City officials are going on a media offensive to pitch proposed zoning changes that would, among other things, lift height caps on some Lower East Side buildings in the name of better quality construction and affordable housing. It’s a plan that has already produced significant opposition among preservation and housing activists, as well as local elected officials.
In a nutshell, here’s what the city hopes to accomplish through a zoning text amendment, which will not be published for some time but which has been broadly outlined by the Department of City Planning:
- Make it easier for developers to build low-income senior housing by streamlining and updating zoning definitions and allowing greater density (more apartments in buildings than regulations currently allow).
- Modernize the rules that dictate the shape of buildings. Regulations have not kept pace with present day construction practices, meaning that developers often cannot utilize all of the floor area (square footage) permitted in certain buildings. The proposal calls for raising height limits by 5-15 feet in some areas (the new rules would also limit the number of floors allowed in buildings).
- Loosen the height caps for inclusionary housing (a program designed to create affordable residential units) and affordable senior housing.
- Reduce parking requirements (this part of the plan does not impact the Lower East Side)
Mayor de Blasio’s administration is calling the proposal “Zoning for Quality and Affordability.” It’s part of his signature initiative unveiled last spring, to preserve and create 200,000 units of affordable housing across the city.
In the past few weeks, a diverse collection of organizations has lined up to criticize the plan. One of the most vocal opponents is Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. In an editorial published by Gotham Gazette, he wrote, “Big real estate, not average New Yorkers, would be the main beneficiary of some of the plan’s key provisions, and its cost would be the undoing of neighborhood zoning protections years in the making.”
Last month, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, joined by most local elected officials, sent a letter to the Department of City Planning that raised several similar concerns. While acknowledging the administration’s efforts to create affordable housing, they argued that the zoning changes could unravel years of work by neighborhood activists to control over-development. They also suggested that the plan could have unintended impacts, potentially displacing rent stabilized tenants.
During a recent briefing for community-based reporters, Planning Commission Chairperson Carl Weisbrod and key members of his staff offered a broad overview of the proposal and addressed many of the concerns that have been raised.
Many of the changes would impact contextual zoning districts, established nearly 30 years ago to create new buildings in line with “existing neighborhood character.” While the city has been well-served by contextual zoning, the officials said, the law has not kept up with modern-day construction techniques and regulations. These days, for example, fire proofing between floors has forced builders to lower ceilings in both apartments and ground floor retail spaces. If height limits and setback requirements were relaxed, they argued, developers would be able to use all of the floor area allotted for each building. In Weisbrod’s view, the change would lead to better quality buildings and allow builders to add residential units in many buildings, including affordable apartments.
Another part of the plan would permit developers of affordable senior housing and of inclusionary housing to build taller buildings in areas where zoning provides for additional floor area. The city’s inclusionary housing program allows for bigger buildings if developers agree to set aside at least 20 percent of the apartments for affordable housing.
Some of the most vocal opposition to the proposal is coming from communities in which neighborhood-wide rezoning initiatives were undertaken to curb unbridled development. In 2008, Community Board 3 and the Department of City Planning agreed on a plan to rezone 111 blocks of the Lower East Side and the East Village. At the time, out-of-scale towers were being erected along stretches of Orchard and Ludlow streets, as well as many other blocks, often wedged between diminutive tenements. The rezoning was meant to protect what was left of the neighborhood’s distinctive low-rise character as well as to prevent displacement of more rent stabilized tenants.
CB3 has asked for information from the city about the impact of this new citywide rezoning on the 2008 initiative. In the meantime, here’s what we have been able to glean from the the “draft scope of work” for the environmental Impact Statement.
The 2008 rezoning covered many blocks in the East Village and the area between East Houston Street and Grand Street, more or less East of Forsyth Street. A R7a contextual district was established in the blocks east of Norfolk Street, with maximum building heights of 80 feet. West of Norfolk, the city put in place a C4-4a district, which allowed certain commercial uses but also included an 80 foot height limit. Higher density districts (R8a and C6-2a) were created on larger streets, namely Delancey and Chrystie Streets.
According to a chart released by the Department of City Planning (see above), building height limits in R7a areas could rise from 80 feet to 95 feet (+15) if the owner has unused floor area. If it’s a senior housing development or if the property is located in an inclusionary housing zone (a stretch of Delancey Street, for example), height limits would increase to 105 feet (+25). In R8a districts (including a portion of East Houston and Delancey streets), maximum height would rise from 120 to 125 feet. If there’s senior housing or inclusionary housing, the new height limit would go up to 145 feet.
That’s the possible impact in the section of the neighborhood that was rezoned seven years ago. But the plan could also affect other areas of the Lower East Side in significant ways. There’s a high density C6-2 zone on Orchard Street between Grand Street and Canal Street, for example. The same goes for much of Division Street. C6-4 zoning prevails along the waterfront in the Two Bridges area, where that massive tower from Extell Development is being built. The mayor’s plan would trigger increases ranging from 10 feet to 50 feet in high density R10 districts and in their commercial equivalent zones (including C6 districts).
There’s a range of opinions about the proposal within the neighborhood. It’s fair to say, for example, that City Council member Margaret Chin is eager to support plans from the mayor that could create new affordable housing. At the same time, she has concerns about the lack of community engagement by the city so far, among other issues. Tim Laughlin of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, has expressed qualified support for the proposal. His organization, which represents property owners, is eager to have a dialogue about relaxed zoning that could result in more affordable housing development. However, Community Board 3 Chairperson Gigi Li said in a statement:
Many members of CB3, including myself, have questions and concerns regarding the Mayor’s rezoning plan, including those outlined in Borough President Gale Brewer’s letter to the mayor. CB3 remains committed to a community-based planning approach, which was utilized in SPURA (the former Seward Park urban Renewal Area), and currently being used with the Chinatown Working Group and the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project. Chinatown, the LES, and East Village are vibrant and diverse communities, and I believe that residents and stakeholders should be thoughtfully engaged in any process that may impact the future of their neighborhood.
David McWater, a former member of CB3 who led the board during the 2008 rezoning, was more emphatic. In an interview, he called the handling of the new rezoning “unfortunate,” and said the mayor was “cutting the community out” of the process in a “Giuliani-esque way.” Support for the rezoning, he said, “was unanimous at every turn — at the community board, at City Planning at City Council. It’s very insulting. You’ve got to have a process. You don’t just come in and dictate to the community how it’s going to go.”
During the media briefing, Weisbrod said, the zoning initiative “is really an attempt on our part to address some of the major challenges (in New York’s) housing crisis.” Planning officials repeatedly emphasized that the proposal does not increase development rights, but simply allows property owners to utilize the development rights they already possess. Howard Slatkin, deputy executive director for strategic planning, added that affordable housing developers have urged the city to make these changes. Right now, he said, they’re having to make a choice between building hight quality ground floor retail or affordable apartments. The plan, said Slatkin, also attempts to address an acute shortage of senior housing that is bound to grow much worse in the years to come.
Some critics have argued that the plan could motivate owners to tear down rent stabilized buildings. Others have expressed concerns that landlords would launch disruptive construction projects, adding floors to existing buildings. Throughout the Lower East Side, tenant activists say, gut renovation projects have already made life so miserable for many residents that they simply move out of their buildings. Some elected officials have called for anti-harassment protections as part of the zoning proposal.
In response, Weisbrod said he doubts “tear downs” would occur in the future as a result of the proposal, since the increased height limits would mostly be available to developers who create senior or affordable housing. Weisbrod also pointed out that buildings in historic districts could still not be altered without the Landmarks Commission’s approval. [While some blocks in the East Village are protected, there is no historic district below East Houston Street.]
Weisbrod said he believes there’s a robust system in place to engage local communities. “We have to go through a very elaborate public approval process,” he asserted. “There’s feedback both ways. We hear from the communities. We hear from elected officials” (and) ultimately this is something that the City Council has to approve.” Finally Weisbrod said, “I think the changes here are very, very, very modest. They’re frankly intended to make contextual districts more contextual… Is there a trade-off? Sure. You get five more feet for a much nicer building. That’s a trade-off that neighborhoods will have to think about.”
The city is conducting an environmental review in preparation for the public land use approval process, which is expected to begin in the fall.