Rezoning reactions run gamut at Planning hearing


By Albert Amateau

The East Village/Lower East Side rezoning hearing before the City Planning Commission went on for more than four hours on Aug. 13. Elected officials and most community groups gave their conditional support for the plan, but opponents made good on their threat to mount a demonstration in front of the hearing venue at New York University’s Law School on Washington Square South.

The community-initiated rezoning proposal is intended to preserve the character of the neighborhood, restrain the rash of oversized development and expand opportunities for affordable housing.

But opponents, many from Chinatown — which is not included in the plan — said it was a “racist” scheme that favors the white residents in the East Village. That charge was greatly resented by Chris Kui, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, and Rocky Chin, a Community Board 3 member, and other supporters of the rezoning at the hearing.

Speaking in favor of the rezoning were City Councilmembers Rosie Mendez and Alan Gerson, but they called for amendments suggested by Community Board 3. Gerson said the plan must guarantee that 30 percent of new housing in the area would be affordable. He said there was still time in the uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP, to make changes in the rezoning.

“I recognize the legitimate concerns of people in the area not included in the rezoning,” Gerson said, promising to work for a plan to include those areas. Special oversight and protections against tenant harassment and against demolition of sound buildings were also at the top of the Gerson and Mendez priority list.

Most of the plan’s supporters also called for other changes. They want legal services to be available for low-income tenants at risk of landlord harassment, and they want affordable housing options to be available on all wide avenues north and south of Houston St. In addition, supporters want the zoning to encourage energy-efficient green development.

Supporters also seek an amended zoning code to stem the spread of bars, including the use of rear yards in residential zones even where commercial uses are allowed.

“Community Board 3 has the highest number of nightlife noise complaints in the city, 8,773 last fiscal year,” said Susan Stetzer, C.B. 3 district manager. “It is imperative that legally grandfathered, non-eating-and-drinking establishments be prohibited from being converted to bars and restaurants,” she said.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer also told the hearing that he supports the rezoning, but acknowledged that more affordable housing is needed and that existing tenants need protection against harassment.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver submitted a letter of support, which also called for inclusion of the tenant protection measures and the ban on converting non-eating-and-drinking commercial establishments to bars and restaurants.

However, Josephine Lee, coordinator of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side and leader of the 200 protesters who gathered outside the meeting venue, told the commissioners they were “full of baloney” because they excluded Chinatown from the proposal, in order, she said, to “kick Chinese, Latino and African-Americans out of the neighborhood.”

But Thomas Yu, a Community Board 2 member, noted that Chinatown, whose core is in Community Board 3, also extends into Community Boards 1 and 2. All three boards, he said, are committed to working together for a new plan for Chinatown.

The rezoning area is bounded roughly by E. 13th St. on the north, Avenue D on the east, Grand and Delancey Sts. on the south and 100 feet east of Third Ave. and Bowery on the west. The Village View co-op complex between E. Fourth and E. Sixth Sts. on the east side of First Ave. is not included in the rezoning.

The 111-block plan would cap building heights at 80 feet, or about eight stories, in most areas.

However, on three wider streets — E. Houston and Delancey Sts. and the west side of Avenue D — building heights would be capped at 120 feet if 20 percent of a building’s units are built according to the city’s inclusionary zoning program. In addition, on the west side of Chrystie St., if developers voluntarily use I.Z., building heights would be permitted to be even taller — up to 145 feet.

Joyce Ravitz, a C.B. 3 member, told the hearing last week that the plan should prohibit landlords who have harassed tenants from demolishing their buildings and building bigger ones by taking advantage of inclusionary zoning.

The plan’s critics object to allowing taller buildings in the heavily low-income minority areas, and they contend that rezoning the East Village and Lower East Side will just shift development pressure to Chinatown.

Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said her group opposes the rezoning on the grounds that the draft environmental impact study, or D.E.I.S., area of a quarter-mile radius of the rezoning district was inadequate and missed the rezoning’s real impact on the neighborhood. She also said the omission of race information in the D.E.I.S. has resulted in a plan that neglects people of color.

But Kui, speaking for A.A.F.E., said such reasoning was flawed because all low-income neighborhoods in the city are threatened with loss of affordable housing and tenant harassment.

“We cannot afford to be divided or play on each other’s fears,” Kui said. “Trying to derail a carefully crafted plan achieved by democratic consensus puts all of New York City backwards.”

Anna Sawaryn, representing the Coalition to Save the East Village as well as the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, submitted a petition by residents demanding that the east side of Bowery and Third Ave., where a 23-story hotel is under construction, be downzoned. The west side of Bowery and Third Ave. has been spared most high-rise development because the Little Italy and Noho special districts largely cover the west side of the corridor, Sawaryn observed.

Roberto Ragone, director of the Orchard St./Lower East Side Business Improvement District, and Mark Miller, the BID’s president, urged City Planning commissioners to encourage development of “boutique office space.” Office workers would provide needed foot traffic during weekday business hours to support the district’s restaurants and merchants, the BID executives said.

Rob Hollander, a frequent critic of the rezoning plan, cited the D.E.I.S. and claimed that despite the height limits, the rezoning would allow 53 percent more development than the current zoning, including both commercial and residential areas. Because only about 10 percent of the projected new area would be eligible for affordable housing, only 11.6 percent of new housing units would be affordable, rather than the targeted 20 percent, Hollander said.

Nevertheless, neighborhood leaders representing Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, the Lower East Side Coalition for Accountable Rezoning and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation spoke in support of the zoning, but acknowledged the need for more work.