Friday, March 27, 2015

Community Testimony on the Proposed Zoning for Quality and Affordability Text Amendment

Preservation Groups, Community Leaders and Elected Officials meet for a
Press Conference in front of City Hall, March 25, 2015 (Photo: Sean Khorsandi)

Beverly Moss Spatt
Ph.D., Urban Planning
Former Chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (1974-1978)
Former Member of the City Planning Commission (1966-1970)
Member of the American Institute of Certified Planners
Former Professor of Urban Planning, Barnard College

Testimony Before the New York City Planning Commission, Opposing the Proposal for “Zoning for Quality and Affordability”

March 25, 2015

My name is Beverly Moss Spatt. I appear in opposition to the proposal.

The proposal's thrust of higher density and reliance on Zoning without overall objectives, strategies and programs reflect a callous misuse of zoning powers.

There is nothing wrong with zoning, but rather in its administration.

It is not necessary to sacrifice planning controls to achieve affordable housing and senior housing as well as good design.

The proposal continues the chipping away, ad hoc, of the Zoning Resolution as well as Contextual Zoning, which were adopted and amended after tremendous study, early continuous informed citizen participation, and public hearings working with the Planning Commission to sort out alternatives and develop achievable solutions.

The present absence of sufficient data, citizen participation and comprehensive inventory of alternatives for affordable housing is inadequate to achieve the goals.

If the City Planning Commission (CPC) really desires to provide for affordable and senior housing it must create a rational housing program and a substantive development plan, not use rezoning for increased density and ambiguous design.

A realistic plan needs to identify in advance how, when, where and what.

CPC's Plan fails to identify specific programs, desirable sites, land allocation, services, facilities and resources available to achieve the goals.

The absence of comprehensiveness and early informed citizen participation can only result in polarization.

CPC must make a distinction between the purpose of the plan and the manner in which it shall be achieved.

The CPC Proposal is a description, not a prescription.

Increased concentration, by itself, cannot achieve the goal of senior and affordable housing.

It is widely accepted that densely populated low income housing cannot meet the needs of low income people; nor achieve the necessary spatial relationships, only resulting in communication overload, frictional irritation and psychological and physical deterioration.

As far back as the 1916 Zoning Ordinance, the New York City Commission on Building Districts stated the adverse effect from pressure of large number of people living in close contact.

There must be an acute awareness of the basic interventions of intensity of use with the full understanding of the constraints and forces at work.

Zoning is the most sensitive and therefore the most susceptible area of development control.

It regulates the use and intensity of use of land to ensure a high quality of life for all.

Your desire for affordable and senior housing is admirable, but your proposal needs more time for study and citizen involvement.

This public hearing is too late in the process.

I am sure you understand that in a democratic society, regulations cannot be imposed by fiat, for there is a necessary Public Square.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak.

Linda Rosenthal
New York State Assembly, 67th District
March 25, 2015

I am Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal, and I represent the Upper West Side of Manhattan and parts of Hell’s Kitchen. As a member of the New York State Assembly’s Committee on Housing and an elected official who has long advocated for affordable housing, I am pleased that the Administration, recognizing the seriousness and scope of the affordability crisis here in New York City, has taken steps to address it.   The crisis in affordable housing is very real for my constituents, many of whom walk into my office because they are unable to afford their rent or to find an alternative, affordable place in which to live.  Each week, I encounter seniors looking for part-time employment to supplement their income and hard-working families who are forced to leave the City because they cannot afford to pay their rent and still purchase other basic necessities.  In a city where last year 70,000 people applied for 38 units of affordable housing, it is inarguable that something must be done to preserve and create affordable housing.

Housing New York: Zoning for Quality and Affordability outlines proposed actions that are intended to promote the construction of new affordable housing citywide. While I share the City’s goal of producing more affordable housing, I am concerned that the plan takes one-size-fits-all approach to development and largely leaves communities out of the discussion. While the nature and sheer scope of the affordability crisis we face demands immediate action, we must not rush toward solutions that do not abide by certain guiding principles, namely respect for the integrity and diversity of individual neighborhoods and an inclusive process that guarantees community input.

New York’s population of senior citizens is projected to increase by 40% by 2040.  As generations of New Yorkers who played a role in shaping the New York of today age in place, we must prioritize the construction of supportive affordable housing that will cater to this growing population. To that end, the text amendment seeks to encourage development of non-profit and for-profit affordable housing, reducing unit size requirements to allow for the construction of more units and to create more long-term care facilities. While it is crucial to meet needs of an ever-aging population, successful plans must create permanent solutions. As currently written, the amendment requires for-profit developers to ensure that this senior housing remain affordable for 30 years.  As we have seen with the expiration of affordability for units that are receiving tax abatements, such as 421-a and J-51, the failure to require permanent affordable housing only kicks the can down the road by forcing future generations to deal with this issue. It is critical that the City encourage the development of permanent affordable housing, not merely for seniors on low, fixed incomes, but as a matter of course.

Housing New York: Zoning for Quality and Affordability would also change regulations governing building heights, setbacks and corner lots. The new rules would be applied citywide without regard for differences between neighborhoods and communities.  No two communities in New York are the same - the Upper West Side is nothing like the Upper East Side and Brownsville does not look anything like Park Slope. Development in each of these individual communities must be contextual and undertaken with careful consideration of the impacts that the development would have on local infrastructure, including schools, transportation, water and sewage, to name a few.  Local community boards should be involved early and regularly in development decisions.

I am especially concerned with the massive scale of change being considered with little solicitation of input from the local communities and how these proposals will affect the character of neighborhoods in my district and across the City. I am also concerned about the plan’s impact on landmarked sites and historic districts, as well as the uniform approach the plan takes with respect to parking requirements citywide. The plan makes no mention of any changes to development rules in historic districts.  Given the substantial investment of time and resources by advocates to landmark individual buildings and create historic districts, this oversight should be addressed to ensure that the integrity of those districts is maintained. Any changes to parking requirements relative to development should be made only with assurances that New Yorkers who live in communities that are traditionally underserved by public transportation, many of whom are low-income, are not unduly burdened.  

The affordability crisis has many faces; it affects disparate New York communities in vastly different ways.  Any plan to address the crisis must be reflective of the problem, tailored to community by each unique community.  This customized approach, along with robust community engagement, will guarantee better results for all involved. 

There is no goal more important than creating new units of affordable housing while preserving our existing stock. To be sure, decisive action is needed to tackle this problem, but our proposals must be comprehensive and carefully consider the needs of individual communities. Each of the communities I represent on Manhattan’s West Side stands ready to partner with government to realize our vision for a city that is affordable to all. The first step is to expand the scope of the environmental impact review to include the concerns I have raised in my testimony as well as the concerns of our community boards. Thank you.

Friends of the Upper East Side
Re: Zoning for Quality and Affordability Text Amendment (CEQR no. 15DCP104Y)
March 25, 2015

As any good preservationist would, I will start with a bit of history. In 1985, our founding president, Halina Rosenthal wrote to our members:

With the passage of the new R8-B zoning... [there] is a guarantee of the survival for the low-rise and small scale of the precious mid blocks which were constantly being endangered by the growing encroachment upon them of tall buildings out of context with their neighbors, dwarfing them and casting longer shadows on the streets where we live.

For FRIENDS, this zoning change is the culmination of nearly three years of active and often 'round-the-clock work which began on January 28, 1982, when we asked the City Planning Commission (CPC) for a zoning change which would replace the 1961 zoning regulations that gave the license, as-of-right, to consume and destroy our mid blocks and to line them with towers. We asked the CPC to give us instead a good and reasonable alternative. This quest resulted in the R8-B zoning just passed...

Once again, over 30 years later, we are calling upon City Planning to give us a good and reasonable alternative.

We need an alternative to the proposed undoing of contextual districts which make up 64% of the Upper East Side.

We need an alternative to the dismantling of the Sliver Law, another hard-fought protection of our neighborhood's low-rise character.

We need an alternative to the elimination of existing affordable housing. In our contextual zones on the Upper East Side, 36% of parcels include rent regulated units. Can City Planning explain how it has come to the conclusion that demolition of buildings containing affordable units will not be incentivized by this proposal? Has City Planning analyzed the requirement of affordable units to be built on site in these new, taller buildings?

We need an alternative that anticipates future construction methods, and not just the current "standard." Has City Planning analyzed building types that may perhaps be preferable to what is on offer today? How does modular housing age?

We need an in-depth, citywide survey of historic and cultural resources, along with careful study of each and every neighborhood's individual character and sense of place. How does City Planning intend to accomplish such a large scale undertaking?

We need thoughtful consideration of each neighborhood's unique qualities. A block in Yorkville is different from one on the Upper West Side which in turn is distinct from one in Flatbush. Has City Planning looked at the effects this zoning could have on different neighborhoods?

We need worst case scenario evaluations of not just one building prototype on one block, but all the prototypes on all the blocks throughout all of the city. Indeed, the cumulative effect is the worst case scenario. Has City Planning analyzed the consequences, if, for example, an entire block is rebuilt?

This proposal touts the desirability of historic buildings, and seeks to emulate some of their best qualities like variation, design, and "streetscape-improving conditions." And yet this plan could result in the destruction of those model buildings on a massive scale, effectively eviscerating our neighborhoods.

We need City Planning to give us a good and reasonable alternative to this plan.

Thank you for your time; we will be submitting additional questions.

Tara Kelly
Executive Director

East Village Community Coalition
Re: 'Zoning for Quality and Affordability,' CEQR No. 15DCP104Y
March 25, 2015

Dear Director Dobruskin:

On behalf of the East Village Community Coalition, I would like share with you concerns we have regarding the scope of the environmental impact assessment for the "Zoning for Quality and Affordability” (CEQR No. 15DCP104Y) plan. The proposed scope threatens to undo long-term community planning achievements in the East Village and we urge that the scope be expanded to consider existing neighborhood protections.

The needs and conditions in this community must be analyzed when considering a change to our individually crafted rezoning. In 2005, the community initiated a plan that would become the East VillageLower East Side rezoning resulting in the low-scale, high-density character that is both historic and efficient. This 197-a proposal emerged from a collaborative process involving a range of community stakeholders. Implemented in 2008, the grassroots plan incorporated consensus terms for height limits, floor area ratio, use, and inclusionary housing incentives. Loosening the height limits without the promise of affordable housing is a betrayal of that community process. It is critical that the scope of the environmental review consider protecting our hard-fought height limits as well as the Quality Housing program adopted at the time.

The changes to contextual districts if implemented retroactively may not yield the intended results in the East Village. The neighborhood retains many affordable housing units and local groups are robust in their defense of existing units and effort to produce more. Permitting vertical extensions must be also considered in the context of the neighborhood. In too many cases, penthouse construction atop existing buildings has degraded living conditions for existing tenants while not resulting in new affordable development. We urge that the scope consider the impact that taller development will have on neighborhood character, shadows on narrow streets and greenspaces including more than thirty community gardens, the existing housing stock, and other historic resources.

I strongly urge you to include current height limits in contextual zones and existing neighborhood protections within the scope of the environmental review.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sara Romanoski
Managing Director

Dave Holowka
Architect and Chelsea resident
March 25, 2015

As an architect, I have to tell you the rationale for higher floor-to-floor levels in this proposal based on so-called “changes in best practices” in construction doesn’t make sense.

The proposal cites modular and concrete plank construction specifically. It says contextual zoning’s typical building depth of 65 feet isn’t achievable with concrete plank because of 30-foot span limitations, and that building depths should economically use two spans to achieve a new standard depth of 60 feet, with lost area recouped by adding allowed floors. I called two concrete plank manufacturers: Molin Concrete Products in Minnesota said its 8-inch deep planks can be reinforced and tensioned to span longer than 30 feet for not a lot of money; Oldcastle Precast of Selkirk, NY, said their span limit for 8-inch deep planks is 32 feet, not 30. Adding 6 inches front-and-back for brick facing and an air space results in the now-standard 65-foot building depth. Only slightly more expensive 10-inch deep planks can span much farther. No one says you have to span perpendicular to the street or use concrete plank in the first place. There are countless ways to make floor structure thinner or stronger even in modular construction. It’s what engineers and architects are there for. To buy into this proposal’s arguments, you’d have to believe advances in construction technology have introduced rigid limitations rather than the efficiency and flexibility demanded by free market competition. Does anyone believe sprinklers eat up enough space to warrant adding fifteen feet to the height of a building?

Zoning shouldn’t be driven by construction details at any rate, and never was. Zoning should be about urban-scale issues of light and air and compatibility of building forms, which this proposal conveniently ignores. Affordable housing is a zoning concern, too, but of a categorically different kind. It would be one thing if we were talking about substituting one kind of open space for another to everyone’s benefit, but open space and contextual building envelopes are apples and affordable housing units are oranges.

The plan’s claim that greater height will allow more interesting building forms is unbelievable. There are countless ways to achieve architectural interest.  Market forces are interested in the bottom line, not artistic expression. The developers of New York’s designated landmark, Lever House, achieved its celebrated design by consuming less than the site’s zoning-allowed area, an option still open to any developer not driven solely by profit. Given additional height to work with, today’s developers will make building envelope decisions that enhance the value of the individual apartments they have for sale, at the community’s expense. The plan’s proposed changes will only make for taller and more luxurious market-rate housing for the rich, blocking light and air for the general public.

The plan’s assumption that zoning envelopes should allow full development of floor area ratios shows a willful disregard for zoning fundamentals, as does its application of across-the-board height limit changes. The worst thing about this proposal is that it will sacrifice the entirely separate benefit of painstakingly crafted contextual zoning without making New York any more affordable. It will only put New York’s already-runaway gentrification on steroids. In Chelsea, the cost of new condominiums is over $2200 per square foot. Not coincidentally, rents in the neighborhood are now among the highest in New York, even as neighborhood businesses are being driven out by rent increases.

This proposal’s scoping must include the option of communities’ retaining existing height limits where, as in Chelsea, raising them will harm both neighborhood fabric and affordability.

Susan Nial
Upper West Side resident
Re: The Mayor's Misguided Zoning Proposal
March 30, 2015

Even though the Mayor has refused to disclose to the public the legislative language that will implement his plan to grant even more gifts to developers, the public is being asked to offer opinions on what is nothing more than a document full of apple pie and motherhood with few specifics on how the plan will be implemented.  When a party to a law suit withholds evidence, in this case the text of the implementing legislation, there is a presumption that the withheld evidence would not show the withholding party in a good light.  I think that presumption is even stronger in the case of the Mayor's zoning proposals hidden behind a screen of "affordable housing".

From what can be seen in the summary of the Mayor's proposal, it is clear that he intends to virtually eliminate the protections of contextual zoning for which neighborhoods and residents have worked for years.  Further, it is clear that his proposal changes in the treatment of "unusually shaped lots" will remove from public review adjustments or variances in zoning limitations that once in place by allowing those adjustments to be made administratively at the request of a developer.

This broad ranging upzoning will gift developers with even more TDRs or air rights than ever before and their use will be subject to NO PUBLIC review because they will result in more as of right building.  It is understood that The Administration's preference for allowing developers to "buy the sky" runs deep regardless of its impact on the social and physical health of New Yorkers but it is wrong.

Because the public has no access to the legislative text we have no way of knowing how the Mayor intends to enforce the extractions of "affordable housing" he intends to get as a pay back for the enormous gifts of more height, bulk and square footage via this plan.  The Mayor and his attorneys must know that extractions are problematic as the result of the decisions of SCOTUS in Nollan, Dolan and Koontz (His administration’s willingness to cave on affordable housing promises from developers in the Collegiate School matter, leads most of us to believe that his commitment to providing, maintaining and preserving affordable housing for seniors or anyone else is somewhat thin.)

As an exercise of the government's police power, zoning is supposed to act as a limitation on the use of private property in order to protect the health and welfare of the public.  Unfortunately in the case of the Mayor's misleadingly titled "Housing New York: Zoning for Quality and Affordability" zoning is being used to transfer public benefit to private developers for their profit.  Developers have more than enough incentives to build in NYC as we have seen over the years as buildings have soared along with prices.  Programs for "affordable housing" have been plundered by luxury condo builders for buildings like One57.  Land use agencies have become mere rubber stamps for developers as they have converted more and more of their transaction with developers to secret non public interactions at the staff level freezing out the public and assuring that very little of what developers do is critically or objectively analyzed.  The Mayor's proposal appears to be poised to eliminate even more transparency that the streamlining efforts of the Bloomberg Administration.
Ms. Been described the current proposal as a package of "trade offs".  Unfortunately for the public, it seems that gifts are being given (traded) to developers with little if any enforceable benefit coming to the public.  The trade, if you will, is very one sided.  I am sure members of the administration are well aware that the type of proposal now on the table has, in the past, resulted in net loses in affordable housing as owners and developers rush in to take advantage of up-zoning and the loosening of restrictions on the use of TDRs and the lax application of standards to applications for modifications to landmarked buildings and those in historic districts by demolishing existing affordable housing units and/or selling buildings to new owners who then move for permission to modify landmarks, gut the insides and turf out current tenants all in the name of profit!

Analysis must be neighborhood specific:

Clearly any analysis of such a broad ranging plan such as this should be done on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis.  "Prototypical" examples are irrelevant and quiet frankly misleading as they can be structured to prove whatever the administration wants.

Public Health and Infrastructure issues:

An analysis of sewer capacity as well as street drainage and the quality of street repair must be considered including but not limited to the displacement and interference of service during the construction of various projects as well as the requirement that roads and other services be replaced in as good or better condition than before the construction commenced,  the impact of constant and in some cases unrelenting construction noise and disruption as well as mitigation thereof must be considered.

Impact on Emergency services:
Any rezoning and the resultant increase in height and bulk should be assessed in terms of the impact these will have on emergency service response time during the construction of the unwell buildings, as well as the ability of emergency services to actually deal with increased height buildings and the safety of those buildings in the case of fire and other emergencies.


Air and light....developers love to sell air and light; however, very little concern is ever expended for the impact of higher and bigger buildings on the air and light of the mere mortals who already live in and around the "new and improved" developments or the parks, like Central Park, that were built to provide respite and healthful open spaces for humans who live in the city.  Again, the issue of shadows and their impact cannot be dealt with in a one size fits all analysis.

Parking and Transit:

Working people need cars!  The idea that affordable housing tenants don't need cars to travel to and from work is both offensive and wrong.  We would love to be able to say that public transit in NYC provides everyone with a safe, quick and reliable way to get to work but it doesn't.  In fact, it was recently reported that working class individuals have to travel further and for longer to get to their jobs via public transit.  Further, the public transit Authority has made it clear that with increases in fares the public can also expect fewer and slower trains and buses.  Is it the administration's goal to make life even harder for working class people to get to their jobs?  Again, blanket utopian claims simply don't reflect the facts on the street.

There are many more issues to be raised and I know they have been raised by other community groups.  I support the calls for an in depth and neighborhood specific analysis of this proposal as well as full disclosure of the legislative language that will be used to implement this plan.  I urge the administration, the City Council as well as the DCP to place the needs of the humans living in NYC and their neighborhoods as well as small businesses, our historic places and spaces above the desire of developers for more money.  I also urge the Administration to reconsider its commitment to developer centered zoning and respectfully request a return to a consistent system of city planning that places humans and their needs before the needs of corporations and developers and  affirms the importance transparency as well effective public review and involvement.  From what I see in this plan, I doubt that it will result in anything more than more profit for developers and more cost for taxpayers with little public benefit for neighborhoods or residents.

It is likely that once the legislative language is disclosed, there will be other issues to be discussed.  I urge the DCP and the City Council to be mindful of the importance of full public involvement those discussions and respectfully request that sufficient time be provided for that to occur.

Linda Eskenas
March 25, 2015

The stated goals of creating affordable housing and affordable housing for our growing senior population are laudable goals that we support.

The premise of the proposed zoning changes is that we should allow every lot in the City to be built as high as possible and on every square inch of the lot, by doing this we will have affordable housing for all.

The premise of the proposed zoning changes is the only way to achieve these goals is that our senior and low income residents must give up their quality of life, and live in less space and not have access to required parking spaces.

We believe that the proposed changes will not achieve its goals and would negatively affect and diminish the quality of life in communities throughout the city.

One of the proposals is that seniors should have less square footage in their dwelling units than market rate housing; seniors should give up their existing parking spaces, new senior developments should not give seniors any off street parking spaces. Many seniors rely on care givers to bring them grocery and take them to their doctors; they are in walkers and wheelchairs. To be able to have a car or parking area for their use makes their lives more manageable. Why would one want to take that away from them?

The proposed changes to reduce building setbacks, allow taller buildings in height and increase the number of stories will result in a denser city with less air, light reaching the ground and adjacent properties. The reasons that these setbacks exist are because enlightened civic leaders and planners early in 1900s saw that unregulated buildings in bulk and height were negatively affecting the quality of life for the citizen, they passed zoning laws that required these setbacks to minimize these negative qualities.

The proposed changes make a premise that these existing controls for constrained sites, corner sites, existing zoning does not allow modern sustainable building to built in the city, and make for poor buildings. [According to the plan] the proposed changes would improve design flexibility and make more affordable housing. Architects are trained to be creative individuals and are able to design quality buildings for any site and conform to zoning and code constraints. We do not believe the Empire State building, Chrysler building Woolworth building, the Dakota and thousands of other buildings that conform to the zoning constraints are inferior designed buildings. In the 1980s when architects/builders made similar complaints that the zoning only allowed wedding cake building designs, Midtown Zoning was created to allow more flexible designs.

The increase in floor to floor height and building story heights may place our citizens at risk unless there are substantial changes to our building and fire codes. Building height and fire protection are directly related because egress calculations are based, in part, on how long it will take someone to go down a flight of stairs to exit the building and how high the fire department ladder truck can reach.

[On] the proposed change to reduce or eliminate rear yard dimension, court size and distance between buildings, these dimensions established standards for minimum amounts air light ventilation and privacy to the residents. The distance between windows and buildings is an important fire protection feature because it minimizes the spread of fire from flames leaping to one building to another and allows fire department apparatus access to the exterior sides of a building.

The proposed change is to reduce and eliminate parking requirements for the affordable housing units within one half mile of walking distance of a subway but the proposed law allows the market rate units in the same building to have off street parking. The proposed changes state that by eliminating parking requirements for the affordable units and allowing more market rate units there will be more affordable apartments for all perhaps as much as one or two additional affordable units more that the current regulations allow in the building.

Many families in our boroughs need a car to go to the supermarket or work nights and do not want to walk home one half mile at night.

There was time in New York City when people were densely packed into dwelling units, interior living rooms had little or no access to air, light, ventilation, privacy. The buildings were built to every square inch of the lot lines there were no required rear or side yards there was no required separation between windows and/or buildings. There were numerous fires that caused large numbers of fatalities. The average person lived in deplorable and unsafe conditions.

The builders and developers at the time said we are providing for housing for the waves of new immigrants who have come to New York City, this is the only way to provide them affordable housing.

[That was] the 1880s and 1890s. Our civic leaders, philanthropists, and reformers were horrified by these deplorable living conditions and the Tenement House Act of 1901 was enacted, followed by the Housing Maintenance Code and the Multiple Dwelling Law to correct these conditions.

Here we are in 2015 proposing to go back to the past with same mantra it is the only way to provide affordable housing. Who benefits, as in the past well connected real estate interests. Is this our vision for the future?

There are many proven past ways to provide affordable housing. Look at Co-op city in the Bronx, Stuyvesant town, Peter Cooper Village, West-Beth Artist, Mitchell-Lama type housing, Amalgamated Houses, etc.

The proposed path will be the path of destruction and diminish the quality of life for the average New Yorker.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

LANDMARK WEST's Letter to the Department of City Planning on the Proposed Citywide Rezoning

Here is, in full, LANDMARK WEST's letter to Carl Weisbrod, Chair of the New York City Planning Commission, regarding the NYC Planning Proposal titled 'Zoning for Quality and Affordability'

Dear Chair Weisbrod:

LANDMARK WEST! is deeply concerned about the damaging potential of the so-called "Zoning for Quality and Affordability," a top-down, sweeping initiative put forward by the New York City Department of City Planning.

Over the past four decades, the Upper West Side community has worked hard to preserve the character and quality of life that make our neighborhood both beautiful and livable. With the leadership and support of our elected officials, we have succeeded in protecting numerous landmarks and historic districts as well as establishing extensive contextual zoning districts.

Elliott Sclar (now director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development, The Earth Institute, Columbia University) wrote about the Upper West Side in 2003:

The contextual zoning and landmark designations that guide this neighborhood's growth and change (and the neighborhood has grown and changed) were thoughtfully designed and democratically adopted policies intended to fairly balance the maintenance of this neighborhood's charms with the real needs for added development. [emphasis added]

West 70th Street, a typical midblock protected by
contextual zoning and historic district designation.
Sclar referred to the 1984 zoning amendments that created contextual districts between West 68th and 86th Streets. In 2007, the Upper West Side community advocated for — and achieved — the extension of contextual protections to the area between West 97th and 110th Streets. Both actions were carefully studied and adopted to fit the unique character and needs of the Upper West Side.

The City's current proposed plan would gut these neighborhood protections — with no analysis of the specific impacts on our neighborhood or any of the many other neighborhoods across the city from Sunnyside-Woodside to Park Slope, Bedford-Stuyvesant to Sunset Park, the Upper East Side to Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side to Pelham Gardens — by creating the potential for 20-30% height increases for new development.

And for what benefit? As much as New York City needs affordable housing, senior living and architectural quality, it also needs assurances. The City's plan is long on laudable goals, but short on mechanisms for actually achieving — and sustaining — them. The one-size-fits-all solution is simply, "Build more." At best, the stated policy goals are wishful thinking. At worst, they provide cover for what is, in reality, a massive giveaway to developers.

Affordable housing: Inclusionary housing — the primary vehicle advanced by this proposal — accounted for only 1.7% of new housing growth between 2005 and 2013 according to New York City Council Member Brad Lander's Inclusionary Zoning in New York City report. Under the proposed zoning amendments, the City predicts the creation of 8,000 affordable units a year for ten years, far short of the current demand. Furthermore, the proposal disregards the demonstrated link between inclusionary housing and loss of existing affordable units.

The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must meaningfully address the probability that new construction facilitated by this proposal will cause the demolition of existing buildings containing affordable housing units and speed the process of neighborhood gentrification that further reduces affordability.

Architectural quality: Past attempts to zone "good architecture" have been unsuccessful. The best architect-developer teams find ways to produce brilliant designs within given constraints. The worst seek only to maximize floor area. Contextual zoning is designed to protect the form and scale of existing architecture, which communities, by consensus, have sought to preserve.

The EIS must address the fact that raising height limits will inevitably lead to the erosion of this form and scale as well as to the loss of individual buildings that exhibit architectural quality. The City must perform a survey of historic resources that could be affected by this proposal, as well as buildings that, while they may not rise to the level of landmark designation or listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Place, possess the kinds of good design traits the proposal seeks to encourage (e.g., texture).

LANDMARK WEST! is also concerned about changes to rear setback requirements that would result in greater bulk in the collective rear yard "doughnut", obliterating the historic footprint and decreasing open space on the interiors of these blocks. The EIS must study this impact too.

Prototypes: We have fundamental concerns about the efficacy of evaluating real-world impacts through the use of prototypes. This proposal would significantly change zoning that was adopted only after a careful building-by-building, block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis without anywhere near the same level of study.

The EIS must include a prototype analysis for every foreseeable scenario in each zoning district included in the proposal. Worst -case scenarios must be among these analyses. For example, there is no prototype for anticipated new construction in R8B districts, though according to the table on page 63 of the "Draft Scope of Work" (Figure 16), R8B base and overall heights would be increased.

Discretionary Review: The proposal provides for unchecked authority of "discretionary review" for hereto now undefined "constrained lots". Without precise definitions, there is unlimited potential for abuse of power as the very premise of zoning is in fact, a constraint and therefore there is conceivably no limit to what qualifies as a "constrained lot".

These are only a few of the questions that come up during a first, close review of this proposal — and without the benefit of seeing the actual zoning text that would implement it (the Department of City Planning has yet to release the text). In the case that these questions cannot be satisfactorily answered in the scope of the proposed action, we urge the City to leave the existing zoning districts in place and consider the possibility of creating new zoning districts, with the features described by this proposal, that can be adequately studied and, where appropriate, adopted in specific areas.

Already, the Upper West Side is experiencing a building boom of unprecedented scale. "As-of-right" towers in excess of 600 feet — a height more appropriate to Hudson Yards or the heart of midtown Manhattan — are in the planning stages for our avenues and side streets. This reality is before the additional new multipliers advanced by the City's proposal, which would raise these heights by 100+ feet, the equivalent of 10+ additional stories. The proposed zoning amendments would exacerbate existing trends and transform our neighborhood context, without providing residents and property owners information and analysis to understand direct impacts on them. The plan will destroy existing scale and quality of life for the sake of broad policy goals — the abstract "public" — that may or may not ever be realized.

Instead of a universal, one-size-fits-all set of amendments, LANDMARK WEST! calls for a more fine-grained approach that carefully studies neighborhoods to determine specific needs and potential impacts.


Kate Wood

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer
City Council Member Helen Rosenthal
City Council Member Mark Levine
Manhattan Community Board 7
NYS Senator Bill Perkins
NYS Senator Brad Hoylman
NYS Assemblymember Daniel O'Donnell
NYS Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal
Historic Districts Council
New York Landmarks Conservancy
Municipal Art Society
Committee for Environmentally Sound Development
Coalition for a Livable West Side
Friends of the Upper East Side
Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
West Siders for Responsible Development

Thursday, March 12, 2015

PRESERVATION ALERT! Neighborhood Character is Under Threat!



Thirty years ago, in response to incongruous Tower-in-the-Park development promoted by New York's 1961 Zoning Resolution, Upper West Siders worked with elected officials and city planners to establish Contextual Zoning Districts.  In 2007, together we succeeded in extending contextual protection to the blocks between West 97th and 110th Streets.  Our goal was and is to ensure that any future development would be in keeping with the character of our avenues and midblocks.

The 1984 zoning amendment identified building types that contribute to "distinctive environments" on the Upper West Side.  For example:

The typical midblock building is the 3 to 6-story, 55 to 60 foot high 'brownstone'...The consistency with which these building types north of 68th Street repeat themselves is the key to the strength and clarity of the image of the West Side [emphasis added]. 

West 70th Street, a typical brownstone-scale midblock, protected by R8B contextual zoning and historic district status.

Mayor de Blasio's new zoning proposal would
raise height limits in contextual districts
like these by as much as 20-30%!

The result will be higher, bulkier, out-of-character new buildings that do not adhere to the streetwall, undermining the neighborhood's human scale and unique sense of place.

Extell's Ariel Towers, under construction in 2007, triggered community action to ensure sound, contextual development. Jacob Silberberg for The New York Times (June 17, 2007)
The City claims that zoning amendments are needed in the name of architectural quality, affordable housing, senior living, and other laudable goals.  The problem is, this proposal ensures none of these aims.  It is a massive give-away to developers who have been trying to overturn our city's hard-won zoning and historic district protections for decades.

The contextual zoning and landmark designations that guide this neighborhood's growth and change (and the neighborhood has grown and changed) were thoughtfully designed and democratically adopted policies intended to fairly balance the maintenance of this neighborhood's charms with the real needs for added development. 

Elliott Sclar (now director of Center for Sustainable Urban Development, The Earth Institute, Columbia University), letter dated January 10, 2003
Big-money real-estate interests are eager to see the rules change.  We need to work together to make sure that doesn't happen.  The new citywide rezoning proposal is entering the public review process. In the next few weeks and months, local Community Boards, Borough Presidents, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council will hold public hearings and vote on the plan. As each new hearing date is announced, will will tell you where it is and when to be there.

Here's what you can do right now:

Write to your City Council Member, Community Board, and Borough President Gale Brewer. Copy the following text into an email:

I do not want the current and future contextual neighborhood zoning protections to be weakened by allowing height limits within these protected areas to be raised by 20-30%.  The proposed citywide rezoning plan would overturn communities’ hard-won zoning and historic district protections in one fell swoop.  The result would be higher, bulkier, out-of-character new buildings that undermine individual neighborhoods’ human scale and unique sense of place.  This is not the way to ensure affordability, architectural quality, and quality of life in our city.  Please do not allow this zoning proposal to pass.

Hon. Gale BrewerManhattan Borough President 
Phone: (212) 669-8300

Hon. Helen RosenthalCity Council District 6
District Office Phone: (212) 873-0282

Hon. Mark Levine, City Council District 7
District Office Phone: (212) 928-6814

Manhattan Community Board 7
Phone: (212) 362-4008

For more information about City Council districts, please click here; or about Community Boards, click here.

We are not alone!  Click here to read the excellent letter circulated by our colleagues at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.  This is an issue that affects us all!

If you have any further questions, contact us at:

NEW YORK, NY 10023

Friday, March 6, 2015


Copy and paste the following text in an email and send it to LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan at, and please "cc"

March 6, 2015

Meenakshi Srinivasan, Chair
New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
1 Centre Street, 9th Floor, North
New York, NY 10007

Dear Commissioner Srinivasan,

As citizens concerned about preserving our architectural legacy, including the First Church of Christ Scientist located at 361 Central Park West, we respectfully request for your office to follow its mandate to preserve the integrity of this architectural Landmark in its entirety, including its four facades, stained glass windows and roof profile as designed by the very prominent firm of Carrere and Hastings. Since its construction at the turn of the century, we have admired all the beautiful features of this dignified building and trust that under your direction, it will be preserved for many future generations to treasure and admire. The alterations presently proposed to this building counter the long term vision for NYC that your office has been entrusted with. As stated by Carrere and Hastings scholar Charles Warren, in his letter to you dated November 17, 2014: “The NYC LPC has a mandate to preserve the designated landmarks of our great city, this mandate does not require the commission to permit changes merely to maximize the profit of those who speculate in the real estate market. Allowing such destructive and unnecessary changes diminishes our architectural and cultural heritage and sets a precedent that undermines the protections the law extends to all of New York’s Landmarks.”


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