Zoning Changes Made in Haste Makes For Bad Government

BY PAMELA WOLFF (public member, CB4) | Sixteen years ago, the Chelsea Plan became a reality. It took years of grinding effort to accomplish. The idea began with Rowena Doyel, founder of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations, and Ed Kirkland, Chair of Community Board 4’s Chelsea Planning and Preservation Committee (now called the Chelsea Land Use Committee), and the originator of the (now-disbanded) Landmarks Committee. Tom Duane, then a CB4 member and Co-chair with Kirkland, was tireless in his efforts to guide the Plan to success.

It was Kirkland who had the vision to realize the possibility that CB4 could initiate a plan, present it to government agencies, and then fight like hell to get it adopted. This was the same proactive tact taken a decade earlier by Bob Trentlyon that ultimately resulted in the Chelsea Waterside Park. These men are giants in the Chelsea community.

The Chelsea Plan was a brilliant concept, but contained a bucket-full of compromises — deals with the devil. The idea was to retain the low-rise tranquility and historic character of Central Chelsea, roughly defined as from 14th to 26th Sts., from Seventh Ave. to 10th Ave., with some carve-outs. Essentially, the Plan limits building height within the area to 75 feet, on both the side streets and the avenues.

The giveaway was the manufacturing areas from Fifth Ave. to Seventh Ave. The mostly small loft buildings were either converted to million dollar residences or demolished and replaced by residential condominium goliaths with much more generous limits on height. The same happened in the area west of 10th Ave., now the Special West Chelsea Historic District.

It has turned out to be a blessing and a curse. Central Chelsea has kept its open sky and sense of neighborhood, of home. East and west of us, however, have become towering walls of condominiums filled with people who are either dazzlingly wealthy or living on Ritz Crackers to pay the rent.

Now we are faced with a crisis in housing for the ordinary among us. Our Mayor, with the best of intentions, has proposed to eviscerate the Chelsea Plan, and all the other hard-won zoning victories everywhere in our city in the name of creating development opportunities from which we might or might not squeeze out some units of questionably affordable housing. The Plan seems to be a blanket, one-size-fits-all, rezoning for the entire city.

Meanwhile Chelsea, like many other neighborhoods, is losing the very buildings that have been the traditional haven of the middle and working classes.

These buildings — mostly five-story, old-law tenements with 30 or 40 rent regulated apartments, built around the turn of the 20th century and earlier — are under assault by real estate developers. They pay big bucks, get huge construction loans, and set about throwing people out any way they can, as fast as they can, in order to do shoddy renovations, increase the number of units, and get them leased out fast at market rates.

So far, none of these conversions offer ANY affordable units, including the ones that have managed to dislodge stabilized or controlled tenants.

The proposed zoning changes will create an even greater incentive to exploit these little sitting ducks. This does not make sense.

I hope that Mayor de Blasio and the City Council, in the noblest of efforts to find ways to house the population that most makes this city viable, find ways to compromise as was done the first time around.

What concerns me most is the speed with which this plan is being pushed.  “Zoning for Quality and Affordability’” is a deceptive title.  We all need more time to digest what the real impact of the mayor’s plan will be on our lives. Zoning changes made in haste makes for bad government.


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