C.B. 1 to city: See the light and limit N. Tribeca affordable housing


By Julie Shapiro

Community Board 1 chose light and air over affordable housing this week in its latest plan for North Tribeca.

On several blocks of Tribeca near Canal and West Sts., the Department of City Planning wants to allow developers to build bulkier buildings if they also build affordable housing within half a mile. But the community board wants stricter bulk restrictions instead, even if that limits the amount of affordable housing the neighborhood will see.

Marc Ameruso, a member of C.B. 1’s Tribeca Committee, said affordable housing and avoiding over-scale development are both priorities for the board, and it can be difficult to balance them.

“The main concern there was to keep things as contextual as possible to preserve the unique character of North Tribeca,” Ameruso said. “You don’t want to feel like you’re in Midtown, with that kind of bulk.”

The bulk discussions are part of the larger effort by the city and community board to rezone North Tribeca from a manufacturing district to a commercial and residential one. The board spent years working on its own version of the rezoning plan, and City Planning responded with a somewhat different plan earlier this fall.

The community board’s plan called for additional bulk and inclusionary housing only near the Holland Tunnel rotary, while the city expanded the inclusionary housing zone to include a slice of Tribeca’s northwestern corner.

“There are limited sites for affordable housing in the neighborhood,” said Edith Hsu-Chen, director of City Planning’s Manhattan office. “We see vacant lots near Canal, and that’s the reason we included it in inclusionary housing.”

City Planning has said that limiting inclusionary housing to the Holland Tunnel area, as the community board wants to do, could mean that no affordable housing gets built.

In the inclusionary housing zone, developers would be able to build up to a 7.2 floor-to-area ratio, rather than a 5.4, if they included 20 percent affordable housing on site, within the community board or within half a mile. The height limit would be 120 feet either way.

Community board members said a 7.2 F.A.R. is too high for the parts of northwest Tribeca City Planning wants to include: the blocks between Canal and Watts Sts. and the row of blocks just east of Greenwich St. from Canal St. down to Beach St.

Peter Braus, co-chairperson of the Tribeca Committee, said it would be more appropriate for those blocks to be grouped with the others along the West Side Highway and just west of Greenwich St., which would have F.A.R.’s of 6.5 and 5.5 respectively.

Albert Capsouto, a board member who owns a restaurant on Washington St., added that the community has already swallowed the dense waterfront development of the Jack Parker site at Washington and Watts Sts. He doesn’t want to allow development that is even denser, regardless of whether affordable housing is included.

“Keeping the zoning the same is more important,” Capsouto said. “Consistency is the most important.”

Hsu-Chen called the 7.2 F.A.R. modest compared to the much higher F.A.R.’s the city is planning for even narrower streets on the Lower East Side.

“These sites can handle a 7.2 F.A.R., which in Manhattan is not high,” Hsu-Chen said.

Another concern the board had about inclusionary housing is that developers are not required to build the affordable units on site.

“If we’re going to give up light and air to have economic diversity in the area, it should be on the site where we’re losing light and air,” Capsouto said.

Hsu-Chen replied that developers who use the zoning bonus would likely apply for a 421-a tax abatement as well, which would require them to keep the affordable units on site.

“Four-21-a is very juicy,” Hsu-Chen said. “No developer is crazy enough to pass up on 421-a.”

During the discussion at last Thursday’s Tribeca Committee meeting, Hsu-Chen pushed the board to pass a resolution in favor of the rezoning.

“I want to stress the importance of moving quickly,” Hsu-Chen said. Although the City Council had just voted hours earlier to let the mayor run for a third term, Hsu-Chen said there were no guarantees that the Tribeca North rezoning would remain a priority once the mayor’s current term expires at the end of 2009. Especially given the financial crisis and the city’s budget shortfalls, Hsu-Chen said it was imperative that the rezoning’s environmental and land-use review happen during 2009 if it is going to happen at all.

“We can’t count on more time,” Hsu-Chen said.

The community board passed a resolution this week supporting the rezoning, but also articulating many differences of opinion between the board and the city. That resolution will be sufficient to allow the city to move forward, and the rest of the issues will get worked out during public hearings and negotiations over the next year, said Michael Levine, director of land use and planning for C.B. 1.

In addition to disagreeing on the inclusionary housing zone, the board and the city disagree on allowed uses and limits for shop sizes. City Planning wants to replicate in North Tribeca the exact zoning that is already in place in South Tribeca, but the community board wants to customize the zoning for what they describe as a very different neighborhood.

City Planning wants to limit stores on wide streets to 20,000 square feet and stores on narrow streets to 10,000 square feet, while the community board thinks 10,000 square feet for wide streets and 5,000 square feet for narrow streets would be more appropriate. The board previously wanted to limit stores on narrow streets to 2,500 square feet but decided on 5,000 square feet last week to allow for larger restaurants.

City Planning has not budged on the community board’s requests, saying businesses like furniture stores common in South Tribeca need more space.

“We probably won’t get to 100 percent agreement,” Hsu-Chen told the Tribeca Committee last week, “but I don’t think that will preclude us from moving forward.”