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Decrying ‘Developer’s Playground,’ New NYC Council Members Pump Brakes On Projects

Crystal Hudson, a Brooklyn native who is a few months into her first term on the New York City Council representing a district that spans Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights and Crown Heights, believes this year marks the start of a new era of politics at City Hall.

In one of her first moves on the council, she told the City Planning Commission in early January that two developers going through approvals for developments on Atlantic Avenue should go back to the drawing board for the projects, otherwise they wouldn't be able to count on her support.

“New York City has been a developer's playground for a very, very long time,” Hudson said in an interview with Bisnow this month. “An opportunity for the residents of New York with the greatest needs to be prioritized shouldn't be a scary thing.”

Crystal Hudson

Since last year’s election, the council is now the most diverse in the city’s history and women have a majority for the first time ever, with 30 females among those holding the 51 seats. Democrats still control the chamber, but the influx of diverse members has led political analysts to declare this year's version the most progressive council yet.

And as the city grapples with a housing crisis only worsened by the pandemic, new development is already shaping up to be a key battleground, with elected officials sparring with the real estate industry over what is best for neighborhoods and New York as a whole — all while housing production in the city lags behind its needs.

Hudson isn't alone: First-term council members are throwing cold water on large projects pitched in Harlem and Queens, too, claiming they don't create enough affordable housing and would widen the city's inequality. And because the city council has historically approved projects with local member support — and rejected projects without it — the officials have enormous influence on what developments can move forward in their districts. 

“The city council that New Yorkers elected … is more diverse, it's a majority of women and we’re very progressive,” Hudson said. “I think this is an opportunity for us to shift what the status quo has been, and flip some things on their heads and prioritize the people who've always lived on the margins.”

On the whole, the city council is already shaping up to be a combative one, said Susan Kang, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice associate professor of political science and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

“This city council is not going to be so compliant with Mayor Eric Adams,” Kang said, adding that Adams sounds "like a Republican" in many ways.

With the city redistricting, each council member is up for election in 2023, putting extra pressure on city council members to deliver to their constituents this year. 

“There’s only two years to demonstrate to your voters and constituents that they're fighting,” she said. "There's an extra sort of incentive or urgency."

A fight is certainly brewing in Harlem, where the newly elected council member for the 9th District, Kristen Jordan Richardson, has publicly slammed plans for a two-tower development at 145th Street and Lenox Avenue.

"I'm just going to urge the board to vote this down, and I'm just going to continue my crusade to shut this down," Richardson Jordan said at a Community Board 10 meeting in January, Patch reported.

The corner of 145th Street and Lenox Avenue, where two 363-foot-tall towers have been proposed.

The development would feature 800 apartments, offices, a museum devoted to the northern Civil Rights Movement, as well as new headquarters for the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, Patch reports. Some 220 units would be affordable, though Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine has said the development doesn't have enough affordability to justify approval.

Although developer Don Peebles said this month that the museum is committed to his development proposal in Hell's Kitchen, called Affirmation Tower, leaders at National Action Network shot down Peebles' claims this week.

The developer, Bruce Teitelbaum, could not be reached for comment. Suri Kasirer, Teitelbaum's wife, whose firm was hired to lobby city officials for the project, per City & State, didn't respond to a request for comment. 

In Hudson's district, EMP Capital wants to build 210 rental apartments, with 25% set aside as affordable, at 1034-1042 Atlantic Ave., and Y&T Development wants to build 228 residences, with 69 units designated as affordable housing, at 888 Atlantic Ave., New York YIMBY reported in September

Both projects are represented by the same attorney, who didn't respond to a request for comment. Eli Pariente, a principal at EMP, declined to comment for this story.

Hudson said she is pushing for City Planning and the Adams administration to commit to working with the community to create a comprehensive plan for the entirety of Atlantic Avenue. She said there are some 7,000 units in the pipeline for the corridor, with little consideration for what kind of pressure that would put on schools, transit and infrastructure.

“I think developers should come in, first and foremost, listening to the community and asking the community what it is they want to see,” she said, adding that the housing that is needed should be deeply affordable and that her district has seen a 20% decline in its Black population in the last decade.

In Western Queens, Council Member Julie Won, the first woman and immigrant to represent the 26th District, has already put developers Silverstein Properties, Kaufman Astoria Studios and BedRock Real Estate Partners on notice — the group is seeking to rezone five city blocks in Astoria, but she told them they need to do more outreach before starting the approval process, LIC Post reported.

"Thus far, the amount of community engagement is insufficient for a project of this scale that will deeply impact not only those in the immediate vicinity, but also will have lasting impacts on the neighborhood as a whole," Won wrote in a letter dated March 8.

Won was unavailable for comment, but a representative for the project, dubbed Innovation QNS, said in a statement the developers are looking forward to continuing to work with Won toward a "successful outcome" for Astoria.

A rendering of the initial plans for the Blood Center expansion in New York City.

At the New York City Council, development approvals typically are approved based on what’s known as “member deference” — meaning the council will vote with the local member, largely ensuring a death knell for a development if they don't win their backing.

But that unofficial rule has been broken at least once in the last year. In November, the council approved the rezoning for a new New York Blood Center on the Upper East Side, even though Ben Kallos, the council member in whose district the project resides, came out against the project. It was the first break with member deference on a land use issue since 2009.

The city council could override the local member again with One45, City & State reported in January, citing unnamed sources who said Richardson Jordan has not formed alliances in local government. Richardson Jordan's office referred Bisnow to an online submission form to request a meeting. 

“I think it will be very interesting to see if the council will no longer defer to the local representative when making decisions on upzonings,” L+M Development Partners Managing Director Spencer Orkus said at a Bisnow event last week. “We have a very limited amount of real estate in New York … The council speaks broadly that they're in support of affordable housing and supportive housing, and hopefully they can support that.”

While the progressives say they are fighting for more equitable development and less displacement, delays to the development proposals aren't helping fill the housing shortage in the city. A total of 33,000 new units are expected to become available by the end of 2024, 2,000 fewer per year than the historical average, according to a data analysis from Corcoran.

The brokerage predicts the lag will put more pressure on the rental market, which will push rents up even higher. The Real Estate Board of New York estimates the city needs 560,000 new units by 2030 to keep up with its predicted population and job growth.

“It’s challenging because council members and local communities are left in a situation where they're expected to just respond and grapple case by case with each proposal,” said Emily Goldstein, the director of organizing and advocacy at the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development. “New York City doesn't really do planning, we just do zoning … The best way for everyone to get on the same page would be some form of a comprehensive plan.”

Adams said during his campaign that he would spend $4B on housing, but his budget barely mentioned housing at all, raising the ire of advocates who said he was sending a message not to expect any “bold action” on housing.

“Generally speaking, you know, the council members don't have a lot of ability to do anything other than be reactive,” Vice President for Housing and Neighborhood Planning at the Regional Plan Association Moses Gates said.

“I have a little bit of hope that maybe the council and the administration together can collaborate on a more comprehensive picture for housing growth that feels a little bit fair ... [and] a little bit more than just one-off negotiations that happen," Gates said. "But, I can't say I really see that coming. I see the dynamic really similar to the previous administration."