New York, NY—Land use and development in Manhattan have proven to be a political hot potato because while developers say that new construction is necessary for Manhattan’s continued growth, local residents and activists say that the new construction makes their neighborhoods unaffordable. The five candidates running to be the next Manhattan Borough President each had a chance during a recent debate to provide their view on the current process for development and how they might approach land use decisions.
The Manhattan Chamber of Commerce’s President & CEO, Jessica Walker, who moderated the debate, provided some context on the topic, by pointing to Amazon’s decision last year to withdraw an application to build a new corporate campus in Queens after a fierce backlash and the recent abandonment by developers seeking to rezone Industry City in Brooklyn because of opposition calls of gentrification.
“Many in the business community are still in disbelief that local communities would shun the thousands of jobs that would have been generated by the Amazon deal and Industry City…but on the other hand the issues of gentrification and affordability concerns are real,” said Walker.
She added, “As a result, there are local advocates pushing for new strategies to mitigate displacement of long-time residents, and also injecting even greater, there are calls for injecting even greater community involvement in the land use process.”
N.Y. Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) noted that the Hudson Yards project on Manhattan’s West Side is the epitome of how the city’s approach has failed.
“It’s a sterile mall, and now an empty sterile mall,” said Hoylman.
He bemoaned the fact that there was a real opportunity after the West Side Stadium project was rejected in 2005 to build low- and middle-income housing.
“Instead, we got [the] Related [Companies’] proposal, and the city administration let Hudson Yards move forward in its current manifestation, but also the state kicked money in for it. In total, we as taxpayers gave tax breaks and other governmental assistance for Hudson Yards worth nearly $6 billion. You just to have step back and question that,” Hoylman said.
He added he would like to reform the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, and he would as borough president advocate for the repeal of the 421-a tax exemption, which is given to real-estate developers for building new multi-family residential buildings but which critics say the current tax break costs the city about $1.4 billion in lost tax revenue annually.
Council Member Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan) highlighted the fact that’s he refused real estate and lobbyist money, which will enable him to be an independent voice in land use decisions. He was one of several elected leaders who voted against the Amazon project in 2019, saying that it was a missed opportunity to create thousands of jobs.
“There’s something wrong when the community is forced to either rubber stamp or kill a deeply flawed plan losing out on the opportunity to bring new jobs and commercial activity to our city," began Kallos.
“As a new parent, I use them when I can’t find what I need locally. But we need to think transformatively about our neighborhoods and how to fill our storefronts, to not only serve residents' needs but to keep them and everyone else coming back.”
In the Council he’s co-sponsored the Small Business Survival Act, which would establish an environment for fair negotiations in the commercial lease renewal process in order to determine reasonable lease terms, and Commercial Rent Control, which would regulate rents for retail, manufacturing and office spaces under a certain square footage.
“We can build on the legacy of [Manhattan Borough President] Gale Brewer to bring her mom-and-pop zonings borough wide—limiting the size of storefronts and commercial corridors is proven to protect mom-and-pop stores from having rents driven up by banks, national chains and big box stores. It worked for the West Side, and we can do it for the borough,” said Kallos.
Elizabeth Caputo, a former chair with Community Board 7 on the Upper West Side, said she differed with some of her colleagues on the issue of how to work together with the development community. For example, developers will have to be invited to the table, along with residents of the public and affordable housing, as well as small business owners.
“I feel like that is the only way we're going to make progress, especially not just during the pandemic but what is going to be a years, if not decades-long economic recovery, which I know we are going to bring back and bring back even better,” said Caputo.
“But we can’t just ignore them, and we can’t malign them. So, I think there is a way that with the right person, there is a way to work together with industry, and particularly the real estate industry.”
Kimberly Watkins, president of the Community Educational Council 3 in Harlem, said that the city has to hit the pause button on rezonings because she questioned who benefits.
“Regular New Yorkers don’t. We’re priced out, we may get a couple of trees, maybe an extra playground, but luxury high rises and even the affordable homes are not affordable to the majority of people that live in these neighborhoods. It has got to end,” said Watkins.
She added that she would want to focus on increasing homeownership rates in the borough, particularly among communities of color.
“It is just astounding to me that only 20 percent of apartments in New York are owned, homeownership is really low, it’s one of the things that I want to focus on as borough president.”
Council Member Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) said that while it’s important to preserve the integrity and livability of neighborhoods, the city has also to grow and add density because there is a desperate need for affordable housing.
He believes that the borough needs a comprehensive, borough-wide, multi-year planning process that can ensure that density is shared among neighborhoods.
“It’d be an opportunity to examine street space and sidewalks. It’d be an opportunity to re-examine our commercial overlay, and it’d be an opportunity to strengthen and grow clusters of sectors like biotech and health science, which I think is going to be a major growth sector for New York City post-pandemic,” said Levine.
He added that the borough president’s power can and should be strengthened in this process. For example, one proposal currently being floated is to ensure that the City Planning Commission needs a supermajority to overturn a decision made by the borough president.
That would require a Charter change, something that’ll he be pushing for.
“The vision here is complicated, but it’s very clear: We have to make our neighborhoods ever more human-centered and pedestrian-centered; we have to find a way to grow in an equitable way and that’ll be the vision I’ll push forward if I’m lucky enough to be the next borough president,” Levine said.