New York City Autonomy
July 15th, 2019
Albany controls many of the regulatory, fiscal, or enforcement powers within New York City that would be more appropriately controlled locally. In fact, the state government, not New York City, sets policy governing a wide array of topics, from the core functions of our transit and education systems to more exceedingly local concerns like whether we have speed cameras on our streets or plastic bags in our grocery stores.1 And when the state does grant power to the city, too often it is limited in time and scope, ensuring that Albany maintains its relevance and long-term control.2
The state routinely encroaches on areas of policy that should be much more local. For example, city businesses that want a liquor license can get one from the New York State Liquor Authority even if their local community board votes against it.3 An unelected state economic development agency passed a resolution banning any “behavior” that “has a tendency to disrupt commercial activity” near Times Square, and State Police and labor inspectors were dispatched to enforce the measure.4 And, in perhaps the most galling example— New York City even requires permission from Albany to install cameras to keep cars from speeding through school zones. Last summer, New York City’s school zone speed cameras went dark because the New York State Senate—then mainly controlled by lawmakers from outside New York City—failed to reauthorize the cameras before legislators left for the summer.5 None of these issues are inherently state issues in any meaningful way—and yet they are all controlled in Albany.
This isn’t just about decision making power; New York City is literally getting short-changed. We are sending significantly more money to Albany than we’re getting in return. According to a 2011 study by the Rockefeller Institute, city residents generate nearly half of state income tax revenues, but the city receives only 40 percent of state disbursements,6 despite the overwhelming need for investment in our transit and education systems and beyond. The current situation is unsustainable, inefficient, and unjust. The myriad challenges of the future require a coordinated, holistic approach to municipal governance. It’s time to return to New York City the power to govern itself.
On the following pages we lay out the ideas that make up a roadmap to a Five Borough Future for New York City autonomy:
- Elect State Legislators Committed to Expanding New York City’s Powers
- Expand New York City’s Power Over the MTA
- Give New York City Greater Control Over Congestion Pricing
- Grant the City Permanent Control Over Its Schools
- Repeal the Urstadt Law
- Ensure All Development Goes Through New York City’s Uniform Land Use Review
What We Must Do
Elect State Legislators Committed to Expanding New York City’s Powers
A Five Borough Future for New York City means electing state lawmakers who don’t just vote the right way on the issues, but who will also work to systematically transfer power to city institutions and ensure the city receives an appropriate share of state resources. That means devolving significantly more power from Albany to New York City (and other localities around the state), while expanding policymaking at the municipal level through the City Council and the mayor’s office. In addition to strong local advocates, we need state senators and assembly members who will insist that Albany allow New York City to govern itself.
Expand New York City’s Power Over the MTA
New Yorkers overwhelmingly rely on our extensive mass transit system to get us where we need to go. In fact, of all people taking the subway to work on a daily basis, 60 percent live in the five boroughs.7 In addition, more than a quarter of all Long Island Rail Road riders are New York City residents.8 Despite City residents’ clear reliance on our mass transit system, it is not controlled not by the mayor. Instead, the governor of New York controls the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which oversees most public transit in New York City. Despite its overwhelming importance to the city, the mayor only appoints four representatives to the MTA Board, while the other ten members are appointed by the governor and suburban counties in the MTA region.9
As a result, the State Legislature controls the ability to raise revenue for the subway system rather than the City Council. New Yorkers deserve an MTA that is directly accountable to those who rely on it most: the people of New York City. The City of New York should control the subways, buses, and bridges within its jurisdiction—with clear accountability vested in the mayor and the City Council. The city government would hold responsibility to improve the system, devote resources, expand service, and set fares in a professional, transparent, predictable and responsible manner, with oversight by the City Council.
To learn more about how that could be accomplished, read Five Borough Future's white paper, A Reliable and Robust Transit System for New York City.
Give New York City Greater Control Over Congestion Pricing
The congestion pricing plan recently passed by the State Legislature and signed by the governor runs the risk of ceding too much control over New York City’s streets to the state. The plan created a new “traffic mobility review board” to work out the details of congestion pricing for Manhattan, but the mayor will appoint only one of its six members, while the car-centric suburbs will get two appointees. This board will recommend the price of the tolls, determine eligibility for exemptions, and other key details of the program. Furthermore, despite its mission to improve traffic and congestion on city streets, the panel will report to an entity of the MTA, rather than the city.10 The Legislature must revise the board to allow the mayor to recommend a majority of voting members.
Grant the City Permanent Control Over Its Schools
Mayoral control of schools, first granted in 2002 to the Bloomberg administration and extended into the current administration,11 has been central to some successful points of progress in New York City schools, such as universal pre-K. But mayoral control has been extended in short increments (most recently, for three years12), which often come with strings attached, and negotiations over renewal of that power take significant time and attention from city and state officials. The threat of control reverting to the state complicates longer term planning and has been used by state lawmakers to extract concessions on often unrelated measures rather than on the needs of students within the mayoral control system itself.13 The Legislature should grant permanent mayoral control (similar3 to the permanent extension of the rent laws recently enacted) or, at a bare minimum, grant control in significantly larger time increments so the mayor can focus on improving education in city schools rather than begging Albany for the authority to do so.14
Repeal the Urstadt Law
While the State Legislature recently passed sweeping changes to the rent laws and tenant protections in New York City,15 an arcane law—known as the Urstadt Law—prevents the City Council from enacting stronger local reforms, such as the proposed “pied-à-terre” tax on luxury second homes,16 that would allow the city to address its affordable housing crisis.17 For years, this produced a system where lawmakers who don’t represent New York City raked in campaign cash from developers and then pushed a pro-developer agenda in Albany at the expense of tenants in the five boroughs.18 This year’s recalibration of the rent laws was a major step forward for tenants after decades of pro-landlord agendas,19 but New York City and other localities around the state still need additional local authority to develop comprehensive reforms without interference from Albany.
Ensure All Development Goes Through New York City’s Uniform Land Use Review
All too often, controversial, major development proposals—from the proposal for Amazon HQ2 in Long Island City20 to the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn21—sidestep the city’s extensive, comprehensive land use process in favor of a “streamlined” state process.22 The state process—known as a General Project Plan, or GPP—includes no requirement for review by local community boards or input from the New York City Council.23 It is controlled by the Empire State Development Corporation—an entity of the state whose leader is chosen by and reports to the governor. Instead of council review, the GPP process requires the City Planning Commission (CPC) to sign off on projects that skirt the City’s land use review process. In cases where the mayor or the CPC do not agree, the state has the ability to override and pursue the project anyway.24 This is unfair and undemocratic.
In contrast, the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) is an extensive review process—including input from community boards, the City Council, and borough president—that controls how land can be used.25 While it’s not perfect, ULURP does include a mechanism for local accountability and requires a democratic process that culminates in a City Council vote to approve or reject a project.26
Other than the near-miss with Amazon HQ2, one of the most visible examples of a GPP used to steamroll community opposition is the former Atlantic Yards site in Brooklyn. Then-City Councilwoman Letitia James, who represented the project site, was one of the most vocal opponents of the project. But because the state did an end-run around the Council, she lacked the power to block it or even substantially alter the plan.27 Instead, the state took the lead in redeveloping the area, with little public input. According to Kent Barwick, then-president of the Municipal Arts Society, “Atlantic Yards is the poster child for what goes wrong when process is ignored.”28 And at Brooklyn Bridge Park nearly a decade later, despite overwhelming opposition from the community and local elected officials, an unelected board skipped the ULURP process to approve a luxury housing development inside the park itself.29
The need for ULURP for every development project in New York City is not a trivial one. It is a critical tool that allows residents to have a voice in the development of their neighborhoods. Communities should not live in fear of having a state-approved development dumped on their doorsteps without their knowledge, without the consent of the City Council, or without the needs of their neighbors considered or even heard. And though ULURP could be improved, moving all development proposals through ULURP would be a strong step in the right direction.*
New York City is more than capable of handling many of its own affairs without Albany pushing us around. That’s just as true about the laws that govern our rent regulated housing units as it is about speed cameras. We need legislators who will increase the ability of New York City—and other municipalities around the state—to control their own destinies. In order to tackle the many challenges we face now and those looming on the horizon, we need processes that don’t run roughshod over communities and representatives who will stand up on behalf of the communities they were elected to serve.
*We will address land use reform, including how to improve the ULURP, in an upcoming white paper.
1. Jesse McKinley, “Cuomo Blocks New York City Plastic Bag Law,” New York Times, February 14th, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/14/nyregion/cuomo-blocks-new-york-city-plastic-bag-law.html.
2. Vivian Wang, “A Screeching Stop for Speed Cameras in New York City School Zones,” New York Times, July 25th, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/25/nyregion/speed-cameras-nyc-schools.html.
3. Colin Moynihan, “Think There Are Too Many Bars in Your Neighborhood? You’re Not Alone,” New York Times, August 15th, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/15/nyregion/liquor-licenses-bars-nyc.html.
4. Jen Chung, “Topless Painted Women Get Times Square Welcome From Tourists, NY State Police,” Gothamist, August 23rd, 2015, https://gothamist.com/2015/08/23/topless_painted_women_return_to_tim.php.
5. Vivian Wang, “A Screeching Stop for Speed Cameras in New York City School Zones,” New York Times, July 25th, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/25/nyregion/speed-cameras-nyc-schools.html.
6. “Giving and Getting: Regional Distribution of Revenue and Spending in the New York State Budget, 2009-2010,” Rockefeller Institute of Government, 2011, https://rockinst.org/issue-area/giving-getting-regional-distribution-revenue-spending-new-york-state-budget-2009-2010/.
7. “How Much Time and Money Are New York City Subway Riders Losing to Delays?”, New York City Independent Budget Office, October 2017,
8. “2012-2014 LIRR Origin and Destination Report Volume I: Travel Behavior Among All LIRR Passengers,” Metropolitan Transportation Authority, August 23rd, 2016,
9. “MTA Board Member Stats,” Metropolitan Transportation Authority, https://new.mta.info/transparency/leadership/board-members/stats.
10. Nicole Gelinas, “King of New York,” City Limits, April 2nd, 2019, https://www.city-journal.org/cuomo-congestion-pricing-plan.
11. Kate Taylor, “Does It Matter Who Runs New York City’s Schools?” New York Times, June 23rd, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/23/nyregion/new-york-school-control.html.
12. Leslie Brody, “Albany Extends Mayor's Control of New York City Schools by Three Years,” Wall Street Journal, April 1st, 2019, https://www.morningstar.com/news/dow-jones/TDJNDN_2019040111126/albany-extends-mayors-control-of-new-york-city-schools-by-three-years.html.
13. Nathan Tempey, “Well, They've Gone And Done It: Mayoral Control Set To Expire After Being Held Hostage By Charter-Loving Republicans,” Gothamist, June 22nd, 2017, https://gothamist.com/2017/06/22/mayoral_control_albany.php.
14. There is a legitimate debate over what mayoral control of schools should look like. Our priority is that NYC control its schools. How that control is balanced between the mayor, the City Council, and local communities, is a question that deserves attention and discussion, but is not the subject of this paper.
15. Vivian Wang, “New Rent Laws Pass in N.Y.: ‘The Pendulum Is Swinging’ Against Landlords,” New York Times, June 14th, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/14/nyregion/rent-laws-ny-deal.html.
16. Vivian Wang, “N.Y. Had a Plan for a ‘Pied-à-Terre’ Tax on Expensive Homes. The Real Estate Industry Stopped It,” New York Times, March 29, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/29/nyregion/pied-a-terre-tax.html.
17. Ross Barkan, “Will NY Democrats Actually Do Something About Albany's Broken Rent Laws?” Gothamist, November 2nd, 2018, https://gothamist.com/2018/11/02/election_midterms_housing_nyc.php.
18. Cezary Podkul, Derek Kravitz, and Will Parker, “Why Developers of Manhattan Luxury Towers Give Millions to Upstate Candidates,” ProPublica, December 30th, 2016, https://www.propublica.org/article/developers-of-manhattan-luxury-towers-give-millions-to-upstate-candidates.
19. Luis Ferré-Sadurní, Jesse McKinley and Vivian Wang, “Landmark Deal Reached on Rent Protections for Tenants in N.Y.,” New York Times, June 11th, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/11/nyregion/rent-protection-regulation.html.
20. Sam Raskin, “Amazon’s HQ2 deal with New York, explained,” Curbed New York, February 14th, 2019, https://ny.curbed.com/2018/11/16/18098589/amazon-hq2-nyc-queens-long-island-city-explained.
21. “Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation,” Empire State Development, https://esd.ny.gov/atlantic-yards-community-development-corporation-1.
22. Daniel Geiger, “Cuomo likely to steer Amazon project around City Council,” Crain’s New York Business, November 9th, 2018, https://www.crainsnewyork.com/real-estate/cuomo-likely-steer-amazon-project-around-city-council.
24. “CPC Recommendations on General Project Plans,” City Planning Commission, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/about/cpc-recommendations.page.
25. “ULURP Explained,” City Limits, https://citylimits.org/zonein/ulurp-explained/.
27. Reuven Blau, “Officials call on Atlantic Yards developers to hurry up affordable housing,” New York Daily News, November 14th, 2013, https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/brooklyn/pols-protesting-unkept-promises-atlantic-yards-article-1.1517814.
28. Ezra Goldstein, “What Went Wrong With “Atlantic Yards?” Streetsblog NYC, November 29th, 2006, https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2006/11/29/what-went-wrong-at-atlantic-yards/.
29. Nikhita Venugopal, “Controversial Brooklyn Bridge Park Condos Approved as Locals Protest Plan,” DNAInfo, June 7th, 2016, https://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20160607/brooklyn-heights/controversial-brooklyn-bridge-park-condos-approved-as-locals-protest-plan/.