The Real Deal New York

At the desk of: Brad Lander

The City Council member on upzoning Gowanus, pushing for plastic bag fees and getting arrested in June
By Erin Hudson | August 01, 2018 12:00PM

Photo by Emily Assiran

City Council member Brad Lander’s Brooklyn office is squeezed between a sleek fitness studio and a pharmacy stocked with everything from remote-controlled helicopters to baby clothes. But the home base of District 39’s elected representative can be spotted by a large faded poster bearing his name, which hangs over a set of nondescript double doors. The Democratic Council member and co-founder of the Council’s Progressive Caucus set up shop in his third-floor office on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope during his inaugural campaign for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s old seat in 2009. Lander, 49, grew up in what he describes as “a liberal Jewish household” in “a second-ring suburb” of St. Louis and spent his free time in college at the University of Chicago painting dilapidated housing projects  on the city’s South Side. He moved to New York at the age of 23 when his then-girlfriend and now wife of 22 years, Meg Barnette (chief of staff and general counsel at Planned Parenthood NYC), started her law degree at New York University. “At the time, I couldn’t name the boroughs,” Lander recalled, adding that “the vitality, creativity and political energy of the city were all instantly compelling, so I dove into it.” The Council member now lives three blocks from his office with his wife and their 15-year-old daughter, Rosa, and 18-year-old son, Marek. Lander built a reputation for himself as a housing advocate schooled in policy and real estate finance while leading the Fifth Avenue Committee — a nonprofit that develops affordable housing in South Brooklyn — and the Pratt Center for Community Development. His extensive research and campaigning efforts around inclusionary housing foreshadowed policy changes under de Blasio. But within the past year, Lander’s become best known by real estate players for blocking rezoning that would have allowed Kushner Companies and its partners to build a mixed-use complex along the Gowanus Canal. Lander cited the lack of clarity around Jared Kushner’s ongoing stakes in his family’s business and other potential conflicts of interest due to his role in the White House. Charlie Kushner, Jared’s father and founder of Kushner Companies, called Lander’s actions “discrimination” in a recent interview with The Real Deal. But the Council member maintained that being “real loud, upfront and clear” from the get-go about his and his constituents’ positions is in everyone’s best interest. “My personality is not one of pugnacity — I’m just trying to do my job,” he said. Part of that work includes upzoning Gowanus, a process that Lander has been leading for years with many developers waiting in anticipation. The latest installment was the release of a preliminary framework by the Department of City Planning in June. Now in his third and final four-year term, Lander said he is considering a run for comptroller in 2021.

Kentile Floors model

Lander’s daughter gave him this cardboard model of an eight-story sign that used to punctuate the Gowanus skyline. The 14-foot letters — which sat on top of a warehouse advertising tiles long since out of production — encapsulate what Lander loves about the neighborhood. “They just loomed over Gowanus in a way that really spoke to its industrial past,” he said. As rezoning efforts have continued over the years, the Council member has repeatedly stated his hope to keep some industrial businesses in the area.

District map

The New York City Department of Design and Construction delivered the two-by-four-foot map to Lander in the spring of 2017, and it now leans against the wall beside his desk. The map shows every city capital project that’s ongoing in District 39, but for Lander it highlights the need to rethink the city’s project management system. The Council member advocates for incentives that compel DDC to deliver on time and budget, he said. And although he believes the map was the department’s “effort to appease” him, it has become a constant reminder of “how much our system is in need of an overhaul.”

Reusable bag

This worn nylon bag, adorned with New York’s “Birdie” mascot, is a token from Lander’s campaign to impose a five-cent fee on plastic bags in the city. Though he won the Council’s support, Gov. Andrew Cuomo effectively killed the law in February 2017 when he signed legislation to postpone a mandated plastic bag fee. “He called me, and we had a chitchat for 20 minutes before he signed it,” Lander recalled. The governor then promised to convene a task force to ban the use of plastic bags without imposing a charge, he said. “This is both a reminder of defeat and how hard it is even to make small incremental progress,” he added about the nylon bag.

Proof of arrest

Lander was arrested outside Sen. Marty Golden’s office in Bay Ridge on June 29 for blocking traffic as part of a 24-hour vigil. The protest against the senator’s failure to reauthorize speed cameras in school zones was organized, in part, by one of Lander’s constituents, whose 12-year-old son was killed by a reckless driver. Safer driving became a focus for Lander after two children were killed at an intersection outside his office in March. That driver had a record of running red lights and stop signs. The Council member proposed a bill in June that would ban people from driving after numerous infractions.

Bangladeshi rickshaw

Among the many family photos and stacks of policy books on Lander’s desk, this brightly colored miniature vehicle stands out. It was a gift from Annie Ferdous, a founding director of the Bangladesh Institute of Performing Arts and member of Community Board 12 in Kensington — a neighborhood in Lander’s district, which has a large Bangladeshi community. One of the projects there that he’s “proudest of” is Kensington’s pedestrian plaza, which opened in 2016 and now hosts a range of community events.

Protest signs

A pile of multicolored cardboard signs created by Lander’s daughter and her boyfriend, Matthew, lean against a window close to Lander’s overflowing bookshelf. The protest signs are frequently moved back and forth between the Council member’s home and office and are sometimes used at events held by Get Organized BK, a broad coalition that Lander co-founded after the 2016 presidential election. “I tend to borrow Rosa’s signs and march with them,” he said. He’s not the only one — some of the signs have also landed in the hands of Lander’s colleagues. “Tish James, the public advocate, carried the one [depicting President Donald Trump as a toddler] drawn by Matthew for this year’s Women’s March,” he noted.