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Assessing Alicia Glen's Impact on the City’s Physical Space - Part I: 'We have completely changed the housing landscape'

Alicia Glen

Alicia Glen (photo: Paige Polk/Mayor's Office)

This is part one of a two-part series on former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen's impact on the "built environment" of New York City. Find part two -- on economic development, transit, and more -- here.

It’s the year 2026 in New York City. Hundreds of thousands of new units of rent-restricted apartments have been added to the city’s housing stock as the population continues to grow. Ferry boats cruise in the East River and on the Hudson. Gleaming office buildings rise in East Midtown. Downtown Far Rockaway is bustling. Construction of an entirely new neighborhood at Sunnyside Yard in Queens is well underway. Formerly decrepit industrial spaces along the Brooklyn waterfront house light manufacturing companies alongside co-working spaces, retail stores, and commercial businesses. A statue of Shirley Chisholm stands in Prospect Park. And perhaps, a gondola links the city’s financial center with the former military base on Governors Island.

This is the future Alicia Glen wants, the future for New York City -- where she was recently Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development -- that Glen designed. Rent-regulated apartments, ferry landings, modern midtown office space, a film production campus, monuments to female historical figures – they are all physical manifestations of the massive portfolio that Glen was given, crafted, and ran for nearly five-and-a-half years under Mayor Bill de Blasio before stepping down in March.

“I’m a built-environment person,” said Glen, in a recent hour-long interview at a coffee shop in Chelsea. “I’m a born-and-bred New Yorker and I’ve been working in the built environment and community development and real estate my whole life.”

A former Goldman Sachs executive, where she led the Urban Investment Group, who also worked in city government in the 1980s and ‘90s, Glen spearheaded the city’s affordable housing program, neighborhood rezonings, job-creation efforts, new ferry system, and planned light rail project; oversaw the city’s public housing authority and public parks department; and led the launch of an initiative to create monuments to prominent women; among a myriad of other duties.

The policies and projects that Glen initiated are already transforming the physical landscape of the city, and will continue to do so for generations to come, as is the case with each mayoral administration and the “built environment” legacy of its chief executive and top deputy for the elements of her portfolio.

As with the Bloomberg administration and other predecessors, many of Glen’s contributions will only be seen and gauged over time. The Bloomberg era saw almost 40% of the city rezoned, meaning new land use rules were adopted, often to spur more development, and brought sweeping changes to the city’s skyline. It gave the city the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Hudson Yards in Manhattan, and Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island, the latter two of which didn’t see a grand opening till well after Bloomberg was out of office.

A born-and-raised New Yorker and overtly optimistic if at times sharp-tongued booster for New York City, Glen prides herself on what she believes is a transformational record, to be fully revealed over decades, even if it comes with its share of critics and naysayers.

The housing plan may have the largest “affordable” units goal in city history, but critics say it doesn’t do nearly enough for those at lower incomes and people experiencing homelessness. The New York City Housing Authority’s operating budget may have been stabilized, but a deep backlog for maintenance and repairs remains, and a lead paint scandal erupted on her watch. The ferry system may be a new transit alternative for waterfront communities and millions of annual riders, but it’s heavily subsidized, serves a more affluent crowd than other “mass transit” options, and isn’t linked to the MTA fare system.

Glen was brought into the administration to translate de Blasio’s vision of equity into programmatic and built reality, blending her perspective as a builder and a real estate executive with the mayor’s socioeconomic mission, which she largely appears to share as a self-professed Upper West Side liberal. Much of the de Blasio-Glen model followed both of their prior work, leveraging the private market for public good; utilizing public space to broad economic benefit; taking a “balanced” approach to policy to keep developers in the game, businesses in the city, and the middle class in affordable homes.

To some critics, their pro-growth policies and strategic decisions -- from which neighborhoods they rezoned to launching the ferry program -- seemed to contradict the “tale of two cities” rhetoric that got de Blasio elected to office. Many on the left who were hopeful about de Blasio’s tenure use his appointment of Glen, and her Goldman Sachs background, as emblematic of a mayoralty far more moderate than envisioned and far too cozy with big real estate developers.

The de Blasio-Glen approach put into place a framework for long-term inclusive growth, some say, that eschews the grand, glitzy legacy projects for many inflection points toward a more fair and equitable city. “A lot of what I understood her to do was actually not necessarily something that would be superficially magnificent, but really was thought out right and it will have this lasting impact,” said Rachel Meltzer, chair of the urban policy program at the Milano School of Policy, Management, and Environment at the New School. “Because it is about how you integrate some of this stuff so that it becomes part of how the city works and operates...In that regard, I would hope it would be long-lasting. I think that's a smart approach.”

Glen explained that she was given immense responsibility, and leeway, by de Blasio to advance her vision.

“You have to remember, I was handed over a third of the government in a day, OK? And also the mayor, and I think he’d be the first person to admit this, he is not a person who focuses on the built environment,” Glen said. “That has never been his interest. I mean, he’s always been pro-development and thoughtful about development and the built environment, but he would always say he is much more interested in policy, service issues, education, however you characterize all that...One of the reasons why he chose me, and…we were very simpatico, was because I’m a person who has a track record of actually building things and getting things done in the built environment.”

Affordable Housing, Development & Neighborhood Change
One of the most prominent aspects of Glen’s legacy is the massive de Blasio “affordable housing” program that she took the lead in designing and implementing. The plan originally aimed to create or preserve 200,000 units of rent-regulated housing by 2024. It has been retooled twice, first to target more low-income housing and later expanded to a goal of 300,000 units by 2026. (Glen’s successor as deputy mayor, Vicki Been, formerly the housing commissioner under Glen, is expected to announce another new iteration of the plan in the coming months.)

In January, the administration announced that had already put $5.05 billion directly into the housing plan, and another $8.12 billion in bond financing; money that helps subsidize and incentivize the building and preservation of rent-capped units, which are available to tenants with a wide variety of incomes depending on individual city deals with landlords and developers.

On July 30, the city announced that it financed 25,299 affordable housing units in the just-completed 2019 fiscal year, meeting the annual goal but a drop from the 32,244 affordable homes that were financed in the previous fiscal year. The city said, though, that a record amount of housing was financed for the most vulnerable residents – homeless people, seniors, and those who need supportive services – part of a developing response to ongoing criticism about the plan’s designs.

According to the latest numbers from the city, the de Blasio administration has over five-plus years so far funded 43,930 new “affordable” (meaning rent-regulated in some way, though thresholds vary widely) homes and preserved another existing 91,507 “affordable” units into longer-term regulation, for a total of 135,437. In comparison, the Bloomberg administration built and preserved 165,000 “affordable” units over his 12 years in office.

But to the lay New Yorker, the affordable housing program isn’t always conspicuous. “I think some of Alicia's most important legacies may be somewhat invisible,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, associate professor of practice at Columbia GSAPP, founder of the Practice for Architecture and Urbanism, and a former city planner under Bloomberg. “Housing preservation...that's a policy issue where you don't really see the physical legacy as much as her extension of the Citi Bike network. A lot of these things, I think, are issues that are going to be hard to see even though I think it's a very impactful legacy.”

Glen said she came into her job aiming to avoid “endless analysis paralysis” and to obtain actionable results. “I was very clear that I wanted to have really concrete measurable impacts so that New Yorkers today and New Yorkers of the future can be like, ‘yeah, we’ve changed the blueprint of New York City,’ and that’s what I set out to do and I would argue we did it,” she said in discussing the affordable housing program.

The first major step in achieving that goal was wonky and technical, but essential -- the passage of two amendments to the city’s land use laws: Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA). Under MIH, the new regulations mandated that developers seeking to build taller, denser buildings than existing zoning allows -- thus in need of city approval to do so -- would have to include a certain percentage of units at specified caps on the rent. Importantly, this would also apply to rezoned neighborhoods, where the city changes land use rules for a larger geographic area than when, in most cases, a developer seeks a zoning change for a specific plot of land.

ZQA updated zoning and building design standards to encourage the creation of affordable senior housing and mixed-income housing, and to promote the growth of commercial and retail space.

The zoning changes allowed the city, under Glen’s leadership, to pursue rezonings in several neighborhoods targeted for greater housing density, as well as new retail space, park land, school seats, and other varied built-environment additions. The first of those was approved in East New York in April 2016, followed later by rezonings in Downtown Far Rockaway and East Harlem in 2017, and then the Jerome Avenue Corridor in the Bronx and part of Inwood in 2018.

Each of the rezonings will have significant long-term influence over what the neighborhoods involved look like, the make-up, functionality, and benefits of specific communities across the city. But while each also clearly offers certain community upgrades and potential for more, they also come with questions around enticing or accelerating gentrification, and whether communities of color are mainly those expected to welcome increased density as the city grows.

The East New York rezoning covered three main corridors: Atlantic Avenue, with a stretch of semi-industrial businesses but few residences; Fulton Street, a shopping corridor with two- to four-story buildings with stores and housing; and Pitkin Avenue, which contains two- to four- story residential buildings. Low-scale row-houses, semi-detached homes and small apartment buildings line the side streets. Under the rezoning, the character of those side streets will be preserved, while allowing mixed-use growth along the main corridors, including rent-restricted and mixed-income housing, moderate density industrial growth, and new retail and commercial space. That will mean taller buildings with new retail or community facilities on the ground floor: 6-8 story buildings on Liberty Avenue and Fulton Street; 8-10 story buildings on Pitkin; and 12-14 story buildings on Atlantic Avenue. And new residential development where earlier only manufacturing facilities could be located.

In East Harlem, the rezoning was meant to stave off market-rate development that threatened to accelerate displacement of existing residents already happening in the gentrifying neighborhood. The final plan established limits on building heights and density (owing to the City Council) while expanding residential development and promoting new commercial and industrial space.

On the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx, a slew of development is expected to take place, most of which will be mandated to include affordable housing. There’s the 14-story building at 1331 Jerome Avenue, with 255 units, including supportive housing. There’s the 17-story mixed-use building at Jerome Court, with 63,000 square feet of residential space, 52,000 square feet of community facility space, and 7,500 square feet of commercial space.

Similarly, in Downtown Far Rockaway, the city is financing several projects that will lead to mixed-income and affordable housing, while also creating new commercial and public spaces. At 1414 Central Avenue, construction has begun on 140 new units of affordable housing, 2,500 square feet of commercial space, and a new building to house the Community Church of the Nazarene. The city has also engaged the nonprofit developer Phipps Houses to redevelop Far Rockaway Village, to replace a shopping center with 450 units of affordable housing, 92,000 square feet of commercial space, and 23,000 square feet of public space. Another developer, The Community Builders, will create 224 units of affordable housing on a city-owned site, as well as 24,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space and 8,000 square feet of community space.

“I think it's something that's really not only the envy of other cities in the United States, but other places around the world, which are all struggling with the issue of affordable housing,” said Carl Weisbrod, the former head of the Department of City Planning and currently senior advisor at HR&A Advisors, of the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy. “Most successful cities are struggling with that issue,” said Weisbrod, who worked closely with Glen on many issues and projects, including the passage of MIH.

“I think that the housing program is just so large and central to the city's future, that that will be the centerpiece and a lot of these other accomplishments will help support that legacy,” Weisbrod added.

While each of those rezonings was focused on creating and preserving thousands of units of new affordable housing, they also came with a spate of prominent community, economic development, and infrastructure investments. In East New York, the city has already broken ground on a new 1,000-seat school, begun work on park expansions and new playground sites, and landmarked the Empire State Dairy Building.

In Downtown Far Rockaway, a new two-story 18,000-square-foot library is being built. The Jerome Avenue corridor will have two new elementary schools serving over 1,000 children, and new parks and playgrounds as well. Inwood will receive a library with a new universal pre-kindergarten facility, a youth STEM education center, a cultural and job training center, and two new waterfront parks.

The housing plan and the rezonings undertaken to help achieve it have earned de Blasio and Glen a significant amount of both praise and criticism.

Most of the criticism has come from the left, saying that the self-described progressive mayor has not really had a truly progressive approach to housing development. While some favor the new rules that make it obligatory for developers to build affordable housing, others say that rezonings have exacerbated gentrification and displacement in low-income communities of color and that the housing program does not sufficiently address the lowest-income New Yorkers, including many of the existing residents of the rezoned areas.

While some want to see more housing density in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, others believe de Blasio and Glen have been too pro-development in general.

“I think the ramifications of Alicia Glen's impact on the city are going to be felt for decades to come, in a very similar way that, you know, how Robert Moses reshaped the city of New York and not in a good way,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change. “Her policies to rezone low-income neighborhoods in New York City to allow developers to build luxury condo towers and unaffordable apartments for everyday New Yorkers is going to have lasting, lasting impact of displacing people of color and communities of color across the city, and I think it's going to actually further segregation across the entire region.”

Glen has faced the Moses comparison before, though she somewhat embraces it. “Well I’ve always said, that’s a complicated topic,” she said. “Someone once joked to me, ‘What do you think you’re Roberta Moses?’ Well sure If I can be a better, kinder, gentler, more inclusive, feminist city builder, yeah I’ll take that. Put that on a t-shirt. That’s fine.”

Westin said the focus on community rezonings effectively threw gasoline on the city’s gentrification crisis. He insisted the administration should have instead worked to sculpt smaller rezonings to maximize affordability and to ensure that housing goes to the families living in those neighborhoods. The result of the current approach? “Communities will definitely get richer and whiter, but entire communities will be displaced. East New York will not be East New York in ten years. A lot of those families will be gone. I think the same is true of Harlem and the same is true of the Bronx,” he said.

“You know what, in ten years, when you go to those neighborhoods, in the old days, sure you’d see development there but you wouldn’t see any sort of comprehensive neighborhood infrastructure being done because that wasn’t the way the city was doing business,” Glen said of such criticism. “So yeah, I feel pretty good about the fact that when I walk down the street, I see a lot of new buildings going up. There’s affordable housing in those buildings. That didn’t use to be the case. That’s not visible to the human eye but I know what I did and the brutal battles that we took on to get MIH, to get 421-a done. I didn’t sleep for six months. I mean, totally worth it.”

“We have completely changed the housing landscape in New York City in the most radical way,” she said of changes to the zoning code, “which is what’s allowing all the radicals to say it’s not good enough. So that’s great.”

Benjamin Dulchin, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, is more ambivalent, noting that the effects of the rezonings may not be known for years. MIH, he said, created “the strongest-in-the-nation floor for what the private sector’s obligation is to affordable housing when the city upzones. And so that was really an important step that she played a key role in.”

But he noted the concerns about the neighborhoods the administration chose, where displacement pressures already exist. “The way that they have focused on rezoning as a way of harnessing market forces may do more harm than good,” he said, cautiously.

Glen is not defensive, but rather defiant and self-assured in the face of critics. “We broke every record since records have been kept, and there are hundreds of amazing projects that are now fully occupied or out of the ground,” she said.

She continued: “I think that the vast majority of people, the real issue is, even with everything we’ve done, it’s not enough. Right? And that’s a true statement, sure. But what’s the alternative? To do nothing? To not try to make a big dent? So that’s why, yeah sure, we need more affordable housing. OK. I challenge anybody to tell me how you can do more and leverage resources and do anything at scale that we haven’t been able to do. I challenge anybody.”

She conceded that it’s a “fair position to take, that everything should be for the lowest income people, every dollar should be putting into serving the lowest,” but she disagrees with the notion.

“It’s everything we fought against. Everything we learned about the mistakes of the ‘60s and ‘70s where people were really stigmatized and very low-income people were crowded together,” she continued. “Most social scientists and urban economists and urban thinkers would agree that real mixed-income buildings and neighborhoods are much healthier ecosystems. The buildings themselves are healthier and certainly neighborhoods are healthier. So I’ve never believed...that the city’s sole role in development and housing is to serve only the lowest income. I just disagree with that philosophically, as does the mayor.”

“I think her primary legacy is really accelerating the process of gentrification and overdevelopment in New York, running roughshod over the wishes of local communities, and helping to turn City Hall into a pay-for-play revolving door for lobbyists and real estate interests,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, in a phone interview.

Berman has particular contempt for the administration’s record on historic preservation. “This has been one of the most preservation-unfriendly administrations in New York City in a very, very long time,” he said. “The only time the administration seems to show any interest in landmarks is when they can come up with a way for them to sell air-rights in order to increase the size of development in surrounding areas, sometimes at the expense of other landmarks.”

For preservationists like Berman, Glen had a rebuttal ready. “We landmarked more buildings in five years than the entire Bloomberg administration did in 12 years. So I don’t know what they’re complaining about,” she said. While Glen's point about a better record on landmarking than Bloomberg was correct, her timeframe was not. In de Blasio's first term, the city landmarked more buildings and sites than any other mayor in their first term other than Ed Koch. And in an apples-to-apples comparison with Bloomberg's administration, at this point in de Blasio's tenure, his administration has landmarked about 4,988 buildings and sites, 45% more than the 2,248 that Bloomberg did in the same time, according to a spokesperson for the Landmarks Preservation Commission. 

“I’m not worried about being unpopular,” Glen said at one point in the interview, “because it’s not junior high school and I’m not running for prom queen. Everything I’ve ever done has been about doing something that’s good for New York. That’s been my only agenda, what other agenda could I have had. Why would I have given up all these other jobs?”

When it comes to the complicated issue of public housing, Glen’s legacy is far more shrouded. She inherited problems at the authority -- which she is quick to remind is under federal and state auspices, as well as city control -- that had been decades in the making but seemed to reach their zenith under the de Blasio administration. While she is not as readily associated with NYCHA, perhaps because it is an authority rather than a city agency, than her signature plans and projects, Glen acknowledges NYCHA was under her purview, wants credit for some of what has gone right there over the last five-plus years, and knows the crises are immense.

NYCHA faced a nearly $17 billion capital need in 2011, but that quickly grew to about $32 billion last year. Through various tools, including by turning over developments to private management, the administration has a plan to cover about $24 billion of that need, but it was only launched in December 2018, an updated version of a 2015 NYCHA plan Glen helped design.

Despite their putting more emphasis on and resources into NYCHA than their predecessors, conditions for the authority’s residents continued to be plagued. Major problems and scandals with basic building maintenance, crumbling roofs, lead paint, elevator breakdowns, heat and hot water outages, and more have made NYCHA a blight on the de Blasio-Glen record, even if those problems have been decades in the making and federal and state aid have been extremely limited.

Glen is hopeful that key elements of the NYCHA 2.0 plan, including new private housing development on underutilized NYCHA land that will provide revenue for the authority, will bear fruit.

This is part one of a two-part series on former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen's impact on the "built environment" in New York City. Read part two -- dealing with economic development, transit, and more -- here.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to note that Glen's comments on the de Blasio administration's preservation record compared to the Bloomberg administration were not entirely accurate. Additional context has also been provided.  

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