Gotham Gazette

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cranes in BK

Cranes over Brooklyn (photo: Michael Flynn)

A citywide rezoning proposal quietly released by the de Blasio administration last month has begun the public review process. 'Zoning for Quality and Affordability' sounds like mom and apple pie, as it purports to make new housing less costly and meet higher standards. But a closer examination calls these premises into question. 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.

The proposal is quite broad in its scope. But a central element is raising 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. These rules are meant to keep much of the "sore thumb" development we see around the city from cropping up in residential neighborhoods with strongly defined character, from the Lower East Side to Harlem, Crown Heights to Jackson Heights, the Village to Sunset Park.

Many of these height limits took years of effort by local communities to secure, and often involved compromises and trade-offs with the city and real estate interests to attain modest controls.

Now those rules would be upended, with the height caps lifted by as much as 20 to 30 percent, across the board.

As the plan's title implies, the rationale for these proposed changes are improvements in "quality and affordability," but neither seems likely to result from the current plan.

First, in many cases the proposed height limit increases would apply to purely market-rate housing. For example, in one of the more common contextual zoning districts, developers would automatically get to build about 20 percent taller than currently allowed for new luxury development. In the fraction of those districts where developers get more square feet if they reserve 20 percent of the units for affordable housing, there would be an additional 10 percent bump in the allowable height for such construction.

But even the height increase for developments that include 20 percent affordable housing raises serious questions. In existing contextual zoning districts such as the East Village, we have seen affordable housing included in some new developments built with the current, hard fought-for height limits, though not in every one. The City says higher height limits will mean more affordable units built, but the mixed results in places like the East Village don't offer any clear indication that this is so.

Including affordable units is currently optional in these zones, and this plan would not change that. It seems that the optional nature of the program, along with a variety of other factors, have a much bigger impact upon the number of affordable units built, rather than the height limits.

But for argument's sake, let's say raising height limits in contextual zones would increase participation in the 20 percent affordable housing program. Advocates for this approach point to the two areas of the city where significant numbers of affordable units have been produced through this program, West Chelsea/Hudson Yards and Williamsburg/Greenpoint. They have much looser height restrictions on new development and a significant number of their tidal wave of new, luxury developments include 20 percent affordable housing.

At the same time, though, in the ten years since that program has been implemented in those neighborhoods, they have seen a nearly unprecedented 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 perhaps the most dramatic overall loss of affordability.

Is this the future we want? And is this not the inevitable result of tying the production of every new affordable apartment to four market-rate, super-luxury ones, which is enshrined in this proposal?

The other rationales for the increased height limits in the plan are equally 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. By lifting the overall height of buildings and loosening the contextual zones' streetwall requirements, the City claims more attractive and livable buildings that are cheaper to construct will result.

In fact, while some new buildings in contextual zones are mediocre in design, some are actually quite appealing – it really depends upon the architect and developer. But non-contextual zones, with no height limits or streetwall requirements, routinely see some of the most uninspiring, cringeworthy new designs in the city, poking a big hole in the "less restrictions equals better design" theory.

And as for the notion that current height limits are discouraging development or making for substandard apartments, one need only look at the flood of new construction in contextual zones from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Astoria, Park Slope to the Upper East Side. People are lining up to live there, and developers are making a hefty profit.

But perhaps not as hefty as they would like. Fewer restrictions on height, allowing grander floor-to-ceiling heights and apartments with more commanding views, would fetch developers 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 they 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 deep-pocketed developers have 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 stated goals are worthy of support. But substantial modifications are needed to protect neighborhood character and benefit average New Yorkers before it can live up to its lofty premise, and before it should be considered for adoption.

Andrew Berman is the Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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