Who’s Who in New York City Land Use: A Beginner’s Guide to City Agencies

July 30, 2013ZONE

CNY

In the world of land use and real estate development in New York City, it sometimes feels like a foreign language is being spoken, with all the jargon, acronyms and bureaucratic titles involved.

Today’s blog post provides a primer on some of the key players in local government who share some responsibility for writing, interpreting and applying the myriad rules and regulations one must navigate long before – and sometimes long after – the proverbial “first shovel” goes into the ground. In a future post we’ll explain some of the frequently heard terms that describe the rules and issues that we as planners deal with on a daily basis.

After the jump, in alphabetical order (by acronym, as that’s how they we typically refer to them), are just some of the city agencies with a role in the land use process. If you’re considering any kind of development within the five boroughs, you’ll be getting to know one or more of these entities along the way.  (And for further information on the responsibilities of each, click on the name to visit the official Web site.)

Borough President (BP)

As the name implies, there are five BP offices each occupied by an individual representing his/her home borough. S/he is elected by that borough’s voters to four-year terms, with current rules maintaining a two-term limit. The City Charter empowers the BP to establish a “planning office” which takes the lead role in directing land use policy and establishing priorities.  In this way, and through its Charter-defined role in the city’s public review process, the BP generally weighs in on a range of land use actions, including approvals by the City Planning Commission and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, among others. In addition, and among other duties, the BP office is the arbiter of the City’s so-called “vanity addresses”, granting property owners and developers the right to an official address that may or may not be a “true” indicator of where they are on a map.

Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA)

The BSA consists of five commissioners, each appointed by the Mayor to six-year terms. At least one of the Commissioners must hold certain qualifications related to each of the following three professions: planner, architect and engineer; of these, one must be appointed Board Chair, and no more than two Commissioners total may be residents of any one borough. Through the City Charter, the BSA is empowered to interpret the applicability to a given development proposal of: the Zoning Resolution, the Multiple Dwelling Law, the Building and Fire Codes and Labor Law. Put more simply, the BSA has the authority in certain cases, to grant relief from those rules, and as such it is an important part of the city’s regulatory landscape.

Community Board (CB)

New York City has 59 Community Boards (ranging in number between three in Staten Island and Brooklyn’s 18), which can be thought of as community-led government organizations, at the neighborhood level. Each Community District (CD) in the City is represented by a Community Board of 50 members, appointed by the Borough President (with at least half of those nominated by City Council members representing the CD) and serving two-year terms, without a limit. CBs, not surprisingly, engage in a very broad range of activities on behalf of their constituent communities. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll point out that CBs have a Charter-defined – but advisory – role in the public review process for certain land use actions that are decided by the City Planning Commission, and they also participate in reviews associated with certain LPC and BSA applications. But you can also call them to find out about block parties or other special events in your neighborhood.

City Planning Commission (CPC)

The City Planning Commission is an appointed body of 13 members – a Chairperson (appointed by the Mayor), who also serves as the Director of the Department of City Planning, and 12 other Commissioners – who come together to consider applications for any number of land use actions as described in the City’s Zoning Resolution. The CPC would review an application for a rezoning action, for example, and as part of that process it would hold a public hearing and ultimately vote to approve, modify or disapprove the application, before the application goes to the City Council for final adoption or denial.

Note: CPC, the appointed body of Commissioners, is not to be confused with DCP (see below), which includes the staff of the City Planning Department in all five boroughs.

DCP, Department of City Planning

The Department of City Planning is comprised of borough planners, internal land use counsel, specialized IT staff and separate divisions for: zoning, urban design, environmental review, technical review, transportation and housing, economic and infrastructure planning, to name only a few. These divisions work together under the guidance of the Department’s Director – who is also the Chair of the CPC – to shepherd a wide range of land use applications to completion.

Note: The Department (DCP) is sometimes confused with the CPC (see above), the appointed body of Commissioners, but they are two very different entities.

Department of Buildings (DOB)

Appropriately, with oversight of 975,000 buildings and properties (and counting), DOB is one of the City’s most visible agencies. This agency is responsible for enforcing the City’s Building Code, Electrical Code, Zoning Resolution and Multiple Dwelling Law, and ensuring the safe and lawful use of all of the structures in the five boroughs. DOB’s relationships with DCP and with BSA are particularly relevant in any discussion of land use in New York City; in the simplest terms, City Planning writes the applicable zoning rules (where you can build your building and how big it can be), and Buildings enforces them.

Department of Transportation (DOT)

With its highly visible Summer Streets program, the ongoing expansion of citywide bike lanes, and, of course, this year’s ambitious bike sharing program, the City’s Department of Transportation has seen its “Q rating”  skyrocket in recent years, at least as compared with some of its partner agencies. And while the agency’s overall mission — “to provide for the safe, efficient, and environmentally responsible movement of people and goods … and to maintain and enhance the transportation infrastructure crucial to the economic vitality and quality of life of our primary customers, City residents” — may not obviously merit inclusion on this list, the relationships between the City’s physical streetscape (including sidewalks) and its architecture is critical.  Different land uses attract different populations and require varying degrees of transportation access, and, as practically anyone who has searched for an apartment here knows, the proximity to subway and bus lines is often a key factor in the decision-making process. For others, the availability of on- and off-street parking is a daily challenge, and how the City balances the need for adequate and efficient parking facilities with the overall market pressures and conditions is an ongoing, long-term planning puzzle. For large-scale projects, DOT can be involved with City Planning, EDC and/or City Hall from the earliest stages, and its input can have a profound effect on the overall design.

Economic Development Corporation (EDC)

EDC is the City’s driver for economic development and is “charged with leveraging the City’s assets to drive growth, create jobs and improve quality of life”. It helps realize the creation of new housing, park spaces, neighborhood shopping, community centers, cultural destinations and more. Whether through economic policy contributions to City Hall or to the private and not-for-profit sectors, or the management of City properties and other assets, EDC’s development and planning expertise has helped revitalize communities and encourage job growth citywide.

Housing Preservation and Development (HPD)

The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) is the country’s largest municipal housing preservation and development agency. Its mission is “to promote housing equality and create and sustain viable neighborhoods for New Yorkers though housing education, outreach, loan and development programs and enforcement of housing standards”. Importantly, HPD is responsible for implementing City Hall’s New Housing Marketplace Plan (NHMP), an ambitious initiative with the goal of financing 165,000 units of affordable housing by 2015. Today, vacant sites once considered neighborhood “blight” have been transformed into safe and affordable homes. Communities enjoy a renewed vibrancy and enhanced quality of life, with new and restored developments that feature a range of uses for the surrounding neighborhoods.

Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC)

The Landmarks Preservation Commission is responsible for identifying, designating, and regulating the City’s landmarks, including all buildings within the City’s historic districts. The agency consists of eleven Commissioners representing all five boroughs and a range of professions, all appointed by the Mayor for three-year terms, as well as a full-time staff.  When a property owner wishes to perform any kind of work under the LPC’s jurisdiction – whether it’s an interior alteration or the construction of a new building – s/he must first get sign-off from Landmarks, in addition to any other approvals from other agencies, such as DOB or DCP.