Community Boards, New York City

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Community boards are a system of local representative bodies in New York City. They hold monthly, public meetings and advise other city agencies on land use, budgetary, and service delivery matters. Each of the 59 community boards represents a geographically defined Community District and is made up of up to 50 unsalaried members, all of whom are appointed by the Borough President. Community boards were created in an early attempt to foster community-based planning, but their effectiveness as vehicles of proactive community planning is questionable.
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Image courtesty of Dept. of City Planning

HISTORY

Former Manhattan Borough President Robert F. Wagner formed the first prototype of today's community boards in 1951. Responding to fears of increasingly bureaucratic city governance, Wagner established 12 experimental "Community Planning Councils" throughout Manhattan to advise him on planning and budgetary issues. A system of "Community Planning Boards" was extended to the other boroughs with the 1963 New York City Charter under Wagner's mayorship.

"Little City Halls"
In the 1970s Mayor John Lindsay experimented with creating "Little City Halls" in several community districts, appointing district managers to supervise delivery of city services. "Service Cabinets" made up of members of different city agencies were created to encourage better local inter-agency coordination.

1975 Charter Revisions
In 1975, New York City voters approved a new City Charter combining Mayor Wagner's and Mayor Lindsay's programs to create the Community Board system much as we know it today. The Charter called for each Board to be allotted a district service cabinet and district manager, to be appointed by the Board and report to them rather than the Mayor.

ULURP
Additionally, the 1975 Charter introduced the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), which revolutionized the function of Community Boards by requiring their review of all land use applications. These applications range from "zoning actions, special permits, acquisition and disposition of city property, [to] urban renewal plans," [1].

197-a Plans
The Charter also granted Community Boards the power to formally develop a community-based plan for their districts. Like other plans, however, these are simply policy recommendation statements, which "even if they pass the many other steps of approval necessary" serve only to "guide" future city actions in that area. City agencies are at least obligated to consider these "197-a plans," due to (and named for) another Charter revision introduced in 1990.

ORGANIZATION AND PROCEDURE

The city's 59 community boards are numbered independently within each borough. There are 18 Boards in Brooklyn, 14 in Queens, 12 in Manhattan, 12 in the Bronx, and 3 in Staten Island. Community districtsare defined by the Department of City Planning and are drawn roughly along the lines of one or more "neighborhoods," though these are more subjectively defined and may also span more than one community district.

Selection Process
Community board members are selected by the Borough President from "among active, involved people of each community, with an effort made to assure that every neighborhood is represented," and must "reside, work, or have some other significant interest in the community," [2]. Half of the board members must be nominated by the City Council members representing that district, but are ultimately selected by the Borough President.

Meetings & Committees
Board meetings are open to the public and time is set aside for public input at each meeting. Boards also establish their own committee structures and hold separate committee meetings. Committees may be arranged functionally (land use review, budget), in relation to city agencies, geographically, or by a combination of these three systems. Non-board members may serve on committees in a non-voting capacity.

District Managers
District Managers still play a crucial role in community board administration: maintaining the office, hiring staff, and surveying city services delivery. The Mayor's Community Affairs Unit states that "The main responsibility of the District office is to receive and resolve complaints from community residents," [2b]. Services offered differ from board to board, ranging from assisting with Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption Forms, to processing block party permits, to coordinating neighborhood cleanup programs.


EFFECTIVENESS

While elected officials and developers often look to community boards for the voice of "the community," many have argued that the system does not effectively facilitate community-based planning.

Abuse of Power in Appointment Process
Nuances aside, board members are intended to convey community interests to their borough president (often in opposition to business or development), and yet are entirely beholden to him or her for their appointment. The reality is exactly as lacking in checks and balances as the theory. C. Virginia Fields served as Manhattan Borough President during her 2005 campaign for Mayor and was accused of "using her community board appointments as a kind of political club, selecting people who supported her in her race and firing those who did not," [3]. City Council attempts to reinstate some of these unjustified dismissals were thwarted as Fields had the power to reject them again. Still worse, in May of 2007 Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz "purged" community board 6 (CB6) of nine members who had voted against the Atlantic Yards development he supports [4]. After an even more dramatic purge of Bronx CB6 surrounding the Yankees Stadium proposal, Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion was quoted to have said, "My very clear expectation is that these appointees are there to carry out a vision for the borough president and the leadership of this borough, and that's simply what I expect," [5].

Lack of Members, Funding, Technology, & Training
Further dismaying is the damage done to boards' functionality by political purges such as these. Board members are up for reappointment every two years, but districts with a full slate of 50 members willing to donate their time year after year should consider themselves lucky. It requires a total of 2,950 volunteers to populate the city's 59 boards, and most are in search of new members to fill vacancies [3]. Many of the members purged from Brooklyn CB6 were veterans, including Chairman Jerry Armer who had donated his time for over 20 years. Their removal was not a standard changing of the guard. Bronx CB4 had difficulty even maintaining enough members to hold a vote after Carrion's purge [5]. Members are not the only resource in short supply. Most boards have only $10,000 to $20,000 annual budget left after paying District Manager and administrative staff's salaries [3]. This has left some boards operating without computers, websites, and overwhelmingly without the technology and training needed to make informed decisions on land use issues [3].

How ULURP Plays Out
The irony of these purges is that even had all the offensive members been reappointed, their boards would have absolutely no legal power to prevent the Atlantic Yards or Yankee Stadium projects from moving forward. As with 197-a plans, a community board's rejection of a land use change, budget plan, or even a street fair permit is merely a recommendation to more powerful officials. But as community board review is the first step required in the ULURP process, it looks far better for the Borough President or City Council to have "the community" backing their decision. Though only advisory, community boards' role in ULURP is considered their strongest playing card.

Rarity and Geographic Disparity of 197-a Plan Acceptance
The 197-a program—a model of community-based planning in which plans can actually originate from the community in question—has unfortunately been less successful. As of 2006, only seven community based plans had been accepted by the city in 16 years [3]. Few 197-a plans are developed due to boards' financial and technological constraints and a lack of encouragement from the Department of City Planning. Those plans that are accepted may be drawn upon selectively or countered with City Planning's own schemes. As Tom Angotti, chair of the Pratt Institute's Planning Department, has said, "Why should a community board spend at least two years to develop a plan, and another two years to get it approved, to end up with a document that may not have much legal effect on future land use?" [1]. The plans that are implemented—David Rogers found in a study called "Community Control and Decentralization," —are far more likely to come from districts with higher median income than from those with lower median incomes [1].

Recent Reforms and Successes
Some community boards and 197-a plans have, of course, had great success over the years. Bronx CB12 is credited with pushing forward the clean-up of a toxic dump in their area [3]; the Stuyvesant Cove 197-a plan, sponsored by Manhattan CB6, helped residents win a waterfront park for the east side instead of a looming residential/hotel complex [6 ]. But far more encouraging is the great attention focused on the system's inadequacies in recent years. In 2000 the Municipal Art Society helped found the Community-Based Planning Task Force, followed by a widely attended "Summit on Community-Based Planning in New York City" in 2004. Out of these efforts came Livable Neighborhoods for a Livable City, a report of policy recommendations to improve the community board system. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer pledged to "reform" the community boards of his borough when he took office in 2006 [3]. He has made broad recruitment efforts and created an independent screening panel to review member applications. The Planning Center of the Municipal Art Society also launched its Community Information Technology Initiative (CITI) in 2004: a program which originally provided GIS (Geographical Information Systems) technology and training to entire community boards and now focuses on giving high school students paid internships as GIS map technicians at their local boards. Still, the community board system has a long way to go to effectively base planning powers in community members' hands.

ALSO ON THE LIVABLE STREETS NETWORK


REFERENCES

Each source is referred to by the same number every time it is cited. Please keep citation style consistent.
[1] Forman, Seth. "Community Boards." Gotham Gazette. 20 Sept. 2000. 26 Feb. 2008 <http://www.gothamgazette.com/article/fea/20000920/202/150>.
[2] "Community Boards." Mayor's Community Affairs Unit. 2008. City of New York. 25 Feb. 2008 <http://home2.nyc.gov/html/cau/html/cb/main.shtml>.
[2b] "Community Boards: District Managers." Mayor's Community Affairs Unit. 2008. City of New York. 25 Feb. 2008. <http://home2.nyc.gov/html/cau/html/cb/district_managers.shtml>.
[3] Berkey-Gerard, Mark. "Community Board Reform: Community Boarders." Gotham Gazette. 6 Mar. 2006. 6 Mar. 2008. <http://www.gothamgazette.com/article/issueoftheweek/20060303/200/1779>.
[4] Rich, Calder. "Arena Foes Slam Dunked." New York Post. 23 May 2007. 6 Mar. 2008 <http://www.nypost.com/seven/05232007/news/regionalnews/arena_foes_slam_dunked_regionalnews_rich_calder.htm>.
[5] "Carrión Defends Board Firings." New York Daily News. 21 June 2006. As quoted by Depaolo, Phil. "Markowitz to Purge Community Board 6 Over Atlantic Yards Votes." OnNYTurf. 21 May 2007. http://www.onnyturf.com/blogs/view_post.php?content_id=9794.
[6] Freeman, Allen. "East Side Story." Landscape Architecture. Aug. 2003. 7 Mar. 2008 <http://www.asla.org/lamag/lam03/august/feature2.html>. html

PICTURE REFERENCES

Pictures are cited in the order they appear above. Please keep citation style consistent.
[1] New York: a City of Neighborhoods. NYC Department of City Planning. 10 June 2008 <http://home2.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/neighbor/neigh.shtml>.

FURTHER READING