November 2, 2021 - From the November, 2021 issue

NYC Planning’s Anita Laremont on the City's Principles of Good Urban Design

Twenty months into the COVID-19 pandemic and with less than three months left in the term of outgoing Mayor Bill DeBlasio, New York City is updating its Principles of Good Urban Design, which guide local decisionmaking on neighborhood zoning and development. TPR spoke to Anita Laremont, newly appointed Director of the NYC Department of City Planning and Chair of the City Planning Commission, to elaborate on the city’s priorities for the public realm and the role for good urban design to enhance quality of life within any neighborhood context.


Anita Laremont

“We believe our priorities will continue to be the new mayor's priorities in dealing with the challenging issue of not having enough affordable housing for all of our citizens.”

As the new chair of New York City's Planning Commission and Director of the Department of City Planning, what is your charge from Mayor de Blasio and your personal priorities?

 Anita Laremont: I was appointed at the end of September, and we have only through December 31 to complete the priorities of this administration. My charge is to complete these priorities that we already have underway and to keep this department on an even and steady keel as we transition to a new mayor. We believe our priorities will continue to be the new mayor's priorities in dealing with the challenging issue of not having enough affordable housing for all our citizens. Other public realm issues we face coming out of the pandemic are job opportunities and economic development.

Just for our readers who may be unfamiliar, what is the significance of serving as both NYC Director of the Department and the Chair of the Planning Commission?

 The combined role of Director and Chair of the Commission is a mandate from the New York City Charter. There's no latitude—the person who sits in the seat holds both of those positions. In that regard, when charter reform led to this construct, the thought was that you would have the person who was running the department shape policy from a departmental perspective and could then speak to and advocate for that policy being one of the 13 members of the Commission. 

NYC Planning is currently undertaking an update to the City’s Principles of Good Urban Design through a public online engagement platform, www.goodurbandesign.nyc. Elaborate for our readers on those principles and how they direct the city's investments and energy regarding land use.

To start, let me just enumerate the four principles that we're talking about. 

First, good urban design reinforces a sense of place in the neighborhood. Next, it supports the ease of movement around the city and an accessible public realm. Good urban design also incorporates details that ensure quality, durability, stewardship, and maintenance. Lastly, it ensures that the city is comfortable, welcoming, and safe to all. These four principles stand in good stead and actually demonstrate to us what planning should be all about.

At this time, in a city like New York as we are coming out of a pandemic, we're forced to come to grips with the magnitude of the importance of the public realm. People live in a city like New York because they love the public realm. People trade having significant and luxurious amounts of space to be in a vibrant place due to a belief that the public realm is the most important. These principles are trying to make it clear to the public how important the public realm is and that we want their input as we plan with and for New York City communities.

How do those principles apply to the cases before the Planning Department, and in particular, the SoHo/NoHo Neighborhood Plan update and rezoning currently underway?

In every rezoning that we do, we are looking at the particular neighborhood with a thought as to how we can envision it with the help of local residents in a way that addresses our goal to create more housing units and job opportunities in the context of that neighborhood.

SoHo/NoHo is a district where there is a typology of buildings that is quite different than most of our Central Business Districts (CBDs). When we approach this district, we have to look at those typologies and think about how we can increase density without violating the sense of place in that neighborhood. So, we work with our urban designers very closely to think about what building forms we can use and what envelopes we can allow that will continue to have a neighborhood read in a way that makes sense for that neighborhood.

Other rezonings we have done were in neighborhoods that may not be quite as dense as SoHo/NoHo. For example, we did a rezoning on the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx, and one in East New York in Brooklyn. Again, we were thinking about how we can add density without changing the nature, look, and feel of the neighborhood. But also, how we could bring to bear the public improvements that are necessary to accommodate additional density? In those instances, that would be things like improvements to parks and to roadways. Those are the kinds of things that we always think about when we undertake these efforts. 

Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on New York, have your planning priorities changed or evolved in terms of goals and execution?

When I reflect on that, I'd have to say that I don't think COVID has changed our priorities. It has amplified certain issues that we have, but they were things we already understood, and we're moving in the same direction that we were before COVID.

We are moving differently than we did previously because COVID forced us to not be able to gather in-person. We pivoted very quickly to a form of virtual engagement, which has long-term implications for us. It has expanded engagement in a way that has given people who otherwise wouldn't have had an opportunity to participate in our processes the opportunity to do so. We're not saying that in-person engagement should be jettisoned; it's important because we still have a digital divide. We are saying that we need to have more broad approaches to engagement that will allow people who otherwise wouldn't be able to participate to do so.

There are two other things that COVID has done that are important. One is, again, a very significant focus on the importance of the public realm. COVID-19 led to an acceleration of our moves to try to make the public realm more democratic and more accessible. We had the open restaurants initiative to allow people at restaurants to dine on the streets. We've also allowed for certain streets to be closed and the public to engage in a very community-based and meaningful way by having street fairs and other activities. All of this is helpful to the efforts that have been incremental over time to de-favor the car and limit parking.

COVID-19 also showed us the divide that we have in the city. There are BIPOC communities and communities with lower incomes that have very poor-quality public realms that we need to focus on more closely. People who live in the South Bronx need to have the same kind of opportunities to be outdoors and in quality settings in ways that they didn't before.

In addition, we must focus very closely on recovery. What can we do from a zoning perspective to not impede recovery and to instead spur it?

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Elaborate on the Planning Department’s role in driving NYC’s economic recovery. 

Let me give you an example. We get applications from the private sector to do developments in industry sectors that we think are important for our long-term growth. One of those sectors is life sciences, which has grown significantly in New York City over the past years. We believe that we need to support and further such projects where they make sense in neighborhoods.

 On the Upper East Side of  Manhattan, we have a robust life sciences sector including a number of hospitals and research institutions. We have a project that the City Planning Commission recently approved for The Blood Center, which is a research and development facility. Supporting those kinds of projects is extremely important for us.

Another example is an initiative where we are working in relationship to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s plans to build four new stations in the Bronx. These stations will connect the Bronx to Connecticut and to Manhattan, allowing for a much shorter commute for people living there in either direction. We view that as an opportunity to do appropriate rezonings around these new stations because those station areas are ripe to be job hubs. We think these areas can be enhanced by work that we will do.

To what extent does the Planning Department collaborate with the city’s different economic development agencies?

We work very closely with New York City Economic Development Corporation. The Blood Center project that I mentioned is something that we have worked with them on. We also work with them in a broader sense in trying to understand, regionally, what are the business sectors that New York City should be focusing on. We have a Regional Planning Division that works really closely with EDC. We know that when people want to locate here, they're not really thinking in a limited sense to just the island of Manhattan or our five boroughs. We’ve started to work with other municipalities that are around us and we've done that fairly closely with EDC. They have teams that really go in depth on these business sectors in terms of where we might want to expand opportunities and where we have anachronistic rules that don't really allow for expansion of those areas.

We also work with the state. For example, the state is currently looking at expanding the area around Penn Station for additional commercial projects, and we are working with them to understand what business sectors will be using those kinds of commercial developments. Again, because of COVID, it's not clear to us how many people will actually be in office buildings. How do you right size new commercial buildings, and ensure that we develop them to avoid ending up with white elephants? What are the transit needs? Those are the kinds of issues we explore with economic development agencies.

In California, the state legislature and governor recently usurped some of the power of local cities over neighborhood planning on the argument that we need more density statewide and cities have been reluctant to encourage it. If the state of New York were to do that to New York City, what would be the reaction of your mayor and your commission?

I think the reaction would be the same as it is anywhere when that happens. We believe that planning is best done at the local level because it's informed by knowledge of your locality that can't really exist at the state level. New York State and City have a long history of a tug-of-war between who is more important, the governor or the mayor, and who is going to dictate on this or that issue. We've had, and continue to have, a number of issues with the state legislature where they seek to constrain what we can do. For example, we have a 12 FAR cap that is a state mandate that we would love to eliminate because it really constrains us in high density districts where we could create additional housing.

All that said, we do understand the power of being able to force people to have to come to grips with the need to create housing. If it is not done on a local level, having some sort of construct in which you are required to answer as to why you're not doing it is important, because of where we are in terms of the dire need for housing.

We would say to give us the opportunity to do what we need to do ourselves before you mandate. In New York State, it might be a good thing to try to force some of our suburbs to do better because they are not creating housing, and that puts more pressure on us. Even if the State were to just set goals for housing units, that would be helpful with this issue. 

What unique perspective, as a person from Staten Island, do you bring to the City’s planning politics?

Staten Island is indeed its own unique world. It probably is most like Queens, but even more suburban than Queens, by far. The borough’s population consists in significant measure of people who seek a more suburban environment than can be found in Queens and Brooklyn. A large number of people on Staten Island would very much love to just shrink wrap it and keep it the way that it is.

That said, younger people do not want that. Young people welcome an opportunity to live in Staten Island because it's more affordable but understand that we need to have more density. What I think about is how to get people to understand that there are ways to enhance density in a setting such as Staten Island that will not upend neighborhood character. We need to get people to buy into the fact that as part of New York City, we have to do our part to address the city’s housing challenges.

 There is still a lot of work to be done and I think I'm a good ambassador for that work because I live there. I understand, and I'm not disregarding the community's wishes, but I do think we need to impress upon people that we have an affordability issue not just in the more dense boroughs of the city, but also in Staten Island, and that the housing availability issue is the same as everywhere else in the city.

Lastly, as we noted, you’re filling out the end of the term of Mayor de Blasio in your roles as the Chair of the Commission and Planning Director. What advice and counsel do you have for your successor when the new mayor takes office?

I would say to be clear-eyed about the imperative to address the housing needs that we have here and keep that as a really significant focus. In addition, I would urge whoever is my successor to appreciate and understand the significant value of our staff, who really are consummate professionals. I would urge whoever it is to look at our staff through the lens of how we can further motivate people to do this work, including allowing them to work in more flexible ways. The COVID pandemic created paradigms that we can use, and I would hope that that flexibility would be able to be continued.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.