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The justifications for raising heights fall flat

At last Friday’s rally at Washington Square Park against the N.Y.U. superblocks plan.

BY ANDREW BERMAN  |  Last month, some changes were announced to a controversial citywide rezoning plan — known as Zoning for Quality and Affordability — which would raise height limits for residential construction across the five boroughs.

The good news: The changes are a step in the right direction, eliminating or reducing some of the proposed increases in allowable height.

File photo.

The bad news: Most of the proposed increases are still in the plan, which thus will raise the height of new developments in our neighborhoods, but likely do little or nothing to increase the quality or affordability of new housing in New York. And the plan is moving toward the formal public hearing, review and approval process, with its ultimate fate to be decided by our community boards, borough presidents, the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

The plan would lift the height limits for new residential construction in “contextual zoning” districts — districts with explicit, required height limits intended to ensure that new development matches the context of its surroundings. In addition, the zoning scheme would also lift the optional height limits that developers are encouraged (through zoning incentives) but not required to follow in all other districts. The height limits, when raised, would go up modestly for market-rate developments, and more substantially — as much as 31 percent — for projects that set aside a fraction of units for affordable housing or affordable senior housing.

The changes would not only affect existing rules governing neighborhoods, including our own and others — rules that, in some cases, we fought long and compromised considerably for in order to secure. In fact, the changes would affect rules for future districts, as well, such as the contextual zoning districts we are seeking in the South Village and along the University Place/Broadway corridors, where developments 300 feet tall or higher are currently allowed.

The city’s premise is that raising height limits and loosening other requirements for new developments will make for “better quality” housing, with more attractive designs. But the evidence does not back this up. If you look at areas of the city with less-restrictive zoning, you tend to actually get less-attractive designs, not more.

So what’s the real reason for this proposed change? In some cases, developers cannot “max out” on their allowable square footage while abiding by the required height limits and including the high ceiling heights they like to charge exorbitant prices for. But do we really need to lift height restrictions in residential neighborhoods to accommodate that?

The city’s argument for the more dramatic increase in allowable height for developments with a small affordable or senior affordable component are equally flawed. These rules would apply only in a small percentage of the zoning districts throughout the city, so the premise that this plan is about creating more senior housing and more affordable housing seems woefully overstated, at best.

Right now, in a few areas — including a swath of the East Village — developers can opt into a program where they get to build bulkier buildings, with more square feet, in exchange for reserving 20 percent of units as “affordable.” Some builders choose to do this — they actually get to create more luxury units this way than they otherwise would have — but some don’t. The city contends if we lift the height limits in these areas, developers will build more affordable units.

Even if one accepts the city’s premise that it’s worthwhile to allow developers to build additional luxury housing in exchange for also building a small amount of affordable housing, the assertion that increasing height limits will get more developers to do the latter is not supported by the evidence. Some developers opt into the program with the height limits exactly as they are. Those that don’t frequently cite issues like “economy of scale” and complicated bureaucracies attached to the program as reasons for not opting in, which this plan would not change.  Few developers, if any, cite existing height limits as a deterrent. In fact, I am aware of none who have cited height limits as the sole reason for their not opting in. 

So what makes the city think that just lifting the height caps would result in more affordable housing? The more likely outcome is that there would be no greater production of affordable housing than with the existing rules — yet buildings that are, nevertheless, up to 31 percent taller.

And giving developers a large height boost for new development by simply including a small percentage of units for “senior affordable housing” seems that it would be, at best, a tool used by some developers to increase the height of their luxury developments, with little public benefit.

Among the situation’s ironies is that there are two proposals by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, broadly supported by the community and elected officials, to rezone the South Village and University Place/Broadway, which actually would have the effect the city claims its own plan would have: namely, improving the quality of new buildings designs and increasing the production of housing, especially affordable housing. But the city has thus far refused to act upon the society’s two rezoning proposals.

In the South Village, we are seeking to eliminate zoning that allows 300-foot-tall dorms and other university facilities. Our proposal is to replace that with contextual zoning, which would limit new development to no more than an appropriate seven or eight stories, and encourage residential rather than university development. The city has refused to consider it.

Around University Place and Broadway, we are also seeking to replace outdated zoning that allows more than 300-foot-tall towers, like the one planned for the Bowlmor site at E. 12th St. Our proposal calls for new contextual zoning that would limit new development to no more than between seven and 12 stories, with the above-mentioned affordable housing opt-in. Right now, there is no affordable housing component whatsoever to the zoning for this area. Thus, the tower planned for the Bowlmor site will be exclusively luxury condos. Under our zoning proposal, it would be no more than 12 stories, and might include 20 percent affordable units. But the city has refused to act upon this proposal, as well.

If the city’s zoning plan passes, the height caps we are seeking for these two areas would also be lifted, though they would still be vastly better than the 300 or more feet allowed there currently. Rather than focusing on its dubious rezoning plan — which offers few, if any, benefits to anyone other than developers — the city should move ahead with the rezoning proposals for the South Village and University Place/Broadway, which clearly would benefit not only our neighborhood, but the city as a whole.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

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