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Sherman Plaza Defeated
In a sharp blow to Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, city council votes “no” on Inwood rezoning
In a sharp rebuke of Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, the city council voted down a zoning change that would have allowed a 15-story development on a prime corner in the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood.
The council’s August 16 vote followed a decision earlier in the day from the Committee on Land Use, which voted against a proposed rezoning brought forth by Washington Square Partners, the developer of Sherman Plaza, a mixed-use structure designed by New York–based Kenneth Park Architects at 4650 Broadway.
Sherman Plaza was slated to be the first individual development zoned for Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH), a key provision of the mayor’s plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade. The development would have offered 20 percent of the units at 40 percent of the area median income (AMI) or 30 percent of units at 80 percent of the AMI, which in 2015 was $86,300 for a family of four. Residents believed that the development’s affordability was not deep enough for the neighborhood.
The community is now mostly zoned R7-2, a moderate density designation that encourages five- to eight-story structures with generous street setbacks. The proposed change would have established a higher density R8X and R9A district plus a C2-4 district within that R8X-R9A district at the corner of Broadway and Sherman Avenue.The City Planning Commission (CPC) approved a proposed rezoning of that site that would set a height limit of 175 feet.
Residents praise the architectural character of Inwood’s art deco apartment buildings. The neighborhood’s features, though, are conditioned by height factor zoning: The FAR is tied to the height of the building, so tower-in-the-park–style buildings have larger setbacks and a higher FAR, while shorter buildings earn a lower FAR and sit closer to the curb.
The project caught heat in the lead-up to the August meeting from residents and civic groups concerned about its impact on the neighborhood. Sherman Plaza was originally conceived as a 23-story, 375,000-square-foot development with 350 units and ground floor retail. In May, Community Board 12 quietly okayed the plans without alerting residents. The Municipal Art Society testified against the development at a City Planning Commission meeting that same month, citing its high affordability thresholds and out-of-context aesthetics. Neighbors were worried that, because of the sloping topography, Sherman Plaza would plunge adjacent Fort Tryon Park into shadow.
Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez represents the neighborhood, and didn’t take a public position on Sherman Plaza until a groundswell of community opposition forced him to come out forcefully against the development the day before the city council meeting. His office released a statement that acknowledged a lack of affordable housing in the district and outlined his position on new development: “[Developments] must be 50 percent affordable, have ample space for community cultural and nonprofit organizations and be supportive of our small businesses, and with key assurances in place that it will go forward as posed [sic].”
At the committee meeting, Rodriguez explained his position before voting down the proposed rezoning: “I was listening to the community for months. It’s important to preserve the landscape of the community.” He added that under Mayor Bloomberg, only 250 units of affordable housing were added to the neighborhood, and that many renters, his household included, receive preferential rents that could increase dramatically if Inwood’s housing market heats up.
Council members from the Committee on Land Use and the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises followed Rodriguez’s lead to vote 15-0 in opposition to the rezoning. Council members traditionally have first pass on developments in their district, and other members defer to the decision of the official from the affected district.
Community activists from an array of local groups in the room cheered the committee’s decision.
Donovan Richards Jr., chair of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, offered a thinly veiled rebuke of Rodriguez’s position. “It’s very easy to say no, it’s harder to build consensus on land-use issues,” he said.
“The committee has heard countless difficult and controversial applications,” Committee on Land Use chair David Greenfield added. “Our city’s challenge is not if, but how, we grow.Despite the enthusiasm from the chairs [assembled citizens], today is not a happy day.”
Mayor de Blasio, too, chided opponents of Sherman Plaza after the vote. At a Bronx press conference the next day, he lamented that the development could move forward with fewer units and no affordable housing. “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face,” De Blasio told MIH supporters in the council— including Rodriguez—who oppose MIH developments in their neighborhood.
The developers were predictably unhappy. Washington Square Partners issued the following statement post-vote:
“We are disappointed with the decision not to vote in favor of our application to rezone Sherman Plaza but want to thank Community Board 12, Borough President Brewer, the City Planning Commission and the Mayor for working with us over the last two years in support of the project. The project was an opportunity to develop 175 affordable apartments and we are disappointed the local council member did not agree with us.”
A spokesperson for the developer said her client was “surprised by how much attention” Sherman Plaza received, but noted that next steps for the project are under wraps. WNYC reported that Washington Square Partners may move forward with a plan that includes no affordable housing.
Inwood resident and architect Suzanna Malitz applauded the committee’s decision. While Malitz and fellow members of Uptown for Bernie in attendance opposed Sherman Plaza, she supports contextual development east of 10th Avenue along an industrial strip that fronts the Harlem River. There’s “plenty of space” there for denser developments that include affordable housing, she explained.
Rezoning this area is a top priority of the Inwood NYC Neighborhood Plan, a coalition of city agencies, nonprofits, and community groups working through the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) to envision the neighborhood’s future growth, with an eye towards developing the largely industrial areas east of 10th Avenue. Although the plan’s study area extends north from Dyckman Street and doesn’t include Sherman Plaza, if realized, its key provisions will most likely affect surrounding areas, the Bronx included.
New York–based Studio V collaborated with NYCEDC to make the vision more tangible. “Inwood is extraordinary. It has unique conditions—the grid shifts between the east and west sides, it’s bounded by two rivers, and has old growth forests in Inwood Hill Park. There’s a huge opportunity to develop the waterfront along the Harlem River and Sherman Creek, so the area goes from being an edge to being a center,” said Jay Valgora, Studio V’s founding principal. The firm’s renderings show an array of towers that could be developed on both banks of the Harlem River if the east side is upzoned. The east side can support greater density without cutting into the neighborhood’s beloved deco fabric, Valgora explained.
Cheramie Mondesire attended NYCEDC-led meeting but was dissatisfied with the proceedings. At the second meeting she attended “it was all scripted. They couldn’t answer questions that were not on the script.” The Metropolitan Council on Housing was there to organize residents, and Mondersire, who has lived in the neighborhood for 42 years, attended their meetings to learn how MIH could be applied in Inwood. She agreed that the area east of 10th Avenue would be better suited for dense development than the middle of the neighborhood’s fabric.
Pat Courtney of Inwood Preservation added that the transportation infrastructure is not equipped to serve an influx of new residents, especially with a lack of local bus routes. “Thecommunity is beautiful, well-coordinated, and well-planned. New development should be scaled to existing buildings.”
State assemblymember Guillermo Linares opposed Sherman Plaza, noting that developments like these accelerate the process of gentrification. “You see what happened in lower Manhattan and Williamsburg. In my district, there’s a high concentration of low and middle-income families who cannot afford the housing that’s being built.” Linares cited Sherman Creek as a potential area for “100 percent affordable housing” that includes ground floor retail to enliven the streetscape.
SHoP makes the Brooklyn skyline with a “brooding, elegant, and badass” supertall… There goes the neighborhood?
If you zone it, they will build, and they will build tall. New York–based SHoP, in partnership with JDS Development Group, revealed plans earlier this year to build 9 Dekalb Avenue, a 73-story, 1,066-foot-tall residential tower fused to the landmarked Dime Savings Bank in Downtown Brooklyn. Last month, the design cleared a crucial hurdle when the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) approved the tower’s design and consequent modifications to the bank.
“There’s a sort of brooding Gotham to it,” noted Gregg Pasquarelli, founding principal of SHoP. “There’s a little bit of badass to it, but it’s quite elegant at the same time. Isn’t that what we all want to be as New Yorkers?” The 417-unit building is clad in bronze, stainless steel, and stone, with view-maximizing interlocking hexagonal exposures. Pasquarelli explained that the facade detailing is such so that when two sides of the hexagon are viewed from an oblique angle, it will resemble one face, a sleeker reference to the grand old New York skyscrapers like Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building.
Michael Stern, founder of JDS Development Group, proclaimed: “The tower will be Brooklyn’s next icon. Brooklyn was really missing that one iconic statement that was worthy of the borough. This building will really put Brooklyn on the map.” Drawing from the landmark on-site, the spacing of the tower’s vertical facade elements mirrors the spacing of the bank’s neoclassical columns. The color and materials palette picks up on the bank’s colorful stone interiors, which will be converted to retail, while parts of the bank’s roof will be used for the building’s private outdoor spaces.
“The downtown rezoning of Brooklyn in 2004 has been very successful. This is a place where the city could handle density. It’s an incredible kudos to the city they upzoned that area, that they thought about tall towers,” said Pasquarelli. At the prow of Flatbush and Dekalb, the building will be visible from all over Brooklyn, and its distinctive facade will reinforce its prominent position on the skyline.
He and Stern enjoy experimenting with exteriors. Referencing the terra-cotta facade on 111 West 57th Street and the cladding on the East River–facing American Copper Buildings, Pasquarelli intimated that developers and architects are obligated to build for the public realm. “Some people get to live in these buildings, but we all have to live with the exterior.”
While preservationists sometimes bristle at the modification of an individual landmark, Gina Pollara, executive director of the preservation advocacy organization Municipal Arts Society (MAS), thinks there’s a larger issue that’s expressed in the development of tall towers like 9 Dekalb. “For us, it’s not really about the towers itself. Most of these supertalls are going up as-of-right. Because they’re not asking for any variance or any change, there’s no opportunity for public comment.” This tower was unusual, she elaborated, because it involved a landmarked structure. “These buildings are so out of context or out of scale with the neighborhood, and there’s no space for public comment until developers release their renderings. There’s no discussion of the cumulative effects these towers are having on public space.”
In an interview with AN, Stern said that he could not react to critiques like MAS’s (which he had not heard about), “but I can tell you that the commissioners had comments ranging from, ‘the best of urbanism’ and ‘flawless,’ and the LPC approved the project unanimously, as did the community board. It’s something we’re quite proud of.”
Pollara would like to see a better conversation around the 100-year-old zoning code, and reform beyond Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability, the recently codified zoning text amendments. “It’s time to make zoning much more transparent—not just to the layperson, but to elected official,” Pollara said. “We need to get in front of the issue rather than being at the mercy of what is being built around us. Preservation in the 21st century is not necessarily rallying around a specific building, but looking at open space, light, air—all of the elements we want to preserve. We don’t want to live in a city that’s created by default.”
Recently architecture has taken a social turn, with grassroots, designer-as-activist work becoming the field’s most talked about sector. The theme for the 2016 Venice Biennale, opening in late May, is “Reporting from the Front,” and it will feature socially conscious work from practitioners around the world. Curator Alejandro Aravena likens the struggle to improving daily life on a battlefield. The show picks up, in some ways, what the Chicago Architecture Biennial started: socially engaged, often local interventions.
While this seems like it is all for the best, it comes with baggage, including—ironically—the hagiographies and moral dogma similar to its antithesis, modernism.
Additionally, these endemic remediations are often criticized for being only slightly effective, or a “band-aid on a sucking chest wound,” as critic Rory Hyde once quipped. This type of work certainly brings about a parallel discussion about the agency of design. Is architecture really effective as activism? Or is it just relevant and interesting art?
Architecture alone cannot address the structural problems that the world faces. Improving our built environment for a more just society is a two-front war. On the one hand is the liberal pragmatism of activist architecture, and on the other is the more extreme possibility of policy change.
For example, a debate surfaced online around a competition called “Building The Border Wall.” Twitter outrage followed, as many people felt that there should be “NO WALL.” This hardline ideological approach—architects should not engage with walls because this makes them complicit with state violence—builds on legitimate, preexisting anti-wall sentiments from Berlin to Gaza.
But in this instance, does the “NO WALL” protest accomplish anything? As Ronald Rael, associate professor at University of California, Berkeley and author of the forthcoming book, Borderwall as Architecture, notes in an online feature at archpaper.com, there are already 700 miles of wall on the border, creating a terrible scenario that divides cities, ecological zones, and even a college. The barrier creates a zone of exclusion, division, and violence, but it also has political support from both sides. Some in the United States want to keep out people and drugs, while some in Mexico want to keep out American guns.
Does simply saying “NO WALL” and refusing to engage with the pressing issues at hand paradoxically make us even less resistant to the realities of the situation? Perhaps the real solution is to engage architecturally with the physical reality and attempt to change the structural policy problems through the places where we can make more change: lobbying congress, drafting policy alternatives, or joining one of many grassroots immigration organizations. The architecture of the wall (or lack thereof) is only as good as the policy supporting it. This two-front approach could work by mitigating a terrible situation through design, while fighting for real structural change in the long term. These two fronts do not necessarily contradict one another.
Homelessness offers a similar conundrum. Do we simply refuse to design for the current crisis of homelessness because that implies that we are supporting the policies causing it? Can one believe in the right to full, dignified housing for all and still attempt to make clever (if often insulting) solutions that would allow the homeless to sleep under a roof, no matter how small or temporary? Is it possible to approach this issue with a two-front strategy of short-term design solutions, and a real, long-term advocacy for true affordable housing that allows every person access to a climate-controlled space with natural light and running water?
Mayor de Blasio’s recently approved zoning proposals should offer some relief for New Yorkers who feel increasingly excluded from the city. “Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning” and “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” are two zoning text amendments that aim to create or preserve some 200,000 units of affordable housing across the five boroughs. This law may not be perfect—it won’t radically transform the city into an egalitarian utopia overnight—but it can certainly get the ball rolling, as long as we continue to fight for more affordability and public space.
At its core, architecture is complicit with all sorts of bad things: gentrification, reification of power, gaudy inequality, and even violence. Perhaps the way that architecture has the most impact is alleviating the worst political realities (on the first front), while also making the invisible visible to open up critique and (on the second front) help enact real policy change.
During the March 22 New York City Council vote on changes to the city’s zoning code, a group of protesters on the balcony of the city council chambers locked eyes, joined hands, and started chanting “Hey hey! Ho ho! MIH has got to go!” As the council speaker called for order in the chamber, more in the balcony raised their fists and voices in protest, prompting a recess as councilmembers vacated their seats to watch the demonstration unfold.
On the floor, staffers whispered to colleagues that this meeting was the most exciting in a while, both for the action on the balcony and the passage of Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA), two landmark zoning resolutions that stand to radically reshape streetscapes and the availability of affordable housing in New York.
In the weeks leading up to the city council vote there were fears (and hope, from anti-rezoning activists) that the measures would not pass. Although the City Planning Commission—the majority of whom are mayoral appointees—approved both plans, 50 out of 59 community boards rejected MIH and ZQA. The council took note of the opposition and revised the proposals to limit height increases. One of the rezoning’s most vocal opponents, a coalition of community groups and housing activists called Real Affordability for All (RAFA), endorsed the plan after these changes were made. The revised MIH and ZQA sailed through the council by a 42-5-0 and 40-6-1 margin, respectively.
In essence, the new ZQA allows for more and taller buildings, while protecting the feel of individual neighborhoods. The nearly 500-page amendment makes it easier to build on corner lots, rear yards, and create front setbacks. ZQA imposes height transition requirements onto residential areas with dramatically different maximum height allowances to broker a less jarring segue between zones. For example, if an R4 zone, with a maximum allowable height of 35 feet, abuts an R7D district with a maximum height of 105 feet, then the new regulations mandate that buildings in the transition zones range in height from 45 to 65 feet.
ZQA and MIH work in tandem to require developers to build affordable housing in certain areas of the city that are zoned for MIH. ZQA allows for higher floor area ratio (FAR) for mixed-income developments in contextual zones, and frees these developments from envelope constraints that the city says prevents the building of “high quality” housing. In practice, this will translate to 10 to 20 feet of added height and more variegated setbacks in qualifying buildings.
ZQA is meant to encourage taller ceilings for ground-floor retail. If a developer builds ground-floor retail with 13-foot ceilings, the building is eligible for a five-foot height increase, in most areas.
Higher ceilings, ZQA and MIH proponents claim, allow for more light and air in indoor spaces and a more inviting streetscape. Many preservation groups, however, are not pleased with the height increases allowed under both amendments or the political climate under which the zoning changes were brokered. Simeon Bankoff, executive director of preservation group the Historic Districts Council, sees ZQA “as top-down zoning that was politically motivated. All of those contextual zones [more than 120 in all] were painstakingly, individually zoned over the last 25 years. To change the rules of the game on 10 percent of the city is not fair.” Bankoff would have liked to see the city continue with neighborhood-based, contextual zoning, as opposed to the upzonings that MIH and ZQA presume.
Additional changes folded into ZQA include a reinstatement of the Sliver Rule, a law that prevents taller, narrower buildings from being built next to shorter structures. Onerous parking requirements for developments near subway lines were scaled back, and incentives, like higher FAR in all residential zones, are in place to develop market-rate and affordable senior housing. The size of a senior housing micro-unit was increased from 275 square feet to 325 square feet.
MIH is one of the most comprehensive affordable housing mandates of any U.S. city. Notably, affordable units in qualifying developments will be permanently affordable. Initially, groups like RAFA were concerned that the plan was not extensive enough on this front. The city council worked to address these issues with a new provision: Under MIH, developers will have the option to set aside 20 percent of residential floor area for households making 40 percent of the AMI (Area Median Income), or $31,080 for a household of three. (Affordability thresholds are derived from averages of many levels of household income: to have an AMI of 40 percent, a developer could, for example, open affordable apartments to households making between 40 and 80 percent of the AMI.) Additional options include building 25 percent of units available to households making an average of 60 percent of the AMI, and a 30/80 option. Previously, AMI was capped at 120 percent; under the revised text amendment, AMI is capped at 115 percent ($89,355 per year for a family of three).
With urging from RAFA, the city has agreed to conduct a study to see how it can broaden “deep” affordability for lower-income New Yorkers. In the meantime, there will be no more “poor door”: All tenants, regardless of income, will have access to the same building amenities as market-rate tenants.
For those interested in taking a deeper dive into the zoning text amendments, PDFs of MIH and ZQA are available here.
Protesters from every borough gathered for a monthly action in front of Gracie Mansion. One seething speech after another—in Chinese, Spanish, and English—rallied against Mayor Bill de Blasio, declaiming his affordable housing plan as a sell-out to developers. He’s worse than Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, they say, for having promised more.
The 21 groups that make up the Citywide Alliance Against Displacement are united in opposition to the de Blasio administration’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability (MIH-ZQA) initiative, which seeks to impose affordability requirements on certain categories of new residential development. They have one thing in common: They abhor new residential construction of any kind. Squeezed by rising rents, they say the small number of new affordable units produced by the existing model of luxury-tower-subsidized affordable housing come at the expense of rent pressure on everything else around it.
Among the most vocal, well-organized, and populous opponents, the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and Lower East Side has a special grievance. In 2008, much of the predominantly white East Village won relief from as-of-right development through a “contextual rezoning” that significantly limited bulk along most side streets, but excluded ethnic enclaves in nearby Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Little Italy is protected by a special zoning district. Tribeca has a special mixed-use district. Soho has a historic district and national landmark status. But Chinatown survives in the absence of any special protections. Since 2002, it lost nearly one-quarter of its rent-regulated apartments, threatening to alter the character of one of the city’s most distinctive cultural districts.
“One of the first things we did when we did the analysis was to show that virtually it was one of the few areas that did not have some controls,” said Eva Hanhardt, a planner at Pratt Institute who worked on zoning recommendations for the Plan for Chinatown and Surrounding Areas, commissioned in 2011 by a coalition of neighborhood organizations. “It had a very high density ‘C-6’ [commercial] zone, which didn’t reflect what is quite a dense residential neighborhood.”
The 53 member organizations of the Chinatown Working Group spent six years negotiating a comprehensive plan emphasizing preservation of affordability and neighborhood character. But in meetings with de Blasio’s City Planning Commission, officials rejected its zoning recommendations as “too far-fetched and too ambitious,” according to Jei Fong, an organizer at the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association.
Completed in December 2013 by the Pratt Center for Community Development, the plan recommends the creation of a special-purpose district for the historic core of Chinatown and its expanded area north of Canal Street. The district would use downzoning to C-4 with 85 height limits as one of the tools to preserve what makes Chinatown unique, to mitigate residential displacement, and to protect neighborhood small businesses from being priced out.
“We were given those three mandates that were essentially, how do we preserve what we feel is valuable—the people, the businesses, and the culture—and where can we provide growth, while we preserve that which is important to maintaining Chinatown as a unique place,” said Hanhardt.
In November, after the City Planning Commission’s rejection, 700 residents attended a town hall meeting to advocate for the plan’s adoption. Local elected officials offered little encouragement, according to activists, treating the commission’s rejection as a fait accompli. “As a representative of the area who has spent decades advocating for Chinatown’s best interests, Council Member Chin is taking an active role in engaging different community stakeholders with the goal of achieving a feasible and focused proposal,” said the Councilwoman Margaret Chin’s spokesman. “We remain hopeful that through this inclusive community-driven process a consensus can be reached that takes all of the varied interests in Chinatown into account.”
On the surface, the image of Chinatown appears unchanged, crowded with tourists, restaurants, bakeries, fish sellers, novelties, and herbal apothecaries. Yet residents see the dangers looming everywhere, symbolized most poignantly by a particularly ludicrous luxury tower being developed by Extell on the East River just north of the Manhattan Bridge.
“The essence of it for us is, how much is there left to compromise?” said David Tieu, a member of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops. “If you take a walk around, Chinatown is on the verge of being gone if this community rezoning plan is not passed and if urgent action is not taken to stem the development of luxury housing and to stem the real estate speculation in the neighborhood.”
Designed by Adamson Associates Architects, 252 South Street makes use of as-of-right bulk regulations to achieve an 800-foot height without requiring discretionary action. It’s marketed as a “vertical village” with “epic views” starting from $1 million to $3 million, offered exclusively to overseas buyers in China, Malaysia, and Singapore.
“It’s possible because this area was not protected,” Fong said. “It’s an as-of-right building, but it’s really the zoning protections that prevent these things from happening.”
Surrounded on every side by public housing and low-income tenants, and built on an urban renewal site purchased for $103 million formerly occupied by a Pathmark grocery store, it will be joined by a separate 13-story “poor door” building designed by Dattner Architects, providing the required 205 affordable units. (Pegged at 60 percent of the area median income, a two-bedroom would start at $1,081.)
At Gracie Mansion, activists demanded a new model. They dubbed 252 South Street the “Extell Tower from Hell” and donated its photo to Mayor de Blasio on a placard. “We have a gift for you,” they shouted. “You are evil to give us this building. We reject it, and we are giving it back.”
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.
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.
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.
In the coming years, wide swaths of New York will land on the city’s drawing board for comprehensive rezoning. In September 2015, the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP) released the East New York Community Plan. The plan, now in its public comment period, calls for increased density and affordable housing via mandatory inclusionary zoning in a largely low-income Brooklyn neighborhood. A city initiative, the planning process was organized by the DCP with input from local groups.
In East Harlem, however, residents, community groups, and facilitators flipped the script. Stakeholders are collecting residents’ feedback on their neighborhood for the DCP’s input. The group’s project, the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, began in May 2015 and targets the area governed by Community Board 11 (CB 11). The project’s meticulous approach to community-based planning has the potential to impact neighborhood planning citywide.
The project partners are city council speaker (and area representative) Melissa Mark-Viverito, CB 11, the Manhattan borough president’s office, and social justice advocacy group Community Voices Heard. New York’s WXY Studio and Hester Street Collaborative are facilitating the development of a draft of the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan. Other participating organizations include a charter school, labor unions, a tenants’ association, the New York Restoration Project (NYRP), and El Museo del Barrio. These groups lead steering committees that help draft and approve recommendations.
To all parties, planning goes beyond zoning to encompass the individual and social context. Adam Lubinsky, WXY’s managing principal, emphasizes that the planning is entirely community driven, and is not about showcasing the vision of a particular designer or firm. So far, hundreds of residents have participated in the process. Ultimately, Lubinsky hopes that East Harlemites “put together key principles and ideas so city planning will look at that and understand that” for the official zoning ultimately adopted by the DCP.
The process starts with a series of community visioning workshops for residents to voice what they love and what they would change in East Harlem. Workshops include a discussion of policies that affect the neighborhood. A session on zoning and land use, for example, uses participatory visioning strategies that “get people thinking about the nature of the area,” said Lubinsky.
Ideas from the workshops are taken up by 11 subgroups, each facilitated by a different stakeholder. Topics include open space and environment, culture, education, childcare, housing preservation, affordable housing, NYCHA, economic and workforce development, senior citizens, health and safety, and transportation. A proposal from a committee headed by the NYRP, for example, suggests that “developers [should] provide green infrastructure within and/or adjacent to new developments” to fortify East Harlem against “threats from climate change.”
The subgroups create proposals that are refined in a public comment period. The final plan will be presented in early 2016 to the DCP to inform the final neighborhood rezoning.
Will WXY and Hester Street be involved in the design? Hopefully, Lubinsky states, the “capacity-building process is self-perpetuating. I don’t know if they’ll need us.”
Right now, zoning and land use are being hotly debated in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood. On September 21, the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP) announced two changes to the city’s zoning regulations that will have major long term impact on land use and affordable housing. That same day, the DCP released the highly anticipated East New York Community Plan (ENYCP), a comprehensive rezoning of residential areas in East New York, Ocean Hill, and Cypress Hills, as well as the commercial corridors that run through the neighborhood. Chosen for its proximity to rail, subway, and bus lines, East New York is one of the first places where these new zoning changes will be put into action.
The first change, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, would affect large-scale residential development in medium- to high-density areas. New zoning would require 25 or 30 percent of floor space in buildings with ten or more units developed in these areas to remain permanently affordable, as defined by the Area Median Income (AMI). In New York City, the AMI is $86,300 for a family of four. The second change, Zoning for Quality and Affordability, is intended to encourage high-quality construction and promote affordable housing in these same neighborhoods.
Residents of East New York are concerned that despite the stricter affordable housing requirements, the ENYCP will precipitate gentrification and residential displacement in the mostly low- to moderate-income area.
Though the ENYCP does not offer an exact breakdown of housing distribution by income, Housing New York, the city’s housing policy framework released in 2014, gives insight into potential numbers. That document outlines the city’s intention to preserve or create 20 percent of 200,000 units of affordable housing for very low to extremely low-income households (households earning 50 to 30 percent of AMI, respectively).
Policy analysts at Real Affordability for All (RAFA), a division of ALIGN, and an umbrella group of 50 organizations that advocate for low-income New Yorkers, claim that the new provisions will not provide enough affordable options for East New York residents or the city at large. Using Census data, RAFA contends that, citywide, there’s a lack of affordable housing for households making less than 50 percent of the AMI ($43,150 for a household of four in 2015). Excluding households that receive housing vouchers, there’s a shortage of 403,932 units for the 710,649 households in this income range.
The city’s percentages of affordable housing under Mandatory Inclusionary Housing are derived from averages. To attract a range of incomes, for example, apartments could be available at the 30, 80, 40, and 90 percent affordability thresholds for an average of 60 percent affordability. In East New York, there is more overall demand for apartments in the 40 percent or lower range. Incentives like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, however, incentivize the creation of units in the 60 percent range.
Maritza Silva-Farrell, campaign director at ALIGN, stated that the plan is not addressing the needs of low-income individuals, and will lead to “more displacement [of residents] and gentrification of East New York.”
Finding affordable housing in New York is a struggle for many. Housing New York cites an “affordability crisis”: almost 55 percent of households spend more than one third of their income on rent.
Rachaele Raynoff, press secretary for the DCP, emphasized that the East New York Community Plan goes beyond the proposed requirements, requiring 50 percent of new units in the rezoning area to be affordable to area residents. Raynoff stressed that “to get affordable housing as a zoning regulation, the rates [we] have proposed are the best ones.” Moreover, the ENYCP, according to Raynoff, is part of a “jigsaw” of legislation and policy between the NYC Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development, and state and federal entities to promote sustainable growth in select neighborhoods.
If the ENYCP is adopted, 1,200 units will be built by both nonprofit and for-profit developers over the next two years, though there are no developers selected as of yet. First, the plan must undergo a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (which includes a public comment period) and gain approval from all 59 Community Boards, five borough presidents, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council.