The life and death of community-based planning in New York. Image 1.

Whitney Kimball





Between the 1930s and 60s, an estimated half-million people were evicted by Robert Moses’s various expressways. In the 1990s, Mayor Giuliani criminalized the homeless by outlawing sleeping on the streets (which resulted in widespread arrests) while threatening to evict people from shelters if they refused to do mandatory unpaid work. In the 2000s, New York City devoted $205 million in taxpayer subsidies for Forest City Ratner’s Barclay’s Center, which a Brooklyn neighborhood protested for years only to see seized homes and promises of job creation and affordable housing go unfulfilled. 

Usually, these Goliathan episodes are re-evaluated a few decades later, historicized as evil but accepted as part of living in the economic capital of the country. But they didn’t have to be. Few are now aware of this, but in 1989, the New York City charter was revised to grant New Yorkers the constitutional right to make and submit development plans for their own communities, called 197-A plans. The nineties consequently saw a boom in community-based urban planning: over a hundred community-level alternatives which would have kept out waterfront high rises, preserved affordable housing for multi-generational residents, improved transit options in underserved neighborhoods, and mitigated the concentration of pollutants and waste incinerators in poor neighborhoods. Communities had planned alternatives for virtually the entire city.


The Tale of Two Housing Plans

by Tom Angotti in the Indypendent



The life and death of community-based planning in New York. Image 2.

All of this is recorded in former New York City planner Tom Angotti’s book New York For Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate: the story of how over 100 community-based plans were made, eleven of which were officially adopted by the city with “modifications,” and all, for the most part, ignored. The story of grassroots planning includes some notable successes—the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, an over 50-year-old group of Lower East Side activists, that created a system to absorb the city’s neglected properties and permanently take them off the market by adding them to a land trust with a 99-year lease. (It currently sells Manhattan units as “shares” in a co-op to low income tenants for as little as $250). But even in neighborhoods with adopted plans—Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Red Hook, and Sunset Park—the skylines soar limitlessly with the rents. 

So, what the hell happened? And how would these labored-over community plans have measured up to Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing initiative? One year ago, at the turn of administrations, I interviewed author Angotti about how he saw the future. Last month, we talked again about whether his predictions have come true.

The life and death of community-based planning in New York. Image 3.

Tom Angotti

New York For Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate

The MIT Press Cambridge,
Massachusetts, 2011.



Hopes&Fears: In your book "New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate," you list several myths about affordable housing:

 The new apartment development will trickle down to the poor, who will move up into better housing when more units become available.

 The market’s invisible hand (the law of supply and demand) will solve the housing problem.

 Rent controls are blocking the development of much-needed housing.

Building and zoning regulations block new construction. 

With all of that in mind, what do you think of Bill de Blasio’s plan to add 200,000 new affordable housing units to new market-rate developments?

TOM ANGOTTI:  The first plan is about encouraging new development in the city. It’s very similar to the Bloomberg approach; the model is the public-private partnership, the idea that the only way to get affordable housing is by building market-rate housing. So the more market-rate housing, the more affordable housing. The de Blasio housing plan somewhat juggles the proportions of affordable to market rate, will juggle some of the definitions of “affordability”, but not fundamentally change them. And that’s the problem. 

Then, the other housing plan is a preservation plan. The de Blasio plan acknowledges the need to stabilize communities, the need to retain existing affordable housing. It acknowledges the loss of rent-regulated units, the loss of affordable housing units. And it even acknowledges that under the past administration, more affordable housing units were lost than were created. Yet, its bottom line is to do the same thing. To double down.


Cost of affordable housing lottery in Bed Stuy




1 bedroom:



3 bedroom: 




There’s not a mention of displacement. There’s no mention of gentrification. And that’s what’s going to happen when you have a new development, especially in outer borough areas. The new administration’s talking about not just building in Manhattan, which has no meaning because there isn’t that much space to build in Manhattan anyway, and there isn’t that much vacant land. If you look at development over the last two decades, new construction rates in Manhattan are below those in the outer boroughs. It’s just the reality that new development is going to be in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, mainly. And maybe some portions of Staten Island. 

And the new administration is going to encourage that development, and it’s going to encourage that by zoning. 

H&F: Several community-based plans have been officially adopted by the city over the years: Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Red Hook, Sunset Park are a few of the major ones. Why are their recommendations not reflected in the actual city? 

TA: Well- while I was a senior planner in the Brooklyn Office of City Planning, I was working with several neighborhoods and communities including the Brooklyn Waterfront Plan. This was before Ikea, the industrial waterfront was largely undeveloped.


Units with rents of less than $800

The life and death of community-based planning in New York. Image 4.

Units with rents in the $800-$899 range

The life and death of community-based planning in New York. Image 5.

Units with rents of less than $800

The life and death of community-based planning in New York. Image 6.

Units with rents in the $1,000—$1,499

The life and death of community-based planning in New York. Image 7.

Units with rents in the $1,500—$1,999

The life and death of community-based planning in New York. Image 8.

Units with rents of $2,500 or more

The life and death of community-based planning in New York. Image 9.




Three case studies


In its opening paragraphs, the plan cites 1990 census data counting Red Hook’s population at 7.5% non-Hispanic whites. In 2010, the census showed that Red Hook’s population was 91.38% white. 

The plan recommends converting a keystone waterfront warehouse building, 480-500 Van Brunt Street, with units for 60% of households making between $20-$53,000. “What happens to the building, city planners say, affects not only the future of Red Hook but the revitalization of the whole waterfront,” Toni Schlesinger wrote in a 2002 Village Voice article about its redevelopment. The city eventually sold the warehouse to a private developer, Greg O’Connell, who promised to follow the 197-a plan but later withdrew his support. The sale was profiled in New York Magazine, with mixed feelings about O’Connell’s decision to focus on commercial use and decision to lease to Fairway. There's very little additional information about the building usage but a mention of actor Michael Shannon's 2,200 square foot loft in the building. 

The plan also recommends that the city redevelop the Revere Sugar Refinery and Grain Terminal sites for maritime use and, if possible, in ways that generate employment for Red Hook residents. The Grain Terminal is owned by the Port Authority and remains empty; the Sugar refinery has been proposed for retail and apartment development.



The plan notes that in 1990, 22% of housing units were owner-occupied, and the median rent in Greenpoint was $430. Today, median rents are $2,174.

The plan specifically called for landmarking the Greenpoint Terminal Market for a variety of uses, including “creation of housing and open space, small scale business in apparel, furniture and art related light industrial uses, commercial, educational, and community facilities.” Real estate mogul Joshua Guttman had had plans to redevelop the building. It burned down in 2006, but a convention center is slated.

With this and the Greenpoint and Williamsburg Open Space Plan, the city’s following zoning proposals to allow 150-300 foot high rises received backlash from the community which felt the proposals were out of step with the plan to keep the waterfront in harmony with Greenpoint and Williamsburg’s “low-density, low-rise neighborhoods.”



Sunset Park focuses on gentrification amongst a large community of Hispanic residents seeking jobs in the construction and service industries. The plan calls for giving tax incentives to privately owned loft buildings to bring in new manufacturing “without threatening or compromising the industrial integrity of the area.” 

It specifically calls for the city to make full use of the city-owned Brooklyn Army Terminal, which is presently used for light industrial purposes (chocolatier Jacques Torres, Urban Green Furniture, Marc Joseph shoes and an international AIDS vaccine lab.)

The Brooklyn Army Terminal is adjacent to the much larger stretch of privately-owned warehouses Industry City, which is currently undergoing a $1 billion renovation to include a hotel, conference center, university research center, and ground floor retail (this will require rezoning and help from the de Blasio administration). The New York Times dubbed the project the “Soho” of Sunset Park. 

For a few months, the de Blasio administration was considering investing $115 million in the redevelopment of the publicly-owned Brooklyn Marine Terminal, which called for "reactivation of maritime services specializing in handling automobiles and other roll-on/roll-off cargoes, plus the construction of a new, state-of-the-art municipal recycling facility.” The administration walked away from the plan, though, when it couldn’t reach a compromise with local Councilman Carlos Menchacha over the vision for the site. In a Facebook post, Menchacha wrote that the disputes were over the creation of a job training program, reinvesting a portion of the revenue into open spaces and public infrastructure, and a local entity to govern publicly-owned sites like the Brooklyn Army Terminal.



TA: It happened right after a highly-publicized murder of the principal of one of the two elementary schools in Red Hook- he was murdered in the crossfire of drug dealers at the public housing project, after he went to the home of a student who left school without notice. That was symbolically very important because it showed the commitment of this principal to working in and with the neighborhood, and he was a white principal in a mostly black and Latino elementary school. So that brought together what had been, and continues to be, a racially and class-divided neighborhood. 

The community came together with Community Board 6 (which includes Red Hook) and started talking about planning for their neighborhood. I was still at city planning then and ushered the plan through the approvals process within the city planning department. The next step was for it to go to the city planning commission for its approval (before which it would have to go to the community board, and of course, the community board fully approved it, because it sponsored the plan.) And the borough president approved it.

But I’d left city planning at that point to take a position as a full-time professor at Pratt Institute. And the 197-a plan got hung up. The group of business people in Redhook didn’t like one aspect of the plan (the same group who had endorsed the plan before)– and they lobbied the commission, but at this point there was really no senior-level advocate in the department to support the plan. After two years of logjams, what eventually passed was a watered-down version, which did not leave anybody satisfied.   

H&F: So that was a 197-a plan that did get executed? Technically put into practice? 

TA: Well, no, it didn’t. The fatal problem was in the city planning department, which continued to consider it “advisory.” So there were concrete recommendations in the plan that should have been city policy. In fact, they really were city policy, since it passed the land use community planning (ULURP) process. But the city planning department, which is the agency which should be the steward of 197-a plans, dropped the ball entirely. They did not proceed with the recommendations for housing, for zoning, for economic development.  

Just to add another case which is an even greater tragedy– the Williamsburg and Greenpoint community plans were approved in 2001, and took them over a decade to make. What stimulated that planning process was a desire not to have luxury high rises on the waterfront, which were going to force people out and be incompatible with the existing pattern with mixed-use, industrial, commercial, residential low and mid-rise development. So the city planning commission approved the Williamsburg and Greenpoint 197-a plans. Years later, in 2003, after the initial proposal, they came back with a proposal to rezone the industrial waterfront and some upland areas in exactly the opposite way that the community plans had recommended. High rise luxury housing on the waterfront. So city planning killed the 197-a process, especially with Williamsburg, because the consequences were so visible, and, in my opinion, catastrophic for the neighborhood. They displaced large numbers of the population, gutted the industrial heart of Williamsburg, and turned it into a bedroom community.

Income on minimum wage in NYC 


8 hour days, 5 days a week, no vacations: $15,503 after taxes (filing as a single individual)



Mixed-use zoning
is a farce

The life and death of community-based planning in New York. Image 13.

Graphics on the map show how mixed-use zoning is technically supposed to create a mix of industrial and residential uses, but instead mostly favors condos. A list of addresses on the map show that everything in the MX-8 district is going residential.

TA: The other missing link in my story is that my last year in city planning was the first year of the Giuliani administration. And Giuliani’s people sharply turned away from the impulse of the Dinkins era to work in partnership with communities. In fact, it became quite hostile. There were even people who were told not to talk to community board leaders unless they had approval. Under Bloomberg, there was a significant change; now, you can talk to people– in fact, city planning was encouraged to talk to community boards and to listen. So on the surface, there appeared to be a positive change. But the reality was the land use and zoning policies were no different. They ignored the 197-a plans, they ignored the planning process, and as history has shown, the Bloomberg administration invested all of its energy in rezoning. Almost 140 rezonings covering almost 30% of the land area in the city. That’s why my piece Zoning Without Planning is really a critique of the Bloomberg planning approach.

H&F: Why did the city go through all the trouble of approving so many 197-a [community] plans in the first place, if it never implemented any of them? It seems like the DCP [the Department of City Planning] wasted an enormous about of everyone’s time. 

TA: Good question. Well. They were responding to strong support at the grassroots, from City Council members, community boards– and there were individuals in the city planning department who were moderately sympathetic, whom they could assign to do community planning. So it was more like muddling through.

What they called “planning”– when they would do rezoning, they would do a little demographic analysis and call that a “plan”. Descriptive little report, maybe a ten-page report saying these are a “land-use framework” or “strategy” or something like that. Not a plan. The top people at city planning are neoliberal believers in the property market, they continue to maintain til today that zoning is race-neutral, class-neutral, gender-neutral– therefore, we don’t have to talk about any of those things.

H&F: What about mixed-use zoning? 

TA: The Department of City Planning’s mixed-use zoning is not truly mixed-use. 

H&F: Why not?

TA: Because it treats residential and commercial uses as equals, on the fantasy that the market will somehow reach an equilibrium between all of the uses and produce mixed-use neighborhoods. 

The market will do no such thing. Residential properties, per square foot, bring in 5, 10, 20, 30 times more to the land owner than industrial properties. So if the landowner has the choice between residential and industrial development, they’re going to take residential almost every time. 

And that’s what they did to Williamsburg. Williamsburg’s mixed-use zoning is a farce.

photo gallery

Factories-turned-condos in mixed-use zones

Former rubber factory,  81 Washington Street. Image 14.Former rubber factory,
81 Washington Street



Making "the deal"

H&F: So is it possible at all, with what we’ve seen in Williamsburg, and through your own experience in city government, that the de Blasio administration would somehow not be aware of these issues? Don’t you get enough 197-a plans that you would know by now that there are other ways to create affordable housing? Is it possible that anyone in city government could not have considered the alternatives?

TA: I think there are some people in the de Blasio administration who are aware of and sensitive to community planning, and who are aware of the problems of displacement, the need for preservation...but like I say in my article, that’s the junior part of the two-plan. That’s the plan that’s not getting the priority. It remains to be seen what’s going to come of that. But the signs are not too good. 

The city planning department has been institutionally pro-development for the last several decades. And the new chair of the city planning commission is all about large-scale development, Manhattan-style. He managed the redevelopment of Times Square and Lower Manhattan, after 9/11. 

And who would tell [Bill de Blasio] otherwise? The top people in city planning, civil servants, are pretty much free marketeers who truly believe that city planning should do the least possible to influence development and the most possible to allow development.


of "low-income" limits in Kings County (Brooklyn)

Median income: $63,700

Persons in Family:

1 — $48,350

2 — $55,250

3 — $62,150

4 — $69,050 

H&F: Yeah, but is it possible that you could see the effects of rampant development over decades, understand that luxury housing has a stable high vacancy rateand still think that more luxury housing is going to fix the problem, rather than something like community land trusts, which take housing off the market altogether? 

TA: The way they think is this: We all believe that there should be more affordable housing, and we understand that the market will only produce luxury housing. But there’s no public money. So how do you get the money for affordable housing? You do the public-private partnership. 

Now, what they don’t tell you, is there is money. There’s money going to subsidize private development, megaprojects, public money, through infrastructure subsidies, tax write-downs...PILOTS...all kinds of scams to get public money to support private development. 

Their response would be that we know all of that happens, so all we want to do is get some of that money for affordable housing. And in that way, public officials and many of our activists begin to think like real estate developers; it’s not about neighborhoods, it’s not about communities, it’s not about people, it’s not about creating environments that are healthy for people to live’s all about the deal you can cut. And that’s how public policy has degenerated, by reducing everything to “the deal.” And a lot of our good people, people in social movements, have bought into it.

Making the street, Kent Ave. Williamsburg,
23 of September, 2014
Photo by Several seconds


The life and death of community-based planning in New York. Image 17.


1 year passed

A few weeks ago, on the one-year anniversary of de Blasio's housing plan, I caught up with Angotti to see if he'd noticed any positive progress. Probably the biggest affordable housing story in the intervening year centered around 88,000 lottery applications for 55 affordable studio and two-bedroom units (for households making between $30,240 to $50,340) in the “poor door” building, an Upper West Side high rise with a separate entrance for the lottery winners. Now there’s talk of development in East New York, which, according to 2013 census data makes an average of $17,231 per capita, far below New York’s definition of very-low income of $24,200. Angotti doesn't see these as positive signs.


H&F: You’ve listed examples of neighborhoods that are early tests for the de Blasio administration, like Astoria Cove and East New York, which people are now calling a “land rush.” What did those early rezonings indicate about the de Blasio plan?

TA: Well, those early rezonings confirmed that the heart of the de Blasio policy is to use inclusionary zoning as a major instrument, if not the major instrument for developing affordable housing. The assumption is that any development which has at least 20% affordable housing is a positive development because we need every unit we can possibly get of affordable housing in the city, and this is the way to get it. That is the heart of the housing program. Or to get a portion of affordable housing with other private developments, even without zoning, even though that’s not really happening through the 421-a program, tax benefits to investors. The critiques of that which are myriad, which I and many others have said is that “affordable housing” is not truly affordable, and the developments displace more affordable housing than they create. 

H&F: There is a long public review process in East New York before the rezoning begins, and people are saying that that’s a good thing because the community gets an opportunity to give input into the plan. Is public review being taken seriously so far? 

TA: Well, the public review process has become a game. It’s gamed by the city administration, the city planning department and developers. It doesn’t really offer significant opportunity for broad democratic participation. The ULURP process in general needs to be revised. Before a plan even gets to the ULURP process, there are backdoor discussions between developers, the city, the city council people...and the city planning department is reluctant to even make a proposal unless they’ve lined up their ducks in a row. And usually, the local city council person is key because the city council can vote against it on the recommendation of the local councilperson. 

So they have intensive discussions, but what does this do? This creates enormous pressure on the city councilperson, who’s involved in a complex legislative system and who needs to preserve their leverage on a host of other things going on in city council. If they buck the city on a rezoning, doors will close for them. Our previous city council speaker was actually very direct and would threaten to withhold discretionary funding for those city council people who didn’t play ball. And almost all of them played ball. There were two renegades, and they had to fight for discretionary funding, a voice on other matters, and committee leadership positions. So the system is really stacked, and by the time it makes it to the ULURP process, the deals have already been made. Now, communities do have an option of going to the public hearings of the city planning commission, the public hearing of the Borough President, the public hearing at the community board meeting...but public hearings are theater, and people go to speak. But very few of the elected officials go to listen.


Cost of affordable housing lottery in Bed Stuy

Studio: $877

Household size: 1


1 bedroom: $1,107

Household size: 1—2


3 bedroom: $1,541

Household size: 4—6






PHOTOS via (1, 2)