by Adam Roberts
New Yorkers have long debated the merits of a comprehensive plan, a single document that outlines goals for private and public sector design and construction over a set time period. Though New York lacks one, cities like Portland and Minneapolis have adopted official plans with targets for what is designed and built within their jurisdictions.
The current debate over a comprehensive plan has arisen due to concerns that the city is not building enough housing, and that the affordable housing that is being built is not spread equitably across the city. As a result, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson released a report detailing the need for a plan. In conjunction with the report, he introduced a bill, Int. 2186-2020, which would institute a comprehensive plan. A hearing on the bill is set for Tuesday, February 23.
The comprehensive planning process outlined by Int. 2186 would begin in early 2022 and end in June 2025, with the plan itself lasting for ten years. Targets for public and private design and construction, based on district needs and demographic inequities, would be instituted by the plan. These targets would apply to community districts, which are represented by community boards. The process to establish these targets would be overseen by the Director of the Office of Long-Term Planning (formerly the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability), who would have unilateral decision-making power should deadlines for decisions by government bodies not be met.
While the need for a comprehensive plan is evident, there are some concerns about Int. 2186. For instance, the plan would not even be adopted until four years from now, meaning architects would have to wait years to know what targets they should be designing for. During that interlude, as the plan’s targets are awaited, the political will may not exist for projects to even be designed.
Another key issue is the use of community districts to determine targets. These districts were set decades ago, and have not been adjusted for demographic changes. This means some districts have hundreds of thousands of residents, while others have populations in the low tens of thousands, yet both will get the same level of attention. Targets may not be as effective when implemented for larger community districts, compared to those for smaller and more homogenous ones.
However, the biggest source of concern centers on the power of the Director of the Office of Long-Term Planning. The bill would give that single person enormous influence, and at times outright decision-making authority, over design and construction. This person would be an unelected official with no professional expertise requirements.
Despite these issues, the concept of a comprehensive plan is a welcome one. New York’s architects have long struggled to design for clients who are not required to consider the citywide implications of their buildings and infrastructure. A comprehensive plan would give architects greater ability to design for the city as a whole.