City Council approves zoning changes to legalize casinos in the Big Apple

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams and Council Member Justin Brannan speak about casino zoning
City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams (left) helped pass a zoning text amendment to allow casinos in certain corners of the city. Thursday, April 18, 2024.
Credit John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit

The City Council approved on Thursday a measure that would legalize casinos in certain corners of the five boroughs — though over a dozen lawmakers voted against it.

The council passed the “Gaming Facility Text Amendment,” which Mayor Eric Adams’ administration introduced last year in conjunction with council leadership, by a 35 to 15 vote on April 18. The city’s legislature had approved the plan after it cleared the City Planning Commission last month.

The zoning changes would make it possible to open casinos in certain commercial and manufacturing districts across the Big Apple, as the gaming facilities are not permitted under current zoning rules. The amendment will only apply to casinos that nab one of three coveted downstate licenses which New York state is looking to award as soon as next year.

“Currently, casinos are not permitted uses within New York City zoning,” said Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, who voted for the measure. “This text amendment would resolve this zoning conflict, while maintaining communitys’ decision making authority on casino licenses within the state’s application proces.”

Supporters of the text amendment argue it will give the nine known casino bids in the city a better shot at winning one of the three available downstate licenses by removing a months-long local review process they would otherwise have to go through. They also contend that the state’s public engagement process for getting a license is thorough enough that a review at the city-level would be duplicative.

Each casino bid will have to be approved by a local Community Advisory Committee (CAC), with six appointees from the governor, the mayor and pols representing the area. While supporters of the proposal say the CAC’s incorporate enough community input, its detractors have criticized the committee’s for not including Community Boards.

Council Member Justin Brannan (D-Brooklyn), whose district includes the Coney Island site where Thor Equities is hoping to build a casino, said he sees the text amendment as a way to “level the playing field.”

“I think the CAC process is going to be robust and rigorous,” Brannan said during a news conference preceding the vote. “But in order to get to that process and for the community to actually have input, whether they want it or not, we need this text amendment. Because what we were seeing was … one applicant starting at second base, the other guys starting in the dugout. So the text amendment at least puts everyone at the same footing.”

Four proposals, including the one in Coney Island and Cohen’s in eastern Queens, will still have to make it past separate specific zoning hurdles besides the state process to get licenses.

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Reasons for opposition

But 15 council members voted against the proposal, a group that included both conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats. Some of those members argued the proposal itself would rob local communities of a say in the process, while others contended casinos would be detrimental to their surrounding areas.

Council Member Kristy Marmorato (R-Bronx), whose district is home to the golf course where the Bally’s Corporation is hoping to erect a casino, said passing the zoning amendment could lead to a slippery slope in which the city attempts to circumvent its typical rezoning process whenever it chooses.

“I cannot support anything that removes local zoning control from current City Council members and our community boards,” Marmorato said. “Our constituents need to have a larger and louder voice in this process. And since the [Department of City Planning] is trying to take that away from my constituents, I am here to take a stand and will be voting no.”

Progressive Council Member Christopher Marte (D-Manhattan) gave a simple reason for his no vote: “Casinos are bad, casinos are wrong.” Marte does not have a casino bid in his lower Manhattan district.

Kalman Yeger, a conservative Brooklyn Democrat, whose district is adjacent to the Coney Island bid, elaborated on Marte’s sentiments.

“Casinos are bad, but they’re even worse in our residential neighborhoods.,” he said. “They’re worse just blocks away from our schools, from our kids, from family lives. And no amount of revenue is worth destroying neighborhoods in the city. So that a lot of people can make some money … It’s bad policy.”

The proposal was also unpopular with the city’s 51 community boards, as 19 voted against it and 30 declined to weigh-in; just four advisory bodies voted in favor.

The nine casino bids include plans from New York Mets owner Steve Cohen to build a gaming facility on the Citi Field parking lot; the Related Companies and Wynn Resorts to construct a casino on the yet-to-be developed western side of Hudson Yards; the Soloviev Group and Mohegan Entertainment’s Freedom Plaza plan for the East Side near the United Nations; and real estate giant SL Green and Caesars Entertainment to throw one up in Times Square.