Zoning Out?

NYC Planning contends that ZQA will fight bland streetwalls and create more lively streetscapes, as seen here in the East Village.
Simon Collison / Flickr

In November and December, all five of New York City’s Borough Boards, and 50 of 59 Community Boards, voted against one or both of two proposed text amendments, for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH). Though the boards’ decisions are advisory and nonbinding, they reflect widespread public dissatisfaction with the changes that would allow denser new development in exchange for more affordable housing.

At a December public hearing, the City Planning Commission (CPC) got an earful from the public on both measures. Union members, affordable housing activists, the AARP, preservationists, and politicians spoke out for and against the proposed changes. Everyone wants to live in a neighborhood with quality public space and vibrant street life. Everyone wants to live in an area that they can comfortably afford, where new construction is sensitive to the existing neighborhood fabric.

It’s the plans’ specifics that engender disagreement. Critics contend the plans serve developers’ interests and won’t do enough to prevent the displacement of low-income residents.

MIH aims to create permanently affordable housing in exchange for changes that substantially increase density. The changes under review are part of Housing New York, Mayor de Blasio’s 2014 plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over ten years. MIH would compel developers to set aside 25 percent of units in market-rate developments at 60 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), or 30 percent at 80 percent of the AMI. The AMI is $86,300 for a family of four in New York City.

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), a leading neighborhood preservation group, opposes ZQA. GVSHP maintains that ZQA will allow for out-of-scale buildings without creating more affordable housing. If ZQA is passed, buildings could be 25 feet taller, but include the same amount of affordable housing.
Courtesy NYC Planning
 

ZQA will modify rules on setbacks, height restrictions, floor area ratios, parking requirements, commercial and residential construction, and housing for seniors, in exchange for increased density. ZQA would also fight bland streetwalls, encouraging developers to create articulated facades, courtyards, and “other elements that provide visual variety.” These changes, city officials contend, will enable developers to build structures that will blend better into the existing fabric while accommodating a growing population. For example, ZQA could add five feet to the height limit for new buildings with ground floor retail. This would allow retail spaces with up to 12-foot ceilings, a height, according to officials, that increases a space’s palatability.

Under the proposed amendments, areas highlighted in purple could be upzoned by as much as 31 percent.
 

Vicki Been, commissioner of the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, noted that ZQA “creates no new development rights for market rate housing.” Furthermore, ZQA allows for more affordable housing by “reforming envelope constraints that have not kept up with modern design or building technology.”

Citing citywide residential vacancy rates of less than 3.5 percent, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen emphasized that “we are now in a crisis. We are in a literal housing emergency.” She noted that market rate units will “cross-subsidize” the affordable units, which will in turn free up more public funds for extremely low income housing and housing for seniors.

Critics inveigh against what they see as a “one size fits all” approach. “There has been no serious discussion of the social and physical infrastructure necessary to manage the development for which these plans allow,” said Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz, Jr. He questioned the increased density’s impact on schools, transportation, parks, and job creation.

Díaz endorsed a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach, noting that, since 2009, there have been 14 res in the Bronx alone, part of the 124 res—affecting 40 percent of the city’s land area—that took place under Bloomberg. To achieve a truly mixed-income neighborhood, he argued, a range of very low through moderate income households should coexist in market-rate housing, rather than averages. “Yet, as currently written” Díaz said, “these new proposals would reshape the of the city with one broad stroke.”

Ultimately, many speakers asked for more time than the 60 days the CPC gave community and borough boards to review almost 500 pages of text amendments. Díaz stressed the time factor: “Something so profound as the future development of our city should not be rushed.”

Armed with comments from the hearing, the CPC will vote on MIH and ZQA early 2016.

Subsequently, the city council will review and vote on the measures, also in early 2016. The council’s decision is binding.

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