truck routes could be relocated and how to “green” the waterfront.