New York Planning Chief Dan Garodnick On Housing, Zoning and More

It's not an easy lift as the city faces a historic housing shortage amid a slow recovery from the pandemic

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Dan Garodnick had a nice, stable job running the Riverside Park Conservancy after a dozen years painstakingly crafting Midtown zoning plans and responding to constituent concerns as a City Council member representing Manhattan’s East Side.

But this winter Garodnick traded in tranquil afternoons with tulip beds when Mayor Eric Adams appointed him a director of the Department of City Planning and chair of the City Planning Commission. Now he’ll be one of the architects leading the Adams administration’s plans to build more affordable housing as rents soar, help businesses recover from the pandemic, and ensure New York’s shoreline remains resilient to violent storms.

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He has the challenge of modernizing the city’s zoning codes to fit a 21st-century economy where goods are ordered on-demand and New Yorkers have gotten used to working from home. He’ll also have to navigate a potentially contentious City Council where one member’s objection can kill a development project. And the neighborhood strife that stalled several of the de Blasio administration’s rezoning projects hasn’t exactly gone away.

Still, Garodnick is energized at the opportunity to bring generational change upon the city. After all, wildflowers never really offer any feedback.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Commercial Observer: Why did you decide to come back to work in city government?

Dan Garodnick: This is an important moment in this city’s history. We have just been through an incredible crisis and we need to find ways to jump-start our recovery. When Mayor Adams offered me this opportunity, I was beyond honored to step in and help out.

Did you know the mayor previously?

He was the Brooklyn borough president, I was the Council member on the East Side of Manhattan. We had a mutual respect for one another even back then, and I always admired his work and his style.

How did the recruiting go?

Over many months there were conversations with members of the transition team as well as the mayor-
elect at the time. I was having conversations with them, exploring different concepts, and they were asking about interests. But City Planning is where I wanted to be.

The average rent for an apartment in Manhattan is almost $5,000 a month. The New York State Legislature left the session without addressing the crisis. How will City Planning work to increase the supply of housing?

We would have a role in a couple of different things. One would enable the creation of more housing through zoning changes and processing private applications for new developments that include affordable housing. Another would work with neighborhoods to think creatively about where we can add density to create housing. 

The mayor’s “City of Yes” zoning plan is your first big zoning initiative. Can you explain what you hope to accomplish with it? 

The big goal is to change rules to enable faster recovery, create housing, and deliver a more sustainable city. Today we have zoning regulations that are impeding all of those things as opposed to supporting them. 

In our zero-carbon proposal, we are seeking to streamline rules that limit the number of solar panels that you can put on a roof or penalize a building owner for creating high-performance walls for insulation. We also are trying to expand opportunities for electric vehicle charging. Today such stations are not allowed in most residential buildings for general use. We need to change those rules and get out of the way of progress. 

In zoning for economic opportunity, the rules are frequently stymieing opportunity. Take a bakery that in the course of the pandemic saw lots of extra activity because people were spending more time in their neighborhoods, had success, and wants to expand to a vacant storefront next door. Once you cross a threshold of 750 square feet as a bakery, you become a food manufacturer and you would need to pick up and relocate out of the community you have been serving. In some parts of the city, you have a dividing line where you have one side of the street you can do bike sales and on the other side of the street you can do bike repair, but you can’t do both on both sides of the street.

We also have rules that limit the ability of high-tech manufacturers and life sciences to locate in certain types of buildings, and that is limiting all sorts of opportunity. 

On zoning for housing opportunity, we are trying to increase the opportunity of the development of affordable housing by giving development bonuses, much like we do for senior affordable housing. We want to eliminate limitations on the creation of smaller units like studios. Today there is a calculation in the zoning resolution that specifically defines the number of small units in a development. We have more people living alone today than ever before, and our housing should be able to accommodate that. 

In lower-density areas, we have some parts of the city that are actually allowed to have two-family homes, but our zoning rules are so complicated that they get in the way of allowing a property owner to put a grandma flat above the garage or rent space to be able to help pay off a mortgage or help if you lose your job. We want to enable that by eliminating the rules that keep that from happening.

How do you convince the not-in-my-backyard crowd that building housing in their neighborhoods is a good idea?

One of the reasons we have advanced three citywide zoning tax amendments is because it is not only ambitious but also not entirely subject to the position of a single community or individual. 

We are in a crisis. We need to add supply to housing immediately. The last 40 years we added 1.7 million people to New York City, and we created housing at half the rate that we had in the prior 40 years when the population actually declined. Over the last decade, we created more than 800,000 jobs but only about 200,000 units of housing. That is why rent is so high and why so many people are feeling that pressure.

Are you doing a citywide zoning focus because the de Blasio administration failed to pass a number of neighborhood rezoning plans?

We’re going to have to do neighborhood rezoning too, and that is also a priority for us. We have two already in the pipeline. One is in Morris Park and in Parkchester-Van Nest in the Bronx. Both sites are future Metro-North stations which will open in 2027. Work is commencing this year. Morris Park is the biggest jobs hub in the Bronx. The station is within a half-mile of 23,000 jobs. We see opportunities to create better connections to the station, enabling more job creation and housing production right there. It is an extraordinary opportunity for the East Bronx, and a neighborhood plan is on the way. 

On Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn we are also advancing a neighborhood plan. Primarily a manufacturing area, and we want to create a vibrant mixed-use district with the local Council member there in Crown Heights.

You have a reputation as a mediator in really tough development disputes in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, East Midtown and the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal. What’s the one thing that you try to bring to any negotiation? 

I think the most important thing in each of these cases is the ability to develop trust on both sides of the equation and understand completely the interests that people are articulating, not just the positions that they are stating that animate all of the headlines but what actually is motivating the things that they are saying. If you can both establish trust and understand what is motivating people, you are 80 percent of the way to success. 

And I hope to be able to bring that to the many complicated issues that we will be seeing as we advance complicated land-use proposals.

Do you still have relationships in the City Council you can lean on to get something passed?

I have relationships with a lot of them and a great deal of respect for them and that body. As somebody who served in the Council for 12 years, I understand the pressures that they are facing on a daily basis and the environment in which they are doing their important work. 

The One45 multifamily project in Harlem failed because of a councilwoman’s objections over its affordability. What’s the next step there, and what will you do to ensure a councilmember won’t sideline your agenda?

That was a disappointing outcome because of the sheer number of units, the total amount of affordability, and the proximity to mass transit. We were sorry the councilmember and developer could not come to an agreement, but this councilmember did make her position known throughout the process. I don’t think there were many surprises there. 

The way we intend to engage the Council on our citywide initiatives is by building new relationships, ensuring transparency with what we are looking to do, building coalitions, and being open to how we shape these proposals at the outset. We are partners with the City Council, and the priorities the mayor has stated here are all priorities that have been articulated by the Council as a whole and by individual councilmembers throughout the body. 

The 421a tax abatement wasn’t renewed this year. What alternatives would you like to see? Will we see affordable housing development without tax incentives?

We think this one in one form or another is critically important to the development of affordable rental housing in high-income areas in particular, and we are very concerned about the expiration. We hope the state Legislature picks this up again, and we will continue to advocate for it.

Did you lobby in Albany for it?

This is a complicated proposal in a complicated environment. This tool for the creation of housing should not be understated. We are extremely worried about the impact it is going to have and we will continue to make that case. 

We understand 421a is far from perfect, but we need an incentive that will aid us in delivering affordable housing. Without it, I fear we are all going to see the impacts, and they are not consistent with a city that is looking to add an enormous amount of housing to deal with a crisis.

Do you support the citywide hotel text amendment that will limit new hotel developments? With tourism coming back, don’t we need more hotels?

I was not here for that. We are at 56 million visitors to New York in the year 2022, which is about 10 million shy of where we were in 2019. We hope that we continue to see the number go up and there certainly is a path for the creation of new hotels. We’re in a period of transition here. We want to give the opportunity for hotels that can be supportive housing to do so, but that is not going to be the answer for all hotels. 

What is City Planning doing to regulate empty retail storefronts that serve as distribution hubs for delivery companies but may be out of character in a lightly trafficked commercial or even residential zone?

The way people live and shop is changing before our eyes, and we need our rules not only to keep up but to envision what the future might be. That means being thoughtful about what we do to address the issue before us and anticipate what is coming. 

What we’re trying to do on last-mile distribution and dark stores, we understand that they are challenging existing rules in a way that we need to address. We don’t want warehouse-like distribution in residential areas. That’s not what zoning intends to do, and we are working with the Department of Buildings to ensure our rules reflect that.

Congestion pricing has stalled. Do you support it and what will you do to expedite it?

The mayor has expressed his support for congestion pricin and we think it’s important to get done. And that is something that we need to encourage our state Legislature and governor to make happen.

Midtown has seen people return to work, but the office vacancy rate remains close to 20 percent. Should we look at bringing more residential development to Midtown like we did in Lower Manhattan after 9/11?

I am bullish on commercial office space in Midtown Manhattan not just because I believe that’s the way it should be but because I am watching what private development is doing out there. They are investing enormous sums in commercial office space in Midtown and signaling that they believe that this is where you should have your employees working. 

We have more jobs per mile in Midtown Manhattan than anywhere else in the country. That area is responsible for 10 percent of our property tax revenue in New York City. I do not expect radical changes to Midtown Manhattan’s commercial district. That said, we may see offices used in different ways with smaller amounts rented to each individual company. There will be change, but the appeal of Midtown Manhattan for office workers is its quality of experience, quality of building, and its proximity to mass transit. 

As part of our zoning for economic opportunity initiative, we are going to look at the ability to convert underperforming commercial buildings to residential. But it will not happen the way it did in Lower Manhattan. Many of the buildings people picture in Midtown Manhattan are not really suitable for conversion because of the way they are laid out.

What’s going to happen to Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village in 50 years? Could we eventually see displacement of the middle class from that neighborhood?

Stuy Town and Peter Cooper are a critical and stable community for middle-income New Yorkers. It deserves our protection and our focus and support. Right from day one, when it was created in 1943, that community had the attention of the mayor, the governor and everyone in between because of its sheer size, its location and its importance to the city. I expect that it will always be the case, and policymakers will not allow people to be pushed out on their watch.