Economic Development

Everything you need to know about the latest proposal in ‘City of Yes’

Mayor Eric Adams’ proposed overhaul of dated zoning regulations would bolster New York’s economic recovery and grow local business.

Mayor Eric Adams’ City of Yes for Economic Opportunity proposal would overhaul decades-old zoning regulations

Mayor Eric Adams’ City of Yes for Economic Opportunity proposal would overhaul decades-old zoning regulations Michael M. Santiago / Staff – Getty

The New York City Council has kicked off its review of the Adams administration’s proposal to bolster economic recovery and help local businesses expand by eliminating and modernizing dated zoning regulations. 

The City Council’s zoning and franchise subcommittee reviewed the “City of Yes for Economic Opportunity” proposal for the first time Monday at a hearing that will likely be followed by several discussions on the plan which Mayor Eric Adams has pushed for.  

“Far too often when I speak with my colleagues across the country, I hear how people state it is too challenging, too difficult to do business in New York City. We're the empire state. We're not the state that destroys empires, so we need to get back in the business of building empires,” Adams said at a rally preceding the hearing . “We should become a magnet for new ideas and new business.”

Here’s what you should know about the city’s plan.

What is the “City of Yes” plan?

“City of Yes” is the title of New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ sweeping plan to change decades-old zoning rules to spur housing and economic growth. Three different proposals make up the plan, but the one currently under City Council consideration pertains specifically to businesses and economic growth. The initiative, dubbed “City of Yes for Economic Opportunity,” includes 18 proposals to change and modernize citywide zoning rules by doing things like filling vacant storefronts and allowing businesses to open and expand in areas they are currently barred from. Supporters have touted the proposal as a sure-fire way to grow the number of jobs and strengthen small businesses across the five boroughs.

The City Council passed the first of the three proposals  – “City of Yes for Carbon Neutrality”  late last year, which removes zoning impediments to rooftop solar and other eco-friendly tools. “City of Yes for Housing Opportunity” – the most high profile and potentially consequential of the three – is slated to begin the formal review process later this year.

Why is an update necessary?

Most of the city’s zoning laws that govern business and manufacturing haven’t been updated since 1961, making much of what is currently in place “laughably outdated,” according to Dan Garodnick, City Planning Commission chair and director of the Department of City Planning – the agency spearheading the proposals. For example, current zoning laws dictate where taxidermy and telegraph repair shops can be located, but make no mention of modern business ventures like smartphones and artificial intelligence. Lingering aspects of the city’s Cabaret Law still bans dancing at some bars and clubs. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also further underscored the need for updated rules, according to Garodnick. The economy has changed dramatically over the last couple of years. Currently, nearly 17,000 storefronts are vacant, 16% of New Yorkers are working from home at least once a week, and about 19% of offices are vacant.

“The types of businesses that exist, the environmental standards for businesses all have changed in the last 60 years,” Garodnick told City Council members. “Businesses need flexibility and clarity to adapt to a changing economy, but unfortunately today’s zoning rules are too complex, restrictive and outdated.”

What does the plan propose?

The collection of 18 proposals address a variety of issues across the city’s business sector, but they are built around goals to make it easier for businesses to find space and grow, boosting growing industries, enabling more business-friendly streetscapes, and creating new opportunities for businesses to open.

Some specific policy changes include more than doubling the space available for clean manufacturing by allowing small producers like ceramic shops and microbreweries to open in commercial corridors, expanding the number of businesses permitted to operate in ground-floor and upper-floor spaces, and allowing new corner stores like bodegas to open in residential zones. 

The plan would also eliminate rules that currently prohibit dancing, comedy and open mic nights in restaurants and venues in commercial areas, allow a wider range of businesses like barber shops and interior design to be based in homes, allow indoor urban agriculture, and allow life science labs to open by hospitals.

Who are the key players behind “City of Yes?” How was the plan developed?

The Department of City Planning has implemented feedback from organizations and small business owners as it’s pushed the 18 zoning amendments through the public review process. Enforcement of the zoning rules would fall under the Department of Buildings purview and the Department of City Planning is also working closely with the Department of Environmental Protection and the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife as the plan awaits final approval. 

Community feedback has been robust. The Department of City Planning has held 175 meetings with city community boardings throughout the process. Modifications to the plan were also made by the City Planning Commission before members gave their approval last month.

What does support and opposition look like?

The proposal has garnered a bevy of support from pro-business groups ranging from the Association for a Better New York, Alliance for Downtown NY, Real Estate Board of New York, the Freelancers Union, and many others.

With the exception of Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella, all borough presidents have recommended to approve the proposal with conditions. Community board support has been far more mixed – 30 out of 51 have rejected the proposal. 

What concerns have been raised about the plan?

Some of the most common concerns that have been raised over the proposal as it wound its way through the public review process have pertained to its potential to pit the need for housing against economic interests and cause unforeseen adverse environmental impacts. Residents located in suburban neighborhoods in particular have expressed fears that the proposed changes will alter the character of their communities.

Council Member Kevin Riley, chair of the City Council’s zoning and franchise subcommittee, said he’s concerned that the plan doesn’t address the distribution of “last-mile” warehouses –  large package distribution facilities concentrated in neighborhoods like Red Hook and Hunts Point that have long bore the burden of polluting industries. He also expressed concerns that the city of Department of Buildings – the agency that would be tasked with enforcing the rule changes – would be unable to address violations with its current staffing levels and resources. 

“The administration needs to pledge to increase DOB’s resources so that our quality of life concerns that our communities are rightfully raising are fully addressed,” Riley said.

What comes next?

The New York City Council will have 50 days to consider the proposal, putting the full body’s vote to approve, modify or disapprove it sometime around the end of May. A spokesperson for the City Council said there isn’t currently a timeline for what that process will look like. For now, members are assessing what they heard from city officials and the public in wake of Monday’s subcommittee hearing.