In my , I discussed the realities of the Community Board budgets, and suggested that additional funding could help solve other systemic flaws. In this post, I will explore the Board’s knowledge deficit.
Lack of Knowledge
Some areas of a board’s mission need more than common sense and street smarts; need a source of knowledge and expertise the board can rely on. But all too often, these sources are beyond a board’s grasp.
To demonstrate this, let’s explore a hypothetical:
Suppose your district has architecturally significant, but empty and underused factory buildings. The district is popular and growing, and needs more housing. Converting the old factories to apartments would be practical and cost-effective, and would preserve important architecture. But the particular area’s zoning rules out residential use. What can a board do?
- The board could wait: developers will sniff out and snatch up these buildings, come to the board for zoning variances, and most likely demolish the old to build something new, dense, and huge.
- Or the board could lead: change the zoning to residential, with appropriate density and height restrictions, and protect the architectural value with contextual restrictions or landmarking.
Of course the latter choice is preferable. But there is a difficulty: a professional study needs to examine the zoning laws, the map, and the facts on the ground, and make an informed recommendation on the feasibility of the proposed changes; what type of residential zoning should be imposed; what blocks or buildings to include or exclude, etc. Furthermore, since the Department of City Planning (DCP) needs to approve any changes, this study needs to conform to DCP’s exacting standards.
So how does the board do this study?
- DCP—another overworked, understaffed agency—could do the study itself. But the board would rather not relinquish control over the work product, and the timeline.
- The Board could do it “in-house.” However, board staff are generalists, not specialists. They are not zoning experts capable of drafting a professional study. Neither are board members. Hiring and paying a professional consultant is the only answer, but consultants are expensive, and usually not in the board’s budget.
So if the board can’t afford a consultant, it has to wait on DCP, and hope its vision for the District stays ahead of the developers’. Lack of money leads to lack of knowledge, which defeats the Board’s planning mission: it’s a systemic flaw.
The Need to Know
I used zoning as an example, because it is a complex body of code that is best grappled with by an educated planning professional. But swap it for any area where additional specialized knowledge is needed to assist in planning, ensure service delivery, or enhance participation in government: traffic engineers, parks designers, economic development consultants, environmental monitors. We’re not doing our job if we can’t access these experts.
Regarding Atlantic Yards, if the Boards had independent consultants to review the EIS and its claims on the project impacts (on traffic, on air quality, on infrastructure) back in 2005, many of those claims would have been debunked, and a much better product would be going up today. But we had no money to purchase that expertise, and failed as the watchdogs of the district.
So what to do?
- Some boards form non-profit groups, which petition for and obtain funds from local elected or other non-profits to pay these consultants. The money comes in through the side door, essentially.
- Increase the Boards’ budgets: 25% would mean $60,000 per district, or $3,500,000 overall—still a drop in the budget bucket. This means the quality or quantity of board staff could rise, and necessary expertise would become available to the Boards.
- Create a dedicated citywide fund, to which boards could apply competitively, from which these professional consultants could be hired to fill the knowledge gap as needed.
- Assign additional staff directly to city agencies, like DCP, whose role is to assist the boards directly when they have planning or review questions.
Whatever configuration works best, the bottom line is specialized knowledge is expensive, most Community Boards do not have it, but all boards need it to fulfill their charter-mandated