“If everything…is just a question of ‘Does the local community support or not support it,’ the answer will almost, inevitably, always be ‘no,’ so it can’t just be that, it has to be a broader consideration,” the former councilmember said during an interview on the WBAI radio program City Watch.
With the fate of a few large residential rezoning proposals in the balance, City Planning Director Dan Garodnick is urging councilmembers—whose support is critical for projects in their districts—to weigh the citywide need for more housing over parochial concerns and rigid affordability rubrics.
Garodnick, a former Manhattan councilmember, said he respects the key role that city legislators play in the land use process but hopes they will take “a broader view” when it comes to rezoning decisions. Several such projects currently on the table—like ongoing plans to change zoning rules and build a new 349-unit housing complex along a stretch of Bruckner Boulevard in Throggs Neck, and a nearly 3,000-apartment mixed-use neighborhood atop an industrial patch of Southeast Astoria—have faced resistance from community members and some lawmakers.
“I think we have to take a step back [and] remember that, in many of these cases, they are not explicitly local issues,” Garodnick said Sunday during an appearance on the WBAI radio program City Watch. “These are issues that affect all New Yorkers and have an impact on our housing supply, and have an impact on job creation and have an impact on construction.”
READ MORE: ‘Innovation QNS’ Plan to Upzone Industrial Astoria on Life Support
The full City Council traditionally defers to the local members on rezoning and land use decisions, a dynamic that allows councilmembers to fight for more affordable housing and other community concerns but also effectively empowers them to torpedo plans that are unpopular among their constituents. Garodnick said the concept of “member deference” inhibits housing production, though he still believes councilmembers should play a role in the process (he himself helped kill a Midtown East rezoning proposal in 2013 before shepherding a revised plan four years later).
He said he hoped councilmembers, like Marjorie Velázquez in Throggs Neck and Julie Won in Astoria, would advocate for their communities while keeping in mind the city’s dire housing shortage. New York City added 185,000 units in buildings with four or more apartments from 2010 to 2020, but at the same time, the population rose by about 629,000 people—continuing a decades-long trend of population and job growth outpacing new housing supply.
Councilmembers, Garodnick said, should “certainly go to bat for community interests [and] we want to make sure to support them with that, but to look with an eye toward the citywide needs that we are facing and to balance out local concerns with the need for the creation of housing.”
“If everything…is just a question of ‘Does the local community support or not support it,’ the answer will almost, inevitably, always be ‘no,’ so it can’t just be that, it has to be a broader consideration,” he added.
But in many recent cases, members’ resistance has centered on the question of affordability, not knee-jerk NIMBYism. They say too few units in proposed rezoning areas would be priced for low-income New Yorkers experiencing the worst of the city’s affordability crisis. Less than 1 percent of apartments priced below $1,500 per month are vacant, according to the city’s most recent housing survey. Meanwhile, homelessness and evictions are on the rise.
Won earlier this month issued a set of “land use principles” for developers to follow if they want to win her approval for a rezoning in her Western Queens district. The list instructs developers to cap rents in more apartments than the baseline currently outlined in the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) program. MIH rules require developers and owners of new housing in rezoned areas to cap rents in 25 to 30 percent of their units for a range of income levels at or below the Area Median Income (AMI), but comparatively few of those units end up being affordable to the lowest-income residents most in need.
Harlem Councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan withheld support to rezone a stretch of West 145th Street in Harlem unless the developer met her demand for affordable housing that matched the income levels of her district. The developer instead pulled the application.
Garodnick defended MIH, which he voted for during his time in the Council, as the “most aggressive mandatory program in the country.”
“The thing that I think people have to remember is that while we should always be taking a hard look at the income levels and considering whether or not we have [it] right, for legal and policy reasons this program needs to be feasible,” he said. “If you’re going to require affordable housing be included in private developments then you need to hit the right mark. You want to get the most affordability out of these projects you possibly can [while] also ensuring that the building gets built.”
MIH has nevertheless faced persistent criticism for not including more apartments with rents priced for lower-income New Yorkers, particularly in poorer neighborhoods targeted for rezonings under Mayor Bill de Blasio. The baseline rules should be a “floor not a ceiling,” wrote Queens Borough President Donovan Richards in an op-ed for the Queens Eagle describing his recommendation to reject the Astoria rezoning proposal, called Innovation QNS. Richards voted to institute MIH during his time in the Council.
During the WBAI interview, Garodnick also discussed plans to upzone a stretch of Central Brooklyn along Atlantic Avenue, as well as parts of The Bronx planned for new MetroNorth stations.
But he declined to make news by revealing what other new neighborhoods the Adams administration may look to rezone.
Listen to the full interview here: