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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pledge to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade was a cornerstone of his mayoral campaign. From the outset, de Blasio set a specific target – and now the city finally knows how he plans to hit it.
In the heart of Fort Greene, Brooklyn—where glossy apartment towers are rising at a remarkable clip—the mayor unveiled his $41.1 billion strategy to fight back against New York’s affordability crisis. The city is heralding the plan as “the most expansive and ambitious affordable housing agenda of its kind in the nation’s history.”
The city will provide $8.2 billion for the plan, and hopes to secure $30 billion more from private funds. The rest of the cost will ideally come out of state and federal coffers.
“This plan thinks big--because it has to,” said Mayor de Blasio in a statement. “The changes we are setting in motion today will reach a half-million New Yorkers, in every community, and from every walk of life. They will make our families and our city stronger.”
As expected, one of the central pieces of de Blasio’s plan is “mandatory inclusionary zoning,” which will require developers to include below market-rate units at rezoned sites. Under Bloomberg, developers were incentivized—but not required—to make 20 percent of new projects affordable. While inclusionary zoning is a focal point of this plan, it is easy to overstate its impact. According to The New York Times, inclusionary zoning under Bloomberg—albeit voluntary—only created 2,800 affordable units since 2005.
Still, mandatory inclusionary zoning will likely have a significant impact on the size and scale of future development. This part of the plan was foreshadowed in March as the city was hammering out the final details of the Domino Sugar Factory redevelopment. Before granting approval to the project, the mayor demanded that it include more affordable housing. The developer, Two Trees, obliged, and in return taller towers were approved. De Blasio’s New York will likely be a denser New York.
And a denser New York means a happier development community. Not surprisingly, the Real Estate Board of New York is applauding the mayor’s plan. “It identifies the problems and provides a realistic roadmap for solutions,” said Steven Spinola, the board’s president, in a statement.
Along with mandatory inclusionary zoning, the City will also “re-examine parking requirements, zoning envelope constraints, and restrictions on the transferability of development rights.” It is also launching two programs to incentive development on vacant lots. This part of the plan received high praise from the city’s architectural community. “The AIA New York Chapter supports the Mayor’s affordable housing plan and notes, in particular, that the plan calls for ‘unlocking’ potential sites for new housing development by changes in regulatory procedures, including potential changes in zoning,” said Rick Bell, the chapter’s president.
But for all the focus on development, new projects only represent 40 percent of the plan—or 80,000 units. The other, bigger, piece of the pie is directed at preserving the affordable units that currently exist. For starters, the City plans to double the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s capital budget.
To slow the tide of deregulation, the City is proposing a host of incentives for property owners to keep units from leaving rent-regulation. It will also focus on keeping currently affordable, and non-regulated units, from dramatic rent increases in the future.
According to the plan, “such investments will allow current tenants to beneﬁt from improved units, and permit future tenants to be assured that the unit remains affordable, even as the neighborhood’s housing values and rents increase.”
The City also plans to engage in a “respectful conversation” about the potential of development on NYCHA’s underused land. This proposal, which sounds an awful lot like Bloomberg’s “land lease plan,” was heavily criticized by de Blasio back when he was a candidate.
Another key focus of the mayor’s plan is reducing homelessness—ccording to the city, 50,000 New Yorkers currently sleep in shelters every night. To lower those ranks, the city will reallocate some funding from shelters to lower-cost permanent housing for the homeless.
While both housing activists and the development community have lauded the mayor’s strategy, his 115-page plan leaves many questions unanswered. But what is exceptionally clear is the daunting challenge before the mayor. His predecessor claims to have built or preserved 165,000 units of affordable housing in 12 years and now Mayor de Blasio says there is no choice, but to achieve more in less time.
“We didn’t want to take the easy way out,” said the mayor. “We didn’t want to take the slower path. We wanted to challenge ourselves to do something that had never been done before because our people need it.”
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.
In his inaugural speech Mayor Bill de Blasio repeatedly used the phrase “tale of two cities.” It remains to be seen how the new Mayor will reshape New York City as one, but his recent appointments suggest how his administration will steer the city forward.
Prior to the New Year snowstorm, de Blasio had named several appointees to agencies that oversee the city’s built environment: Alicia Glen as Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development; Polly Trottenberg as Commissioner of the Department of Transportation; and Kyle Kimball to continue as President of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC).
“I'm very excited about these three appointments—their sophistication, and balanced perspectives... they each know how to get things done—and are each progressive and realize the city needs innovative approaches to ensure and enhance livability and resilience going forward,” wrote Vin Cipolla, President of the Municipal Art Society, in an email.
“Alicia Glen’s job title—housing and economic development—sends the signal that the creation of affordable housing comes first,” said Rick Bell, executive director of the American Institute of Architects’ New York chapter. Glen is tasked with carrying out the new mayor’s goal of creating and preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing. “Alicia understands how money works and how things get financed,” continued Bell. “This is music to the ears of architects who are building housing and to those of us who have long been concerned about community development.”
For the past twelve years Glen headed the Urban Investment Group at Goldman Sachs, which committed over $2.8 billion in low-income development projects in cities throughout the country. She was also instrumental in raising over $40 million to help finance New York’s Citi Bike bicycle share program. From 1998 to 2002 Glen was the assistant commissioner for housing finance at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Polly Trottenberg replaces Janette Sadik-Khan as Commissioner of the Department of Transportation. Since January 2014 Trottenberg served as the Under Secretary for Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, where she worked on TIGER, the grant program that helped fund many multi-modal projects. “She brings a keen understanding of how mass transit works,” said Bell. In a statement the de Blasio transition emphasized that Trottenberg will advance the “ambitious agenda to expand Bus Rapid Transit in the outer boroughs, reduce traffic fatalities, increase bicycling, and boost the efficiency of city streets.”
A veteran of the Bloomberg administration, Kyle Kimball will continue as President of NYCEDC, a position he has held since August 2013. He has been with the organization since 2008 and has worked on the Applied Sciences NYC initiative, creating four new graduate science and engineering campuses. He has also been involved with outer-borough economic development projects, including the transformation of the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx.
De Blasio has yet to fill a host of positions including commissioners of City Planning, Building, Design and Construction, Parks and Recreation, Landmarks Preservation, Cultural Affairs, Public Design, and Long-term Planning and Sustainability.
In related news, Holly Leicht has been appointed to serve as Regional Administrator of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Region II, which comprises New York and New Jersey. Leicht, who was Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks, will oversee ongoing Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts.
A new mixed-use development, called “EyeBAM,” is the latest addition to Brooklyn’s burgeoning Downtown Cultural District. Dattner Architects and Bernheimer Architecture, along with SCAPE / Landscape Architecture, have been selected by the Mayor’s Office and the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development to design a 12-story building, which will include 109 apartment units (40 percent affordable and 60 percent market rate) and a Craft-branded restaurant. It will also carve out space for two arts-and-science-focused organizations, Eyebeam and Science Gallery.
The building, equipped with entrances on either side, is designed to engage with neighboring cultural institutions. The restaurant will flow into the new Arts Plaza, which is the forecourt to the Theater for a New Audience, and in nice weather, will include outdoor seating to activate the space.
“We really view this site as a hinge of the heart of the Cultural District, and it was very important to create a lively pedestrian experience and open the building to the neighborhood,” said Bill Stein, principal at Dattner Architects.
To further accentuate the cultural space, the architects plan to implement a glazed exterior on the lower levels. The material palette, composed of terracotta and brick, is a nod to Brooklyn’s architectural history.
“We wanted to create a scale and texture to the building that was both contextual to the neighborhood but also gave the building its own identity,” said Stein. “A solid piece of architecture that has variation, color, and texture.”
Two non-profits will take over 27,000 square feet of space in the new building. They share much of the same programmatic needs and will “require flexibility for performance, new technologies for art and display, and a great deal of teaching,” according to Andy Bernheimer, principal at Bernheimer Architecture.
In-set balconies and rooftop terraces, designed by Kate Orff, principal at SCAPE, will provide both residents, cultural organizations, and visitors with ample open space.
The architects are seeking to attain LEED Gold certification. “We are looking, along with the developer Jonathan Rose, to use materials and building systems to make it a sustainable building,” said Stein.
The development is scheduled to break ground in 2015.