Civic Groups to NYC: Scale Down

Critics say helter-skelter high rises strain city. URBAN PLANNING

THE gleaming new skyscrapers that keep springing up around New York City may dazzle the tourists and bring in needed tax money. But an increasing number of local civic groups say the scale of such developments is often excessive. The result, they say, overtaxes such precious environmental assets as air and water, reduces open space, strains sewage treatment capabilities, and increases traffic congestion.

In the past, such community groups have been easily outmanned and outspent by forces on the developers' side.

But these groups are gaining new muscle. Help is coming from more expert legal counsel at the right price, structural changes in city government, and a slowdown in the real estate market.

A few civic groups have lawyers of their own. Some have raised huge sums to hire lawyers to challenge specific projects.

For those groups that cannot afford to hire counsel, pro bono legal help, a strong New York tradition, has often been unavailable; many of the large law firms that offer such help already represent developers.

For the last two years, civic groups also have had access to free expert help from the Urban Law Center of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C. Though staffed part-time by two lawyers, the center here is active in a number of legal challenges to developments around the city. The center's broad view of environmental concerns includes displacement of low-income residents by development projects, says Mitchell Bernard, who runs the shop with attorney Katherine Kennedy.

The center is largely funded by the J. M. Kaplan Fund, a 45-year-old foundation involved in urban issues, based in New York. Officials there noticed the trouble citizens' groups had getting major law firms to help them oppose a tower development southwest of Central Park. ``It became clear that the need was for lawyers that were free to do this work and who were absolutely top flight,'' says Kaplan president Joan Davidson.

The biggest project on the Urban Law Center's agenda is the plan for Trump City on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Home of the old Pennsylvania Railroad yards, it is the largest undeveloped tract on Manhattan Island. The developer wants to build a 150-story tower, the tallest in the world, a number of 60-story towers, a regional shopping mall, and a 7,000-car garage. The project requires a zoning change. If the city approves the change, the center is likely to sue on behalf of civic groups.

``This project is an emblem of much of the excess that concerns us,'' says the center's Mr. Bernard, who played a key role in the environmental defeat of the famed Westway highway project on the city's west side.

``We're not opposed to development on the site, but it should be according to principles that respect the existing community and the environment. ... This proposal is so massive and wrongheaded in so many fundamental ways that it cries out for opposition,'' he says.

By law, developers of such major projects must prepare an environmental impact statement. Developers say that citizen concerns are best addressed in these statements and in the city's assessment of them. Yet companies usually hire consultants to draw up these statements. Rarely do the consultants find a project too large or likely to spawn negative effects that citizens would notice, says Elliott Sclar, a Columbia University professor of urban planning. Most statements read like a development brochure, he says.

A change in the city charter, approved by voters last fall, may improve the balance, he says. It focuses on the crucial issue of which questions should be covered in environmental statements. For the first time community boards, made up of appointed citizens in each of the city's 59 districts, are to be involved in the early stage of deciding such questions.

The slowdown in the real estate market and a new administration in City Hall regarded as more sympathetic to environmental considerations may also help. Richard Schaffer, the new chairman of the city planning commission, advocates community input in planning decisions.

``I think the city's fiscal crisis locked the previous administration into a habit of saying `yes,' without reflection or review, to every mega-development proposal,'' says Linda Davidson, executive director of The Parks Council, a citizens group interested in preserving the parks. ``I think the Dinkins administration understands that quick cash bites now may mean immense environmental costs later...that affect the quality of life in this city as a place to live and work.''

``The issue is not development versus no development - it's about appropriate scale,'' says Professor Sclar. He notes that when officials fail to address community concerns about development, voters can push more drastic measures, such as no-growth referendums. He says the effect of the city's charter reform and the tendency of concerned community groups to turn to the courts for solutions may spark a more reasonable and balanced debate. ``I think the lawsuits have been an enormous help in changing the atmosphere,'' Sclar says, ``but it's not the way to develop public policy over the long run.''

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