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‘We Need to Build Everywhere’: Brooklyn Borough President Reynoso on Housing, Maternal Health, & Other Priorities

Brooklyn BP Antonio Reynoso (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

One year into his term as Brooklyn Borough President, Antonio Reynoso is taking an expansive view of his office and pushing an ambitious set of policy proposals.

Reynoso, then a City Council member, emerged through a tough, crowded Democratic primary in 2021, while running as a reform-minded candidate endorsed by progressives like Rep. Nydia Velazquez and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. Earlier this month, Reynoso delivered his first State of the Borough address, a tradition that had lain dormant through the tenure of his predecessor, Mayor Eric Adams. Reynoso then joined Gotham Gazette’s Max Politics podcast to discuss his priorities as borough president, vision for Brooklyn, and more.

The office of borough president has limited concrete powers and is largely ceremonial, but borough presidents do play a significant role in the land use decision-making process, control tens of millions of dollars in annual discretionary spending, make appointments to community boards and other bodies with say in public policy, and can act as a convener, work with City Council members to advance legislation, and have a bully pulpit. Much of what a borough president focuses on and is able to accomplish depends on the individual office-holder.

Reynoso is attempting to take a different approach to some of the core responsibilities of the borough presidency while also redefining the role as the “chief executive” of Brooklyn, he has said. “It would be more than we celebrated this event, we celebrated this heritage, we celebrated New Years Eve,” Reynoso said. “All that stuff is great. But ultimately, did I change people’s lives? Did I make people’s lives better outside of just entertainment? And you’re going to see that in this administration.”

In part, Reynoso wants to better utilize the tools that the city Charter has already put at his disposal—appointing some community board members, weighing in on land use matters, and allocating discretionary funds provided by the city budget. “In the Charter, borough presidents are supposed to make appointments and provide technical assistance to community boards,” Reynoso said. “But what does technical assistance mean? We’re going to define that. We’re actually going to go through a rule-making process that’s going to interpret what we think the Charter meant to say. And through that process we’re going to define the roles of the community boards and the role of borough presidents to those community boards.”

Housing, Land Use, and Comprehensive Planning
For land use matters, Reynoso has begun working on a shift from providing ad hoc recommendations to more comprehensive planning. The need for comprehensive planning, Reynoso said, is rooted in inequities across neighborhoods and communities. “Our Comprehensive Plan aims to address this injustice, guiding future development to prioritize health, well-being, and a sense of community as we build more affordable and accessible housing across our borough,” Reynoso said in his State of the Borough address. He’s also pairing a focus on equity with pursuing more abundant housing supply in the borough and city, which is far behind in keeping up with demand.

"We need to build and we need to build everywhere,” Reynoso told Gotham Gazette on the podcast, “especially around transit-rich corridors. We want to show Brooklyn why that is the have a responsibility to the greater good here to build housing everywhere."

“What we want to say is, look, we want you to build 2,000 units of housing, but don’t worry, because Bay Ridge is going to build some too, and so is Sheepshead Bay. Everyone’s building—so you are no different from any other neighborhood,” Reynoso said. “It isn’t because you’re Black and brown, or because you have no political capital that we’re building in your neighborhood, which is how people feel right now.”

Much of the final say over rezonings and development falls under the power of the local City Council member, a process that Reynoso, very familiar from his eight years in the Council, said is too influenced by political considerations. To “take the politics out of it,” Reynoso wants to redirect the process to the borough-wide, comprehensive planning framework, which can allow his office and partners to approve projects based on necessity and equity. 

The Charter already mandates borough presidents to review rezoning applications moving through the Uniform Last Use Review Procedure (ULURP), but Reynoso says that it is by no means a substitute for real or comprehensive planning that would “allow the borough president to submit ULURP recommendations with accountability and predictability to the public.” As part of creating a Comprehensive Plan, Reynoso’s office has already published a draft of an existing conditions report, held initial public events, and is taking feedback until the end of January. After public comment closes, the office expects to release a draft recommendations report in Spring 2023, followed by more community input and then a final report in Summer 2023.

Reynoso said that the plan his office produces — with the help of consultants, other elected officials, and the public — will then be the main guide he uses for weighing in on land use decisions that come before his office as well as the projects he may pursue or back.

Reynoso said he has been holding conversations with City Council members, impressing upon them the need to build more affordable housing and respond to other specific community needs, such as school seats and supermarkets. “Everything we do has to be data-based,” said Reynoso. “It can't be anecdotal and personal experience trying to dictate the outcomes of a lot of these redevelopment opportunities. We’re going to make data-based, informed decisions on what the needs of a community are, and then we’re going to use our recommendation power to push that onto the [City Council] member.” 

In her State of the State address earlier this month, Governor Kathy Hochul similarly expressed the need for every locality in the state to put in the work and meet new targets with respect to housing growth. Under her proposal, downstate communities would need to grow their housing stock by 3% over three years, meaning the development of roughly 32,000 new housing units in Brooklyn.

Reynoso is optimistic about the governor’s objectives. “I’m not scared about the number that is being proposed, I don’t think 30,000 is too much – as long as it’s doable and reasonable and real, let’s get to it, and I’m going to be a part of that.” 

And he’s eager to build more housing more quickly, particularly once his plan is in place with its expected guideposts. “If it takes 30 days or 60 days in the borough president’s office to move through an application [for housing development], I’ll do it in three and move it on to the City Council immediately,” he said. “We don’t need to talk about it a lot if you’re falling within the principles of the Comprehensive Plan that we put forth.”

Although Reynoso agreed with Hochul about building more housing wherever possible and suggested that Hochul’s Brooklyn target is reachable, he also cautioned that equity concerns must be placed at the forefront of the process. “This idea that we’re going to allow for people in single-family or two-family or three-family zoning to move slower than people or neighborhoods who have high-density zoning, I think is unfair,” he said. “I would want everyone to start moving at a faster pace.”

Reynoso said it will be important to take another look at downzonings passed during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure, which occurred “almost entirely in white, affluent areas,” he noted, and potentially “undoing them and rezoning those areas for more development opportunities.”

"They set us back significantly by doing downzonings,” Reynoso said when asked about those Bloomberg decisions (which then-Bloomberg Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff recently told Gotham Gazette were, in retrospect, a mistake).

“The thing with the Comprehensive Plan that we’re pushing is that we’re going to have principles, not specific recommendations for areas,” said Reynoso. “We’re not going to say, hey, Bay Ridge, you need to build a thousand units and you should build it in this area–what we’re going to say is, you fit these characteristics, you’re in an area that’s low-density, transit-rich, good schooling, good parks, that is an ideal development district.”

Maternal Health
Along with comprehensive planning, maternal health has been Reynoso’s top priority as borough president. It was something he pledged to make a focus when he campaigned for the role, and in year one he followed through. 

According to Reynoso, one in three childbirth-related deaths in New York City come from Brooklyn, and data shows those deaths are disproportionately among Black women especially.

“I am going to show that in four years, I’ll make Brooklyn the safest place for women to have babies in all of New York,” he said on the podcast. During his first year in office, Reynoso allocated all $45 million of his discretionary budget to the cause, particularly to fund higher-quality birthing facilities in Brooklyn’s three public hospitals. His office also put $250,000 toward a borough-wide education campaign, using ads to inform women of their rights during childbirth and dispel harmful misconceptions.

“When it comes to the capital dollars and infrastructure, we went all in on year one so we have less of a need in year two to pay on a lot of that infrastructure,” Reynoso said on the podcast. 

“I don’t like incrementalism, especially when it comes to maternal health,” Reynoso told Spectrum News NY1 in a different interview last week. “We needed a big change to see the numbers go down. I could have given $3, $4, $5 million and seen maybe a tick, but I think maybe this is one of the grossest inequities in Brooklyn, maybe in the whole city, and if I really want to make a difference I need to put my money where my mouth is.”

In addition to the new hospital facilities, the borough president’s office has been delivering boxes of childcare essentials to new mothers and working with higher education to reduce postpartum depression, Reynoso said. This year, Reynoso plans to expand his maternal health initiative to include participation from other hospitals in Brooklyn.

Other Priorities
In his State of the Borough address, Reynoso also outlined several new initiatives aimed at creating space for nonprofits, increasing rooftop solar projects, helping Black-owned businesses, and community board reform. Much of the planned support from Borough Hall for solar panels will be directed towards neighborhoods with a higher utilities burden, in hopes that the investment will lower household energy bills. Comptroller Brad Lander, a Reynoso friend, political ally, and former City Council colleague, has also launched a solar panel initiative and Reynoso said the two may collaborate.

Reynoso’s Black-owned business program is to be centered in Brownsville, one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the borough. Reynoso describes his method as “shock therapy,”—in essence, simultaneously guiding several Black entrepreneurs in making and executing business plans within a specified time frame, and also creating an appealing space in the neighborhood for them to rent out. His office will provide grants and other assistance, such as helping to connect Black entrepreneurs with large corporate partners.

“We want them opening on the same day, we want to beautify the area by adding new trees, talking to the city about re-paving, fixing sidewalks, adding new lighting, throw a block party, invite as many people as we can to frequent these new businesses,” said Reynoso. “We also want to see if we can work with landlords to give [the businesses] six months free rent, so they don’t need to worry about overhead related to rent.”

Another issue on Reynoso’s plate is the crumbling Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), which he has hoped in the past would be torn down and replaced with a more sensible array of infrastructure. The Adams administration is currently working through new potential plans for different parts of the expressway.

Reynoso has expressed concern over parts of the administration’s still-developing plans to restore the BQE, including around restoring the triple cantilever portion. “All we will be doing in moving so quickly with a plan is regurgitating Robert Moses-type transportation and infrastructure policy,” Reynoso said. “It doesn’t give us time to really think about what a city of the future looks like when it comes to transportation, to moving goods and freight, to discouraging people from single-vehicle use and moving into a more walkable, bikeable, public transportation city.”

Reynoso emphasized that the actors who typically benefit most from these kinds of projects are stakeholders with political capital, not neighborhoods like Williamsburg that got “sawed in half” by special infrastructure. The borough president would prefer more collaboration with the federal government to fully rethink the BQE. “I know the mayor wants to do right by aging infrastructure falling apart, but we should really be talking to the federal government about looking at this corridor from north to south, seeing whether it’s worth having and what opportunities we have moving towards our future transportation vision, which isn’t what we’ve seen so far from the DOT and this administration,” said Reynoso.

Other items on Reynoso’s 2023 agenda include re-configuring a “chaotic,” crash-prone, and poorly-designed Atlantic Avenue, attracting tourists to Downtown Brooklyn, maintaining Open Streets for longer than just the summer months and expanding to more locations, expanding bike lanes, and generally moving Brooklyn away from its current level of reliance on cars. When asked, he expressed open-mindedness about a potential casino in Coney Island, as long as it can help solve problems like unemployment and not eclipse more urgent priorities.

Judge LaSalle
Reynoso also commented for the first time on Governor Hochul’s nomination of Judge Hector LaSalle to be Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, which was the source of significant debate, including among top Latino officials as LaSalle could become the state’s first Latino Chief Judge. Shortly after Reynoso gave his State of the Borough address and appeared on Max Politics and other shows to discuss his agenda, the LaSalle nomination was narrowly voted down in the State Senate judiciary committee after many Democrats took issue with what some have called a too-conservative judicial record.

As a prominent progressive and Latino elected official, Reynoso offered his perspective.

“Why are we acting like he is the only Latino who can possibly get this job? Whether or not I agree or disagree with the progressives or the moderates or the Latinos or the non-Latinos is irrelevant,” he said. “We could all be celebrating together with a more unifying candidate. And if I was just playing the politics of it all, I would ask the governor to take a step back, take pride out of it, and let’s talk about if there’s an opportunity to have a candidate we can all agree on.”

by Nicholas Liu, Gotham Gazette

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