Robert Khodadadian – Commercial Observer

Robert Khodadadian – Commercial Observer, Robert Khodadadian

Nine months into his term as Brooklyn borough president, Antonio Reynoso is trying to figure out how to distinguish himself from his predecessor — who is now the mayor — and how to make an impact on local policy in an office with limited political power. 

Despite the Beep’s largely advisory role in the land-use process, Reynoso has an ambitious plan to upend rezoning and development by creating a comprehensive plan for housing in Brooklyn. The effort would involve soliciting feedback from community boards, City Council members, and residents about where they would like to see new residential construction. 

Reynoso is fresh off two terms representing parts of Williamsburg, Bushwick and Ridgewood on the City Council, where he navigated his own neighborhood rezoning in Bushwick and struggled with rising rents across his district. 

Born and raised on the south side of Williamsburg, where he still lives with his wife and children, Reynoso worked as an organizer for ACORN and then as chief of staff to former Council member Diana Reyna before his own eight-year stint on the City Council. He won a crowded primary for Brooklyn borough president last year and then easily cruised to victory during the general election in November. 

Commercial Observer got on the phone with Reynoso last week to discuss his big comprehensive plan proposal, how his experiences as councilman affect his approach to housing policy, and how he feels about basement apartment legalization and industrial zoning reform.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Commercial Observer: What do you hope to accomplish in terms of housing and land use as borough president? You’ve talked about developing a comprehensive plan. How do you plan to shape the land-use process, since borough president is a pretty advisory role?

Antonio Reynoso: The comprehensive plan is the way that I think we’re gonna be able to affect the most meaningful change when it comes to the housing bubble. What we’ve noticed over the last seven, eight years is that the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure process has not been producing the amount of housing necessary to get us to a place where we’re kind of building our way out of this housing crisis. With the amount of homelessness that we have, we need to do more building, more responsible building, and the ULURP process hasn’t been the most effective tool that the city can use to make that happen. 

So, effectively, what we’re trying to do is change the way we plan in the city. Right now, you can argue that the Department of City Planning (DCP) is more like the Department of City Zoning, not planning. So what we want to do is look at Brooklyn: What do we want it to look like in the future, where we think we can build, and how we can address a lot of infrastructure issues? We’ll do all that in an equitable way. 

But we’re having conversations with neighborhoods that have never been looked at for development, that have never been considered for a rezoning. And don’t put the burden of building a way out of this crisis solely on Black and brown communities, poor communities in the city. What I’m asking this mayor, and what we’re doing with the comprehensive planning, is saying, “It’s all hands on deck; every neighborhood has to contribute to the greater good. We all have to talk about development opportunities to get us out of this hole.” 

And that’s what the comprehensive plan is going to do: Show Brooklyn what we want to do, and it gives developers and anybody that has the potential to help us develop a framework as to where we think it wouldn’t be acceptable for them to start developing or building. 

How exactly would you implement a comprehensive plan? Would that involve a City Charter revision?

The comprehensive plan would be a recommendation presented to DCP and the city. After that, they take a different path that could produce more units in a more equitable and fair way. But what we’re doing is we’ve partnered with several organizations — the American Medical Association, the Regional Plan Association, Hester Street — planners and not-for-profit developers that we’re sitting with. They’re helping us outline and build out this comprehensive plan. Once we do the comprehensive plan, we’re going to make it public. 

And anybody that comes to Borough Hall looking for an opportunity to develop or grow, if they don’t fall in line with what we’re asking for in this comprehensive plan, then we wouldn’t approve it. If they do fall in line, we’re going to approve it faster, and try to get it out of Borough Hall as soon as possible, so that the Council member can start moving forward with the recommendation. With the comprehensive plan, there won’t be any gray areas. We are going to be very clear about what we expect, where we expect people to go, and where we expect them to grow. Again, we’ll be presenting that to the city. If the city wants to take it on, they can. But if not, it’ll be used as a foundation for the recommendations that I’ll be making from my office.

OK, so it sounds like you plan to develop this with a task force and then present it to City Planning and say, “Here’s the plan, and now you have to do the zoning.”

No, this is not zoning. … There’s a huge difference between zoning and planning. And I don’t think DCP knows it. We don’t need to look at Brooklyn neighborhood by neighborhood or community board by community board, because I got it as a whole. And let’s say, as an example, that we need 100,000 units in Brooklyn. Where are we gonna get those? Let’s talk about it comprehensively and borough-wide. It’s not just like, “Hey, we’re gonna zone Bushwick today, we’re going to zone East New York tomorrow. And then 10,000 units here and 20,000 units there.” 

It’s like, “Let’s find out where we can get it all.” I’m going to have a conversation about wanting to accomplish those goals within 10 years. So we’re going to present that to DCP — not in an effort to do a borough-wide rezoning, which I don’t think can happen. But it would be laws and policies that can now happen. It is more like a guide for the future development of this borough. 

I’ll give another example. Let’s say we want to build 5,000 units of housing in Canarsie. We should be asking residents in Canarsie where, exactly, they think it would be appropriate. We could check a box and say, “Hey, Canarsie said on this street, in this area, the community board, or the community has said that they would be OK with some growth.” And developers would move forward with development in and around those areas. We would support that. But because we’re doing it with Canarsie, with Midwood, with Sheepshead Bay, with everyone, we’re able to get a better picture and understanding of where all this development is gonna happen and how we don’t do that now. 

Right now, we introduce development in a siloed and compartmentalized way. We’re trying to break from that.

Sure. It just seems like if you’re leaving it up to people in these neighborhoods, a lot of people will just say, “No, I don’t want more housing in my neighborhood.”

We’re not going to allow that to happen. We want their input. So these communities are gonna have an opportunity to say what it is that they want. We’re not gonna allow any community to be exempt from growing us out of this hole. We’ve already done that, unintentionally, I guess, right? Mayor Bill de Blasio decided that he was going to develop almost exclusively Black and brown neighborhoods, exempting mostly white affluent neighborhoods from ever having a discussion about rezonings. That’s how we’re operating now.

We’re going to talk to the DCP about, “How many units do we need from Brooklyn, overall, so that we are contributing to projected growth in the city?” And then City Planning says, “In the next 10 years, Brooklyn is responsible for 100,000 units.” That’s what we would like. We would go around figuring out where we’re going to get that, and no community would be exempt. Community boards could decide that they don’t want development in their neighborhoods. If they come to that conclusion, we’ll do our work in siting spaces that we think are appropriate. 

Everyone’s going to be a part of this conversation. No one is exempt. We will be building in Brooklyn, and we’re not going to allow any community to NIMBY its way out of helping us get out of this hole.

I feel like Mayor Eric Adams, thus far, has been vague about where the city is going to add housing. Are you in conversation with his office about this? Are they on board with a comprehensive plan?

The conversations I’ve had with the administration is that they’re excited to see what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. They want to see what it looks like first, and then make a judgment call after we produce it. So I guess they’re waiting on us to finish our comprehensive plan, finish our work to present it to them, and then they’ll make an evaluation. 

But one thing I didn’t tell them is, the unit process isn’t working for anyone. Council members are shutting down projects that they don’t think work or close the gap on the housing that is needed in their local communities. These ULURPs are shutting down development opportunities left and right. So, for any mayor or any administration to not look at that as a problem and not seek alternative solutions, I would be concerned about. But, so far, they’ve been open to hearing us out. They’ve been open to seeing if there’s a different way. 

Nine months into his tenure as Brooklyn borough president, Reynoso hopes to distinguish himself from his predecessor—who is now the mayor—with a focus on maternal health and empowering working class neighborhoods to make land use decisions. Photo: Spencer-Marc Daudier/for Commercial Observer

But this doesn’t solve the big logjam in the process, which is City Council members not supporting projects. If a City Council member doesn’t agree with what the plan says for their district, couldn’t they still block it the same way they do now?

They can if they disagree with it. I just think that now, unlike before, we’re gonna have a clearer planning process with the comprehensive plan. And the Council member’s gonna have to make a case against our plan and why it doesn’t work. And I think that would be harder, right? The goal here is that I’m always aligned with the Council members. 

And that when I go to the community board, and I tell them, “Your community has been tasked with being a part of the greater good here, to build 3,000 units of housing. And Avenue X is the avenue that we’ve identified as an avenue that can do with increase in development.” And development happens within that avenue. I would expect that the Council member would heed the advice of his community board and his community and his borough president, and come to the same conclusions as we have. 

Right now, that doesn’t happen. Right now, a Council member from a poor Black or brown neighborhood is asked to build 500 units of housing, without knowing whether somebody from a more white or affluent community is going to be doing the same. So we’re being burdened with building ourselves out of this hole with gentrification, and all of these things that people are fearful of. It’s Black and brown neighborhoods almost exclusively doing all this work. 

Again, yes, I’m hoping that my comprehensive plan helps guide them and is a tool that they can use to make good decisions. But, ultimately, it is their charter-mandated responsibility to come to the conclusion of what they want to see.

You successfully fought a neighborhood rezoning when you were the Bushwick City Council member. So how do you feel about potentially being on the other side of that with a local Council member?

No, no, that’s part of the problem. That’s what DCP wants you to think. What the community said is that we wouldn’t be responsible for more than 8,000 units of housing. That’s exactly the point: Bushwick, a poor Black and brown neighborhood, is being tasked by the Department of City Planning to maximize its development opportunities. And that’s it. That’s all they care about. 

But they’ve never gone to a white neighborhood and asked the same right after. So there’s these trepidations, and Bushwick felt that the city was looking to build its way out of this hole exclusively in their community. I put the Bushwick rezoning plan together; I want to be very clear that this was not a city-led rezoning. This was not one of de Blasio’s 10 neighborhoods where he wanted to come into. I, as a Council member, initiated this rezoning in my community. 

It was also the only Council member-
initiated rezoning in the city of New York during that time. We moved forward with the process, and the community found about 8,000 units of housing that we could build through our rezoning. But the city wanted more. They wanted 14,000. But we weren’t understanding the greater scheme of what is supposed to happen borough-wide, or how much housing we’re supposed to be building borough-wide. Why is 8,000 units not enough for City Planning? We came and we presented the city with a request for rezoning that can build 8,000 units of housing. And they said no. I did not shut it down. 

When you were in office, there was an effort to reform the industrial zoning in your district, in the North Brooklyn Industrial Zone. Would you support those kinds of changes that make it easier for industrial businesses — fewer parking requirements, ability to build taller — in other parts of the borough?

This is another one that is not owned by DCP; it was actually owned by our office. We were the ones that initiated a conversation with the Economic Development Corporation to talk about a rezoning for our industrial park and where we wanted to increase the floor area ratio (FAR), because these buildings can only go one story and, if you want to expand, you have to expand horizontally instead of vertically. So we’re seeing a lot of property owners and a lot of business owners having to buy the adjacent property instead of building up. So we want to change that. 

We want to significantly increase FAR; in the manufacturing district, we’re talking about 3 FAR for manufacturing. We also had discussions about using office space as a way to incentivize redevelopment of older industrial spaces. The industrial spaces are very old, and new companies don’t want to have to spend half a million dollars outfitting these spaces. They want the newer spaces. 

So, we thought, “Hey, allow for a couple of stories of office space, they help subsidize or develop new manufacturing space.” We gutted all parking requirements, and made it so that a company only builds parking if it wants to. We were working with DCP, again, for years. 

And we actually had a handshake agreement with Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen at that time. We were going to move forward with this rezoning. And then Alicia Glen retired or left, and then maybe a couple of weeks later, DCP changed something in the plan. They had an area where they wanted to dilute the zoning even further, and they would allow commercial development and office space without any manufacturing. And our problem was, if you dilute this area right here, it’ll start encroaching on the manufacturing districts. We had an area that we called the innovation district where we were actually going to allow for commercial and office space without any manufacturing. They wanted to expand that to another area that we hadn’t even discussed. And we had a disagreement on that. 

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Because of that one issue, DCP pulled it, and said they didn’t want to move on it. By the way, that was like six blocks, out of like hundreds of blocks. It was a six-block discrepancy, and they pulled the whole thing because of it.

Comptroller Brad Lander recently released a report about a pathway to legalizing basement units. It was about giving rights to those tenants and helping them become part of the legal framework using, essentially, a loft law board. What are your thoughts on that?

One hundred percent support. We just need to increase housing supply here. I think the city right now is spending a significant amount of money per housing unit for affordable housing in subsidies.

The city could help out with the outfitting of these spaces to make them legal. It would be pennies on the dollar for what they’re paying for brand-new affordable housing. We will be significantly increasing the housing stock in the city of New York, for what I think would be a slightly more affordable process. And I think the mayor is discussing this as well. It was something we supported in the City Council. If we’re building everywhere, especially in traditionally white, affluent areas, plus the legalization of these spaces, I think that we could really start chipping away at this crisis that we have regarding homelessness and lack of housing.

Nine months into his term as Brooklyn borough president, Antonio Reynoso is trying to figure out how to distinguish himself from his predecessor — who is now the mayor — and how to make an impact on local policy in an office with limited political power.  Despite the Beep’s largely advisory role in the land-useRead MoreChannel, Design + Construction, Policy, Politics & Real Estate, Urban Planning, Antonio Reynoso, Brad Lander, City Council, Eric Adams

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