Borough presidents on housing: “Don’t you forget about me”

Five leaders say they’re ready for development — with caveats

Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, The Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and Staten Island Borough President Vito Fosella
Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, The Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards and Staten Island Borough President Vito Fosella (Office of Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, Office of Brooklyn Borough President, Office of The Bronx Borough President, Borough Of Queens, Office of Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella, Getty)

Borough presidents would like the real estate industry to know that they are not chopped liver.

Yes, the City Council decides the fate of most residential or mixed-use megaprojects. But as Donovan Richards showed with Innovation QNS, a borough president can play a role in getting Council members to yes.

During an event Wednesday hosted by the Real Estate Board of New York, the Queens borough president vowed to continue to use his “bully pulpit” to get lawmakers to approve housing in his county.

The event was the first time these five borough presidents — all of them former City Council members — shared a stage in their current roles. The real estate lobbying group’s Reggie Thomas, who moderated the panel, remarked wryly that the five probably always envisioned that it would be REBNY that brought them all together.

Thomas’s subtle humor was an apparent reference to the political establishment’s treatment of the real estate industry as toxic for a good part of the 2010s. But a growing realization that the city needs much more housing, combined with REBNY’s pivot toward a softer approach to lobbying, has made it acceptable to support development again.

None of the five borough leaders has done that more prominently than Richards, who last year negotiated for more affordable units in Silverstein Properties’ massive Innovation QNS, then helped pressure Council member Julie Won into approving it.

Richards even took the opportunity to poke Mark Levine, his Manhattan counterpart.

“Queens will never be the borough of truck depots,” he said, when asked about the lessons learned from Innovation QNS.

Donovan was alluding to the saga of One45, a project that Levine opposed in its initial form before a version with more affordability was killed by the local Council member, who wanted fewer market-rate units. The would-be developer, Bruce Teitelbaum, later opened a truck depot on the site, citing a need to make money if the city would not approve housing.

Levine supports reviving the approximately 915-unit project, which Teitelbaum is trying to do.

The Manhattan borough president, for his part, touted his office’s study of potential Manhattan housing opportunities. It found 171 sites — including Teitelbaum’s — that could accommodate 73,000 apartments.

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Levine said he was encouraged by what he sees as a shift in the past six months toward a recognition that the city must build its way out of the housing crisis.

That doesn’t mean everyone will agree on how to do that. Levine noted that the particulars of individual sites almost always lead to disputes. The development philosophies of the borough presidents also differ, although they can all be described one way or another as pro-housing.

Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx emphasized the need to create comprehensive plans for neighborhoods, and said that every neighborhood needs to say yes to housing.

By that, she meant that wealthy, white areas must be rezoned to accommodate more apartments, as a number of non-white areas have been.

Brooklyn’s Antonio Reynoso, who has developed a comprehensive plan for Kings County, made that point explicitly. He said the burden of building the city out of the crisis has fallen solely to communities of color, and that developers need to “stop coming to areas that have done their part.”

In part for that reason, Reynoso blocked an upzoning of Bushwick when he was its Council representative. The neighborhood continued to gentrify anyway, and rents rose as demand outpaced the supply of housing units. His opposition to rezoning Bushwick was supported by Rafael Espinal, who represented some of the area.

As it happens, Espinal had supported the 2016 rezoning of East New York, before the political winds shifted against rezoning Black and Latino districts.

Reynoso said that his office will support projects near transit hubs, and that the city should look at whether its landmarking process stands in the way of some neighborhoods doing their fair share. Historic districts established by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and City Council have made it hard to add housing to some of the city’s wealthiest enclaves.

Until Gowanus and Soho were rezoned in 2021, all of the de Blasio administration’s neighborhood rezonings had been in communities of color. The administration explained that it focused on districts with Council members who supported the idea, given that the local member nearly always decides the fate of land use applications.

Vito Fossella, the borough president of Staten Island, represents the borough with the least potential for housing development. The island’s mass transit consists of the stubby Staten Island Railway and St. George’s ferry terminal, where boats depart regularly for Lower Manhattan.

Fossella said he wants more housing on the North Shore — a plan in the works has the mayor’s backing — and on the site of the ill-fated New York Wheel, a project that he said officially died this month.