In Crain’s New York: Manhattan borough president fast-tracks apartment tower in first test of pro-housing pledge

Crains New York Business

This spring, when Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine released a list of 171 sites around the borough where more housing could be built, he included a promise: If a developer came forward with a plan to build on one of those sites, Levine would greenlight the project in just five days, far shorter than the 30-day window his office is allowed in the city’s review process for rezonings.

Now, Levine has gotten his first chance to make good on that promise. On Monday, four days after receiving the application, Levine’s office signed off on a 46-story tower on the Upper East Side that will create 452 apartments, according to a recommendation shared with Crain’s.

“We’re doing our part by chopping 25 days off the process,” said Levine, who has been a leading voice for building more housing in order to tackle the city’s affordability crisis. “That may not seem like a lot to the general public, but in the world of real estate, time is money — and we’re in a housing emergency, so every day is precious.”

The developers, Friedland Properties and the Chapman Group, need permission to rezone the block due to a historical quirk. When the city introduced its zoning code in 1961, these blocks of Upper Yorkville were home to industrial uses including Ruppert Brewery, a beer company helmed by the owner of the New York Yankees. The brewery closed in 1965, but the block is still zoned only for manufacturing — an oddity in modern-day Manhattan.

Levine’s April housing report prioritized scrapping those outdated manufacturing zones, both in Yorkville and parts of Midtown such as the Garment District. In the ensuing months, there has been movement to do just that — the Adams administration is embarking on a plan to rezone as many as 42 Midtown blocks to permit housing where none is currently allowed.

Levine sees some hope for development at other sites included in his report, such as the corner of West 145th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, where a high-profile rezoning collapsed last year due to opposition from the local council member. But the developer Bruce Teitelbaum revived that rezoning this year, and the incumbent council member, Kristin Richardson Jordan, is soon to be replaced by newly elected Yusef Salaam, who has indicated more openness to development.

The East 94th Street project would include 113 affordable units, winning praise from the local community board, which voted this month to support the rezoning. Levine, in his recommendation, echoed the board’s requests that the developer maximize the number of affordable units and build more family-sized two- and three-bedroom units — although he declined to take up neighbors’ demand that the developers include parking spots to compensate for the loss of the garage.

Some obstacles remain: The developers said this month that they will be unable to build the project until the state replaces the 421-a tax break, whose lapse has stalled construction around the city, the news site Patch reported.

As more New Yorkers struggle to contend with historically high rents and evidence mounts that new construction is a necessary way forward, Levine is one of several city leaders who have argued for moving past piecemeal, neighborhood-level rezoning fights in favor of a more comprehensive approach. His counterpart in Brooklyn, Antonio Reynoso, released a plan for his borough in October that would similarly fast-track projects proposed in areas that have built little housing.

And Mayor Eric Adams is advancing a major rewrite of the city’s zoning code that would allow for more homes near transit, above shops, and in backyards and garages — potentially eliminating the need for many small-scale development battles.

In some ways, the Upper East Side project was an easy first test for Levine’s quick-approval policy, since he happened to be in agreement with the local community board. A tougher case would be a scenario where neighbors vehemently oppose a new development, as they often do — but Levine said he is prepared for that possibility.

“One of the advantages of putting out a report with specific sites is that my cards are on the table now,” he said. “I’m not trying to pretend like I’m not willing to push for housing.”

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