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03.28.2014
Bill Teams Up
New York City's new mayor de Blasio appoints his commissioners.
Mayor De Blasio delivers his first state of the city address.
Courtesy NYC Mayor's Office

The difference between Michael Bloomberg’s final State of the City address and Bill de Blasio’s first was so vast it seems impossible the two were speaking about the same city. In the newly opened Barclays Center, then-mayor Bloomberg touted the booming development across New York—from the Atlantic Yards to the Hudson Yards. He referenced job opportunities, sustainability, and, of course, the bike-share program.

One year later, at the LaGuardia Community College in Queens, Bill de Blasio spoke of “The Tale of Two Cities”—a town racked by inequality. He didn’t talk about any big, splashy developments, but pledged to help “New Yorkers crushed by skyrocketing rents.” There was no mention of transportation, climate change, or infrastructure—all considered bright spots in Bloomberg’s complicated legacy.

But while Mayor de Blasio makes national headlines for his laser-like focus on tackling inequality, he has been appointing highly competent individuals to lead the city’s housing, transportation, environmental, and planning teams. All of these appointments, explained de Blasio, are not separate from the fight against inequality. They are central in waging it.

In early February, de Blasio appointed Carl Weisbrod—a real estate industry veteran with experience in the private and public sector—to chair the city’s planning commission. Weisbrod is perhaps best known for his integral role in cleaning up Times Square in the 1980s and later helping to transform Downtown Manhattan into a mixed-use neighborhood.

Rick Bell, the executive director of New York’s AIA chapter, said Weisbrod is “an excellent choice” for planning commissioner because he “brings to the table the skillset, the mindset, and the attitude of someone who is going to take the promises made, the expectations of the de Blasio campaign, and realize them.”

As planning commissioner, Weisbrod will be instrumental in accomplishing one of de Blasio’s key legislative goals: to “preserve or construct” 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years. He will be joined in that fight by the mayor’s new housing team.

The mayor recently appointed Shola Olatoye—a former executive at an affordable housing non-profit—as chair of the New York City Housing Authority. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s new commissioner is Vicki Been, who was the former director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. And Gary D. Rodney, from the affordable housing developer Omni New York, is the new president to the Housing Development Corporation.

Alicia Glen—the former head of the Goldman Sachs’ Urban Investment Group—is the city’s new deputy mayor of housing and economic development.

Even with a strong team beside him, de Blasio’s affordable housing goal will be exceptionally difficult to achieve. One tool de Blasio will likely use to hit his 200,000 figure will be “mandatory inclusionary zoning,” or requiring developers to include affordable housing units in new buildings. Under Bloomberg, developers were only incentivized to do so.

And since it will not be enough to just “preserve” existing affordable units, the de Blasio years might see significant zoning changes to offer new development opportunities. The benefit of this could be twofold: more development would boost the number of new affordable housing units, and the housing stock overall.

In terms of transportation and the city’s streetscape, the de Blasio administration is poised to build on Janette Sadik-Khan’s impressive legacy of transforming New York City streets. The mayor’s selection of Polly Trottenberg—the former under secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation—to lead the city’s DOT has been lauded by those championing safer streets and improved transportation. “The personnel positions, and particularly hiring Polly Trottenberg, look really good from street safety and livable streets perspective,” said Ben Fried, the editor-in-chief of Streetsblog.

Trottenberg will be responsible for more than bike lanes and pedestrian plazas; she will work alongside the new police commissioner, Bill Bratton, to implement the mayor’s “Vision Zero Action Plan” to reduce pedestrian fatalities.

It has become clear with these appointments that the mayor plans to use every department, and every new official, to address the city’s inequality. Combatting inequality is a daunting, if not impossible, fight to wage from City Hall, but the mayor and his team seem ready to at least throw some punches.

Henry Melcher