Council Member Melinda Katz Shares Her Insights on Land Use Issues

Council Member Melinda Katz is Chair of the Land Use Committee, a position she has held since 2002, when she was first elected to the City Council. The City’s land use review process requires that almost all major land use initiatives, with few exceptions, pass her desk for review. During her tenure as Chair, Katz “worked as a team” with the Bloomberg administration on the City-initiated rezonings, the largest rezoning initiative since 1961, covering roughly onesixth of the City including Hudson Yards, Greenpoint-Williamsburg, Highline-West Chelsea, Downtown Brooklyn, and the Jamaica Plan. On an unseasonably warm January day, CityLand sat down with Katz to get a feel for her perspective on land use issues

“I live in the same house I grew up in.” The daughter of two Julliard-graduates, Katz was born and raised in Forest Hills, Queens. After graduating from Hillcrest High School in Jamaica, Katz attended the University of Massachusetts where she graduated summa cum laude. She then chose to attend St. John’s University School of Law because she “was young and wanted to save the world.” During law school, Katz interned with the Legal Aid Society, United States Attorney’s Organized Crime Unit, and United States District Court Judge Michael B. Mukasey.

Three years later—when “reality hit”—Katz signed up with Weil, Gotshal and Manges to work in their Business and Security Litigation Department on mergers and acquisitions alongside attorneys such as Dennis Block. She still lives in Forest Hills, and relishes the neighborhood’s sense of community, commenting “I still run into my kindergarten teacher on the street.”

Public service. When Alan Hevesi left the State Assembly to become State Comptroller in 1994, Katz left private practice to run for his empty seat, which she won at the age of 28. Five years later, after losing to Anthony Weiner for U.S. House of Representatives by less than one percent of the vote, Katz worked for Queens Borough President Claire Schulman as Director of Community Boards, where she learned about land use issues and the land use review process. Upon her election to the City Council in 2002, Katz approached the Council Speaker, “not to request more staff or a bigger office but to become Chair of the Land Use Committee.”

A different perspective. Katz believes her unique experiences aid her position as Chair of the Land Use Committee. Living in Queens lends itself to a “Citywide perspective” because “you live in one borough and work in another.” She also believes her training as an attorney allows her to “see both sides of an issue” and bring “different positions together,” which is useful as Chair when dealing with unions, developers, and community board members. Lastly, Katz is grateful for her experience at the State Assembly, which stresses a focused, patient, and civil approach to public policy matters. “Being Assembly-trained,” she argues, helps her everyday in the City Council.

Trends. When asked about the hot-button issues that come before the Committee, Katz immediately jumped on affordable housing. Katz sees the demand for “quality affordable housing” outstripping “the inventory” of such units. She says that “every upzoning” represents “an opportunity to create more affordable housing.” The challenge, according to Katz, is providing affordable housing “without inhibiting the profit incentive” because she sees real estate development as “underlying the City’s economic future.”

Katz also expressed her concern that infrastructure cannot keep up with development. Last summer, the federal government declared several neighborhoods in Queens “disaster areas” because “our infrastructure cannot deal with something as minor as rain.” With rapid growth anticipated in areas such as Willets Point and Jamaica, Katz feels environmental impact statements should be closely scrutinized with this problem in mind.

“Public service is a privilege, not a right.” Katz is not looking to return to private practice after her second term as City Council Member ends, instead announcing her candidacy for next year’s City Comptroller election. She points to the “sixty percent pay cut” that she took when she left private practice the first time as an example of her desire to be in public service and describes her career ambitions as simply being “effective” at “bringing value” to the City. — Sami Y. Naim

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