Wall Street Journal New York City Zoning Plan Is Under Fire by Josh Dawsey

Wall Street Journal
Wall Street Journal
New York City Zoning Plan Is Under Fire
Josh Dawsey
12/04/2015

Proposal by Mayor de Blasio worries elected officials, community leaders; aides step up efforts to sway council

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to reshape neighborhoods is facing widespread opposition from community leaders and elected officials, setting up a battle for his administration as it seeks to build more affordable housing citywide.

Mr. de Blasio’s administration has proposed a range of changes to the zoning laws that would require developers to build more affordable housing and alter corridors in neighborhoods, such as East New York, to promote commercial development. The plans would allow for taller buildings, more stores and improvements to parks and streets.

Borough-wide advisory boards in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx have voiced opposition to the plan, with Staten Island slated to vote next week. The majority of community boards in four boroughs have disapproved. Dozens of elected officials, including most of the borough presidents, are opposed.

Affordable housing has been the mayor’s top policy priority this year, and the plan’s fate would have broad implications on how much he can build. If the council rejects the proposal, the administration could be prevented from building more than 10,000 affordable-housing units.

Aides see affordable housing, along with the mayor’s expansion of prekindergarten, as key arguments for his 2017 re-election bid. The opposition to the rezoning plan poses problems for Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, because some of the most fierce criticism is coming from his political base.

Community meetings have turned long and contentious, sometimes with dozens of residents lining up to testify against the proposal. The opposition ranges from concerns that more development will bring gentrification and higher real estate costs that would displace some longtime residents to complaints that more density will overwhelm the transit and school systems.

Low-income communities are pushing for more affordable housing, while wealthier neighborhoods are seeking more medium-income housing.

“It’s pretty overwhelming—I have never seen 300-plus people testify at a meeting like this,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, referring to mounting opposition at hearings on the proposal. “They need to make a lot of changes to the program.”

In a radio interview on Friday, Mr. de Blasio said he “didn’t blame people for being cynical” based on their experiences with previous rezoning plans.

“There will be a substantial net gain of affordable housing in communities that have been hemorrhaging it before,” he said. “That’s where we’re coming from.”

In interviews, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz said they disapproved of the plan for various reasons, including fears about gentrification and overdevelopment.

“We heard from groups that seldom agree on anything,” Mr. Diaz said. “Everyone disagrees with this.”

To be enacted, the plan must win the approval of the 51-member City Council. A vote is expected early next year.

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and her colleagues have already begun compiling changes they want to make to the proposal. Ms. Mark-Viverito, a Manhattan Democrat and close ally of the mayor, said the plan will have to be significantly different for the council to approve it. She declined to discuss specifics.

Councilman Rafael Espinal, a Brooklyn Democrat, said he wants a guarantee for thousands of jobs in East New York. Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, a Queens Democrat, said he wants to maintain parking spaces and to reduce building height in some areas. Councilman Ben Kallos, a Manhattan Democrat, said he wants to protect Central Park from being shadowed by skyscrapers.The plan’s success will depend on a variety of factors including how open the administration is to council members’ revisions, how much political capital the mayor has with the council and whether members are willing to defy community opposition, mayoral aides and political observers said.

Carl Weisbrod, director of the Department of City Planning, said much of the opposition was expected because neighborhoods are always wary of development. He said the administration is committed to modifying the proposal, noting the city already modified building-height rules in some places.

Mr. Weisbrod said he expected people to get on board because “housing is the crisis of our time.”

Not doing anything to encourage more development would stymie the city’s efforts to build more affordable housing while still increasing gentrification, he said. Ms. Mark-Viverito said most council members agree with that position philosophically but still had many concerns about the proposal.

The mayor’s top aides are lobbying council members and borough presidents during lengthy meetings at City Hall and at breakfasts, trying to figure out what is needed to get the proposal passed. Aides have publicly played down the neighborhood concerns, but last week they sent a lengthy memo outlining talking points to advocates and developers.

Business and real estate officials said they have been surprised at the lack of support the administration has garnered from communities. Several people said the administration didn’t have a cohesive strategy to build support and should have enlisted more allies to pitch the plan.

“There could have been a better job by City Planning to engage more thoroughly with community boards,” Ms. Mark-Viverito said. “There was a lacking of engagement in that respect.”

Mr. Weisbrod rejected the criticism, noting how some have accused the administration of talking about “nothing else” other than affordable housing.

Issue: 
Land Use