November 30, 2018 - From the November, 2018 issue

NYC Planning Director on Linking Rezoning & Neighborhood Planning to Build Housing and Create Jobs

With a bustling economy and a record population, New York City is seizing the opportunity to reinvent its approach to city planning and urban growth. Planning and Development Director Marisa Lago joins TPR to elaborate on her departments’s efforts to cultivate new job centers outside of Manhattan. Boasting a career path that has taken her from NYC EDC, to the Obama administration—managing climate finance and international development with the World Bank—and now back to NYC to oversee city-shaping projects like Brooklyn Bridge Park, Lago offers a unique and thoughtful perspective on how a city as dynamic as New York can prepare for a rapidly changing future.

Marisa Lago

"We focus on neighborhood rezonings because we view today’s rezonings as tomorrow’s as-of-right construction." —Marisa Lago

As Planning Director for New York City, how is your department zoning for the consequence of the city’s population growth and the dynamism of its growing economy?

Marisa Lago: Right now, New York has the most people (8.6 million) and the most jobs (4.5 million) in the city’s history. Four of our five boroughs, on their own, would be top 10 US cities; Brooklyn is nipping at Chicago’s heels. We anticipate that by 2020, Brooklyn on its own would be the nation’s third-largest city after Los Angeles.

We’re very fortunate to have a thriving economy. Financial services and the arts are still important sectors, but our economy is now multimodal—including the life sciences and the technology, advertising, media, and information (TAMI) industries.

These are all positive things, but there is a consequence: We are space-constrained.

I first worked for City Planning back in the early 1980s. At that time, the city was receiving property back for unpaid taxes. The challenge then was having too much vacant, worthless property. That’s not our challenge today. The challenge today is finding the space to house people near jobs.

When people think of jobs in New York, they think of Manhattan. The East Midtown area, which we recently rezoned, is the Central Business District of the city, the US, and even globally. But we also have employment hubs outside of Manhattan. The 10 largest account for almost half a million jobs; from 2006 through 2015, they created 50,000 new private-sector jobs.

We are very focused on encouraging growth outside of Manhattan’s central business districts. That approach meets the needs of businesses that want to tap into a workforce that likes to walk or bicycle or scooter to work. It also works for us: Manhattan is on an island, and every Brooklyn resident that we can entice into a job in Downtown Brooklyn is one fewer person crowding the subway onto and off of the island of Manhattan.

The challenge is that the zoning for industrial areas outside of Manhattan was last changed in 1961. That was the era of the car, when the vision of industry was one-story buildings surrounded by a sea of parking. At the time, zoning was used almost as a precursor of the environmental code we have today; it was focused on separating out noxious uses. Today, we are taking a comprehensive look at our ’61 zoning and making some important updates.

First, we’re looking at parking and loading requirements, especially in areas near mass transit. Today, if you had a thriving business in a one-story building, you’d likely be precluded from adding even an extra half-story because our parking requirements are so onerous.

A second area where our zoning is challenging is with respect to density requirements. Only three densities are currently allowed in our manufacturing districts: a floor-area ratio of 1, 2, or 5. We are seeing requests for buildings that would be far denser.

The built form encouraged by our zoning today would not allow the construction of Dumbo lofts, our Garment Center buildings, or the iconic Starrett-Lehigh building. These are chunky, dense, minimal-setback buildings that today’s employers just love to repurpose—but they couldn’t be built today.

Finally, we’re looking at use restrictions—some of which are so outdated as to be absurd. For example, since 1961, breweries have only been allowed in our heaviest industrial districts. Why? Because the breweries people were familiar with in ’61 were huge and had a tendency to explode. Today, people love a neighborhood pub with a small brewery in the back. Yet our zoning stands in the way of what most would consider a neighborhood commercial amenity.

Another example: Health clubs or gyms are defined in our zoning as “physical culture establishments.” In 1961, there was such fear of old 42nd Street-style “physical culture establishments”—brothels—that the whole category is still allowed only on a case-by-case basis, in certain commercial districts, with a special permit from the Board of Standards and Appeals. Today, as the nature of retail shifts, health clubs can enliven the cityscape as users of old storefront space. Yet our zoning stands in the way.

As a more significant example, life sciences is a growing industry in the city today, but many facilities are restricted to heavy industrial areas and limited in the ability to commingle with hospital and related facilities. Our zoning came from a time when there was fear of life sciences, while today it is a welcome addition to multiple neighborhoods.

We need to get our zoning out of the way of the jobs of today. We need to build in flexibility. After all, 30 years ago, no one would have predicted that New York City would be a life sciences hub and one of the top three centers of the US for venture capital. Nor can we predict the big job generators of the next 30 years. 

Elaborate on how NYC Planning is using planning and zoning to balance emerging demands for commercial, industrial, and residential development. 

Our growing city is facing the challenge of meeting housing needs overall, but especially affordable housing. This is particularly important for Mayor de Blasio’s administration, because he is focused on making New York the fairest big city in the US by using an equity and inclusiveness lens on all that we do.

Under my predecessor, Carl Weisbrod, the Planning Department put through a citywide zoning change providing that for any upzoning that allows a significant increase in residential capacity, at least 20 percent of the units created must be permanently affordable.

In the two and a half years since mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH) was adopted, we have comprehensively rezoned five neighborhoods in the city. We estimate that just these five rezoning efforts will produce as many as 6,000 permanently affordable units.

As we rezone, we always look at density and height and where growth would be appropriate at what scale. We looked at all the new residential buildings in the city that were completed in 2017 and found that only 18—1 percent—were 40 or more stories. But those 18 buildings—that 1 percent—accounted for more than 20 percent of all new housing units, including approximately 1,300 affordable units. Large residential buildings are the workhorses of meeting our housing and affordable housing production goals.

The neighborhoods we are rezoning share a few characteristics. One is that they’re transit-rich. We’re placing people where there are subways that allow them to get to their homes and jobs.

In one neighborhood in the Bronx, we rezoned a two-mile stretch along Jerome Avenue, which has the elevated 4 train rumbling above it. Traditionally, planners would say, “This train is a noxious use; we can’t build near it.” But today, with advances in building technologies and people’s evolving preferences for mixed-use neighborhoods, we’re recognizing that the corridors along our elevated trains are ripe for investment.

Another commonality among the neighborhoods we’ve rezoned is that they are in need of investment, having been underinvested in over the course of decades. This is one reason we collaborate so closely with other city departments: We know that in order to look at a neighborhood comprehensively, you need to look at the city agencies that deploy the most capital there.

We work with the Department of Transportation, the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Department of Environmental Protection, which is charged with water and wastewater for the city. We also work with agencies that don’t have large capital budgets, but that provide services. That ranges from public libraries to our Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to our Landmarks Commission, and importantly, the Department of Small Business Services. 

Los Angeles is facing pressures to complete multiple community plans at the same time as it updates its citywide General Plan. It seems from your answers that New York prioritizes neighborhood and community planning over citywide master planning. Is that accurate? 

We are sometimes asked, primarily by academics, “Why don’t you step back and comprehensively re-plan the entire city?” I think, if we were willing to freeze ourselves in amber for five years and kick off a set of incredibly intense discussions, we could conceive of it. But in reality, we are such a dynamic city that the whole city would change by the time we were done.


We believe in a combination of targeted citywide initiatives and neighborhood planning. The mandatory inclusionary housing initiative, for example, is the epitome of citywide strategic planning. We are also in the midst of updating our citywide resiliency plans to get zoning out of the way of floodproofing and other resiliency efforts. In a city this large, doing anything citywide is extraordinarily challenging—but we do it.

We also do what is sometimes called “current planning or “private applications”—project-by-project approvals throughout the city. While each application is just one project, they are incredibly significant in planning the life of the city as a whole.

For example, we recently approved two simultaneous private applications from landowners who had assembled large chunks of a block immediately south of Hudson Yards—a gleaming, transit-rich new neighborhood. These two developments alone will produce 1,200 units of housing, 300 of which are required to be permanently affordable. And because the economics of this neighborhood are so strong, no new city subsidy was required.

We focus on neighborhood rezonings, even though they’re heavy lifts and can be controversial, because we view today’s rezonings as tomorrow’s as-of-right construction. Today, new skylines that would be the envy of many a midsized US city are being constructed in Downtown Brooklyn and the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfront in Brooklyn. This stems from a 2004 rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn and a 2005 rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Those rezonings, over a decade ago, set the stage for a spate of welcome as-of-right development today, which is helping meet our needs for housing and space for emerging industries.

Currently, we are working on a comprehensive neighborhood plan in Staten Island, after which we will have rezoned at least one neighborhood in each of our five boroughs. We are also looking at one of the most dynamic corners of the city: Gowanus, Brooklyn. I suspect not too many cities would look at a Superfund site and say, “Aha! We have an opportunity here.” But this emerging, fascinating neighborhood has what we call the “Gowanus mix” of maker spaces next to industrial spaces next to thriving retail and entertainment, as well as residential neighborhoods.

Our neighborhood plans are large-scale. For example, I mentioned Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. On a map of the city, that two-mile stretch would be a tiny squiggle. But the population along that corridor is larger than that of the cities of Cambridge or Lansing. 

Let’s turn to Roosevelt Island and the interface between your department and the New York City Economic Development Corporation, and how that interaction has impacted the development of Roosevelt Island.

I was general counsel at NYCEDC during the Dinkins administration, and my predecessor, Carl Weisbrod, was president at the same time. I am tremendously fond of the entity and the unique powers that it has.

It’s hard to overstate how strongly City Planning and the EDC are tied together. We work together at every level of organization—from our borough-based planners up to weekly meetings among EDC CEO James Patchett, the head of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and me.

Given the size and complexity of New York, we frequently turn to special purpose entities to get things done. These quasi-public agencies are laser-focused on their particular geographies, and City Planning works hand-in-glove with them, as we have the privilege of being charged with the city’s entire geography.

Roosevelt Island is an example. The predecessor administration (Bloomberg) recognized the opportunity of life sciences, and now we have Cornell Tech, a partnership between Cornell University and Israel’s Technion. Now, Roosevelt Island is a place for jobs. We’re building on that success as we look at the Long Island City waterfront, which is just a short ferry ride away.

Another example is Brooklyn Bridge Park. In the course of my lifetime, the docks at the foot of Brooklyn Heights went from a working waterfront to an absolute blight when the jobs moved to New Jersey. The docks were brought back to life in large measure because of a dedicated entity: the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation. They have turned decades-abandoned piers into an international draw and one of the city’s top tourist destinations.

Now we’re working on another opportunity: Governor’s Island. For those of us who grew up in New York, Governor’s Island was always this mysterious piece of land that you could never visit because it was the Coast Guard’s. When it was turned over to the city by the feds, it was somewhat of a white elephant. There were restrictions on what could be done there, and the only access was one small ferry from the tip of Manhattan.

But the island is 33 acres—which, in a city as space-constrained as we are, is a boon. So the city very wisely led with investment. We set up a special-purpose entity—the Trust for Governor’s Island—whose chair is Carl Weisbrod and whose president is former City Planning staff.

The public review process has just commenced to rezone the southern half of the island, where we could potentially unlock 4.5 million square feet of space for commercial, academic, cultural, and institutional development. Collaborating with a special-purpose entity is the way to get this done.

Let’s turn to resiliency and waterfront development. How is New York approaching the waterfront after Hurricane Sandy?

We’re involved in resiliency in a number of ways. In addition to the city’s Zoning Resolution, we are responsible for the city’s Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, and we’ve just kicked off the planning process for the 2020 update. Our Waterfront and Open Space Division also works hand-in-glove with the team that is developing and updating One NYC.

We have a Waterfront Advisory Board that represents interests across waterfront issues, ranging from marine biology to heavy maritime industry to environmental justice advocacy in neighborhoods that have been subject to adverse health impacts from uses along the waterfront.

Last year, we put out a Resilient Industry study that took a post-Sandy lens to the different industries located along the waterfront or in the floodplain, and offered practical suggestions for what businesses could do to mitigate and prepare themselves for flooding events that are certain to occur. It has been very well received, in part because it was descriptive rather than prescriptive.

We also created a Waterfront Access Map as part of a series of electronic tools for the public. There is so much information that in theory is publicly available, but that in fact resides on obscure webpages or as hard copies in city offices, and is not realistically usable by the public. We have created tool after tool with the aim of extraordinary transparency. We have a Population FactFinder. We have a Communities Facilities Explorer. We have a map of the city that gives you a history of each street; our history buffs are in love with that one.

Planners tend to be passionate about their work; it’s not something one falls into as a default career. I would say folks who are interested in the waterfront and resiliency have an even heightened level of passion, nearing religious zeal!

Lastly, with the midterm elections now over, much commentary has suggested that the House, the Senate, and the administration might find common ground around infrastructure. What are New York City’s priorities for any potential federal infrastructure bill?

One word: Gateway.

Gateway isn’t just about New York City. It’s about the entire northeast corridor and our tri-state region—the biggest economic engine in the U.S. The tri-state region is a 31-county region that is the Greater New York area. Our region has a GDP of $1.7 trillion. That’s 10 percent of the national GDP. Were we to secede and form our own country, our economy would rival that of Russia or South Korea.

Gateway is the link through which so much of this economic activity flows. You would be hard-pressed to find a New Yorker who is involved in the civic and economic life of the city who would not prioritize Gateway.


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