Joe Rose, Former City Planning Chairman on Weisbrod CityLaw Breakfast Discussion

Carl Weisbrod’s discussion of the de Blasio administration’s planning and zoning agenda was noteworthy both for its affirmation of continuity in New York City government’s leadership in the effort to create affordable housing and also in announcing a radical departure from the approach of previous administrations. When Chairman Weisbrod speaks, people should listen.

Weisbrod’s appointment as City Planning Chairman has been widely and justly hailed across the political spectrum and development industries because Weisbrod is a sophisticated, experienced, savvy, and well-liked public servant with a well-earned reputation for credibility and integrity. His role as leader of Mayor de Blasio’s transition and appointments process and the fact that he was actively recruited for the position by the new mayor, gives him the clout to give planning—the most entrepreneurial of governmental enterprises—a central role in shaping the actions of the new mayoralty. Furthermore, fiscal constraints force the City to achieve many of its ambitious policy goals by shaping the actions of the private sector, and City Planning stands squarely astride the nexus of public and private. With the announcement that Mayor de Blasio will restore City Planning’s historic role in shaping the City’s Ten Year Capital Plan and give the Department increased staff to fulfill its mission, the Department of City Planning is empowered.

Every recent mayor has declared that his administration’s housing program will be the most ambitious in the City’s history. Underlying this claim is the impressive fact that for three decades New York City has led the nation in innovative programs to create affordable housing. New York City has committed more of its own dollars to that effort than all other municipalities in the rest of the country combined, and done so to good effect, creating effective partnerships with community based organizations and enlisting the participation of all aspects of the development industry, from banks and large-scale high-rise developers to small-scale neighborhood builders. In his remarks Weisbrod re-stated Mayor de Blasio’s goal of generating 200,000 units of affordable housing, noting in passing that the previous administration’s twelve year housing effort had by his calculation resulted in a net loss of affordable units.

While calling for a city of even greater density to accommodate a growing population, Weisbrod displayed his subtle appreciation of the kind of political resistance likely to emerge at the neighborhood level that has often thwarted or bogged down similar previous efforts. With a four decade track record of having worked with communities and other constituencies to navigate treacherous political currents and the resources to trade increased services and capital spending to win acceptance of higher density, the new Chairman is likely to make meaningful progress on the zoning front. His commitments to curtail the limbo of the pre-certification process, loosen the shrink-wrapping nature of some building envelope controls, and reduce excessive parking requirements will be welcome news for developers bedeviled by seemingly arbitrary certification delays and befuddling regulatory constraints. While such promises have been heard before, Weisbrod is likely to be able to deliver on many of them.

The continuity of Weisbrod’s pro-growth outlook with that of previous administration’s stands in sharp contrast to the dramatic departure articulated in the other theme of his discussion. Ever since New York City introduced zoning into the United States in 1916, the core regulatory principle has been one of establishing parameters within which the private sector made decisions about what it chose to build. The constitutional basis for zoning powers was that zoning regulations are derived from the police powers to protect citizens. When New York City rewrote its zoning resolution in 1961 and sought to create additional public goods such as open space and community facilities, it established the principle of “incentive zoning” whereby developers could attain additional development rights or regulatory relief in exchange for providing public goods. The list of public goods eligible for zoning incentives has expanded over subsequent decades to include historic preservation, theater preservation, parks, schools, public esplanades, and in the 1980’s, affordable housing. The Koch Administration tried to harness the vitality of the Manhattan building boom of the 1980’s to yield affordable housing by offering increased density in exchange for a specified number of affordable units. Similarly, the tax incentives offered to spur housing development were also modified to require affordable units from those who availed themselves of the benefits. Central to all such efforts was the concept that these were voluntary transactions between the public and private sector.

In keeping with Mayor de Blasio’s campaign promise, Chairman Weisbrod announced that henceforth, the provision of affordable housing would be mandatory for any project build pursuant to a rezoning or discretionary approval. His statement that, “You can’t build one unit of market rate housing unless you build the corresponding number of affordable units” signaled a revolution in the City’s approach to the regulation of land use. No longer was the decision about what to build in the hands of the property owner; City government from now on would be a full partner in the decision.

While some have raised concerns about the ideological or constitutional basis for such an approach, the more interesting question in many ways is its practical viability. Building housing in New York City is a complex, expensive, and risky undertaking. It has often not been easy to generate the production of housing of any kind. Whether the market will respond to the new requirements with production on a scale needed to achieve the ambitious numbers aspired to by the de Blasio Administration remains to be seen. Weisbrod went beyond stating that incorporating affordable housing into all projects in mid-and high-density areas would be mandatory. He indicated that the City’s housing agencies are conducting an economic analysis “to calibrate how much affordable housing to require in each neighborhood” with different standards for “hot” and “emerging” locales. Such faith in the capacity of City agencies to gauge the private sector’s capacity to shoulder the financial burden of the new government mandate is quite optimistic. There is a risk that rather than nurturing a dramatic increase of affordable housing production, the new mandates will cripple the nascent surge in new housing.

Still, if anyone has the combination of skills required to achieve Mayor de Blasio’s goals, it is Carl Weisbrod. His past successes in Times Square and Lower Manhattan have proven that his shrewd and understated leadership can attain results in contexts where others have failed. Weisbrod is as aware of the potential pitfalls of expansive public policies as any municipal public servant has ever been and he has a long track record of uniting government agencies, community organizations, and real estate interests to pursue a common purpose. In spearheading the de Blasio housing agenda, he has undertaken a task that will test his considerable abilities.

Joe Rose served as Chairman of the NYC Planning Commission from 1993-2002.

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