Developers, city race to get approvals before regime change

Land use priorities could shift under new mayor, City Council

Photo illustration of Mayor Bill de Blasio (Getty, iStock)
Photo illustration of Mayor Bill de Blasio (Getty, iStock)

Within the next eight months, the de Blasio administration hopes to rezone two neighborhoods and upend hotel construction citywide. At the same time, more than four dozen private rezoning applications aim to win City Council support — or risk restarting negotiations with a new regime.

Any election year would add urgency to the approval process for zoning changes, special permits and other types of applications, but this year the pressure is even greater because the city suspended its Uniform Land Use Review Procedure for six months during the pandemic, causing applications to back up.

Since it resumed Sept. 14, some 51 proposals have entered the seven-month public process, according to the Department of City Planning, which calculated the volume through the end of March. That’s nearly twice as many as during the same period a year ago..

“Since September, we’ve seen strong interest in applications advancing before the end of the administration this year, as well as a very engaged public,” Department of City Planning spokesperson Joe Marvilli said in a statement.

Election years are crucial in land use. By City Council custom, applications are decided by the member or members whose districts are affected, and private applications also need the administration’s blessing. Term limits prevent Mayor Bill de Blasio and 35 of the 51 Council members from seeking re-election this year, and 14 of the other Council incumbents have primary challengers. So virtually all applications not decided by Dec. 31 will be at the mercy of an as-yet unknown person.

Few developers will take a significant project into public review — a process that can itself cost more than $1 million for studies, legal fees and other expenses — with that kind of uncertainty. That means developers must get their applications into public review by late May. The de Blasio administration faces the same deadline for its own rezonings, notably sweeping proposals for Gowanus and Soho.

The land-use review, known by its acronym Ulurp, is dictated by the City Charter, which hasn’t been altered much since a landmark constitutional challenge forced an overhaul in 1989.

“Changing the process really would require a much more far-reaching set of approvals,” said Mitch Korbey, chair of Herrick’s land use and zoning group. “Much more important to most folks is: Where is the City Council member or City Council on this specific project?”

Consider Gowanus, which the city is seeking to rezone to make way for 8,500 residential units, of which 3,000 would be affordable. Term-limited City Council member Brad Lander, who represents the area, favors rezoning and is negotiating terms with the de Blasio administration. But most of the candidates to succeed him oppose the plan. Its fate may hinge on its surviving a legal challenge to the hearing process and getting to a City Council vote this year.

“If Ulurp is delayed past the term of this administration, there will still continue to be new development in our community,” Lander said in an email. “But rather than an intentional effort at a more integrated, affordable and sustainable neighborhood, we would see the acceleration of new hotels, ax-throwing bars, crossfit gyms and storage sites, all of which are allowed by the current zoning, with no requirements for affordability, climate resilience or infrastructure investment.”

Without a rezoning there would also be far less residential development, which would be a lost opportunity for property owners and builders — and for families who would live in the affordable housing, according to supporters of the proposal.

Private applications are also vying for approval before the end of the year. City records show notices have been filed for more than a dozen such proposals, meaning they can begin public review after 30 days.

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Getting to that point can be grueling; the Gowanus plan was eight years in the making. The next administration will need at least several months to set its agenda.

“To get certified and into the Ulurp process is a lot of the battle,” one city developer said. “That would be delayed under a new administration.”

More than 30 private applications are at various stages of the process. They range from modest to massive.

At 270 Nostrand Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, BRP Companies faces pushback on plans for a 14-story mixed-use building on the former site of CABS Nursing Home.

On the Williamsburg waterfront, Two Trees Development this month applied for zoning to allow its 1.3 million-square-foot River Ring development. The project, which was expected to enter public review last year but was delayed by the pandemic, calls for two mixed-use towers with more than 1,200 apartments, 313 of which would be affordable.

Two Trees knows better than most the danger of a project spanning administrations. It threatened to sell its gigantic Domino project when the newly installed de Blasio demanded it include more affordable apartments than the Bloomberg administration had sought. They compromised at 40 additional units.

The administration is also aiming to rezone Soho and Noho, where it faces considerable community resistance. Village Preservation executive director Andrew Berman has called it an attempt to “cram another ill-advised plan down the throats of New Yorkers” as the “sun sets” on the de Blasio administration.

Those rezonings are among a handful of initiatives de Blasio has identified as priorities for his final year. Others include incentives for developers to make subway stations more accessible and to build grocery stores in low-income communities.

The administration is also pushing to require special permits for new hotel construction throughout the city, which would force developers into Ulurp to build or expand a hotel. The city has framed the proposal — which itself requires City Council approval — as a way to ensure “more predictable development” and to limit “the extent to which a hotel use may impair the future use or development of the surrounding area.”

Critics have called the proposal a favor to the Hotel Trades Council, a longtime de Blasio ally that strongly supported his ill-fated presidential campaign.

“If it doesn’t get done in this administration, it isn’t happening, probably,” said Robin Kramer, a partner at Duval & Stachenfeld who specializes in land use issues. “There’s no planning rationale.”