Third Ave. freeze out; Dorm zone must be downzoned

By Andrew Berman

On July 10, the city released a highly anticipated draft plan for rezoning the East Village and Lower East Side. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and many other community groups had been working with Community Board 3 and Councilmember Rosie Mendez to get the city to put forward just such a plan to preserve the neighborhood’s character — preventing out-of-scale and other inappropriate kinds of development and retaining or creating affordable housing.

The draft plan, which is sweeping in its scope, will do much of what we’ve been fighting for (you can view the draft at www.gvshp.org/documents/EVRezoning.pdf). There are, however, aspects of the plan about which community leaders have raised concerns, hoping to make changes before it moves ahead. Perhaps no concern is more black and white than the city’s refusal, thus far, to include the Third Ave. corridor and the blocks to the west in the plan.

Why is this such an issue? Because these blocks have some of the worst zoning in the entire East Village, resulting in some of the neighborhood’s most egregious development, and more such development is likely without changes. The zoning for these blocks has no height limits and no limits on transfer of air rights; it allows very large buildings, and it encourages development in the form of tall towers on plazas — about as un-East Village as you can get. Perhaps worst of all, the zoning for these blocks actually strongly encourages dorm and hotel development. This is why we have seen several huge and awful dorms built here over the years, why this area is about to get the East Village’s tallest building — New York University’s 26-story megadorm on E. 12th St. — and why hotel development is starting to creep in as well. With N.Y.U. having publicly identified this area as one where they expect to see more of their tremendous growth over the next several years, and with hotel development booming in New York right now, if the zoning for these blocks remains unchanged, we can expect to see more of the same.

So why would the city refuse to include this area in the rezoning? Community groups like G.V.S.H.P. and the St. Ann’s Committee have lobbied from the beginning to include it in the rezoning, and the city has received literally hundreds of letters from residents urging them to do so. C.B. 3 is strongly for inclusion, as are elected officials such as Councilmember Mendez and State Senator Tom Duane. And no one is insisting upon some unrealistic draconian rezoning that would never allow any development ever again; we are asking for reasonable steps in the right direction that would reduce or eliminate some of the gross imbalances of the current zoning.

One can only conclude that if the city sticks to its guns and does not include this area in the rezoning, it actually wants to see more high-rise dorm and hotel development here. Some evidence would seem to contradict this — since the city has supported some efforts to eliminate out-of-scale high-rise development in some places. Yet, the city has thus far refused to support the community’s request for help in getting N.Y.U. to locate a second campus and future facilities outside of our neighborhoods. And now the city seems to be creating a “preserve” for N.Y.U. in these blocks, where they will be free to build more megadorms and other facilities.

Interestingly, one party we’ve not heard from in all of this is N.Y.U. itself. While the formulation of this rezoning plan has been an entirely public process through which anyone could participate, N.Y.U. has not made any public statements one way or the other about the plan, though their interests seem to have been quite well protected by it — so far. We now know that N.Y.U. was recently secretly negotiating to acquire a site in this area for additional dorm development, which they dropped only when these plans were publicly exposed. Have secret negotiations been going on here, too? Let’s hope not.

N.Y.U. could actually be the hero, or at least a good neighbor, in this situation. G.V.S.H.P. has asked the university to publicly endorse some rezoning of these blocks, as this would surely get the city’s attention. Unfortunately, however, so far they have refused.

Regardless, because there are many good things the draft rezoning plan would do, we are urging that it move ahead as quickly as possible. There are many parts of the East Village facing the threat of terribly inappropriate development that this plan would stop or mitigate. But the plan is not finalized, and there is certainly still the opportunity to change it. The city will present the draft plan to the public again through C.B. 3’s 197A Task Force in September, and there will probably be many more discussions before the review and approval process for any rezoning formally begins.

So now is the time to get the city to change its mind and include Third Ave. and the blocks to the west in the draft rezoning. If you do not want to see this area become an even denser forest of dorms and new hotels, please write to the city urging them to include it in the rezoning plan. You can go to www.gvshp.org/zonelet.htm on G.V.S.H.P.’s Web site for sample letters and contact information for city officials.

Berman is executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation