Simeon Bankoff: Taking the Context out of Contextual Zoning

City Land 04/14/2015

Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council

In March 2015, the City Planning Commission announced a proposal called Zoning for Affordability and Quality, which broadly calls for three principal changes in the current citywide zoning resolution. The plan proposes to change and enlarge definitions of senior housing to include more types of housing providers than currently permitted. It also proposes to increase buildable space for senior housing in some instances. The proposal also seeks to lessen or some instances no longer mandate parking requirements for designated affordable housing units or senior housing based on their proximity to mass transit. Finally, the proposal recommends raising the streetwall and building height limits from 10 – 20% within medium- and high-density contextual residential zones. The agency rationale for the proposal is to provide better development opportunities within the city which more fully utilize sites full allowable bulk. The agency further explains that by loosening building envelope and parking regulations especially for senior and quality housing developments, more housing inventory will be created to help address the city’s need for these kinds of housing. The City Planning Commission is accepting comments on the draft scope of the environmental review for the proposal until April 30 2015 and, according to the agency’s projected timelines, hopes to bring the final proposal forward for public review and discussion in the early Fall.

Since their introduction almost 25 years ago, many communities across New York City have looked to contextual zoning to help protect the character of their neighborhoods and encourage appropriate new development which enhances where they call home. These are not fly-by-night efforts; frequently volunteers spend years in meetings with community stakeholders and decision-makers, carefully crafting zoning regulations which correspond with the existing built neighborhood.  More often than not, professional planners and consultants are hired to guide the process, facilitate collaboration with all stakeholders and work with the Department of City Planning to determine if local plans can align with the agency’s citywide mandate. Usually there is a great deal of compromise in all these negotiations and many community-driven proposals never came to fruition because of irreconcilable differences between the stakeholders and the city. It is actually uncommon for a community-driven plan to be adopted by City Planning. To rearrange the ground rules on a citywide basis as this proposal does, ignores the long effort, careful study and strong investment of community members and planning professionals.

Frankly put, this plan as it is proposed, takes the context out of contextual zoning.  It arbitrarily raises height limits and diminishes yard requirements across the city according to a mathematical nicety, not based in the actual built fabric of our city’s neighborhoods. New York thrives because of the diversity of its neighborhoods, yet this proposal’s approach will deal with each neighborhood as the same, with a one-size-fits-all approach. A calculation of potential growth based on a model is not the same as actual development, especially when one considers the diversity of New York’s built environment. The department has not released any information to show that studies of the median street wall, set-back height or yard coverage of all the potential areas affected will be done. This amendment will affect a lot of properties – approximately 10.4% of New York City, according to our calculations. The potential impact must be studied carefully before being executed.

This is a plan without prescription. It should be prescribed that only units constructed for affordable or senior housing receive height bonuses, which would incentivize construction of the housing stock that is the genesis of this proposal and that the City so desperately needs. At this moment, the proposal incentivizes all development, without any guarantee that it will actually house New Yorkers who are rent-burdened.  In fact, a point could be made that this might incentivize demolition of existing housing in order to replace it with new development utilizing the proposed as-of-right height limits. This could increase displacement while only adding more market-rate housing to the pool. Bigger buildings do not equal lower rents, if that were the case, West 57th Street would be Manhattan’s newest neighborhood for the middle class.

There is also no explanation of how building higher will mandate construction of quality buildings like the examples in the proposal. Interestingly, the new construction that City Planning aspires to create is found in historic districts in all five boroughs, as these buildings are designed from a human perspective and new development is carefully scrutinized to meet its context. It is outside of the city’s historic and contextual districts where true banality dwells and quality design is an elusive sight.

Finally, the Historic Districts Council is concerned that this proposal has not taken into consideration the undue burden on contextually-zoned properties that are regulated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).  LPC is already hard-pressed regulating property for “appropriate” development in instances when the as-of-right base zoning allows substantially more potential building mass than what is actually built – relief of this pressure is one reason why contextual rezonings are often paired with historic district designations. By raising the height limits and lessening the yard requirements to landmark properties, the development expectations are increased and the LPC is given the unenviable task of having to resist policy enacted by a sister city agency.  This could result in hardship claims, legal challenges and undue pressures on the LPC to act outside of its own mission.

Truly, this is a plan which was not formulated with New York’s neighborhoods or the people who love them in mind.

 

Simeon Bankoff is the Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council.

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