Lift Me Up Before You Grow Grow

New York State Assembly to vote on lifting city’s density caps

Development East News Urbanism
New York State Assembly to vote on lifting city's density caps. Certain swaths of Midtown Manhattan have FAR's of 15 thanks to air rights transfers. The Empire State Building, built before 1961, has an FAR of 25. (Matthew Kane/Unsplash)
New York State Assembly to vote on lifting city's density caps. Certain swaths of Midtown Manhattan have FAR's of 15 thanks to air rights transfers. The Empire State Building, built before 1961, has an FAR of 25. (Matthew Kane/Unsplash)

New York State’s legislature is set to vote on a budget resolution that would lift the floor area ratio (FAR) caps in New York City for residential development, a proposition that the de Blasio administration seems to be onboard with.

In a major budget bill for 2018-2019 working its way through the State Senate (S7506A), legislators have included a provision that would nullify the FAR cap installed in 1961. Floor area ratio is determined by dividing a building’s usable floor area by the overall lot’s square footage and is capped at 12 in the city’s highest density districts; therefore, indirectly influencing the height and bulk of new developments.

An example diagram demonstrating how FAR affects buildings’ bulk. (Courtesy New York City Department of City Planning)

The bill still has to pass a State Legislature vote on the clause (S6760) in two weeks before the Senate’s version can advance, though a similar proposal failed to pass in the 2015-2016 session, likely due to public backlash. The Municipal Art Society (MAS) has continually lobbied against such efforts, and this attempt is no different. MAS and the New York Landmarks Conservancy have decried the move, claiming that it would only lead to taller, bulkier glass towers that would displace existing residents.

Not everyone feels the same way. Lifting the FAR cap would benefit Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing agenda, according to the city, as it would provide more space in market-rate developments for affordable housing. Building taller has been a core pillar of the mayor’s sometimes contentious Mandatory Inclusionary Housing plan, and as City Council member Rory Lancman argued in a recent op-ed, building taller is the only way out of the city’s affordable housing crisis. The Regional Plan Association (RPA) also agrees with the move, and recently put out a report highlighting how lifting the FAR cap would bolster income and increase diversity throughout the city’s lower-slung neighborhoods. Any removal of density caps would have to align with New York City’s current city planning principals, which use FAR to guide development, so it’s uncertain how quickly the impact of such a change would be felt.

Of course, the RPA plan presumes that any changes would be accompanied by design guidelines and mechanisms to prevent real estate speculation. It remains to be seen whether the city or state government would enact such procedures if the budget manages to pass. New York residents interested in letting their voice be heard (on either side of the issue) can email or call their local Assembly Member before the vote, using the directory found here.

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