Letter from Council Member Mark Levine to City Planning: “Rezone Morningside Heights” — Signed by All Local Elected Officials

Dear Chair Lago: 

We are writing to request that the Department of City Planning (DCP) partner with our offices and local community stakeholders to launch a neighborhood study with the goal of contextually rezoning the Morningside Heights neighborhood. The proposed study area is bounded by Riverside Drive, Morningside Drive, 110th Street and 125th Streets, and is marked by a consistent built form across the neighborhood with contextual, medium density buildings and maximum building heights that range from 12-18 stories along the avenues and 6-8 stories in midblock areas. The 2017 designation of the Morningside Heights Historic District is testament to the cohesive and distinctive neighborhood character that defines this unique community. 

The study area is currently zoned R8 and R7-2, both of which date back to the 1961 Zoning Resolution. These districts allow the as-of-right construction of narrow “height factor” buildings and “tower in the park” style development that disrupts the consistency of the urban form and are not in keeping with the street wall, scale, or context of the neighborhood. We have already seen examples of this type of development adjacent to St. John the Divine (1 Morningside Drive), Jewish Theological Seminary (543 West 122nd Street), and Union Theological Seminary (100 Claremont Avenue). As housing prices continue to grow, we are increasingly concerned about a strong potential for out-of-context development in this neighborhood. Since R8 and R7-2 zoning district do not have height limits, this area is also susceptible to the widespread practice of using zoning lot mergers and transfer of development rights to create even taller towers (ex. 245 West 99th Street). 

A contextual rezoning of Morningside Heights would also be consistent with general land use policy in the area. The Frederick Douglass Boulevard Rezoning of 2003 contextually rezoned the area immediately to the east, the West Harlem Rezoning of 2012 and 125th Street rezoning in 2008 contextually rezoned the area immediately to the north, and the Upper West Side Rezoning of 2007 contextually rezoned the area immediately to the south. In each case, residents requested that the study area be expanded to include Morningside Heights. A contextual rezoning of Morningside Heights would be the final section that would complete the work of fixing the outdated 1961 zoning along Manhattan’s west side from 97th to 155th Street.

The call for contextual rezoning has received strong, consistent community support. Community Board 9 passed a 2013 resolution calling for this study, which was reaffirmed in 2015. Additionally, the Morningside Heights Community Coalition strongly supports this study and has already engaged a large portion of residents who live in the affected community in dialogue about the process. 

A contextual rezoning would not represent a reduction in density or future housing production. We understand the critical need for the creation and preservation of affordable housing in this neighborhood and across the city. We believe an updated zoning framework can both preserve the character of our community, create additional opportunities for significant affordable housing production, and utilize Mandatory Inclusionary Housing to ensure the inclusion of affordable housing in future development. 

Thank you for your time and attention to this matter as we look forward to working together towards the goal of launching a neighborhood study. Our offices are ready to meet and continue to lay the foundation for a successful rezoning. 

Sincerely, Mark Levine 

Council Member, 7th District 

Gale Brewer 

Manhattan Borough President 

Jerrold Nadler 

Congressman, 10th District 

Brian Benjamin 

New York State Senator, 30th District 

Danny O’Donnell 

Assemblyman, 7th District 

Adriano Espaillat 

Congressman, 13th District 

Robert Jackson, 

New York State Senator-Elect, 

31st District 

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