Manhattan Efforts to Stop Towers, Require Affordability Meet De Blasio Admin’s Caution

Three years ago, residents of Sutton Place, a high-income residential neighborhood on Manhattan’s East Side between 51st and 59th Street, wanted to halt a developer’s plans for an 80-story tower (later scaled down to 62 stories) that was permitted under existing zoning and to prevent similar future projects. Spearheaded by a coalition called the East River 50s Alliance, the group hoped to institute a 260-foot (roughly 26-story) height cap on new buildings. When the de Blasio administration wasn’t interested in pursuing a rezoning, those residents did something very rare and very expensive: They applied to rezone the area themselves.

In November, the City Council approved a compromise version of the residents’ proposed rezoning, requiring towers to be set back above a certain height. Describing the effort, New York Yimby wrote that it was, “‘citizen activism’ at its absolute worse: an entitled group of super-rich individuals who want to deprive others of the right to live in New York City” by limiting new construction in order to protect existing resident’s views.

But East River 50s Alliance members say, to the contrary, that the affordable housing crisis was among their concerns, and that they in fact tried to get the city to increase the affordable housing requirements in their area, to no avail.

The area was already in an R10 Inclusionary Housing Program zone, meaning that there were already voluntary incentives in place that encouraged developers to rent some apartments at affordable rates in exchange for extra density. East River 50s Alliance suggested that the city instead apply its new Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program to the area, which would require—rather than merely incentivize—developers to make a portion of the housing income-targeted.

But the de Blasio administration explained that its new policy only can apply in areas where developers are permitted significant new Floor Area Ratio or FAR—a measurement of density calculated by dividing residential floor area by the size of the lot—through changes of zoning rules to accommodate bigger buildings. Not only did the city see the group’s proposal as reducing housing growth in the area by imposing a height cap; the area was actually already zoned for the highest amount of FAR under state law. There was no way to increase the FAR further in order to trigger mandatory inclusionary housing.

The residents posed some other ideas, each rejected: that the city first reduce the allowable FAR in the area, then offer developers the incentive of extra FAR if they provided significant affordable housing. Or that developers be required to provide larger ratios of affordable housing in order to get the bonus density. The residents also said they’d be willing to accept a 350-foot height limit—roughly 35-story buildings—in order to strengthen the affordable housing component in some way.

Yet the de Blasio administration contended that the group’s rezoning plans would further remove the incentive for developers to build and ultimately produce less affordable housing than would be created than under the existing rules. The city did, however, agree to study the potential for reviewing the voluntary inclusionary housing program on a citywide basis.

Sutton Place is a unique example of a neighborhood whose residents have the financial resources to take up the costs of a rezoning on its own. But it’s just one of several Manhattan neighborhoods—of varying economic power—where residents are organizing to stop towers and out-of-context development and at the same time institute new affordability requirements, including the Lower East Side waterfront, Greenwich Village and Morningside Heights. In many of them, the de Blasio administration has proved skeptical or cautious of the proposals on the table.

Demanding both “contextual zoning” and affordability

“The idea that neighborhoods like contextual zoning is fairly well established at this point,” says Moses Gates of the Regional Plan Association, referring to zoning that preserves neighborhood character, such as by requiring height caps on new buildings. “The fact that neighborhoods like affordable housing is a little newer, quite honestly.”

Many of these groups see these two goals—preserving the neighborhood and ensuring future affordability—as perfectly in tandem: By preserving their existing built form, they say, they are protecting older buildings from demolition, keeping new glassy towers from coming to the neighborhood with new rich residents, and dampening speculation on property.

“We’re not against development. We’re just in favor of reasonable development, and we don’t like this notion of …tall luxury towers,” says Robert Stern of the Morningside Heights Community Coalition.

Of course, while skyscrapers may be less common outside of Manhattan, the desire to institute contextual rezoning while also improving affordability requirements can be found in some outer-borough areas too; community-driven initiatives along those lines are currently underway in Ridgewood and in Bushwick.

But the de Blasio administration’s doesn’t always see limiting density and addressing the affordable housing crisis as complimentary goals. After all, one of the bigger components of the administration’s 12-year affordable housing plan is to “upzone” neighborhoods, or encourage greater density—as covered by City Limits’ Zone Inseries. The De Blasio administration argues that increasing the housing supply will decrease housing costs, as there are fewer people competing for a single apartment.

In addition, in order to avoid constitutional challenges from property owners claiming their rights had been violated, the administration crafted a mandatory inclusionary housing policy that can only be instituted where the city has provided property owners with extra density.

The administration’s focus on increasing density constitutes a break with the policy of the Bloomberg administration, which, although better known for its massive upzonings to areas like Hudson Yards, Harlem and Williamsburg, was also very willing to contextually rezone residential areas throughout the city. Some say the Bloomberg administration was in fact far too willing; there’s evidence it favored wealthier neighborhoods with clout for contextual rezonings. Advocates of the Bloomberg approach, on the other hand, view the de Blasio administration as running roughshod over community needs.

“The de Blasio administration rightly said we are going to use upzoning as a way to generate affordability and I fully support that. That left out the tool of downzoning that is appropriate in some neighborhoods,” says uptown City Councilmember Mark Levine, a supporter of a potential Morningside Heights rezoning which, he clarifies, wouldn’t actually downzone (meaning, reduce allowable FAR) but contextually rezone (basically, impose zoning rules consistent with what’s built there now) through the use of height caps. He adds that when today’s zoning was introduced in 1961, developers did not have the technology to build “sliver towers,” or tall buildings on narrow lots, like they do today.

Borough President Gale Brewer took a more critical tone. “De Blasio’s from Brooklyn. He doesn’t understand Manhattan, to be honest with you … We are more than willing to take our share but we are already a very dense island.”

Differences over approach, and goals

It would be unfair to say that the de Blasio administration has been completely unwilling to work with communities that are calling for contextual rezonings. In Bushwick, the administration has agreed to step in as an active partner. In Inwood, the city has proposed upzoning multiple areas to promote greater development, but is also proposing to add height caps to those areas as well as to contextually rezone residential blocks to preserve their existing character, as requested by neighborhood groups.

Yet an early draft plan for Bushwick created by the city already conflicts with some of local stakeholders’ principles, according to the Bushwick Community Plan Steering Committee. In Inwood, the city and many residents disagree on how to strike the right balance between upzoning and contextual rezoning.

Perhaps one of the main sources of disagreement between contextual rezoning advocates and the mayor is that the de Blasio administration sees contextual zoning as a strategy to protect neighborhood character but not necessarily further affordability. Density advocates say contextual protections may even contribute to rising home values. Yet others view contextual zoning as a way to protect affordability—especially in an area like Inwood where a contextual rezoning would protect rent-stabilized buildings from demolition.

City Limits asked the Department of City Planning (DCP) to explain whether it had an overall approach to areas that were seeking both to curb towers and institute affordability requirements.

“Every neighborhood has its own unique conditions, local perspectives and diverse goals that different groups may seek to achieve. This is why we have a robust public review process any time changes to zoning are proposed,” a DCP spokesperson wrote in an e-mail.

A neighborhood by neighborhood debate

Evaluating the debate between the de Blasio administration and community groups requires a knowledge of the details of each community-led zoning proposal.

In light of the administration’s proposed tech hub near Union Square, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) and other supporters have been advocating for zoning changes that they say will protect the surrounding neighborhood from becoming “Silicon Alley.” The concern, according to advocates, is out-of-character commercial and high-rise condo development; a press release bemoans the recent loss of five walk-up tenements, including rent-regulated units, to make way for a 13-story hotel.

Their zoning proposal has two components: on 3rd and 4th Avenue, where there’s a voluntary inclusionary housing program already in place, the proposed rezoning would tweak a recent contexual zoning, lowering the amount of commercial FAR allowed. That change is meant to prevent big commercial developments, and also to encourage more developers to build residential buildings, including affordable housing through the voluntary inclusionary housing program, advocates argue. On Broadway and University Place, the rezoning would institute a height cap on buildings of eight to 12 stories, but also institute a new voluntary inclusionary zone, allowing extra residential FAR and allowing an extra story or two if developers provided affordable housing.

“It is inarguable that the zoning changes that we’re asking for would not only increase the supply of housing but increase the supply of affordable housing, so there’s no conflict whatsoever between our desires to preserve our neighborhood and the imperative to ensure that housing is created and affordable housing is created,” says Andrew Berman, director of GVSHP.

The administration says it’s not going to revisit the contextual rezoning of 3rd and 4th Avenue and that the Broadway and University Place area doesn’t need a rezoning because it already includes a mix of buildings, commercial and residential, from three to 20 stories in height. Recent development, the administration argues, has been consistent with neighborhood character.

There’s also an effort underway in Morningside Heights, where there are concerns about tall towers, particularly on sites owned by the area’s many religious institutions. Jewish Theological Seminary, for instance, sold air rights to a developer to build a tower of roughly 35 stories; across the street on Seminary Row there are six- to nine-story buildings. And just a block away, Union Theological Seminary also has plans to build an even taller tower of potentially 40 stories.* Community members are still fleshing out the details of their proposal, but are considering a rezoning that would contextually rezone residential side streets while upzoning, with height caps, some corridors like Broadway, allowing the mandatory inclusionary housing policy to kick into effect.

DCP told City Limits it is willing to engage on the proposal, so long as it sought to balance preservation with growth and respected the future needs of the area’s institutions. But community members and leaders say they disagree with the city over how many sites are poised for development.

Then there’s the Lower East Side/Chinatown, where, following the contextual rezoning of the East Village during the Bloomberg years, a coalition of neighborhood groups came together as the Chinatown Working Group to craft a rezoning proposal for the lower-income neighborhoods of the Lower East Side and Chinatown neighborhood. The de Blasio administration has repeatedly rejected that proposal as too comprehensive and anti-density.

In light of the recent consternation about the potential development of four towersalong the waterfront, the largest of which will be 79 stories, neighborhood groups are now trying to push forward a piece of the Chinatown Working Group proposal that covers the waterfront.

The original proposal included height caps on buildings of 350 feet or around 35 stories (in keeping with the fact that existing buildings are below 26 stories). It also included a no-“double dipping” requirement: Developers could not count the percentage of affordable housing required to receive the 421a tax credit as also meeting the mandatory inclusionary zoning requirement, so the total amount of required affordable housing would be 50 percent.

But the area, like Sutton Place, is already zoned for the maximum density residential FAR, which means coming up with a mechanism to require affordable housing in the area will once again be a challenging discussion.

Potential policy revisions

In many of these cases, groups’ desires to increase affordable housing run up against existing policies on the books.

The RPA and others have been advocating for a change in state law that would remove the limit on residential FAR. This would allow the city to pursue upzonings and implement mandatory inclusionary housing in areas where the zoning already allows the maximum residential FAR. And during that upzoning process, says RPA’s Gates, communities would have a chance to discuss design requirements like height caps to make new development fit into the existing neighborhood. Depending on the details, there might be opportunities to build big, squat buildings of a higher FAR that still feel contextual, he says.

Removal of the state cap is a policy endorsed by Housing New York, the administration’s affordable housing plan. Brewer, however, disagrees, saying Manhattan already has enough density and that any more would require far more investment in infrastructure.

Some experts are pressing the city to revise the voluntary inclusionary housing programs, as the city committed to doing after the Sutton Place rezoning in November. Double dipping is another area where advocates want the city to tighten the rules, though the city did make one adjustment last year. Others want improvements to the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy itself, including expanding the circumstances under which the policy is triggered. Some advocates would like to see it applied even when there is no upzoning like in San Francisco, though others say this will dampen housing production and lead to legal challenges.

Say you buy the argument that contextual rezonings are important, but you also recognize that the planning department has limited time and resources. Should the income level of the neighborhood in question matter?

It’s worth noting that Sutton Place’s zip code has a median household income of about $124,000; Greenwich Village $101,000; Morningside Heights $43,000 (but the zip code includes lower-income areas in Harlem) and Two Bridges $36,000. As previously reported by City Limits, some say the administration ought to be encouraging more neighborhood upzonings with mandatory inclusionary housing in high-income neighborhoods, promoting greater economic integration.

Furthermore, many people in low-income neighborhoods have expressed concerns that strategy of upzoning to institute Mandatory Inclusionary Housing may run the risk of exacerbating gentrification and displacement of existing residents by increasing property values and speculation in an area. That might seem to be a reason to deprioritize high-income neighborhoods in Manhattan for contextual rezonings because the city might need to ask some of those areas, and not just low-income neighborhoods, to accept more density as the city grows.

“Greenwich Village is a place that could use some more affordable housing, and is certainly a place where the city should be looking to encourage it,” says the RPA’s Gates. “How much more gentrified can Greenwich Village get?”

But advocates of contextual rezonings in those areas disagree. “Turning the East Village and the West Village into commercial office and hotel districts is not going to be ultimately beneficial to the city economically or any other way,” says Berman, adding, “What you’re seeing built in these neighborhoods is super luxury housing which even in these well-to-do neighborhoods skews the socioeconomic mix.”

Sutton Place residents also argue that they weren’t averse to growth altogether, and that units in skyscrapers, as opposed to more squat buildings, are more often by investors to park cash. And Councilmember Levine says that while he “absolutely supported MIH because I do believe in economically vibrant communities but that doesn’t mean you’re going to bulldoze 100-year-old historic row houses in a community like Greenwich Village.”

Levine also acknowledges that “historically we did not have a balance in the places where we are achieving historic preservation,” and says he hopes going forward the city can do more preservation work in such neighborhoods.

*Corrected description of development.


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