The Original Sin of Environmental Review

sprawl.jpgNo EIS necessary. Photo: tlindenbaum/Flickr

In the past few months we’ve reported on opponents of bike lanes, car-free parks, and congestion pricing using the pretext of environmental review to stymie initiatives that would reduce vehicle emissions. Norman Oder at the Atlantic Yards Report points us to another unintended consequence of the National Environmental Protection Act, the 1970 legislation that established the EIS process.

AYR recounts a talk given by progressive developer Jonathan Rose, who says that NEPA — favored by a real estate industry that did not want to subject itself to an alternative law based on land use planning — was flawed from the start:

"So the effect was that we turned our back on national planning, and we
turned our back on a national infrastructure policy," Rose said. "And,
at the same time, here’s what happens: 1000 individuals choose to
subdivide a parcel in the suburbs, or the exurbs, and it falls under
the screen of an environmental impact statement, each one is one
individual act."

"One person chooses to build a 1000-unit urban
project in a city and they get held up for five years in an
environmental impact statement," he concluded. "And so the unintended
consequence of NEPA actually was one more of the many things that made
it easier for suburban sprawl to proceed from 1970 to 2000 instead of
urban redevelopment."

  • Larry Littlefield

    The sin is about to get worse.

    Consider this possibility.

    As construction workers get laid off and development shuts down, the city decides to extend the sidewalk and take away a parking space at intersections where a parked car obscures the view, and fill the space with bike racks. And it wants to do so next to subway stops also. Finally, it decides to build a few of those bicycle parking garages near areas where many people live beyond walking distance from the subway, like Kings Highway on the Brighton.

    Quick, easy projects that are perfect for short term stimulus, right? Not in New York.

    Obama wants work to be started right away. In New York, the design (you don’ think the consulants will give up their piece do you?) and review process will take months, the litigation if anyone decides to sue (ie. eminent domain for one of those bike garages could take years).

    And don’t even think that removing a single parking space would get a “negative declaration” and be exempt from environmental review. That’s “segmentation.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    BTW, I though the AY opponents wanted development pushed outside NYC. Don’t they agree with the premise that everyone would drive there and cause traffic?

  • Rhywun

    It cuts both ways. Remember how Westway died? Yeah, you can’t stop sprawl with it, but you can stop destructive mega-projects.


    I’m not aware of what they “want”–other than an end to that project. I personally don’t care much what goes up, but I’m very much against billionaire developers getting tax dollars to put up their vanity projects.

  • J


    I think you are oversimplifying the opposition to AY. People were most opposed to the scale of the project. 30 stories in a 3-6 story neighborhood is pretty ridiculous. There was also the issue of using eminent domain to clear the site, using public funds to build a private project, and creating new superblocks. Lets not get too hysterical.

  • progressive developer Jonathan Rose: “One person chooses to build a 1000-unit urban project in a city and they get held up for five years in an environmental impact statement,”

    Does anyone have a favorite neighborhood that was build as 1000 unit projects by progressive developers? My favorite neighborhoods are places like Park Slope and the older parts of Greenwich Village, where the largest “projects” were buildings with a few dozen units.

    I would say that both the 1000 unit urban “project” and the 1000 unit suburban subdivision should have an EIS. If you build something that big, it can do a lot of damage if it is not well planned.

    On the other hand, I think Robert Moses would have agreed completely with this “progressive developer.”

  • Davis

    I do, Charles. I live in Park Slope. Pretty much my entire block of identical 3-story, one-, two- and three-family townhouses was built by a single developer some time around 1890. It turned out to be a lovely and lasting little mega-project.

  • Larry,

    I understand the reservations you have about chance for sidewalk improvements like youm entioned happening anytime soon, but it makes me think of the Bedford Ave Bike Swap in Williamsburg where three cars spots were removed and filled in with bike racks in Williamsburg. I know Teresa Toro, the fantastic hair of CB1 transpo committee orchestrated that whole thign, but I hadn’t heard it ever needed to get an EIS done. Any idea? If none was needed, maybe there’s some hope of many more of that happening.

    Also, when did Obama say he favored those types of short term projects. they’re great, I’m just curious where to hear more from him about it.

  • James

    I’m going through an EIS review here myself at work, and my word is it a painful, tedious, and litigious process. Worse than anything I could have imagined back in school. One of the worst aspects of the whole thing is that for all the pain involved, the developer doesn’t really have to consider the effects on anything but their particular parcel of land. Far from being an impartial survey of potential impacts, EISs are massaged and manipulated in order to paint the picture that the developer wants to portray, however far that may be from reality.

    There’s just no way the EIS process could have been intended to operate this way when it was created back in the day.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “I know Teresa Toro, the fantastic hair of CB1 transpo committee orchestrated that whole thign, but I hadn’t heard it ever needed to get an EIS done. Any idea?”

    The city reformed its EIS process (having to do an EIS in the process for the reform) in the Giuliani Administration. As a result something small relative to the existing development in the surrounding community gets a brief review and a “negative declaration.” Reasonable enough.

    But that’s what I mean about “segmentation.” You aren’t taking away one space at an intersection. You are taking way 30,000 spaces in the city. Suddenly, a Rob Anderson type sues claiming that rubber stamping a neg dec on each individual step, the city is hiding signficant impacts by segmenting its review.

    Ten years later, during which an injunction remains in effect, the city is upheld.

  • Larry,

    That’s nonsense.

    I don’t know a single Atlantic Yards opponent who wants “development pushed outside NYC.” In fact, many of us support the alternative, community-developed UNITY Plan, a quite-dense design that’s limited to the Vanderbilt Yard — and eschews the use of eminent domain.

    The Atlantic Yards Environmental Impact Statement was a farce, and was most deserving of the lawsuit that still challenges it. It’s rife with understated or ignored impacts, not the least of which includes the projects nearly 4,000 parking spaces — a suburban-style parking allocation if ever there were one.

    So let’s not equate the EIS of a massively over-scaled, eminent-domain abusing, neighborhood-dividing, zoning-overriding, subsidy-sucking boondoggle with stalling efforts designed to keep automobile traffic flowing through Prospect Park, OK?


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