Comprehensive planning is the antidote for ill-considered and isolated land use decisions, particularly those that adversely affect wetlands and watersheds, cause increased flooding, and promote wasteful sprawl. This said, detailed and informed comprehensive plans are expensive, particularly if they are going to guide development decisions regarding individual parcels of land.
In New York, localities are “encouraged, but not required” to have comprehensive plans under state law, as land use planning and regulation “is one of the most important functions of local government.” The state has provided some help, notably in local waterfront areas, but there has not been a consistent and well-funded commitment to furthering comprehensive planning generally. Because of the two percent tax cap, local governments are not likely to appropriate the funds to cover the considerable costs of needed land use plans; in fact, many have cut their planning and development staffs due to local fiscal restraints.
It would be exceedingly easy for the state to provide localities the help they need, especially in the lower Hudson Valley region. There is nearly unanimous sentiment that the Tappan Zee Bridge should include transit now or in the near future. For transit–bus or commuter rail–to function efficiently, regional transportation planning and local land use planning must connect. These are local prerogatives. The size and density of development around transit stations depends on the intensity of the ridership projected. Many of these transit station areas can be hubs for retail, office, and residential development, thereby contributing to the tax revenues of the local governments and making transit systems feasible. For local neighborhoods to absorb this additional density, transit station areas must be exceedingly well designed, fitted into the regional network, traffic must be carefully managed, parking provided, and livable places created. These are issues that occupy regional transportation agencies and their planners. Such fine-grained planning carries a cost, to be sure, but it has been done in many neighborhoods that support transit-oriented development throughout the United States. A modest percentage of the capital costs of a huge critical infrastructure project like the Tappan Zee Bridge would cover the costs of cogent, comprehensive, and coordinated land use and transportation planning.
The Governor’s recent economic development initiative has led to regional development strategies, including the one adopted by the Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council. For truly comprehensive planning to occur, there must be a region defined so that the effects of development across municipal lines, watersheds, and economic market areas are considered. Thanks to the regional economic development planning enterprise, that problem is solved. In cooperation with the Mayors’ Redevelopment Roundtable supported by Pace Law School’s Land Use Law Center, the Mid-Hudson Council adopted an urban redevelopment strategy that lines up well with transit station area planning. That policy adopts five policies to support the revitalization of urban centers “as engines of regional prosperity”:
1. Target regional growth in urban centers, whose compact, mixed-use development pattern creates an opportunity for growth that is sustainable, cost-effective, energy- and natural resource-conserving, climate-friendly, affordable, and attractive to young workers.
2. Promote the redevelopment of vacant and distressed properties, as well as the removal of blight and impediments to revitalization, by expanding state land bank legislation to cities that demonstrate the capacity to administer an integrated distressed property remediation program.
3. Encourage a State commitment to making improvements to existing infrastructure in urban centers more cost-effective.
4. Attract investment and lay the foundation for transformative projects in urban centers by encouraging economic development planning, promoting development readiness, and streamlining the development process.
5. Provide strategic implementation workshops and training programs in urban centers involving land use board members and economic development staff to build understanding of new standards, programs, and processes, and to enhance collaborative decision-making skills to facilitate an expedited development process.
The Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council plays an influential role in the allocation of state funds to promote economic development in our region. It is a short step forward for these policies to be implemented through the provision of funds to those communities that will bear the burden and enjoy the benefits of serving the riders of the transit services needed to create an efficient mass transit system catalyzed by the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Other communities are struggling to understand how to take advantage of vacant and aging office parks, over 6 million square feet of which are vacant in Westchester alone, many of them located along the Tappan Zee transportation corridor.
With the billions about to be spent on the Bridge and the millions to be influenced by our Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council, intelligent planning could successfully combine the Tappan Zee project with a redevelopment of the entire Mid-Hudson Valley. We have been waiting decades for such a moment.
For an expanded discussion of this topic, see “Region Can Be Ready for Smart Planning,” Prof. Nolon’s latest editorial in The Journal News.