Lower East Siders debate housing tower limits

By Julie Shapiro

The Lower East Side is changing fast. Residents and government officials want to stop that change in its tracks — or at least control it — and hope they’ve found the solution: rezoning.

Community members gathered last Tuesday night for a town hall meeting about the L.E.S. rezoning plan. Councilmember Alan Gerson organized the event, which over 50 people attended.

“We’re here to consider, learn about and discuss proposals for rezoning significant portions of the Lower East Side,” Gerson said in his opening remarks. “This is an important decision — it will affect the character of the community for another generation and beyond.”

A panel of speakers addressed different aspects of the rezoning plan, from landmarks to affordable housing. The panelists included Alfreda Radzicki, from Gruzen Samson Architects; David McWater, chairperson of Community Board 3; Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development; Andrew Knox, co-chairperson of the New York City American Institute of Architects housing committee; and Andrew Dolkart, from Columbia University.

The rezoning discussion has been underway for more than a year, and the Department of City Planning and C.B. 3 differ over parts of the plan. The overall idea is to halt the recent increase in tall buildings, maintain the history and character of the L.E.S. and create affordable housing.

McWater said he’s excited about the plan, because it will put community members “on equal footing with developers. There is really rapid change in our neighborhood — enough change already.”

The area for rezoning encompasses 114 blocks of the East Village and L.E.S. The area is bounded by E. 13th St. to the north, Ave. D and Pitt St. to the east, Grand and Delancey Sts. to the south and Third Ave. and the Bowery to the west.

The final plan will include a height cap for all buildings in this area. City Planning wants an 80-foot cap — about eight stories — for much of the area, with a higher cap of 120 feet for wider streets, such as Houston and Delancey Sts., if the developer agrees to set aside 20 percent of the apartments for affordable housing.

The city’s proposal would set aside half of the affordable apartments for L.E.S. residents.

C.B. 3 wants 30 percent affordable housing and a smaller zoning bonus. C.B. 3 also wants the rezoning plan to include anti-harassment and anti-demolition clauses, which would make it harder for developers to force tenants out of rent-controlled apartments.

A key question about the rezoning plan is what to do with community facilities, which include dorms. Several panelists spoke against New York University’s 26-story dorm construction project on E. 12th St., and hope that a height cap will prevent similar buildings.

Even new zoning regulations will not return the L.E.S. to its previous appearance, Knox said. The population of the area will increase with or without the rezoning. “It’s going to be quite a change from the Lower East Side of 10 years ago,” Knox said.

After the panel finished speaking, Gerson opened the floor to questions. Community members were concerned about the rezoning plan’s effect on population growth, parking, rent costs and harassment of tenants. Gerson and the panelists responded with explanations and reassurances.

McWater looks forward to the plan’s implementation, hopefully later this year if the City Council approves a more finalized version of it. “These buildings are being built already and we’re getting nothing — no affordable housing,” he said.

However, like the other panelists, McWater knows that the benefits of the rezoning take time to achieve. As Lander put it, “There is tension between getting zoning done quickly and getting zoning done the way you want.”