Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine (photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council)
Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine is taking aim at housing, sidewalk scaffolding, and more as his second year in the borough-wide office progresses.
This week, Levine announced an online portal for Manhattan residents to suggest potential sites or vacant lots that can be developed into housing, as part of Levine’s “Housing Manhattanites” plan. The plan, which Levine announced during his State of the Borough address in January, laid out his office’s research into lots and spaces across Manhattan that could be developed into housing, areas of the borough for upzonings, and other ideas to improve the rental market and encourage more affordable growth over the coming years.
"Since the announcement of the “Housing Manhattanites” plan, we’ve been met with an overwhelmingly positive response from community members, city officials, and even from the Mayor Adams administration,” Levine said in an April14 statement announcing the new portal. “Many people offered suggestions for potential development sites, which demonstrated a clear desire for a more democratic approach, so we decided to open up the process and involve our constituents at the ground level."
All submissions will be reviewed by Levine’s office and, if found achievable, added to the more than 170 sites already listed in the “Housing Manhattanites” plan. Levine talked about his plan and focus on including borough residents in the fight against the housing crisis on Gotham Gazette’s Max Politics podcast following his State of the Borough address earlier this year. During that conversation, he said that he was surprised that the overwhelming initial reaction to his housing plan was not criticism but people quickly offering his office additional sites ripe for more housing.
Levine also talked on the podcast about his larger vision for the future of Manhattan, including rethinking uses of public space, reducing sidewalk scaffolding, improving public health, and more. After previewing on the podcast his plan to take on construction-related sidewalk sheds, often called scaffolding, he subsequently released its details, coinciding with efforts by City Council members to introduce relevant legislation.
Levine, a former City Council member representing the 7th district in Upper Manhattan, won a crowded and competitive Democratic primary in 2021 that all but secured him the boroughwide post given Manhattan’s overwhelming Democratic voter enrollment.
Though borough presidents have few concrete powers, they are a significant player in the land-use decision making process, control millions of dollars in discretionary spending, can act as a convener, and have a bully pulpit. They can also help craft and boost City Council legislation, though they do not get to vote in the Council.
The State of the Borough Address allows borough presidents to tout accomplishments but also to set the tone for their next year of policy initiatives, and gain needed support from other elected officials, advocates, and their constituents.
“We are not just facing a shortage of housing in New York City, and especially Manhattan,” Levine said on the podcast. “We are facing a full-blown affordability crisis. The worst in our history. This is a crisis that threatens the very future of our borough.”
“Well, you can't build anything in Manhattan without it being a fight, because every inch is precious here,” Levine added later, discussing the daunting nature of the task at hand, but saying he is undaunted given the housing emergency. “And there's competing uses for every inch.”
Housing Manhattanites, Tenant Rights, and an Affordability Crisis
Upon release, the “Housing Manhattanites” plan highlighted 171 sites — including parking lots, single floor commercial spaces, old manufacturing buildings, and vacant spots — which it says have the potential to house more than 73,000 apartment units. “These sites span Downtown to Uptown, in all 12 community boards and almost every neighborhood,” Levine said in his State of the Borough speech.
Levine reported that the Manhattan housing growth rate is half of what it was five years ago, with only 3,500 new apartments built last year. He said the average rent for an apartment in Manhattan is now over $5,000 per month. “Our borough is turning into a place where even middle-class families are getting priced out — teachers, bus drivers, nurses simply cannot find any apartment they can afford here,” Levine said.
Nine neighborhoods were also listed in the plan where new zoning could open up the opportunity to build more residential spaces. These neighborhoods, it says, are currently built out areas where no residential spaces can be built under current zoning.
“Neighborhoods like Hells Kitchen in Community Board 4, where a rezoning would make it possible to create housing in old manufacturing areas, and enhance the neighborhood with vibrant, mixed uses and as much as 4,400 new homes,” Levine said.
Of the 73,000 proposed housing units, 30,000 would be affordable. Levine plans to spread out affordable units throughout the borough, saying that too many prior plans have centered in low-income areas Uptown. To combat this, 75% of the prospective units identified in “Housing Manhattanites” are below 96th Street.
Levine also said that while he’s supportive of attempts to spur housing development out of Governor Kathy Hochul’s administration, his office did not take into account any particular policy changes in crafting its estimate. Meaning, in a sense, it took a conservative forecasting approach.
Parking has been a major point of contention, with debates over parking minimums attached to new housing, questions about how to use public space currently devoted to parking, and the promise — as those including Levine see it — of using parking lots in the fight against the housing crisis by turning them into new buildings.
Open Plans, a nonprofit advocacy group, released a report on March 23 to push for lifting housing-attached parking mandates city-wide. Parking mandates require minimum off-street parking space to be built alongside any commercial, residential, or mix-use building.
“Lifting parking mandates in our city is essential to achieving our goals of creating more housing – especially affordable housing – and responding to the climate crisis,” Levine said at a rally hosted by Open Plans to accompany its report. “These mandates don’t reflect the modern needs of New Yorkers, and every parking space that we build keeps us from becoming a more livable, resilient city. We’ve seen the benefits of doing away with parking mandates in other cities – now, it's time for New York to act."
Open Plans reported that a poll found 68% of city residents are in support of fully lifting parking mandates, and found that, “for every 1.2 parking spaces constructed, one unit of housing is lost — an almost one to one tradeoff,” according to the report. Levine is among the elected officials joining Open Plans in calling for a full removal of city-wide parking mandates.
Levine’s focus on housing is in part centered around the younger generation, people who, he said, grew up in the borough but are not able to live in their own neighborhoods when they need apartments of their own. Instead they are forced out to areas including the Bronx, lower Westchester County, New Jersey, and even Pennsylvania.
“A plan like we are proposing would create hundreds of units that would be affordable, that people who grew up in the neighborhood could apply for,” Levine said on the podcast. “It would be just a wonderful way to retain the vibrancy and diversity of this community.”
Two of the most contentious specific sites that are currently part of the housing conversation in the borough are a truck depot on West 145th Street in Harlem and the neighborhood surrounding Penn Station. Levine said both sites should be turned into large residential initiatives, and that the truck depot is currently releasing harmful toxins in a vibrant neighborhood. He said that Penn Station will need billions of dollars to refurbish the historic train station, and there should be housing funding for the surrounding neighborhood within the plan, which is now being reevaluated.
Levine is optimistic about the future of Manhattan, but stressed real solutions to the housing crisis cannot be achieved without the help of community members and other elected officials. He said almost all of the 171 individual sites in his plan are going to need some public action, and many are owned by different city agencies.
“This is going to take work and we have to roll up our sleeves on this — community boards, council members, elected officials, other stakeholders,” Levine said on the podcast. “And absolutely we want local engagement on these projects, we want to think about the historic context of neighborhoods, think about livability neighborhoods going forward, we have to balance all of that, but we can't ignore the urgency of creating housing.”
Levine is hopeful that the plan will see less opposition from City Council members, and said the severity of the housing crisis has led to an increasingly strong commitment from elected officials of various political stripes to pursue more housing development, among other key strategies. He also said he’s seeing progress at the community board level, notorious for anti-growth sentiment and ‘NIMBYism.’
“Even some of the individuals and boards which, in the last year, have been opposing [housing] projects, are now trying to find a way to be pro-housing in the neighborhoods,” Levine said on the podcast. “And so I expect that while there's gonna be contentious discussions on all of this, that we're gonna have enough good partners on the boards to get really great housing built in Manhattan.”
Many of Levine’s comments on housing growth were similar to what several of his fellow borough presidents — Gibson in the Bronx, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, and Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso — are saying: that it is essential for every neighborhood in each borough to grow and welcome more housing.
Tenants’ right to counsel has been another housing priority for Levine since his time as a City Council member. In 2017, Levine and now-Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson passed New York City’s Right to Counsel law, providing low-income tenants facing eviction the right to free legal representation in court. Since then, however, Levine said there have not been enough lawyers to represent the number of tenants facing eviction, and courts have decided to move forward with cases where tenants do not have legal representation.
“This is unacceptable,” Levine said in his State of the Borough address. “And the solution to this is obvious — we are demanding that the State court system ensure that no eviction case moves forward in New York City if the tenant does not have access to an attorney.”
Changing the Manhattan Landscape
Along with housing growth, Levine is focused on other pieces of the Manhattan landscape. That includes looking at scaffolding reform to work on ensuring that construction-related sidewalk sheds are not up longer than they need to be, and much more. Levine has joined the four other Borough Presidents in a plan to plant 1 million more trees throughout the city, noting trees are disproportionately planted in higher-income neighborhoods.
“Planting a millions more trees will enable us to close that equity gap,” Levine said in his State of the Borough. “And it will make it possible for us to achieve the critical goal of 30% green canopy cover for our city.”
As city waterfronts have continued to be impacted and eroded since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Levine is calling for a new Waterfront Protection Agency. He said 11 existing city departments that work around waterfronts would form the new agency that will ensure vulnerable waterfronts will be protected from future storm surges and other natural disasters.
In his speech, Levine also discussed the New York State-funded Downtown Redevelopment Initiative, with projects recently selected to utilize the $20 million investment in Chinatown previously announced by the Hochul administration, and another $10 million investment in East Harlem, with projects there to be selected within the next year.
“We will be implementing capital improvements to beautify and improve accessibility at Park Row from the Brooklyn Bridge to Kimlau Square, and we’ll be fully renovating Kimlau Square itself, as well as upgrading Sara D. Roosevelt Park, and building the first-ever welcome arch for Chinatown,” Levine said of the Chinatown projects selected.
Aside from area specific investments, Levine also stressed the importance of providing economic aid to small businesses throughout the borough who have been impacted over the last three years due to COVID-19. In May 2022, Levine noted, his office and the Hebrew Free Loan Society launched a zero-interest $2 million loan fund for small businesses throughout Manhattan.
With an eye on public space management and the movement of people and goods, Levine is pushing a plan to create more dedicated curb-side delivery spaces and garages for package-sorting before delivery, so sidewalks are kept clear. And when it comes to government vehicles, "We have got to electrify everything that moves—from school buses to sanitation trucks,” Levine said.
Levine also wants to put garbage bags in containers (“Let’s containerize the trash put out in front of large buildings, so we don’t have to walk around mountains of trash bags on the sidewalk,” he said), to put more research into the layout of 5G towers before they are installed on sidewalks throughout the borough, and to install more public bathrooms city-wide.
“I am thrilled to have passed, together with my partner in this effort, Councilmember Rita Joseph, a bill requiring the City to find one place in every Zip Code to open a new public bathroom,” Levine said. “This is a question of quality of life, public health, and yes, equity.”
A city-wide composting program plan was announced by Mayor Eric Adams earlier this year, but Manhattan is slated to be the last borough to receive universal bins and pick-up — currently planned to launch in the borough October 7, 2024. Though Levine welcomes the program and is thrilled it is being rolled out, he believes Manhattan cannot wait more than a year and a half for compost bins.
“I want to accelerate the timeline,” Levine said on the podcast. “And I do think in the meantime, there has been this pilot program rolling out orange bins that collect compost on street corners. And we've had enough time with them and they have been fabulously successful. So I certainly want that rolled out city-wide. But while celebrating the news that we're going to have compost pickup in every building, I do want to speed up the timeline.”
As three licenses for full casinos are in the offing for the downstate region, and proposals have been released by a number of interested parties, at least one Manhattan location is under consideration - Times Square. During a lightning round of quick questions on the podcast, Levine said that five applications are pending in Manhattan, and he will have a primary role in the approval process. Declining to get into specifics, Levine said that though there are many options and regulations to consider, he believes the approval process for at least one application could begin as soon as the middle of this year.
Education, Medical Services, and Public and Mental Health Funding
Levine, formerly chair of the City Council health committee, is also stressing the importance of funding public health initiatives that will prepare for another COVID-19 surge or future health emergency like a pandemic. Levine announced new legislation with City Council Member Keith Powers around improving air circulation and filtration throughout the city. He has also made a priority providing resources for medical and public health professionals coming off of record high hospitalizations, including providing covid safety kits with masks, pulse oximeters, and digital thermometers.
“Our nurses, our doctors, our EMS workers, our public health professionals — they have been through the equivalent of war-time service over the past three years,” Levine said during his speech. “And they are continuing to battle an incredibly heavy load, because of patients suffering with covid and much else. We owe it to these heroes to continue fighting for good health policy in this city, for our own benefit, and to relieve the pressure on exhausted health care workers.”
On education, Levine said he is pushing for more funding for all Manhattan public schools, as well as access to computer science, coding, genetics, robotics, and AI curricula for all students. He also emphasized the need for more Department of Education social workers, substance use counselors, and a full-time permanent nurse in every public school to provide adequate care for students' emotional and mental health following the pandemic.
“We also have to fight for the workers of tomorrow,” Levine said. “By ensuring that our young people are prepared for the careers of the future.”
In order to provide greater care and services for people suffering from severe mental illness throughout Manhattan, Levine is pushing to reverse the loss of inpatient psychiatric beds in Manhattan hospitals and ensure “that when patients are discharged from these hospitals they continue to receive care at well-funded, community-based, peer-led mental health programs.”
Levine also touted that he helped bring together half a dozen city agencies, including the NYPD’s 25th precinct, Department of Homeless Services, and Department of Sanitation to work together on multiple safety initiatives across 125th Street.
“While there are certainly still challenges on this part of 125th Street, it is safer, cleaner, healthier than it’s been in years,” Levine said in his speech. “We are now looking to replicate this successful multi-agency strategy in Hell’s Kitchen, another neighborhood which has faced similar challenges.”
On the podcast, Levine said he was working on scaffolding reform, and to “stay tuned.” Not long after, in March, the Manhattan Borough President’s office released its “Shed the Shed” report, which outlined a vision for more efficient building maintenance in order to bring down scaffolding and sidewalk sheds faster. Meant to protect pedestrians from potential falling debris and other building hazards during various types of construction, scaffolding remains on streets for an average of 498 days, according to the report, often far longer than needed.
“Across the city, these sheds, built to comply with local law inspection and repair requirements, are too often left up for months, or even years,” the report reads. “Over 230 scaffoldings across the city have been up for over five years.”
In conjunction with Levine’s report, five City Council members put forward a package of bills to decrease the time scaffolding and sidewalk sheds stay up. Council Members Powers, Erik Bottcher, Pierina Sanchez, Chris Marte, and Shaun Abreu (four Manhattanites plus Sanchez, a Bronxite who chairs the housing and buildings committee) put forward a total of nine bills. The bills range from requiring scaffolding to avoid green spaces, including playgrounds and gardens, to a pilot program to use drones and in-person examiners to conduct inspections of building facade work.
[Listen to the full conversation: Max Politics Podcast: Borough President Mark Levine's Vision for Manhattan]