Brooklyn businesses welcome new promise: Make NYC the ‘City of Yes’
The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce hosted a meeting Wednesday for the borough’s business and civic leadership at the famed Wythe Hotel in Wiliamsburg.
Brooklyn Chamber Of Commerce President and CEO Randy Peers kicked off the event, featuring guest speaker Dan Garodnick, the Chair of the New York City Planning Commission (DCP), who presented an insightful snapshot of the City’s post-pandemic recovery meant to instill “reality check stats and a sense of hope” about the opportunities to support equitable, sustainable growth in the city.
The presentation began with familiar indicators of where the City stands today versus pre-pandemic, with weekday subway ridership down by about 35% compared to 2019, unemployment hovering around 5.7% (versus approximately 4%), and tourism in 2022 still falling short of 2019 numbers by about 10 million visitors, though trending higher in recent months.
And while office use is still only at about 40% of pre-pandemic standards, the number of office jobs in New York City have overtaken pre-COVID levels and continue to grow, with “traditionally office-based jobs” surpassing the 1.5 million mark for the first time since May of 2020.
Though the return to office has been slow, Garodnick outlined a number of opportunities to “take advantage of the moment” and think differently about the post-pandemic world. The vision for Mayor Eric Adams’ “City Of Yes” loomed large in Garodnick’s remarks – from the City’s new approach to open streets and restaurants, to the potential reimagining of commercial space for new uses, including much needed housing, which the City Council and the Adams Administration’s Office Adaptive Reuse Task Force is tackling now.
From a land use perspective, over which Garodnick’s Department of City Planning has purview, the Chair outlined three new zoning initiatives that the Adams Administration hopes to implement over the next two years:
- With hopes for adoption in early 2023, the Zoning for Zero Carbon initiative would fix regulations to make carbon reduction faster, removing red tape that could speed up the retrofitting of buildings with sustainable technology, including the installation of solar panels and EV charging stations.
- By mid-2023, Garodnick hopes that City Planning will remove obstacles for accelerating economic activity, through the simplification of “use rules” that hurt businesses and prolong building vacancy. This Zoning for Economic Opportunity framework would clear obsolete zoning rules that, for instance, limit the reasonable footprint of a bakery in residential neighborhoods; or rely on arbitrary zoning boundaries to prevent bicycle shops from locating on one side of the street, but not the other, in the same neighborhood,. The program would also aim to legalize industrial commercial lofts for job-intensive uses like biotech or food manufacturing.
- Finally, Garodnick outlined initiatives that he hopes to have in place in early 2024 that will enable more housing across the five boroughs as the city faces its most acute housing crisis arguably in its history. The Zoning for Housing Opportunity program will be aimed at potential measures for creating additional density in buildings that include affordable housing, and “would expand opportunities for two-family houses, accessory dwelling units, small apartment buildings, modest apartments, and shared housing models to meet a wider range of household needs and help combat the legacy of redlining and segregation.”
Garodnick was fast to point out that the 2024 timeline of the housing program’s planned approval did not reflect a lack of prioritization of addressing the housing crisis, but simply the length of environmental review required for such a nuanced zoning change.
Garodnick went on to list the threats to the City’s housing market, including the recent and inexplicable expiration of the State’s most important program to spur housing development – the tax abatement known in the industry as 421-A, that formed the backbone of the City’s rental housing market since 1971. An insider moment occurred as Garodnick labeled the 421-A elimination the “biggest threat to building multi-family housing” for New York State – with elected officials like State Representative Emily Gallagher, a vocal opponent of 421-A, in the room.
At a time when rents are soaring and property tax reform to spur new development seems like a fantasy, Garodnick also discussed the need for the City and neighborhoods to come together to “say yes to critical projects coming through the pipeline.” To this end, he talked about the M-Crown area-wide rezoning effort that DCP is working on with Council Members Crystal Hudson and Chi Osse’ for the area of Atlantic Ave just east of Barclays Center. The neighborhood is one of the few in the city where the community board and local activists have proactively requested a rezoning for additional housing and job-intensive uses for many years – this while lots in the area prime for this kind of development, like 962 Pacific Street, sit vacant.
Of the event, Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Peers said, “Zoning determines so much as it relates to the built environment in NYC. Mayor Adams along with City Planning Director and Chair Dan Garodnick, have already put forth a set of text amendments that will enable New York City to move forward in realizing a built environment that expands commerce and economic opportunity for all.”
However, some may argue that the goals, particularly of the housing plan, fall a little short. That while the ambitions of the housing initiative (from reducing parking requirements to allowing for smaller apartments, in some instances) are laudatory, they may be criticized for their limited nature in comparison to the scale of the crisis about which many are now raising concerns, and calling for much larger systemic changes with regard to rezonings and housing growth.
In a closing message, Garodnick reiterated that every neighborhood in Brooklyn must do its part to help address the housing shortage that has become more acute as the city recovers from COVID-19 and continues its pre-pandemic growth. He shared the below graphs which demonstrate the outsized burdens that neighborhoods in Community Boards 1 and 2 like Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint have shouldered in terms of housing growth compared to the rest of the Borough.
And while neighborhoods like East New York have exceeded the housing growth numbers of communities like Bay Ridge or Kensington in recent years, Garodnick highlighted transit-rich hubs like Broadway Junction as exciting opportunities to think about for sustainable and equitable density in the years to come. In a marked departure from history, a City Of Yes, will requires sacrifice from everyone, not just the corners of Brooklyn in closest proximity to Manhattan.
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