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01.07.2014
Cutting Red Tape
New York City Planning moves to streamline building approval process.
Erik Daniel Drost / Flickr

Just before New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, moved into city hall, City Planning took steps to implement lasting changes to the land use process, leaving a final stamp on the city it has drastically reshaped over the last 12 years under Mayor Bloomberg’s governance.

This updated process is designed to accelerate the time it takes for applicants seeking approval for new developments. The agency’s new rules target the period when a project is first introduced to City Planning, leading up to an applicant’s certification to enter the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. This phase, often delayed by redundancies, has historically been vague and unstructured, putting a strain on both the developers carrying the projects and on the architects trying to solidify designs.

“Before we had formal standards, you would get one piece of advice and then it would shift in the next application. Now that we have formal standards, we know what we’re aiming for: transparency of where they are in the process. What will happen next and what we will have to do next to move the project forward. Not just call up a planner,” said Carol Samol, director of BluePrint and City Planning Bronx Borough Office.

Before instituting these changes, the agency conducted a voluntary pilot program with 90 applicants over 16 months to test out the new rules of reviewing land use and environmental review applications.

“The regulatory process in New York was traditionally and until recently the most complicated in the nation. It is a combination of things—which comes from both the nature of individual agency and the successive reviews from agencies,” said Rick Bell, Executive Director of the American Institute of Architects New York. “We have been trying to concentrate our efforts in the AIA on the cumbersome nature of the process.”

Bell, among other stakeholders and practitioners, was asked by City Planning to provide their feedback on the review process.

To simplify and speed up the pre-certification process, City Planning has launched a formal tracking system to follow an applicant from the “moment an applicant walks in the door” to make sure all requirements are being met. There is also a set of new standards to create reasonable time frames to help guide the projects along. For instance, a new rule stipulates that if the agency fails to act at a certain point, the project is allowed to proceed to the next stage with the application.

“The worst possible scenario for an architect is to realize that something isn’t possible,” said Bell. “How early in the game can you get a sense of the general shape and form the building will take? The idea is that you don’t wait until the end of the process to find out that what you’re doing.”

Nicole Anderson