City Planning head talks 421a, easing into rezonings

Dan Garodnick says Adams administration will be deferential with communities

Dan Garodnick (iStock)
Dan Garodnick (iStock)

UPDATED April 19, 2022, 1:47 p.m.: City Planning is not exactly itching to tackle another neighborhood rezoning.

Instead, the agency is focused on community-specific investments in infrastructure and public space, and overall, “waiting and sitting back to be guided by communities,” said its new leader, Dan Garodnick.

In an interview with The Real Deal, Garodnick said the Department of City Planning does not plan to “lead” with neighborhood rezonings, but will work on at least two over the next several months.

Garodnick later clarified his remarks, saying in a statement: “The department intends to work with communities on rezonings rather than announcing them first and selling them later.”

The agency has committed to moving forward with a neighborhood plan centered around Atlantic Avenue in Crown and Prospect Heights, along with a proposal, dubbed M-Crown, to change manufacturing zones in the area to allow more residential use.

City Planning also hopes to certify a neighborhood plan in Morris Park in the Bronx by 2023. The agency is also committed to making changes in Parkchester near one of the new Metro-North stations planned for the borough.

Any lack of urgency on rezoning would disappoint groups that see it as crucial to alleviating the city’s housing crunch and providing opportunities for ordinary New Yorkers to live in high-income neighborhoods.

Garodnick, who was appointed in January to the dual roles of director of the Department of City Planning and chair of the City Planning Commission, was a Manhattan City Council member for 12 years. During that time, he oversaw the rezoning of more than 70 blocks in Midtown East to encourage the creation of millions of square feet of new office space.

His agency is now looking into ways to allow other types of construction in that neighborhood and others — an acknowledgment of how the office market has changed during the pandemic and of the city’s continued need for affordable housing.

City Planning’s priorities under the Adams administration are just starting to take shape. Here’s what Garodnick had to say in his first media interview since being appointed.

What do you plan to do differently than your predecessors?

We are at a critical moment in the city’s history. We are coming out of a serious health crisis, and we continue to face the issues of affordability throughout the whole city.

We want to take a new approach and take on longstanding problems and embrace new opportunities that have presented themselves. For example, people are changing their patterns — in the way they work, the way they spend their time and their money. We want to embrace that through our rules, and to encourage new business areas that previously did not see as much activity. We want to explore loosening the rules to allow building uses to change.

The state budget did not ease zoning rules to allow more conversions of commercial space into housing. What can the city do?

There is an opportunity for adaptive reuse of obsolete office space. In some cases it is the state’s multiple dwelling law that is our limiting factor. In other cases it is zoning.

For instance, zoning could extend more flexibility to buildings that were built before 1977. It was something that was done in Lower Manhattan 25 years ago. In some areas of the city, a building that was built before 1961 can already convert if it complies with the state law, and it is in an area where residential is already permitted.

So we are going to take a look at these rules. Obviously, we still fully embrace our core commercial districts and high-performing buildings. But in some cases, if they are not living up to their potential, we would like to afford some flexibility.

You have identified Midtown East, Times Square and Midtown as areas where the city could encourage housing. Midtown East was just rezoned to encourage commercial development. Have you identified properties that may benefit from going residential instead?

We have not cherry-picked buildings here for this purpose. In fact, we are starting our exploration about the rules more generally. The East Midtown rezoning has proven to be an enormous success in that the real estate world continues to bet on the future of that neighborhood. Why? Because it is right next to one of the most important transit hubs.

A proposal to replace 421a was left out of the state budget. The city’s mandatory inclusionary housing program works in tandem with the tax break. What happens to the program without 421a or something like it?

A tax incentive is hugely important for mixed-income rental development. It is hard to speculate about what will or will not happen at the state level. 421a has lapsed before. I don’t think anyone needs reminding, but we are in a housing crisis. We have accumulated a shortage over decades of inadequate production. We need the tools that enable us to not only incentivize housing, but also to incentivize affordable housing, and that’s why this conversation is so important.

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Is there a contingency plan if the program ends?

I don’t think we are quite there yet. There are a lot of productive conversations happening, and we are hopeful that this will come to a positive resolution.

What neighborhood will City Planning seek to rezone next?

We are going to take a different approach in how we embark on this journey. We want to work with communities and Council members and other willing partners who are looking to see positive neighborhood change.

rnrn“Planners have an admirable purity to them. Politics is a little messier.”rnrn

We are looking, and the mayor is committed to, finding catalytic investments that not only correct historic disinvestment but spur growth and economic activity throughout the city. And we are going to do this with or without a rezoning presence because it is the right thing to do.

We are focusing some of our early energy here on infrastructure investments across the city that we believe, themselves, will spur positive change and correct historic imbalances. Zoning is not the only tool that we have in our toolbox. We also of course are open to finding zoning opportunities as well, but we are not leading with that.

What type of projects are being considered?

Projects that allow for public realm improvements in connection to transit access — that would promote outdoor gathering. Investments that support working parents, like daycares, libraries and playgrounds.

We’re interested in investments that enliven commercial corridors by investing in better public spaces that promote walkability and a sense of place. Overall we want to create opportunity for families that have fewer means, whether that is in creating open space, jobs or housing.

You are the first City Council member to become the head of City Planning, in recent memory at least. How does that affect how you approach the job?

I understand the considerations of having a constituency that is making demands. It is complicated, and you have to balance a lot. Planners have an admirable purity to them. Politics is a little messier. And I know how to talk to Council members because I have lived that experience.

How do you feel about the tradition of member deference?

I always liked it when my Council colleagues deferred to me. I think in some cases, it is perfectly reasonable. In those situations that have a broader or citywide impact, I think it is also important for the Council as a whole to weigh in. Like everything else, it is a balance.

The state did not adopt a proposal to lift the cap on residential floor-area ratio in the city. Is this something City Planning supports?

We are interested in this one because we have such a housing crunch in the city. But it is important for people to remember that just because that cap is lifted does not mean that all planning principles go out the door. We would still need to evaluate the areas where that would be appropriate, consider context and to enable higher densities in a thoughtful way.

Mayor Adams has said streamlining processes is a priority. Is City Planning looking at any aspect of the land use review process?

Yes. We are determined to find ways to shorten the precertification process to be user-friendly for applicants, and to not sacrifice quality in the process. This is really important.

Frequently applicants get frustrated on one hand by the amount of time City Planning takes to get their projects to the starting gate, and on the other hand, community boards are frustrated because they feel like City Planning is handing them a private project without sufficient consultation.

So we are going to try to shorten the process upfront and make it easier for applicants, and on the back end, encourage more robust and more thoughtful communication with communities around the city.

This story has been updated with a statement Tuesday from Daniel Garodnick.

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