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De Blasio’s Bait-and-Switch Zoning

NYC Skyline 1932

Mayor Bill de Blasio has chosen a mighty strange way of celebrating the 100th anniversary of zoning in New York City. His zoning plan, approved in March, calls for more affordable housing for low-income families, but more housing affordable to the wealthy will be its main achievement.

A century ago last year New York City passed what is widely believed to be the first zoning ordinance in the country. At a time when skyscrapers were coming into vogue, the 1916 regulation set no height limit but sought to prevent structures such as the new 40-story Equitable Life Insurance Building from blotting out the sky. A formula used the width of streets to calculate required setbacks permitting sunlight to filter down to the ground. The setbacks ended up popularizing the wedding-cake style of Manhattan architecture for decades, but was originally intended entirely to make life more bearable for people on sidewalks.

De Blasio’s zoning changes make the 1916 law and its formulas look as if they could fit on a postcard. The changes bring mandatory inclusionary housing to a new level. First, they are mandatory. The reward for developers in city subsidies and zoning exemptions is negotiated in light of the number of affordable units. And deals are configured differently for different parts of town. Finally, local members of council get to tweak agreements for development projects in their districts.

Community Board 14 member M. Barden Prisant, of Brooklyn, wrote a piece for Common/Edge, “Why de Blasio’s Huge Rezoning Is Unlikely to Create Enough Affordable Housing.” He applauds the zoning goals but deplores their complexity, which he said could undermine their effectiveness. “I wanted them to work, but the devil is in the details—and what a monumental mountain of details there were. The zoning regulations alone required almost 500 revisions.”

Prisant said land-use attorneys were already “ferreting out all the inevitable loopholes.” He thinks de Blasio will get a tiny fraction of the 80,000 affordable units he claims to seek, maybe 10,000 in the end. Others fear that in spite of last-minute negotiations to lower the income levels eligible for these units, the cost of housing in many neighborhoods is so high that ceilings based on percentages of local median rent will count the relatively well off as poor enough to qualify. The New York Times ran an article, “The End of Black Harlem,” saying it will hasten the gentrification already under way in the famous neighborhood. Its author, local historian and tour guide Michael Henry Adams, writes that it

effectively swept aside contextual zoning limits, which curb development that might change the very essence of a neighborhood, in Harlem and Inwood, farther north. At best, the plan seems to be to develop at all speed and costs, optimistic that the tax revenues and good graces of the real estate barons allow for a few affordable apartments to be stuffed in later.

Prisant notes that 51 of 59 Community Boards ended up urging the City Council to reject the zoning proposal, but 42 of 47 city councilors voted to approve it. He and his allies should continue their opposition. Issues will continue to arise with regard to the zoning’s implementation, and its rollout will offer further rationale for New York’s neighborhoods to maintain their stand against it.

The Times also recently published an article asserting that “40 Percent of the Buildings in Manhattan Could Not Be Built Today.” Even though many are key to the city’s character, zoning would now block their construction. Maybe they could not be built today, but many of them could be demolished tomorrow.

New Yorkers may roll their eyes at the time and money needed to keep an eye on zoning, but zoning is where the rubber of American democracy meets the road.

The basic fact is that citizens have a right to protect the value of the neighborhoods in which they have invested not just their money but their lives. Residents of, say, Sutton Place have good reasons to fight the megatowers that threaten their way of life. Preservationists are not standing in the way of progress – they are standing in the way of what developers define as progress: more units, less charm. Multiplied throughout Manhattan, the trend could bring an end to what New Yorkers and all who visit from around the globe love about Gotham.

Yes, but people who might make off like fat rats selling out to developers who would demolish their charming old buildings have every right to do so, and every right to support zoning changes that threaten their neighbors’ way of life. There is no zoning god charged with deciding whose motives are good and whose are not. Zoning is what each turn in its evolution makes it. So do crank up that drawbridge. Just don’t expect those who see your neighborhood as expendable to do it for you.

Change is the only constant in New York, but its pace and direction are up to you.