Leroy Comrie: The Sheriff of Land Use
Jotham Sederstrom June 15, 2010, 10:42 a.m.
In January, Leroy Comrie was appointed chairman of the City Council’s powerful Land Use Committee, taking over where Councilwoman Melinda Katz left off. The 52-year-old Queens councilman, who was first elected in 2001, spoke to The Commercial Observer about his once-frenzied, now relatively sluggish committee amid an economic downturn and hypothesized about land-use issues he would have liked to have seen come before him, like the Atlantic Yards project and the World Trade Center.
The Commercial Observer: Give me an overview of some of the more significant proposals that have come before the Land Use Committee in the past six months.
Mr. Comrie: [The three-tower, mixed-used] Rose Plaza, the Brooklyn waterfront project. Rose Plaza was significant. But, otherwise, our agenda has not been as frenzied as it was, as you know, since this downturn in the market. So we’re not doing as many projects as the committee was doing a year and a half ago.
Is that a direct result of the downturn in the real estate market, or the city’s budget?
The economy has suppressed the industry and they aren’t developing at the same pace that they were three years ago.
Did Ms. Katz give you any advice when you took over as chairman?
To listen to people and be available and to make sure that you give an opportunity for people to air their concerns, and to listen to the land-use staff. We have an excellent staff that has been here for a while, and they understand the issues well.
Land-use hearings can be pretty vitriolic, especially when a big project comes up. How do you deal with such an emotional response from so many people?
The best way to do it is to make sure the subcommittees are holding meetings that are transparent and give people a real opportunity to speak their mind-pro or con-about those specific projects and then to listen to those specific opinions so that we can have a better understanding of what the entire universe [is] around a particular building or a particular project.
Can you give an example of a particularly rowdy land-use hearing?
When we were doing the Rose Plaza hearing, some people said a couple things. One woman kept revising her figures when she was talking about how much money had been utilized in the past to support it, and when she realized her number was a lot lower than the number for the project, she kept trying to bring her number up.
Do you have a good sense of when someone is pushing a particular agenda?
I’ve got a good feeling about everything that has come to me so far. I try to be a person who’s available and will listen. Conversation is nothing that can’t be achieved. All New Yorkers like to exercise their opinion, and their opinions are important to shaping the final vision of these projects.
How often do you meet people within the real estate industry, whether it be a developer, a lobbying group or a broker?
They’re not contacting me on a regular basis, or asking me for anything. I’m actually doing outreach to all sectors of the city that are interested in the future of the city and to see what their act is and what their concerns are, and how we can entrust them one way or the other-or how we can get out of the way, also, so that development can happen. One of the things that we have to do in an economic downturn is try to stimulate and encourage the cost of staying in the city and a demand for development.
What is on your slate in the coming months as far as new land-use proposals?
I don’t have a sense of what they are at the moment, but it could be anything. We haven’t had a list of upcoming projects. Things are a little slow at the moment.
What about the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg? I imagine that massive residential project will prompt some controversy over the coming months?
The Dominos project is coming up later this month, which will be contentious. But it’s been something that’s been planned for a while. I think part of it is that an area that has now become a desired area for housing, an area that got rezoned, and now having opened up the Brooklyn waterfront, there’s a desire for development in that area. That’s versus the concerns of segments of the community that it may get overdeveloped and change the character of the existing community.
The city recently celebrated its 101st zoning initiative since 2002. Is that something that you’re particularly proud of, or do you believe it’s excessive?
When we first got in the Council, we pushed to fund City Planning so that they could increase their staff to keep up with the need of doing all the rezonings that are being requested by civic groups and community boards. A lot of the zonings that are in place are outdated and not applicable to even the existing housing stock.
You have areas like Astoria, which we just rezoned. The zoning was totally out of context with the reality of the neighborhood-it allowed for people to build properties that were totally out of context with what was in character with the rest of the block. But because the zoning was so badly done back in the ’60s, people were sticking R-6 buildings on lots that had never built higher than R-4; and, so, you had a building next to a small home that was totally out of character. So there’s truly a need to clean up a lot of the bad-I don’t want to say bad zoning-but old zoning issues.
Among the few city land-use issues that, in one way or another, managed to avoid City Council scrutiny-say, the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn or aspects of ground zero-are there any that, had you been the land-use chairman at the time, you would’ve liked to have had come before the committee for review?
Those things happened before I was chair, but I definitely want the Council to be involved in every project. I think Atlantic Yards and ground zero should’ve come before the Council, definitely. I think the Council is the most transparent and open process. Those processes were not open, and I think the public is still upset about the outcome of both of those projects, only because they didn’t have the full opportunity to air their grievances.
The Council is a democratic party, a transparent body. We have a responsibility to make sure that anybody who comes before the Council has an opportunity to air all of the aspects of a project so that at the end of the day the residents can know exactly the pros and cons and why we came to the decisions we’ve made after hearing those pros and cons.
Do you consider yourself pro-development?
I’m a pro-city person; I’m not pro-development. I’m a pro-New York City person. At the end of the day, we want the city to be a viable, desirable place for people to live.