Concerns raised over proposed zoning changes

A pair of proposed changes to New York City zoning rules now making their way through the mandated review process have community activists raising the red flag as far as potential impacts on residential neighborhoods.

The amendments – Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) – have been developed by the Department of City Planning (DCP) as part of the city’s Housing New York initiative, whose goal is to “build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade.”

Both affordable and senior housing are urgent needs, stressed Richard Jacobs, senior planner at DCP’s Brooklyn office, who presented the proposals to residents from three community board areas in southern Brooklyn (CB 10, CB 15 and CB 18) at a town hall meeting held on Thursday, November 5, at the Knights of Columbus, 13th Avenue and 86th Street.

The proposals, said Jacobs, are “a response to the affordable housing crisis in the city” and to the “unprecedented increase in the senior population, and the need for senior housing and care.” In addition, he said, aesthetic changes woven into the proposals reflect DCP’s realization that “we can do better in how buildings relate to the street.”

All that, he said, could be done with what he called “a modest increase in building envelopes,” in areas that DCP has deemed “medium and high-density.” In the neighborhoods represented at the meeting, Jacobs said, there are only a handful of areas that could be impacted. In CB 10, for example, these include Fourth Avenue, 11th Avenue, 13th Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway, where the underlying zoning already allows medium-rise buildings.

In such areas, Jacobs said, a generally five-foot increase in height limit – which must be incorporated on the ground floor of buildings taking advantage of ZQA – would “allow for more effective retail, and promote street activity,” as well as allowing more interesting details such as bay windows in ground floor residential areas. The added height at ground floor level, he said, would “encourage planting, and mean that windows would not be at eye level.”

An additional one or two stories in height might also be permitted under ZQA, “to fit the additional floor area allowed for buildings providing affordable senior housing or Inclusionary Housing, in areas that have been designated for it,” according to a handout prepared by DCP.

There would be “no change,” said Jacobs, “to as-of-right residential units in one and two-family districts.”

MIH – which DCP says “would require through zoning actions a share of new housing to be permanently affordable” –includes only buildings of more than 10 units in areas designated by the city, with new construction, conversions or enlargements required to include a certain percentage of permanently affordable housing. The first neighborhood being looked at for MIH is East New York, and DCP is currently developing a plan that could jumpstart the process there.

Two options for MIH are under consideration – in one, 25 percent of units would have to go to households earning an average of 60 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI); in the other, 30 percent of units would be earmarked for households earning an average of 80 percent AMI. A third, “workforce option” of 30 percent of units dedicated to households making an average of 120 percent AMI could also be added in certain areas.

One big caveat: the affordable units do not have to be in the same building as market-rate units but could be elsewhere in the same community board or within half a mile of the market-rate development, or the developer could choose to pay into a fund that would go to affordable housing elsewhere in the district, under the auspices of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD)

The devil is in the details, contended numerous activists who attended the meeting, listened to the presentation and questioned Jacobs and other DCP staff on the implications of changes ranging from the reduction of parking requirements for affordable units under ZQA in “transit zones” (areas with easy access to mass transit) to the increased density that the proposals would trigger.

“About 10 years ago, we fought to have the majority of the community downzoned,” noted Bob Cassara, a founder of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance. “ZQA would take us back to where we were. This would change the character and density. The small-town feel of the community would be forever changed, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.”

“In our neighborhood, we have seen the special permit create a lot of problems,” said Ed Jaworski, president of the Madison-Marine-Homecrest Civic Association. With the number of demolitions going from three in 1998 to 106 in 1999 in CB 15, the number of stop work orders issued by the city also skyrocketed, he said. “At one point, we had 455 active SWOs in CB 15,” Jaworski said. “Thousands of violations, millions of dollars in unpaid fines. How can anyone think in terms of legislating for the next generation when you can’t collect these fines?”

Another issue that was brought up was lot consolidation, which could result in larger, bulkier buildings than are typical in a particular area.

“It’s very easy for a developer to purchase multiple properties,” said Paul Graziano, an urban planner and the former president of the Historic Districts Council. “You buy four houses, each on 30×100, could be a million dollars apiece. If you are able to build a much taller building, and increasing it by 33 or 35 percent is a much more profitable building, I see that as something that is going to be generating business.”

Both proposals were certified on September 21, starting the clock ticking on the mandated review process. The 59 community boards citywide have until late November to issue their recommendations. Then, the proposals move to the borough boards and borough presidents’ offices for review and recommendations. Then the City Planning Commission (CPC) reviews the proposals and votes on them. Finally, the proposals go to the City Council for a vote, expected in early 2016.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.