The real answer is ‘maybe’

Long
Island City, Queens. | Max
Touhey

Why “YIMBY” vs. “NIMBY” is no way to think about the
most complex human creation: the contemporary city

The acronym NIMBY, meaning “not in my backyard,” and its
opposite, YIMBY, for “yes in my backyard,” entered the lexicon
sometime in the early 1980s. The
first NIMBY mention
I can find in the New York Times comes from
a 1983 article detailing Colorado farmers’ fight against a
hazardous waste site from being placed near their land.
The first YIMBY
came five years later; in that 1988 article, an
executive of a disposal firm proposes making toxic waste dumps
portable, so they could be moved from place to place on the back of
trucks. His answer to NIMBY was, YIMBY or ‘’Yes, in many
backyards.’’

However, in the volatile world of New York City development,

the battles of “NIMBY” versus “YIMBY”
have been going
on forever. You’ve got to assume that when the plan to overlay
most of Manhattan with a uniform street grid was introduced in
1811, there were some New Yorkers screaming “NO” and others
screaming “YES.” Certainly every public meeting I’ve been to
over the course of nearly three decades has unspooled that way. The
first such meeting I ever attended was about a redevelopment plan
for Times Square in the 1980s, and the most recent had to do with
building
a new high-rise jail in Brooklyn
. But it’s always the same
scene.

“It plays out like theater,” says Park Slope-based City
Council member Brad Lander, formerly the director of the Pratt
Center for Community Development. Indeed, the way the drama is
supposed to resolve itself—whether the contested object is a

high-rise condo
that threatens to overshadow the Brooklyn
Botanic Garden, or the wholesale
rezoning of a neighborhood
—is that after enough people scream
“no,” the developer or planner backpedals slightly, shaves some
height off the tallest tower or some density off the new zoning,
and everyone feels as though community engagement has occurred.
“The opportunity for meaningful dialogue about what’s actually
needed is really hard to have,” Lander observes.

In recent years, the formula has changed somewhat. For one
thing, YIMBYism
has taken on a life of its own
. The need for housing,
especially
affordable housing
, is so acute in places like New York, the
Bay Area, and Silicon Valley—where
job growth far outstrips the rate of residential
construction
—that arguments against development have begun to
look shortsighted and, often, immoral. And YIMBY and NIMBY sides
don’t line up neatly with conventional political identities like
Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative. In May, after a
California bill that would have allowed multifamily housing in
single family neighborhoods was shelved by the State Senate, New
York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo
argued
: “…Because the largest American cities are populated
and run by Democrats—many in states under complete Democratic
control—this sort of nakedly exclusionary urban restrictionism is
a particular shame of the left.”

Today’s YIMBYs often wear the
pro-housing label
with pride, while
NIMBY
is still an epithet, one associated with a mulish,
backward-facing outlook. Damon Rich, a partner at the Newark-based
urban design firm Hector, recalls picking up
another acronym, circa 1998, from Claire Shulman, who was at the
time the Queens Borough President: “BANANA,” or “Build
Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.”

YIMBY vs. NIMBY often feels like just another culture war, but
it shouldn’t be that way. I see it more as a predictable response
to a system that forces discussions about the most complex of human
creations—the city—into narrow conduits, in which most people
affected by a given project come in at the end, when the
substantive decisions have already been made. And this dichotomy
for and against the building of anything anywhere makes no real
sense; not all development is good and not all development is bad.
We don’t live in a binary world; most of the development issues
we deal with are more like “yes, but” or “no, but.” The
problem is that it’s hard to figure out how to express those
shades of gray and still be heard.

When the plan to overlay most of Manhattan with a uniform
street grid was introduced in 1811, there were probably some New
Yorkers screaming “NO” and others screaming “YES.”

In a recent essay,
“Leaving the REBNY vs. NIMBY Doom Loop
,” Lander and
Brooklyn Councilmember Antonio Reynoso focus on the Real Estate Board of New York, the
industry’s trade organization. (In Lander and Reynoso’s
argument, the group is a proxy for the developer-led YIMBY stance.)
In particular, the legislators critique the
Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP)
that kicks in when a
developer wants to build something that exceeds the limits of
existing zoning. The process begins with an application to the
Department of City Planning, and moves at a stately pace, like cud
through the compartments of a cow’s stomach, from the local
community board to the borough president and the City Planning
Commission, finally ending with City Council approval and the
mayor’s signature. Each phase of this 150-day pageant comes with
its own, often contentious, public hearings.

“Codified in 1975 when the city’s challenge was abandonment
rather than growth, ULURP has become reduced to a shrill tug-of-war
between the pro-growth forces of the Real Estate Board of New York
(who profit on each development, and therefore rarely worry about
which ones make long-term sense for the public good) and
neighborhood activists whose Not In My Back Yard advocacy (rooted
in a variety of motivations) leaves no way to figure out where and
how the growth we need to address the scale of the housing crisis
should take place,” Lander and Reynoso’s piece argues.

ULURP is, by definition, reactive; it’s always a response to
someone’s agenda, whether that someone is a private developer or

the city itself seeking to transform a given neighborhood
.
“Right now, when the ULURP process comes for your neighborhood,
you don’t have any reason to know why or to have any presumption
that it’s fair or thoughtful or reasonable,” Lander tells me.
“The people screaming ‘no’ believe they’re being
targeted,” Reynoso adds.

The two councilmembers see just one way out of this impasse: New
York City needs a comprehensive plan, an overall strategy for the
future development of every square inch of the city. By this they
don’t mean the 1961 Zoning Resolution that more or less governs
land use in the city. What they have in mind is a much grander
document, one that espouses New York City’s values, maps out a
strategy for coping with rising sea levels, and determines exactly
how much new housing, commercial development, and infrastructure
each neighborhood should ideally accommodate. “With a
comprehensive plan, no one feels they’re being targeted,”
Reynoso reasons.

The city gave it a shot in 1969, when an epic plan in six
oversized volumes (an introduction and a book for each borough) was
drafted and issued by its planning department. Among other things,
the plan called for a westward expansion of Midtown (driven in part
by a new crosstown subway line at 48th Street) and adding landfill
to extend the reach of lower Manhattan; Battery Park City was
already planned for the west side, but similar developments, never
realized, were envisioned for the east side. It advocated for more
preservation of historic neighborhoods and fewer cars in Midtown,
and assured readers that by 1972, “there will be direct rail
service to Kennedy Airport from Penn Station.”

While
Ada Louise Huxtable
found it to be pleasingly “folksy” and
“plain-spoken,” and an appealing departure from the
“scientistic-Utopian” approach to the master plans of the day,
others argued that it wasn’t a plan at all, just urbanist William
“Holly” Whyte (who wrote most of it) laying out his view of the
city. It was chewed up and spit out by the newly established
community boards and was, by 1973, regarded as passé. Or as Rich,
who retrieved his copy of the plan from a Parks Department
dumpster, notes, “it’s a really weird but beautiful
document.”

Part of Lander and Reynoso’s argument for a comprehensive
plan—which they pitched unsuccessfully before this year’s
Charter Revision Commission (the group charged with updating the
document that serves as New York City’s constitution)—is that
changes that seem onerous if they affect just one neighborhood are
less so if they are shared by every neighborhood in the city. They
point to
a unified 2006 plan
that more fairly distributed waste transfer
stations throughout the city. And they point to Minneapolis, which
last year agreed to
eliminate single family zoning citywide
.

“The single-family housing element is the best example of why
you have to do it comprehensively,” Lander tells me. “What
neighborhood would have agreed to be the first one? Any
neighborhood would have fought back.”

To allow two-, three-, or four-family homes in every one of that
city’s neighborhoods, Lander insists, was the key for
Minneapolis. However, urban planner Marc Norman, an associate
professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, points out
that this particular zoning change was the product of a long,
citywide education process. “They did a racial equity plan in
advance of it and held community meetings for three years to talk
about why single family is inherently exclusionary and the ways
that affects the city,” Norman explains.

The labor-intensive process advocated by Lander and Reynoso to
knit New York into a harmonious whole clearly can’t just be the
work of professional planners. A comprehensive plan, to be
effective, would have to be accompanied by a citywide master class
in civic values. (Which, come to think of it, is not such a bad
idea.)

Other mechanisms, of course, exist to allow New Yorkers to play
a role in the city’s planning process. In 1989, the city’s
charter was revised to allow what were known as
197-a plans
, officially sanctioned grassroots visions for a
given neighborhood developed under the auspices of local community
boards. According to Tom Angotti, a former city planner and
professor emeritus of urban policy and planning at the City
University of New York, 17 of those plans were officially approved,
but nothing much came of them. For example, there was a 197-a plan
painstakingly devised for Williamsburg-Greenpoint that envisioned a
low rise waterfront that would continue to embody the
neighborhood’s historic industrial character. The plan was
approved by the City Council in 2001 and then, in 2005,
largely dismissed
during the Bloomberg administration’s
rezoning of the area which called for a waterfront dominated by
high-rise housing. “To make a long story short…the city
planning department quashed every one of them,” Angotti laments.
“There have been no new 197-a plans for over a decade.”

 Max
Touhey
Gowanus, Brooklyn, which may soon see changes enacted as
part of a comprehensive neighborhood plan.

The de Blasio administration, for its part, issued a
“Neighborhood Planning Playbook”
in 2015 intended to teach
local activists to follow a five step process—“Organize. Learn.
Create. Finalize. Implement”—with the end result being a
“neighborhood plan.” The playbook was created by Gehl Studio,
founded by renowned Danish architect Jan Gehl, and GoodCorps, an
offshoot of Good Magazine, and it’s a thoughtful guide to
community planning. But the pathway it offers to implementation is
light on the crucial concept of amassing and wielding political
power.

Lander himself has been involved in a
bespoke plan
for the neighborhood of Gowanus which, in 2008,
was on the brink of being rezoned in a way that would have
prioritized upscale housing. Fortuitously, that rezoning was
abandoned when the area’s most notable feature, the Gowanus
Canal, was declared a Superfund site. Beginning in 2013, Lander
worked on a project called Bridging Gowanus with neighborhood
groups like the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and the Gowanus
Neighborhood Coalition for Justice to craft a plan calling for
“sustainability, affordability, a mix of uses, strengthening and
preserving manufacturing as well as residential.” It also
encompassed “canal clean up goals and providing the
infrastructure needed to sustain growth for schools and transit and
open space.”

If the Gowanus plan succeeds in becoming the official blueprint
for the neighborhood—and it very well might—it may be because
the Bridging Gowanus consortium didn’t follow the rules. “We
decided to work together and build something more like political
power,” Lander says, “to go to City Hall and say ‘Here are
the principles we support. If you are willing to live up to those
principles, then we could support a rezoning.’”

While Lander has clearly given much thought to short-circuiting
the “doom loop,” it was Rich who gave me some real insight into
the problem. Early in his career, he founded the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP),
which exists to “demystify complex policy and planning issues”
for school kids. He later spent eight years as the head of city
planning and urban design director for Newark, and has since gone
into private practice. Two years ago, he won a Macarthur Genius
Grant. I’ve long admired him for his scrappy, spirited approach
to planning.

We don’t live in a binary world; most of the development
issues we deal with are more like “yes, but” or “no,
but.”

In a recent conversation, Rich sounded nostalgic about the
bygone concept of urban renewal. He suggested that in Jane
Jacobs’ habit of juxtaposing “big plans and little people”
there was an us versus them situation—through another lens, NIMBY
versus YIMBY—in which “them” was represented by the
bulldozers. Rich, who was not yet born in the heyday of urban
renewal, admires the “visible group politics” of the era. What
I think he’s suggesting is that what everyone was fighting about
in the 1960s was the broad perspective rather than narrow
self-interest. If so, he’s saying what Landers is saying: that
the way out of the stupid yes/no dichotomy is to have shared,
societal goals and encourage development that advances those
goals.

Easier said than done.

But Rich also understands the value of working small. In Newark,
he offered boat rides on the Passaic River so that residents could
see the potential of the city’s long-shunned waterfront. And just
recently, in Detroit, he’s been working on
a “Youth-Centric Neighborhood Framework”
for Cody Rouge and
Warrendale, neighborhoods some 11 miles from downtown. The overall
concept is to engage the community members who don’t usually show
up for meetings, and broaden the range of players in the public
process. To this end, Rich’s team hired local teenagers as
“investigators” to research the ways their neighborhoods work
and don’t work. Often, these teenagers also run the public
meetings; the tone of those events,
documented in videos
, is different from the meetings to which
I’m accustomed.

The kids involved in the project, says Rich, “make adults look
like deficient versions of teenagers, because adults have so many
well-worn ways of avoiding the issues at hand. If one of the goals
of a productive planning and design process that gets beyond NIMBYs
and YIMBYs is actually being able to talk about class structure and
antagonisms, teenagers are great people to do that.”

We are currently so mired in polarized discourse that I don’t
see how we’ll ever will get past the binary of NIMBY versus
YIMBY. But it occurs to me that a comprehensive plan of New York
City written by the teenagers who live here would be eye-opening.
Certainly they wouldn’t be any more self-interested or
short-sighted than the developers who, by default, do much of this
city’s planning. And such an approach could reanimate the
conversation and serve as a catalyst for an adult version or, at
minimum, produce another weird but beautiful vision for the
future.

Source: FS – NYC Real Estate
The real answer is ‘maybe’