NICK GARBER April 16, 2023 12:00 PM UPDATED 20 HOURS AGO
Image Credit: William Alatriste/NYC Council Media Unit
Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine recalled that when he rolled out a list of 171 sites across the island where he thinks new housing should be built, he braced for “a NIMBY backlash.”
Instead, not only did his January plan get little pushback, it was met with an enthusiastic response from his constituents, dozens of whom reached out proactively to suggest low-rise lots in their own neighborhoods that could accommodate more apartments. To Levine, it was further evidence of the rapidly changing attitudes toward new development, as more New Yorkers become aware of the extent of the city’s housing shortage.
“It’s a marker of just how far the conversation has moved even in the last 12 months,” Levine said in an April 14 interview. “There’s just an acute, painful awareness of the affordability crisis in
Aiming to tap into that enthusiasm, Levine’s office is expanding the initiative with a survey that asks residents to submit sites of their own. His staffers will then review the suggestions, home in on promising locations and, ideally, start conversations with the landlords who own them—or the city agencies that control them, in the case of public land.
The project flips the script on typical land-use battles in which a developer proposes a project and is met with resistance from neighbors. Levine said he hoped to essentially put that process in reverse, putting residents in the driver’s seat.
Tammy Meltzer, who chairs Lower Manhattan’s Community Board 1, is among those who contacted Levine’s office with their own ideas—such as the long-empty lot at Washington and Carlisle streets in the Financial District. That Meltzer came forward to demand more housing might seem like a reversal, given that her board has fought to block a long-stalled, partly affordable apartment tower near South Street Seaport.
But Meltzer said there is no inconsistency, since Community Board 1’s opposition to that 250 Water St. project is based largely on its compliance with city landmark laws. Giving neighbors early input would avoid those pitfalls, she argued.
“Community boards get a bad rap,” she said. “Asking the people who live and work here, and having bottom-up solutions, are the most successful solutions. You have automatic buy-in, you have automatic advocacy.”
That formulation may not appeal to some development advocates, who argue that the cause of most cities’ housing shortages is too much public input, not a lack of it.
Promisingly, though, some of the Manhattanites who have already reached out to him, Levine said, are the same people who had come out against recent rezoning proposals. Levine himself, who has opposed various developments, acknowledged that his own views on housing supply have changed in recent years. He recently advocated reviving the failed One45 rezoning in Harlem, and he has pushed for lifting a state-imposed density cap, even as other Manhattan lawmakers want to keep it in place.
Other resident-submitted sites that Levine’s office is reviewing include the 3-story federal building next to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal and a city-owned parking lot within the New York City Housing Authority’s Lower East Side II complex, where tenants had already been calling for housing to be built.
The sites identified by Levine’s own staff span the borough, from an unused auto shop in Inwood to a 2-story commercial building near Wall Street. Most of the 171 sites would require zoning changes for significant housing to be built there—although Levine’s office named whole neighborhoods, such as Morningside Heights and the Garment District, where major rezonings could result in thousands of apartments.
“We want to get beyond the way we’ve dealt with housing creation historically, which is waiting for someone to come forward with a proposal and then having a big fight about it,” Levine said. “We want to turn that on its head.”
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