New push to rezone, cap building heights in the South Village

BY SAM SPOKONY  |  Preservationists are in the early stages of pushing for a partial South Village rezoning that would, for the first time since 1961, place height caps on buildings within the proposed area.

The swath of land in question is the neighborhood’s current R7-2 zoning district, which is roughly bounded by W. Fourth St. to the north, Thompson St. to the east, Spring St. to the south and Sixth Ave. to the west. Most of the upper portion of that residentially zoned area was recently landmarked as the South Village Historic District.

Along with the fact that it does not carry any height limits, the R7-2 designation has caused worry and dismay for many longtime residents because it grants developers a huge bonus — allowing them to build up to 6.5 F.A.R. (floor area ratio) — for buildings that include a “community facility” element (even when the overall community benefit of such a facility is highly debatable).

So, it would seem clear that, as Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, stressed during a Feb. 12 presentation before the Community Board 2 Land Use Committee, that kind of zoning encourages relatively high-rise development in the area.

The R7-2 designation has allowed the as-of-right construction of several large New York University buildings — including the Law School’s Furman Hall, at W. Third and Sullivan Sts., which opened in 2004, and the nearby Kimmel Center, at Washington Square South and LaGuardia Place, which opened in 2003.

In addition, an eight-story building at 159 Bleecker St., which towers over its two- and three-story neighbors, became particularly hated by area residents as its developer took advantage of the community-facility bonus during its construction 10 years ago.

A zoning map showing the R7-A and R7-B zoning districts proposed by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.  Courtesy G.V.S.H.P.
A zoning map showing the R7-A and R7-B zoning districts proposed by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Courtesy G.V.S.H.P.

Now, G.V.S.H.P. hopes to have the city turn that whole R7-2 area into “contextual zoning” that would be comprised of a mix of R7-A and R7-B districts.

The R7-A zoning, which the preservationists are proposing along the wider streets of Sixth Ave., W. Houston St. and a two-block portion of LaGuardia Place, would restrict building heights to a maximum of 80 feet. The R7-B, proposed to cover the narrower streets, would restrict heights to 75 feet.

Both of those zoning designations would eliminate the community-facility bonus, capping all residential F.A.R. at 4 within the R7-A district and 3 within the R7-B.

“This will preserve the character of the neighborhood, and it will prevent the kind of bad development that has happened and could happen here,” said Berman, who added that his presentation was a “very initial step” in the process.

Drawing numerous gasps of fear from attendees at the C.B. 2 meeting, Berman went on to show various renderings of large-scale development that could currently take place as-of-right within the South Village, such as a possible 290-foot tower that could be built on the site of St. Anthony’s Church, at 154 Sullivan St. (although he pointed out that it was only a hypothetical, and no such plans currently exist for that site).

But, on a more optimistic note, he also pointed out that there is some solid recent history, locally speaking, to support this kind of proposal. An East Village rezoning plan, which first gained steam in 2005, was eventually approved by the city and turned a much larger R7-2 district — spanning nearly from Third Ave. to Avenue D, and from below E. Houston St. to E. 13th St. — into an area that is now mostly a mix of contextual R7-A and R8-B districts.

“So we’re not coming up with some harebrained scheme that no one’s ever thought of before,” said Berman. “There’s solid precedent for this.”

The G.V.S.H.P. leader explained that, ideally, he hopes to get the Department of City Planning to sign on as the applicant for the rezoning. Admittedly, preservationists would lose some control over the proposal if that were case. However, he pointed out, since this would have to go through a ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process and eventually be approved by the city anyway, such an application would move forward more quickly, and have a much greater likelihood of succeeding, if Planning were the applicant.

The C.B. 2 Land Use Committee agreed, passing a unanimous resolution to endorse the rezoning proposal. The committee’s resolution, citing support at the Feb. 12 meeting from around 80 local residents, including representatives of numerous block associations and neighborhood groups, urges local elected officials to back it, and calls on the Department of City Planning to “support the goals of this proposal and to become the applicant for a rezoning that accomplishes these goals.”

The committee’s resolution will next be voted on by the C.B. 2 full board, which meets on Thurs., Feb. 20.

Meanwhile, at least one elected official has already expressed strong support for the proposal, even at this very preliminary stage.

“I think this is a neighborhood that is really in need of greater protections, so I’m glad that G.V.S.H.P. is taking the initiative here, and I want to make sure I publicly acknowledge their work,” said state Senator Brad Hoylman in an interview a few days after the committee meeting.

“This initial plan really brings the zoning for the area into the 21st century, which is important because we know that N.Y.U. plans to grow enormously in that area,” he continued. “So we need to consider the height caps, and we also need to get rid of that community-facility zoning bonus, which is used as a Trojan horse by developers to build bigger.”