Here is the first of what we hope will be several interviews with the various mayoral candidates and their views on development in Queens and Brooklyn:
Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio’s campaign office is across the street from Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, the 1848 Greek Revival edifice that gives downtown a classical flair. But a few blocks away, gleaming new condo towers have sprouted, remaking the skyline. And as de Blasio describes it, private developers have similarly grown in power until they’ve eclipsed the mission of local government. As a result, he says, the city’s ongoing real estate boom has left poor New Yorkers gazing up, but hardly benefitting from the new landmarks.
“We’re living in a tale of two cities,” De Blasio said in a recent interview. “We have a rapidly declining middle class and an affordability crisis and an income disparity crisis. My view is that this is not a supportable reality for the long term, and we have to change city policy substantially.”
For de Blasio, that means breaking away from Bloomberg policies, which he characterizes as too favorable for big businesses. “It’s not a shock to say that there’s a certain elitism to the Bloomberg approach. I think that’s unfortunately now manifesting as a more exclusive city,” he said.
De Blasio supports paid sick leave and living wage legislation, two measures that were passed by the City Council after much debate. The issue of living wages derailed redevelopment at the Bronx Armory in 2009, and the Related Companies — a Quinn donor — received an exemption for its massive Hudson Yards project. De Blasio also wants economic subsidies to be used for things such as financial aid to CUNY, rather than saving them for big companies, which have saved millions in past real estate deals.
In a 71-page policy paper, he calls for the creation and preservation of 200,000 affordable housing units. (Bloomberg called for 165,000 units by 2013.) De Blasio seeks a higher rate of affordable units compared to the 20 percent affordable, 80 percent market rate split common in new developments, which some tenant advocates say have failed to do enough. De Blasio wants higher taxes on vacant land, which would discourage landlords from holding onto parcels in hopes of selling at a higher price in the future. He wants the city’s public pension funds to invest $1 billion to build 11,000 of the new units. (Rival Anthony Weiner has proposed shifting units to a “60/20/20” distribution.)
One can anticipate the protests of developers, who have previously argued that stringent affordability requirements make completing projects unrealistic, particularly in the cutthroat world of construction lending. De Blasio promised to stand firm. “The amount of value that the public sector still holds that the real estate industry would like to get its hands on is extraordinary, and we need to drive the hardest bargain possible in each case,” he said.
At the same time, de Blasio said he is not anti-development. “I’m willing to be fair and practical in terms of sites where we can maximize height and density,” he said, citing the ongoing effort to rezone Midtown East as an appropriate place for high density. He said mistakes were made with the Williamsburg rezoning, where residents have been unsatisfied with the amount of affordable housing that’s been built despite a large increase in new apartment units along the waterfront. “The industry made shallow commitments, and they weren’t enforced,” said de Blasio. “There wasn’t a rigorous follow through on the long-term commitments that were made.”
In Flushing Meadows Corona Park, de Blasio opposes the proposal to build a soccer stadium for the new Major League Soccer team, and he calls the U.S. Tennis Association a poor neighbor for its contentious effort to expand its own stadium in the same park. De Blasio is also critical of the plan to sell air rights on public housing projects owned by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which is grappling with a major budget shortfall. “I think the Bloomberg plan is ill-considered and rushed and does not offer sufficient guarantees to community residents,” he says. “I would stop that plan dead in its tracks.”
When it comes to transit, de Blasio is in favor of increasing bike sharing and bus service, particularly in the outer boroughs. He’s suggested new routes that could link areas like Long Island City and LaGuardia Airport.
De Blasio’s positions make him among the most liberal of the Democrat mayoral candidates, but his involvement in the city’s most controversial development demonstrates the complexities of balancing economic development with community oversight. As a City Councilman representing Park Slope, de Blasio was deep in the fray during the bruising fight for Atlantic Yards in 2006. He negotiated a community benefits agreement for the project, but critics say he failed to follow up to ensure that its guidelines were followed. (Bruce Ratner, developer of Barclays Center, has also donated to de Blasio’s campaign.)
A De Blasio spokeswoman said in a statement that he supported Atlantic Yards because “Brooklyn desperately needs more affordable housing and that locating density near mass transit makes sense, but he believes the city needs to do better in holding the developer — and all developers — accountable for their commitments.”
Barclays has opened, and the first residential tower has broken ground, but issues of affordable housing continue to ripple throughout the city, from Willets Point to the Domino Sugar Refinery to SPURA. “We have to understand this is one of those decisive moments where the very nature of New York City is up for grabs,” said de Blasio.