A day after developers dropped plans for an ambitious Harlem real estate project rather than face defeat in the City Council, Mayor Eric Adams proposed sweeping changes to city zoning rules aiming to spur more housing and jobs — changes that will require a cautious Council’s approval.
In remarks Wednesday morning to the Association for a Better New York, a network of the city’s movers and shakers, Adams touted a “City of Yes,” where local officials and constituents will embrace development rather than fight it.
“We want New Yorkers to stay here, put down roots and raise families. We want to continue welcoming immigrants and young people seeking opportunity,” said Adams. “We’re looking to change up the rules and allow a wider range of housing types and sizes to accommodate all kinds of households across the city.”
The mayor’s office summarized three concepts for amendments to the city’s zoning code, which sets ground rules for real estate development. One would be intended to spur economic growth, another to encourage more housing, and the last to facilitate “carbon neutral” public works such as energy storage.
Adams also spoke of broader reforms to encourage needed development, from electric-car charging stations to converting empty office space into housing, or help a restaurant expand without going through bureaucratic zoning changes.
His proposal would additionally remove the final remnants of New York City’s restrictive “cabaret law,” which limits dancing to certain authorized nightlife venues.
“Think about the owner of a tapas bar that has live music on weekends and wants to set aside a small space for dancing, but finds that under city rules, it’s not allowed. We’re going to change that no to a yes, and let the people dance,” said Adams.
Notably absent from Adams’ emailed “City of Yes” announcement was his key partner in approving any coming zoning changes: City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams. Revisions to the code must go through the city Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, which gives the Council a decisive vote.
On Wednesday, Adams said she was not aware of the proposed zoning amendments but that she supported the creation of more housing — if it can be done in a way embraced by the public.
“Anything that is going to benefit increased housing favorably and amicably in this city, we’re definitely going to take a look at it and work with the mayor to make it happen,” she told THE CITY at an unrelated bill signing.
Just one Council member, Manhattan Democrat Keith Powers, signed on to Adams’ proposal Wednesday, providing a statement that quipped of the cabaret law’s hoped-for demise: “This is a great dance, dance, resolution.”
Adams did mention other Council members during his speech, including Crystal Hudson and Chi Osse of Brooklyn, who represent a swath of Atlantic Avenue the mayor hopes to change.
A spokesperson for the speaker said the Council has approved land-use decisions that created approximately 1,122 affordable apartments out of 1,839 new units built.
Public engagement on the proposals will begin immediately, City Planning Commission Chair Daniel Garodnick told THE CITY, with the economic amendments starting ULURP by mid-2023 and the housing amendment starting in early 2024. The zero carbon plan will start at the start of 2023, with an anticipated smooth path to passage.
“We think we have a lot of early support, and there are members who have been pushing through similar initiatives, and we think they will be popular,” Garodnick told THE CITY. “We are going to do our work to ensure its approval.”
New Life for Offices
Mayor Adams’ concepts aim to help New York City recover from the pandemic, which killed more than 40,000 in the five boroughs.
The city’s population plummeted during COVID, and likely has continued to decline, Census and other data suggest. The biggest driver of population loss was people moving to other states, with contributions from COVID deaths and fewer immigrants.
Rents for market-rate apartments, especially in transit-rich neighborhoods, have been going through the roof, with reports of thronged open houses and bidding wars.
Yet Manhattan commercial and business districts have struggled, with office occupancy below 40%, according to Kastle Systems. A longer term shrinkage in demand for office space could create an opportunity to create more housing, Adams emphasized in his remarks — and found a welcome reception.
“We need to find ways to reuse and adapt,” said Mitch Korbey, a land use and zoning lawyer with the firm Herrick, Feinstein, who watched the speech.
“The idea that buildings can have a second and third life – isn’t that a good thing?”
The mayor’s embrace of the “yes in my backyard” approach is the hallmark of some advocates who’ve called for more rezonings and more housing to be built all across the city, including in wealthier neighborhoods like SoHo and NoHo in Manhattan.
“We are really excited about this plan, we’re really excited about the mayor kind of embracing the ‘yes in my backyard’ language that’s been a keystone of our organization,” said Logan Phares, the political director of the group Open New York, which pushes for more housing across the city. The term is a play on “not in my backyard,” or NIMBY, an epithet long aimed at development opponents.
“We are really happy to see the administration making this a priority and coming up with some really great ideas in terms of first steps about the broader citywide approach that we need to tackle this crisis.”
Less clear is Eric Adams’ path through a City Council that has long shown willingness to derail real estate projects — even one that promised to offer 50% affordable housing, as happened this week with the One45 megadevelopment in Harlem.
On Tuesday, the team behind One45 dropped their rezoning application before it was deliberated by the Council’s zoning subcommittee or the larger Council, Patch first reported. The neighborhood’s Council member, Kristen Richardson Jordan, has long been opposed to the plan, which had also been recommended for disapproval by Community Board 10.
It’s customary for local Council members to dictate what happens in their districts and for other members to follow their colleague’s lead — prompting many developers over the years to pull their projects in hopes of attempting again, rather than get voted down.
Among the rezonings shot down because of local member objections was an expansion of the manufacturing and lifestyle complex at Industry City in Brooklyn and a mixed-income housing development replacing the former Long Island College Hospital in the same borough — which now consists entirely of luxury condos.
One45’s developer, Bruce Teitelbaum, last month told THE CITY that he planned to add more affordable housing to the 363-foot towers. He and his partners ultimately proposed making half of the 915 apartments affordable, according to Patch. Teitelbaum declined to comment to THE CITY about the project’s ULURP withdrawal this week.
A spokesperson for the speaker said the developers did not have the necessary financing backed by the city to secure 50% affordable housing – offering 35% affordable housing in the proposal.
Under existing zoning, self-storage or market-rate condos could pop up on the site, a source familiar with the plans told Patch.
Richardson Jordan wrote Monday that the developers should look at “contextualized housing” for Harlem. The proposed One45 was mostly studio and one-bedroom apartments — and the neighborhood needed more places for families, she wrote. She also cited concerns about community engagement, future traffic and overcrowded subways.
“The demand for housing is too high for a free and open market,” she wrote. “People will be displaced before housing becomes affordable enough. Approving projects like these will further the housing crisis.”
She did not respond to a message from THE CITY.
Garodnick told THE CITY that their proposed citywide changes could make it easier to build more housing.
“The mayor put it best when he said that we need housing everywhere in order to meet the moment,” he said. “These proposals are going to be citywide and far reaching and not subject to member discretion.”