Interviews & Profiles

Eric Adams wants NYC to be a 'city of yes.' Dan Garodnick has to figure that out.

The City Planning Commission chair talked with City & State about One45 in Harlem, NIMBYism and member deference.

Daniel Garodnick in 2017 as chair of the City Council Planning Economic and Development Committee.

Daniel Garodnick in 2017 as chair of the City Council Planning Economic and Development Committee. William Alatriste/New York City Council

Mayor Eric Adams recently announced New York City is a “city of yes” and he wants to attack the housing shortage. The person responsible for moving much of that agenda is former City Council Member and new City Planning Commission Chair Dan Garodnick. Garodnick spent 12 years on the City Council, where he chaired the Planning Economic and Development Committee. Now in the executive branch, Garodnick will have to corral his former colleagues to support more housing supply. But the City Council’s unofficial practice of member deference – where individual members can veto development projects in their districts – has long hampered new construction. A proposed development in Harlem, which included 458 below market-rate units, was recently scuttled after intense opposition from the local council member. Reforming housing will be a delicate balancing act between a sometimes discordant council and an ambitious mayoral administration. 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

In March, The New York Times reported rents in New York City are up 33% from last year. As you transition into your new role, what are your priorities for housing policy? Mayor Adams wants New York City to be a “city of yes.” How do we ensure what gets built remains affordable?

We need to expand housing opportunities for everyone, and that means making sure that housing is being built for all New Yorkers and in all neighborhoods.The “city of yes” initiatives include citywide advancements for housing for that reason. It includes in our zoning initiative – which is still in development – ways to address zoning limitations that are keeping housing from actually being built.

We want to create additional incentives for affordable housing and supportive housing, much like we do for senior affordable housing today. In lower density districts, where two-family homes may be allowed, there are frequently zoning limitations. So we're looking to address those sorts of issues through zoning. And of course, in the bigger picture neighborhood plans like Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn or in Morris Park, Parkchester and Van Nest in the Bronx. 

In high density areas, we want to allow for smaller units to be enabled. Today there are strict limits to the number of studio apartments that one might include in a building.

What’s your take on the Harlem One45 project in terms of council member deference? That was 915 units, half affordable. And now it's scuttled. 

The One45 was a missed opportunity to create a significant number of units right next to a train station, which is where they belong. (Council Member Kristin Richardson Jordan) was pretty clear all along as to where she stood on this project.  

When it comes to our broader neighborhood plans and collaboration with the city council, I can assure you, as someone who not only served on that body for 12 years but has a lot of respect for the people who are serving there, we will be working hand in hand with them to ensure that our policies  are able to be effectuated. They are our partner in this. 

With the mayor's announcement last week, outlining the “city of yes” agenda, you’ve told The City there was a lot of early support from the council. You're anticipating the council will be working with the administration on this, that there won't be pushback? How do you envision that? 

These are big citywide proposals that will require a high level of public engagement at a community level, at a borough level, at the City Council level.There are stakeholders that we need to explore these proposals with and to ensure that they are complete and that they hit the right marks. We do not underestimate the complexity of any of that. 

On the other hand, they are common sense changes that meet the moment. And I believe that the City Council will be responsive to that. 

Has the speaker of the council given any indication they will make these issues a priority? 

Only early. So I wouldn't characterize.

You also said that the proposals are “far reaching” and “citywide,” and they're “not subject to member discretion.” 

No single member would have a final say on the proposals. So it takes them out of the longstanding debate about member deference. We need to make our case to the speaker and to the 51 members. I believe that they will find these proposals to be thoughtful and reflective of positive change in the city. 

So having these more broad base changes instead of neighborhood plan by neighborhood plan could be a way to maneuver around member deference ?

Just to be clear, we're going to be doing those too because it is critically important to a city that needs to grow and evolve over time. Consider the numbers that reflect the crisis that we are in: In the last decade, we added 813,000 jobs, but only 227,000 homes. In the last 40 years, our population grew by 1.7 million, but we built half of the amount of housing that we had built in the prior 40 years when we actually lost population

And as a result of all this, 44% of renters are rent burdened. So they spend more than 30% of their income on rent. And it all points to a single conclusion. We need more supply and we need it now. 

The mayor has talked about going into some of these neighborhoods that are becoming wealthier and more high opportunity and supporting upzoning.  Is that something the mayor, that this administration, is going to put political capital behind?

Absolutely. And we are committed to finding opportunities to create housing in all corners of the city. Particularly areas that are well-served by transit. And certainly we don't believe any neighborhood should be exempt from that conversation because of the challenges that we are facing citywide today.

And just to double back on council member deference. If this becomes an issue, would the administration say: "Hey, we really need to end this practice”?

Let's not prejudge how these things will go down in this new council. Obviously we had one example recently that was a disappointment. But we want to have a chance to make our case to our partners in the council on broad citywide initiatives, neighborhood plans. And even to support private applications that are coming through, that are delivering affordable housing, housing more generally, and are consistent with the city's priorities and goals. 

The city has 520 miles of coastline. How do you see the Department of City Planning’s commitment to housing resiliency? How does it relate to the mission of city planning? 

City Planning has been very active in taking a look at neighborhoods that are most vulnerable to coastal flooding and changing the rules to promote better designed buildings and reduce density in the areas that are susceptible to regular floods. We now have four special coastal risk districts in New York city and perhaps five if approved by the City Council in Edgemere, Queens. 

We also are in the midst of a building elevation study to explore ways to avoid terrible tragedies, like what happened in Ida, in the future. So this is a high priority for us because this is a city surrounded by 520 miles, and we have some communities that are truly vulnerable and we need to find ways to protect them.

So with everything the mayor has announced and you've just described, is this administration YIMBY?

We are a “city of yes”. We want to find opportunities to promote growth. And that is how we want to be known.