From Transportation Advocate to City Planner—Get to Know UEP Alum Tony Lechuga

We know UEP alumni’s work spans far and wide, so we’re starting a series of blog posts featuring the stories of some of our practical visionaries, where they are today, and how they got there. For the first post in this series, we caught up with Tony Lechuga, a 2017 MA grad, who we profiled back in 2018 when he worked on transportation advocacy at LivableStreets Alliance. Since then, he’s shifted focus and location, moving to New York City and joining their Department of City Planning. In this post, Tony gives us an update on his career and new role. 

Can you describe your current role at the New York Department of City Planning?

My main role with the Department of City Planning (DCP) is as a City Planner in the Manhattan Office. Given its large size, New York City has borough specific offices. The boroughs are themselves sub-divided into Community Boards. I’m the Planner assigned to Community Board 8, which comprises the Upper East Side. However, given workloads across the city I have actually worked on projects across most of Manhattan.

NYC’s zoning allows for most development to occur as-of-right, so as long as a developer is following the designated zoning rules, they can build what they want. Our office works on the ten to fifteen percent of projects that are not as-of-right. For a variety of reasons (including constrained site plans, outdated zoning regulations, or other extenuating circumstances) a property owner can seek re-zonings, waivers, authorizations, certifications, and other mechanisms that allow them to pursue something outside the designated zoning rules. My job is to meet with those property owners and process their land use applications. I vet projects and express to applicants if we think their application has merit, maintaining ongoing discussions with an applicant’s counsel, architect, environmental consultant, etc. to make sure all of their materials are submitted properly and address any of our concerns, and provide other guidance in this process. While we may not always agree with an applicant’s proposal we are obligated to accept and process that application, which then goes through an approval process that often involves the City Planning Commission (CPC) and the Community Board providing either guidance or a direct vote on the proposed action.

Additionally, I work on City-led initiatives which include neighborhood plans and zoning text amendments. On these projects the city actually becomes the applicant and so our role is to produce all the materials necessary and then seek approval through the established mechanisms as any other applicant would.

Despite coming from a transportation background, UEP provided me with knowledge about land use planning and environmental planning that were essential to me getting a job with DCP.

I also have a unique role with DCP where I sometimes work on projects as part of the Environmental Assessment and Review Division (EARD). In that role I am responsible for examining the environmental review documents associated with development applications. Usually, planners either work on the Land Use side of a project through one of the borough offices or the Environmental Review side of a project through EARD. I volunteered to be one of the first planners to try and create cross-divisional learning by working in both divisions.

What drove your transition from working on transportation at Livable Streets Alliance to working in a planning department?

I worked in transportation planning as a grad student when I worked for WalkBoston, a great pedestrian and safe streets advocacy organization. It naturally lead me to working at LivableStreets. I also wrote my thesis on how a transit-oriented development rezoning in Denver, Colorado led to massive displacement of the Hispanic population. So, I was always interested in transportation planning. But transportation planning—and more specifically advocacy work like I was doing in Boston—is a grind. The cult-of-the-car is strong and so the work felt like an endless struggle with occasional minor victories.

UEP’s requirement to do an internship led me to WalkBoston … the knowledge and connections I gained there were immensely valuable.

When I was looking for a job in NYC, I applied for some transportation jobs, but also wanted to see what other work was out there. When I applied to work at DCP I wasn’t sold on the job given that I had mostly worked in transportation planning. But I was really drawn to the team when I met them and I felt good about the prospect of learning about the municipal side of land use planning, the autonomy this job would afford, and the types of projects I could be a part of in the Manhattan Office.

How has UEP helped you get to where you are in your career?

UEP’s requirement to do an internship led me to WalkBoston, an opportunity I found because a former UEP student had interned there and recommended it. The knowledge and connections I gained there were immensely valuable. Everyone there was extremely experienced and widely connected. My internship at WalkBoston led directly to my role at LivableStreets.

Also, UEP didn’t have a requirement to concentrate on any particular aspect of planning, and that allowed me to take a diversity of classes and develop a broad knowledge base. Despite coming from a transportation background, UEP provided me with knowledge about land use planning and environmental planning that were essential to me getting a job with DCP.

What are three skills that have been key to your professional success?

  1. Verbal and written communication, especially the ability to provide simplified but comprehensive explanations of planning concepts.
  2. Flexibility, in terms of rolling with schedule disruptions or surprise roadblocks.
  3. Independent problem solving, which may be more of a personality trait, but I often take a lot of independent time to make sure I understand concepts or processes.

Can you share an example of a favorite project you have worked on and how it exemplifies working in the policy/planning field?

This is a tough question because one lesson you learn quickly in the planning field is that most projects, no matter their size, take a long time to complete. For example, nearly two-years out from my time working at LivableStreets I’m now seeing some of the work I did finally starting to come to fruition.

Currently I’m working as an environmental planner on a neighborhood plan for the SoHo and NoHo neighborhoods of Manhattan. It’s an area of the city where the zoning hasn’t changed in a very long time, it’s close to a diversity of jobs, and transit rich, but fairly underbuilt by Manhattan’s standards. We’re working on ways we can increase housing affordability and economic and racial diversity, while working within the parameters of a largely historic area. The diversity of stakeholders, perspectives, and desired outcomes on a project like this makes it fascinating and difficult, but that’s part of creating a neighborhood plan in a large city.

Images courtesy of Tony Lechuga and from Envision SoHo/NoHo.