Community Boards: The Roadblock to Safer Streets

DOT has held back installing many safety improvements due to parking and other car-culture gripes from out-of-touch community board members.

Community boards tend to be bastions of parking preservation. Photo: David Meyer
Community boards tend to be bastions of parking preservation. Photo: David Meyer

If you’re wondering why your street doesn’t have a bike lane, you might want to check with your local community board.

Chances are these local leaders — appointed by elected officials to represent their neighbors on zoning, traffic, and other close-to-home issues — have stood in the way of making your neighborhood streets safer for people walking and biking.

Take the recent example of Manhattan Community Board 9, which has held up the implementation of traffic-calming and painted bike lanes on upper Amsterdam Avenue for two years. In the time since, New Yorkers have continued to be injured or killed on the stretch — including Erica Imbasciani, 26, killed by a drugged driver last Friday.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday morning, CB 9 leaders doubled down on their opposition to the project, which would remove a lane of car travel, but also add turning bays to speed up traffic. Board leadership refutes that assessments, insisting that DOT’s efforts will slow down cars.

“You’re… removing a lane. And that’s what we don’t want,” CB 9 Transportation Committee Chair Carolyn Thompson told DOT officials in December 2017. (Thompson has also said she does not believe city and Census data showing that roughly 80 percent of the households in her district do not have a car.)

Municipal law requires only that DOT notify boards of redesign plans; the city is not required to oblige the whims of community boards on life-saving street changes. On many occasions, in fact, it has defied them: On Skillman and 43rd avenues in Sunnyside and Woodside last year, as well as on the second phase of its ongoing Queens Boulevard redesign.

Those decisions were made by Mayor de Blasio, however, and only after months of back-and-forth with local community boards whose members likely never intended to support DOT’s redesign efforts.

In the case of the Skillman/43rd protected bike lanes, DOT officials endured months of community board meetings, town halls, workshops, and behind-the-scenes confabs despite the leadership of Queens CB 2’s repeated statements against the project. The eight-month process only served to buoy DOT’s case to the mayor that it had done the satisfactory amount community outreach to move forward.

In other cases, DOT has totally acquiesced to community board concerns. Take the painted bike lane the proposed for Franklin Avenue south of Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. The redesign did not remove any parking or travel lanes, but the agency nixed the bike lane in favor of extra-wide parking lanes at the behest of Brooklyn CB 9.

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg has defended the de Blasio administration’s community board practices, while conceding that the back-and-forth slows progress towards safer streets.

“It’s a great forum to bring projects, to hear community concerns, to find people who care deeply about their neighborhoods, to get local input,” Trottenberg said in 2015. “We don’t agree 100 percent of the time.”

Meanwhile, a number of safety redesigns remain captive in the community board process — with lives like Imbasciani’s hanging in the balance. Council Member Antonio Reynoso has been particularly harsh towards DOT’s consensus-building effort, scolding Trottenberg at a public hearing last year for allowing community boards to “dictate how and when bike lanes should be built based on anecdotes and personal experiences instead of expertise.”

“No more community board conversations,” Reynoso added. “Use safety to dictate exactly what you should be doing. It’s frustrating. … You always go to these community boards, and council members give you trouble. Just stop coming to us and build them where you think they are appropriate. The Police Department would never ask a community board for permission to operate in a building if they thought drugs were being sold there. No, they just do the work because they think it’s appropriate.”

In that case and the cases listed below, the community boards’ opposition to safety improvements was based on the narrow concerns of drivers, who represent a minority of New Yorkers.

“Anecdotes and personal experience dominate decision making in community boards, not data,” Reynoso told Streetsblog in October. “There are folks that sit on transportation committee[s] that have no idea about transportation policy or any experience with it. Their background is that they care about parking.”

Here are other projects besides Amsterdam Avenue that are stuck in community board purgatory:

Queens Boulevard

DOT’s safety overhaul of the former “Boulevard of Death” — arguably the iconic redesign of de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative — has stalled east of Yellowstone Boulevard, where it is caught up in the battle over the city’s plan to build a new jail in nearby Kew Gardens, Gothamist reported last week. The opposition centers around concerns from beleaguered small business owners mistakenly attributing their struggles to a lack of parking.

Dyckman Street

In Inwood, the future of protected bike lanes on the main east-west corridor remains uncertain seven months after Mayor de Blasio’s DOT nixed them on one side of the street after pressure from the local community board, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Rep. Adriano Espaillat. Opponents specifically said they don’t like the bike lane because it makes it harder for drivers to double-park.

Flushing

And in Flushing, DOT is planning months of outreach, including with Queens CB 7, before installing simple painted bike lanes. That plan is already facing opposition from board members.

“You can’t be serious with all of the truck traffic and parking that the hospital needs because they park all over our neighborhood,” CB 7 member Kim Ohanian reportedly told DOT officials earlier this month. “I’m sorry but I cannot and will not ever support this plan, you’re planning on putting a bike lane on my street in front of my house.”

Church Ave. and Ocean Parkway

Just south of Prospect Park, Brooklyn Community Board 12 has so far refused to endorse safety plans for the deadly intersection of Church Avenue and Ocean Parkway.

Unsurprisingly, their inaction has had consequences: On March 25, a 63-year-old pedestrian was injured and hospitalized after being struck there, Bklyner reported.

 

  • Reggie

    “…Reynoso told Streetsblog in October[,] ‘There are folks that sit on transportation committee[s] that have no idea about transportation policy or any experience with it.'” And who appoints these ignorant community board members? People like Antonio Reynoso.

  • macartney

    To be fair to CM Reynoso, it is technically the Borough President (in this case BP Eric Adams) who appoints and re-appoints all Community Board members. Council Members make recommendations but BPs are under no obligation to listen.

    In addition, most BPs are automatically re-appointing all CB members except for cause or absenteeism. So the only input Council Members have is as to new members to fill vacancies.

  • ddartley

    Time for them to lose the name “Community Board” and switch to “Council of Elders.”

  • “Parking Boards.”

  • Nothing is held captive by the community boards. It’s entirely the fault of DOT and the mayor.

    How else do you explain it when a community board asks for a safety improvement or a better bike lane, and DOT just totally blows them off for years? That happens a whole bunch too.

    It’s still appropriate to call attention to this issue, because there are a few CBs that are definitely trying to cork critical projects, but overall advocates are a little too enthralled with this idea that DOT is their buddy & is really *trying hard* to advance Vision Zero improvements. In the face of any adversity or political blowback, DOT takes its easy wins and doesn’t touch anything that would impede automobile circulation, even if there are unsafe locations full of cars speeding and making wild turns. Community board concerns are just an additional excuse that DOT can lean on to justify DOT inaction. The focus should be first and foremost on having the DOT follow through with proposals for improvements without lengthy delays or inordinately-long “design phases”.

  • First of all, there are on the City Council precious few “people like Reynoso”, a passionate figher for safety-related street redesign. And, thanks to the anti-democratic policy of term limits, there soon won’t be any at all.

    Secondly, as @macartney:disqus has already pointed out, Community Board appointments are done by the borough president, not by Council members.

  • Mr. East Village

    Wrong wrong wrong. Community Boards are advisory and they almost always get it RIGHT. It’s the Mayor’s office not directing DOT to create bike lanes. RETRACT THIS ARTICLE

  • Community Boards are meant to be purely advisory. In fact they should be simply ornamental, just playpens where local busybodies can run around until they tire themselves out, bless their hearts. These klown kolleges have no legitimate role to play in the making any decisions on planning or street design or anything else.

    We have an elected government that is charged with devising and implementing policy. Anyone wishing to take part in this process is free to run for elected office.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Without term limits, there would never have been a fraction of the improvements for bicycles and pedestrians we have seen. You think Peter Vallone would be in favor? He’d still be there!

  • Everyone seems rather misinformed about what community boards do & how they function regarding most of the matters that they discuss.

    Additionally, New York City has a legislative City Council with just 51 members serving 8.6 million people, find any other city where the local district legislator / council member / supervisor for a district or a ward is representing upwards of 160,000 people. I know people are upset at the perception that local policy is being influenced by NIMBY locals, but the design of such a system (with one mayor, a couple of boro-wide and city-wide “ornamental” positions, and a very small council) is such that it is meant to not serve you well at all, and eliminating local hearings on land-use, permitting, and policy would only make that worse. It would make the mayor and the council even more emboldened to decide everything for their own short-term gain.

    If you are someone who is not familiar with what a community board does, you are poorly positioned to advocate for their abolition with an informed opinion as to why.

    But, more importantly, if your whole approach to civics is “You want to have a say? Run for office!” then it shows that you have zero perception of how running-for-office in New York City actually works, and how that process is captured by the busybodies and the political elites who… SURPRISE!… tend to have no legitimate experience in making any decisions on planning or street design or anything else. I suggest you talk to your neighbors, attend some civic functions, and read up on the topic. I say that supportively – we need more people involved, not more people throwing rocks from the outside.

  • Considering the low level of voter turnout for Council elections, beating an incumbent or a machine candidate would not be an unrealistically difficult task for a popular independent reform candidate.

    Also, I’d like it if Reynoso and Rodriguez could take up residence in the Council for decades (as their backward-minded predecessors such as Vallone, Lopez, etc. were able to do), so as to defend and advance the interests of vulnerable road users.

  • A Citizen

    You should probably disclose you are CB member if you are going to parrott the party line in support of the worthless dated bodies.

  • You’re right. I am a CB member and I have been paid a grand total of $0 over 5 years and spent hundreds of hours of volunteer work going over budgetary issues, SUPPORTING bike lanes loudly and enthusiastically, and going over everything from ULURPs to liquor license applications to street renamings to proposals to locate health and homeless services in our district. I’m extremely conflicted and corrupt and have so much to gain from community boards continuing to exist

  • While I’ve not been part of Community Board proceedings, I have had the unfortunate experience of getting headaches while trying to reason with the Community Board members who attempt to obstruct every positive change.

    When I came to Woodhaven more than thirty years ago, our transportation options were crap. We of course had the J train and the nearby A train; but the bus situation was appalling. We had only the Q11 on Woodhaven Boulevard, and that consisted of small ramshackle vehicles run by the sleazy Green Bus Lines. The Q53 passed us by, as it had no stops between 63rd Drive and Broad Channel.

    Since then we’ve had the MTA takeover of the thieving private lines, which has led to modern equipment coming to the Q11, and to a rationalisation of the Q53’s route. It now has stops at Jamaica, 101st, and Atlantic Avenues, and functions as a great Limited. And we have the introduction of parallel lines to supplement these buses, the Q21 and the Q52.

    The DOT responded by making the Q53 an SBS line, and installing bus lanes and centre-island stops. It also intended to eliminate the left turn at Jamaica Avenue which requires a separate signal phase for turns off of Woodhaven, and so shortens the through phases on both Jamaica Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard.

    So, what did the Community Board do? It came out in force against these improvements, relentlessly spreading disinformation about the supposed “danger”. Worse, with the support of that bum Council member Ulrich, it was even successful in cancelling the left-turn ban, thereby blowing a chance to significantly improve the congestion problem and to make the area safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.

    The Community Board in my area has been — and remains — adamantly opposed to what is no doubt the greatest improvement to local residents’ quality of life in the last century. This is a travesty. (I recently noticed that a plaza has been named in honour of that klown kollege’s chief klown, and I felt the urge to climb up the pole and rip the sign down.) So please do not try to sell me on Community Boards.

    Now, if you want to make the argument that each member of the City Council is responsible for too many constiutents, then that is something that I can agree with. For instance, the heroic Antonio Reynoso represents a district that covers Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Ridgewood. This realistically should be three separate districts.

    The appropriate solution, then, is to triple the size of the Council. But what is not appropriate is to invest any power at all in some quasi-official appointed body of ignorant goofballs that will, by its nature, always be dominated by retrograde forces.

    Furthermore, I want the mayor and the Council to have the power to make binding decisions. That’s how representative democracy works. And let us not forget that it is thanks solely to a decisive and forceful mayor that we have our abundance of bike lanes, and that we have been able to experience the greatest positive transformation of the City since the Tenament Law.

    Finally, it won’t do to try to equate the outrageous ignorance of Community Board members to any trait of elected officials. The offices of our elected officials have the power and the clout to hire qualified experts in all fields, so that they can make decisions that follow good practices. Community Boards, on the other hand, pull conclusions out of their collective butts. Enough with this nonsense. Let’s allow our elected government to do what it is meant to do.

  • A Citizen

    A tad defensive? No one accused you of being corrupt or conflicted – you just decided to bring those terms into the conversation.

    In my experience dealing with boards in all five boroughs – they tend to have a myopic view that is limited to individuals serving on the boards with zero regard to the desires of the people they represent. There are exceptions, but not enough to justify the system.

  • Well, for one thing, you scolded me for not “disclosing” my interests in community boards, as if someone would have to “disclose” that they worked in a soup kitchen if they supported a homelessness conversion program.

    Second, maybe there’s some myopia to go around here, but you’re extremely disrespectful. And it’s not general. It’s personal. You’ve accused me of “parrotting the party line” as if I lacked integrity. You know I’m on a community board and yet you address me by using insulting terms for the boards, which means you definitely want me to see it and capitulate to your logic. (“Gee. I’m sorry. You’re right!”) I pointed out that I was a volunteer working for no money & pouring a lot of time down the drain in the name of civic service, particularly to advocate for the things that everyone here wants to see happen, and you still need to tell me your opinion that you see community boards as having “zero regard for” their constituents. And then you’re like, “A tad defensive?” When you’re insulting and condescending, you should not clutch your pearls when the person on the receiving end is, at the very least, defensive.

    But honestly, I’ve said this before and I’ll say this again: there is something about society today where everyone hates the government and nobody trusts anyone who works for the government or serves as an elected official. I don’t see the talk about community boards as a focused conversation about what works & what does not work in having participative deliberation about local issues. I see it as one more symptom of broken trust and impatience from individuals toward governments. Obviously the premise of “disbanding community boards” is that somehow that would take decisions out of the hands of people you don’t trust & put them back into the hands of people you DO trust. Except you really haven’t thought this through. Yes, you shouldn’t trust everyone on your local community board (oh god, yes, there are people in that system that hold a lot of power who you can’t trust at all, and they openly demonstrate their lack of integrity). But also, who DO you trust with this stuff? And why? If DOT is the only agency in NYC who ever stops a project because a community board objected to the project in principle, and if DOT won’t even propose projects that safety advocates are asking for, then why do you think we’ll get more progress without the community boards? The thing is, you don’t really know that. This is only about the fact that you have a negative view about the boards, so getting rid of them is a move to disempower people you don’t trust (sight unseen, on the basis of reporting that makes 59 distinct, everchanging boards all bleed into one nuisance). And it doesn’t involve an informed assessment about policymaking, about democracy, or about who you trust the most and the least. Nobody in America seems to think on that level… they just all have “teams” they root for. They don’t actually want to show up and put their hands in the mess. They’re rude to the people who do. You can make all the individual valid points you want about community boards having a spotty track record, they’re not wrong. But what does it add up to? Without the boards, the agencies who went along with the community boards will be making the decisions, with the input of the council members and borough presidents who made all the community board appointment decisions. That will be a far more “myopic” process than you can imagine. Just a few people in a room, making decisions for hundreds of thousands of people who they don’t have time to talk to. Even in the best cases where everyone has tons of integrity, a few elected officials just don’t have the time to do an in-depth analysis of everything. We should be looking into doing more to help electeds navigate the issues. But I’m afraid that, without Community Boards, the electeds won’t get any help… they’ll just be the next public servants targeted by an impatient public who thinks everyone is a crook. That’s why I have little faith that people who come in guns-blazing to condescend to Community Boards and use very broad terms to call them “worthless” and “myopic” have a real vision about optimizing policy and agency work… that is a conversation (optimizing policy & meaningful public feedback to agencies) I’d like to advance. I don’t have any time for armchair quarterbacks who think we’re all slobs. That’s not helpful and it’s demoralizing to people who do public service work with integrity, which actually harms our society more than you can possibly understand. And it’s not justified because you got pissed off at a headline somewhere.

  • Joe R.

    I personally call them “Parking Protection Boards” since that seems to be the only thing many of their members worry about.

  • Joe R.

    Keep in mind a lot of the problem is at the top. Trottenberg’s DOT can’t do anything that the Mayor doesn’t want it to do. That’s likely the reason for sticking to the easy wins. Also keep in mind we have an idiot of a Mayor for whom all opinions are equally valid. Case in point—the LED streetlights. DOT initially did a good job in terms of intensity and color temperature. Sure, there may have been some issues with light trespass into homes, but that’s easily corrected with cutoff shields or different optics. Unfortunately, the Mayor listened to a very vocal minority who bitched incessantly that lights were “too bright”, “too white”, “like a strip mall from outer space”, etc. He then had DOT start putting in lights which were both dimmer and yellower, detracting from safety in the process, all without consulting experts on the subject who would have told him unequivocally that this was an awful idea. I personally hit a hole I couldn’t see while riding on account of these dimmer, yellower streetlights. Adding to the fray was the American Medical Association’s idiotic recommendations to go with dimmer, yellower lighting because of blue light junk science. Never mind that they were either unaware, or just didn’t care, that doing so makes the streets less safe because people can’t see as well. Streetlighting is something for which DOT should have had the final say. The appropriate response would have been for the Mayor to have DOT respond to the complaints. DOT’s proper response would have been to say they will install shields everywhere someone has direct light from the streetlights entering their windows, but the color temperature and intensity is here to stay because studies show both to be optimal for safety.

    I’m sure a similar process is why a lot of street safety improvements either aren’t done at all, or are watered down. We’re living in an era where the opinion of laypeople is given as much weight as those of experts. Why bother having experts at all if people are just going to ignore them?

  • I’m not sure why the mayor is directing DOT in such a fashion, but it is absolutely true and it’s the root cause of why progress has been slow under this administration.

    I don’t want to absolve the local obstructionists who do tend to sit on community boards (or, worse, hold Democratic Party positions or sit on the Council). That said, the boards are mismanaged for having demographics that are not representative of the community districts that they cover. That can, and should, be fixed; and the result would, almost certainly, be policy that is considerate of a wider range of interests.

    What frustrates me is the opinion that community panels are awful concepts doomed to failure. They’re not. Particularly, when appropriately staffed, they do tend to ask for things that are meaningful and helpful. They don’t have to be stuffed with local representatives for condo buildings. (People also need to seriously consider the issues that would arise if the community boards were eliminated or diminished enough such that the main “boards” giving opinions to council members and the mayor were ONLY the co-op, condo & tenants associations. That has been the main issue with the L train situation, because the community boards have been asking for all the remediations that the residential groups have been fighting against.)

  • r

    It would be one thing if community boards empaneled local citizen experts – land use attorneys, urban planners, architects, etc. – and had them serve on boards as expert advisory councils to help inform elected officials and the public and influence plans on a granular level, but that’s not how it works. It’s a guy from Joe’s trucking company who wants his parking or, on the other side, a random advocate who thinks there should never be parking. In either case, they shouldn’t get so much of the influence that DOT gives them.

    You are correct that the current system simply leads to shortsightedness and petty concerns over parking, at least at the transportation committee level. And, yes, there are exceptions as you note. But the system is messed up.

  • Right on . It comes from the top.

  • Reggie

    Borough presidents listen to council members. The principal reason why it takes so long to re/appoint members in Brooklyn is the borough president is waiting for laggard council members to submit their recommendations. It is not just borough presidents who automatically reappoint existing community board members. That’s why council members were such big supporters of term limits for community board members; they want to remove some members but don’t have the back-bone to do it.

  • Reggie

    See below.

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