Rethinking Environmental Review: A Handbook on What Can Be Done
The straightforward idea that public officials should understand the consequences of their decisions inspired the creation of environmental review. Under the environmental review process, any project that involves discretionary approvals or the use of public funds is required to identify and disclose the project’s anticipated impacts on the community. This includes not only purely environmental concerns such as air quality and noise, but also the impact that a project will have on the area’s transportation system, power and water supply, school seats, and hospital beds. Environmental reviews are intended to enable public officials to understand the full implications of a project and to plan for any changes to municipal infrastructure and services that might be needed to integrate the project into the urban fabric.
Over the years, however, the process has lost its connection to good planning. Instead, it has become an expensive and time-consuming annoyance to large projects and a potentially project-ending burden to small ones. Environmental review today is a wide-ranging effort to identify “impacts” for the purpose of legal disclosure only. It is not the planning activity that people commonly assume it to be, nor is it the one that New York desperately needs as its aging infrastructure struggles to meet the demands of an ever-increasing population and citizens move into previously underdeveloped areas of the city—areas that require new access to transportation, sewage treatment, electricity, and schools.
The technical term used for the real planning component of the environmental review process—which over the past generation has grown into a significant business for specialized experts in law, transportation, various environmental sciences, and other consultants—is “mitigation.” When significant impacts to the environment—overwhelming demand on roads, subways, sewage plants, and the electric grid—are identified during the review, mitigations of those impacts must be proposed by the developer (public or private) and approved by the responsible city agency. There is no mechanism, however, to ensure that proposed and approved mitigations are, in fact, implemented. Large projects propose numerous mitigations; some are implemented, but many are not. Small projects seldom have any need to propose mitigations but still must expend the time, effort, and expense of identification and disclosure before construction can begin.
Moreover, the small projects that get caught in this wasteful tangle can be very small indeed, in terms of the scale of New York City. It is an irony of the environmental morass that the city has adopted the statewide thresholds for project review (i.e., those required in small towns and rural areas throughout the New York State), while absolving itself of the statewide time limits on the official turnaround of documents submitted. This means that small projects in New York City suffer the disadvantage of state law—namely, getting caught up in the process in the first place—without enjoying the state law’s advantage of a predictable timeline. It also means that New York City’s reviewing agencies are always buried under an overwhelming backlog of submissions and unable to allocate their resources in proportion to the potential impacts of proposed projects. And delay, especially in these times of unprecedented annual increases in the costs of construction, can mean the difference between financial feasibility and unfeasibility, particularly for small projects.
Additionally, environmental review requirements interfere with the development of affordable housing in the city. Since any project with a government role is subject to the process, subsidized housing projects must go through review even if identical market-rate housing would not. It is not surprising that developers often take the simpler market-rate route rather than deal with the costs and headaches involved in accepting government funding.
The reform program put forward in this booklet addresses all these problems with moderate, effective recommendations meant to permit the continuation of the development of the city. Essentially, the program:
- Filters many small projects out of the review process altogether, including the types of subsidized housing projects just mentioned;
- Streamlines the materials required to be submitted when an environmental review is needed and focuses the review on the investments in infrastructure and services that will be required to integrate the completed project into the fabric of the city;
- Imposes New York State’s time limits on the city’s reviewing agencies for official review and turnaround of documents; and
- Establishes a mechanism for tracking mitigation proposals for possible conflicts, approval status, and, especially, implementation.
There are two strong arguments for the practicality of these recommendations. First, some version of them has been proposed previously on a number of occasions by a variety of experts and interested groups (perhaps most notably, the Alliance for CEQR Reform, in 2001). Second, the recommendations are all within the power of the mayor’s administration to implement—no changes to state law, no vote by the City Council, no Uniform Land Use Review Procedure is needed; the problems were created by executive orders and City Planning’s CEQR Technical Manual and can be undone by new executive orders and revision of the manual.
Now is the time to make these changes. Responding to the demographics of the coming fifty years, the Bloomberg administration has recognized the vital importance of the city’s expansion with rezonings that permit the development of more affordable housing. Reforming environmental review in the manner recommended here would advance the growth agenda in a responsible and sustainable way, emphasizing the need to plan for and implement the infrastructure required to support expansion.
The broken process we have was well intended but ultimately an overreaction to dislocations caused by certain massive infrastructure and development projects in the middle of the previous century. In the ensuing decades, many protections and procedures were invented to ensure inclusive planning and responsible building. Environmental review is one process that got away. Instead of a planning tool, it became a procedural end in itself that hinders small projects that don’t need such an effort and demands nothing concrete from the large projects that do. And the city needs to build—large projects and small, everything from new subway lines to six-story apartment buildings. For where would New York be without the new subway lines and six-story apartment buildings built by those who came before?