Mayor’s rezoning would undo years of progress

BY ANDREW BERMAN  |  In February the de Blasio administration quietly released a citywide rezoning plan called “Zoning for Quality and Affordability.” Despite the innocuous-sounding name, this plan would actually undo years of hard work by West Village and East Village residents to protect their neighborhoods from oversized development, and maintain their neighborhoods’ scale and character. This scheme would also torpedo plans in the works for the South and Central Village.

The plan has many facets, but a key element would be increasing the allowable height of new development in “contextual” zoning districts — areas where specific height limits and streetwall requirements help ensure that new buildings fit their context. In 2005 and 2010, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation worked with West Villagers to secure contextual zoning protections for much of that neighborhood to stop out-of-scale new construction.

And in 2008 and 2010, G.V.S.H.P. and a coalition of East Village groups and elected officials secured two contextual rezonings there to similarly preserve neighborhood character.

These rezonings took years to achieve, and did not always go as far as we and residents would have liked. But they were compromises we accepted, an improvement over the conditions then, and prevented a lot of bad development that would have otherwise occurred.

More recently, G.V.S.H.P. has worked closely with residents of the South Village and along the University Place and Broadway corridors to propose contextual rezoning protections for those areas, where current zoning allows towers of 300 feet or more in height.

But now the city wants to loosen those contextual zoning protections — for the existing districts, and for any future districts — lifting height caps by as much as 20 percent to 30 percent. These changes would apply to contextual districts throughout the city, but the Village and East Village would be particularly hard hit by them.

The city’s rationale for these proposed changes are improvements in “quality and affordability.” But, arguably, neither of these will result from the current plan.

For example, in many cases the proposed height-limit increases would apply to purely market-rate housing. In the most common contextual zoning districts in the Village and East Village, developers would automatically get to build about 20 percent taller than currently allowed for new luxury development. 

But in the fraction of those districts that are also “inclusionary zones” — where developers get more square feet if they reserve 20 percent of the units for affordable housing — there would be an additional roughly 10 percent bump in the allowable height for such “inclusionary” construction. In short, that adds up to a total of as much as a 30 percent increase in allowable height over what’s currently allowed for market-rate and “inclusionary” developments. 

Such inclusionary zones currently exist along every East Village avenue. Because the city has said that they will only entertain future rezonings that include this affordable housing provision, any future contextual zoning in the South and Central Village will likely require applying these inclusionary provisions there as well. 

The rationale for the increase in allowable height in these zones that encourage, but do not require, the inclusion of 20 percent affordable housing, is that it will result in more developers opting to do so.  But this conclusion is questionable at best.

In the inclusionary contextual zoning districts in the East Village, with the existing height limits we fought for, some developers have chosen to include affordable units, while others have not. These mixed results show no clear evidence that the height limits are an impediment to including new affordable housing. Arguably, instead, it this program’s optional nature, along with a variety of other factors that this proposal would not change, that appear to have a much bigger impact upon the program’s rate of participation. 

But for argument’s sake, let’s say raising height limits would increase participation. Advocates for this approach point to the two areas of the city where participation rates in this program are highest, West Chelsea/Hudson Yards and Williamsburg/Greenpoint. These areas, however, have much looser height restrictions on new development, and a significant number of the tidal wave of new, luxury developments there include 20 percent affordable housing.

At the same time, though, in the 10 years since that program has been implemented in West Chelsea/Hudson Yards and Williamsburg/Greenpoint, those neighborhoods have seen an astronomical rise in rents and housing prices. In other words, in the two cases where this program has been most successful — where we have seen the highest rates of developers choosing to include 20 percent affordable housing in their new developments — we have also seen among the most dramatic decreases in overall affordability of any areas of the city. 

That leads to the inevitable question: Is this therefore really the model to follow? Is tying the production of every new affordable apartment to the construction of at least four market-rate, super-luxury ones, as enshrined in this proposal, really the way to solve, or even improve, our city’s affordability crisis?

The affordability issue aside, the other rationales for the increased height limits in the plan are also dubious. The city claims current contextual zoning rules result in flat, boxy buildings, undesirable street-level ground-floor apartments, and substandard floor-to-ceiling heights that discourage development.  Boosting buildings’ overall height and loosening the contextual zones’ streetwall requirements, they claim, will result in more attractive and livable market-rate buildings that are cheaper to construct.

In fact, while some new buildings in contextual zones are mediocre in design, some are actually quite handsome — it really depends upon the architect and developer. But noncontextual zones, with no height limits or streetwall requirements, routinely see some of the most unappealing new buildings in the city, poking a big hole in the theory that less restrictions will lead to better design. So there is little evidence that such changes will result in “better” buildings, and much evidence that they won’t. But we do know they will result in noticeably taller and larger new buildings.

And as for the notion that current height limits are discouraging development or producing substandard apartments, that certainly has not been the case in the Village and East Village, or seemingly anywhere in contextual districts. People are lining up to live in developments that abide by the current rules, and the developers are making a hefty profit from them.

But perhaps the developers see an opportunity to make an even heftier profit. Fewer restrictions on height, allowing grander floor-to-ceiling heights and apartments with more commanding views, would fetch even higher prices. But it certainly would not make these new apartments more affordable. And neighborhoods would pay the price, with less light, air and sky, and a loss of the character and scale that these communities fought so hard to maintain.

The main beneficiaries of these aspects of the “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” plan appear to be real estate interests — not those who care about quality design or affordable housing. It’s likely no coincidence that these proposed changes are ones that the real estate lobby has sought for years.  Now, wrapped in claims about quality and affordability, they finally have a chance to get them.

The Mayor’s “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” plan is not without good points, and its purported goals are worthy of support. But substantial modifications are needed for it to live up to its lofty premise, and real changes are necessary to protect the character of our neighborhoods.  These changes must come before this plan, in any form, is considered for adoption.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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