The Case for More Architects on Community Boards

Chapter News by • 08/31

Event: Not Business as Usual: Community Board Round-Up
Location: Center for Architecture, 08.18.10
Speakers: Shaan Khan — Director of Community Affairs and Constituent Services, Office of the Manhattan Borough President; David Paul Helpern, FAIA, LEED AP — Founding Principal, Helpern Architects, & Member, Community Board 8, Manhattan
Moderator: Margery H. Perlmutter, Esq., AIA — Partner, Bryan Cave, & Director for Legislative Affairs, AIANY Board of Directors
Organizers: AIANY “Not Business as Usual” initiative
Sponsors: Chief Manufacturing; Lutron Electronics; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Architects bring a highly appropriate skill set to the public sector, said land-use attorney and AIANY Director for Legislative Affairs Margery Perlmutter, Esq., AIA, and her fellow panelists: not only technical expertise but a capacity for negotiation and problem-solving when the problems are complex and the affected parties diverse. New York’s community boards, populated by dedicated appointees and charged with influential (though not decisive) advisory roles in land-use decisions, are an ideal instrument for applying those skills, and AIANY is actively encouraging the city’s architects not only to work with the boards but to serve on them. The latest panel in the “Not Business as Usual” (NBAU) series offered a practical primer on the history, structure, and function of this segment of city government.

Shaan Khan, director of community affairs and constituent services at Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s office, presented a rundown of how community boards have evolved since their origin in 1951 as advisory groups, and on how they operate today as sovereign agencies under the 1975 City Charter. Each of the city’s 59 boards (12 in Manhattan) includes 50 volunteer members, half appointed by the borough presidents (BP) outright and half after City Council nominations; the members represent important demographic constituencies and good-government groups and serve staggered two-year terms.

Members are required to attend monthly meetings observing parliamentary Robert’s Rules of Order, plus meetings of committees on major areas such as land use, transit, zoning, and education and topical subcommittees (a few boards have “green” subcommittees; the Upper East Side’s Board 8 has one on the Second Avenue subway). With 300 vacancies opening up each year in Manhattan alone, BPs are constantly looking for citizens with detailed local knowledge and community commitment. “Public membership,” with topical input but no full-board voting role, is another way to contribute.

After 45 years in the neighborhood and 40 years making professional presentations to boards, David Helpern, FAIA, was appointed to the Upper East Side’s Board 8 in 2007; he has participated in deliberations over everything from awnings and sidewalk cafés to institutional expansions and the controversial Foster + Partners tower above the Parke-Bernet Galleries. “Amazingly,” he notes, “there are people who do not realize how accessible the community boards are.” He advises architects presenting to a board always to make their case on the merits and never to laud their own expertise over the views of laypeople. Debates can be passionate, particularly in ULURP, but he has found his colleagues impressively knowledgeable and civil: “We do not always agree, but we always part friends.” (See Helpern’s article “The Hottest Seat in Town” in OCULUS, Spring 2010, pp. 30-31)

Urging architects to scrutinize the quality of their argumentation, graphics, and technology, Perlmutter recommends making community board presentations an opportunity to influence debate, not a mundane chore. She observed that professionals who understand cities on a physical level can offer an informed voice that officials hear all too rarely. “Architects are not involved in politics enough… 100% of what goes on in [city] politics has to do with architecture ultimately, or urbanism.” AIANY’s contact person for architects interested in seeking board positions is Policy Director Jay Bond.

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