CityLaw Profile – City Council Zoning Chair Donovan Richards on Improving Sustainability

Councilmember Donovan Richards. Image credit: William Alatriste/NYC Council

Councilmember Donovan Richards. Image credit: William Alatriste/NYC Council

Donovan Richards was elected to the City Council from the 31st District in February 2013.  When you speak with City Council member Donovan Richards, two things become readily apparent:  an encyclopedic knowledge of the needs of his Southeast Queens Council district and the drive to pursue solutions for each of those needs simultaneously.

Born in Jamaica, Queens, Richards frequently moved as a child and grew up in multiple neighborhoods around Southeast Queens, several of which he now represents in Council.  Richards attended Nyack College and studied communications for a career in radio or television, but changed course after the shooting death of his childhood friend Darnell Patterson in March of 2003.  “When my friend was killed, I knew I was going to do something significant with my life.  I didn’t know what it was going to be.”  Richards returned home.  He graduated from the College of Aeronautics, but his testimony at a community forum on gun violence gained the attention of his predecessor, then-Council member James Sanders.

Richards joined Sanders’ office full-time in November 2003 and over the next ten years worked up to serve as the Council member’s chief of staff.  After Sanders was elected to the State Senate, Richards was elected to the vacant seat in February 2013.  Richards said there was a natural progression from his staffer role to an active Council member, as he was already the public face of the office to many people in the community.  The biggest shift, according to a laughing Richards, is the yelling.  “People yell at me more.  They yelled at me before, but you could always pass the buck to the boss.  Now the buck stops with me.”

Elected to represent areas hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy, Richards said recovery did not change the issues he intended to work on when he took office.  If anything, the storm threw a spotlight on them.  “Lack of infrastructure, lack of community development, lack of transportation, all of these things already existed in East Rockaway.  All Sandy did was pull the sheet off of these issues.”  Richards also said Sandy emphasized the need for environmental sustainability and resiliency in advancing his district, issues he pushed while chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection.  “If we don’t, as a City, get very serious about resiliency and sustainability, our children will not have a fighting chance at surviving in New York City.  We’ll see communities like Rockaway and Rosedale wiped off the map if we don’t get serious.”

As the new chair of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, Richards plans to keep pushing environmental progress through the subcommittee’s work.  “We’ve made it very clear to developers who come before us that we want to hear what your environmental focus is.”  Richards asks whether projects have provisions for solar panels, whether they will use resilient or sustainable materials in construction, and more.  New York’s role in setting a national and international standard is never far from Richards’ mind in advancing the City’s environmental policies.  He cited his recent appearance on a panel in Washington D.C., and delegation visits from China and Germany wanting to learn the City’s response to climate change.

The biggest hurdle Richards has encountered in his work has been changing human behavior.  He pointed to the recent update of the City’s air code as an example.  “We had people asking ‘Why is the government adding regulations?’  But if regulations were not in place, New Yorkers would be walking around with gas masks from the air being so toxic.” Richards also spoke of a developing initiative to require new City-financed construction to adopt non-smoking policies.  He acknowledged the proposal will be controversial as individuals will demand the right to smoke inside their homes, but argued that when the City is helping foot the bill to construct the building then residents should not be permitted to endanger others’ health.  Richards stressed the need for bringing attention to environmental justice, citing a Columbia University study showing the impact of air pollution on children’s mental development.  “This has to be a focus of the City, as we move forward, ensuring that these children have a fighting chance and not have to worry about going to the ER every other night from asthma.”

Right now, Richards acknowledges his biggest focus is the pending rollout of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s mandatory inclusionary zoning program.  Comments from East New York, the first neighborhood scheduled for rezoning, have Richards mindful of gentrification concerns.  “One of the things we want to ensure moving forward is that there’s an opportunity for the people who stayed through hell.  There’s no other way to describe them.  They should have an opportunity to live in these new buildings and continue to take part in their community, to send their kids to good schools and shop in good supermarkets.”

Looking forward, Richards wants to see the 31st District with a substantial infrastructure upgrade when his time in the Council has ended.  “Right now, when it rains, people are losing everything in their basements.  You’re competing between paying your mortgage and keeping your house up to par.”  For East Rockaway, Richards wants to see the community return to the days of Rockaways’ Playland, becoming a world-class tourist destination.  He describes the challenges as ensuring the City, State, and Army Corps of Engineers install proper infrastructure to lessen the impact of climate change, and ending the disparity in community amenities between East Rockaway and the western part of the peninsula.  Richards advocated increasing transportation access by relocating the ferry stop to a more central location or establishing a new stop for East Rockaway residents and using the FRESH initiative to open area supermarkets.

When Richards is out of the office, he likes to relax by going to the movies with his wife or occasionally playing basketball, but admits politics is a passion and much of his leisure time is spent reading zoning and environmental books.  Lately, he and his wife, Tameeka, have been preparing for the arrival of their first child, due in November.

By:  Michael Twomey (Michael is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School graduate, Class of 2014)

One thought on “CityLaw Profile – City Council Zoning Chair Donovan Richards on Improving Sustainability

  1. I totally agree with Donovan Richards. I have been an affordable housing advocate for at least 15 years; indeed, many of us were at a Housing First! forum the morning of 9/11 when the towers fell.

    We have 421-a and inclusionary zoning, but we need more teeth than tax incentives. The city’s land belongs to its people ultimately. I recommend that no developer get a building permit for any construction, until it agrees to abide by the 20-30% (of whatever the community wants) affordable housing requirement in the same development, or on an adjacent lot. On Manhattan, developers simply walk by tax incentives and are putting up 100 story or higher luxury buildings, ruinous of their neighborhoods. Indeed, in an emergency like 9/11 or a blackout, there would be no room for all of us in the streets at the same time! No, NO, NO! We need white roofs, solar roofs and panels, built in trash treatment like Roosevelt Island, forced recyling, etc. Also, Mr. Richards, my condo has banned smoking in every apartment, one of the first to do that. Go for it! I’m on your team!

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