Eye Sores and Eye Candy: The Impact of Zoning on NYC

Shown above is the Department of City Planning's Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning map from 2005. The rezoning had a mixed impact, producing a popular public park and luxury condos, but failing to deliver on the promised number of affordable housing units. Image courtesy of the Department of City Planning.

This month, New York City community boards will hold hearings on new zoning rules that would make it easier for developers and homeowners to make buildings more energy efficient. The proposed changes are the latest of many recent amendments to zoning regulations that impact the way the city looks and functions.

As the city considers greening its zoning laws, MetroFocus took a look at the history of zoning in the city, and the causes and effects — good, bad and complicated — of some of the most prominent rezonings over the past decade.

A Brief History of Zoning in New York City

With the 1916 Zoning Resolution, New York City crafted the nation’s first complex set of rules governing how land can be used, and where and how structures can be built. Nothing has played as dramatic a role in shaping the city’s character as zoning; the new rules dictated everything from building height to the ratios of residences to businesses in a given area.

Thanks to new technologies, building materials and the push and pull of millions of New Yorkers, by the mid-20th century, even the flexible zoning ordinance was out of synch with the times. To accommodate the changing urban landscape, the city passed the 1961 Zoning Resolution. The new regulations, which were largely the vision of Mayor Robert F. Wagner and power broker Robert Moses, made more room for cars and encouraged developers to build public space.

Zoning in the City Today

The city is broken into 126 zoning districts, each with its own map regulating local land use. If someone wants to build a structure that isn’t in line with the zoning resolution, they can seek a variance from the Board of Standards and Appeals to modify the zoning resolution for a specific project.

Frequently a developer, group of developers or the city want to allow for an overhaul of one of the zoning maps to drastically alter what can be built there — parks, residential developments, taller buildings, etc. They can pursue a rezoning amendment through the Department of City Planning, which ultimately must include a public review process and be passed by the New York City Council.

What Critics of Zoning Have to Say

Many critics of contemporary zoning practices argue that the process is so complex, and changes to the zoning code so expensive to enact, that rezoning is by and large limited to the interests of powerful developers and high-ranking city officials, not those of the poor and middle class. Proponents, like Department of City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, argue that rezoning is a necessary tool that allows the city to successfully adapt to shifts in demographics and industry. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Burden in 2002, there have been 115 rezonings — by far the highest number since 1961.

For better or worse, the shape of the city has undergone massive changes in the past decade, many of which have yet to be fully realized. Here’s a look at three of the most prominent recent rezonings:

Greenpoint-Williamsburg Rezoning (2005)

The image on the left, taken in 2006, shows the post-industrial Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront at the site of what is now East River Park. The image on the right, taken in 2009, shows the same site, with The Edge condominiums towering over the new East River Park. Composite Image: Photo courtesy of gowanuslounge.blogspot.com (l); Photo courtesy of Sam Lewis (r).

Why the area was rezoned: The North Brooklyn waterfront was once filled with heavy manufacturing, but when the Greenpoint and Williamsburg neighborhoods were rapidly gentrifying in the late ’90s, much of the waterfront was left vacant or underutilized. However, the area lining the East River still featured a strong light-manufacturing base, and several once-vacant warehouses had been converted into (sometimes illegal) artists lofts. Developers and elected officials, seeing a massive influx of new residents, hoped to create more opportunities for residential development and public space on the waterfront.

How it was rezoned: Seventy-five blocks and 375 acres were rezoned from industrial-use to mixed-use land (residential and commercial). In exchange for letting developers build tall luxury condominiums along the waterfront, the city required them to make 20 percent of the new developments affordable housing units — an incentive known as inclusionary housing. To qualify for the affordable housing, tenants had to make less than 80 percent of the median area income, or $61,920 for a family of four. One of the loftiest goals was opening access to the waterfront, which meant designating the area along Kent Avenue from North 9th St. to the mouth of the Bushwick Inlet as park space.

The results: An initial boom in condominium development was met with a swift influx of well-heeled buyers and renters. However, the number of complaints about construction noise doubled, and construction itself reportedly damaged the foundations of many pre-existing homes. But the 2007 housing market crash changed everything. There were more stalled housing developments in Williamsburg than anywhere else in the city. The skeletons of many condo projects sat vacant for over two years.

Today, about one-third of the originally projected number of housing units have been created, and about 20 percent of the affordable housing units have been built. The waterfront park, which was supposed to cost $20 million, will now cost the city well over $200 million. Only 16 of 28 acres have been acquired.

Hudson Yards (2005)

The image on the left shows trains in the West Side Railyard, as it exists today. The image on the right is a rendering by MWW Group of the city's plan for what is -- slowly -- becoming the Hudson Yards development. Composite image: Photo courtesy of Sam Lewis (l); AP/MWW Group (r).

Why the area was rezoned: The Far West Side of Midtown Manhattan was once home to bustling manufacturing and garment industries. Today, the area is the last underdeveloped part of Manhattan, save for the West Side Railyard — a storage area for MTA cars. Every mayor since Ed Koch has tried and failed to develop the neighborhood in order to prevent an office space drought in Midtown. In his first term, Bloomberg planned to build a stadium on the railyard site as part of his bid for the 2012 Olympics, and hoped to use the Olympics to jump-start development in the area.

How it was rezoned: In January, 2005, the city rezoned the area from 28th to 42nd Street, between 8th and 12th avenues, including the eastern part of the railyards, from industrial to residential and commercial use. It allowed for 24 million square feet of office space, 13,000 residential units and an extension of the 7 line.

But Bloomberg lost the Olympics bid later that summer, which in retrospect — due to the financial crisis — was a blessing in disguise. Bloomberg tapped his former deputy mayor and some of the city’s biggest developers to restructure the plan to include a package of skyscrapers on the railyards, an expansion of the Jacob K. Javitz convention center, park space, a pedestrian land bridge and new housing — including an inclusionary housing component — through multiple zoning amendments. After excruciating negotiations with the MTA and developers, the city finally managed to rezone the western portion of the railyard in 2009, and Related Companies signed a deal with the MTA the following year .

The results: Bloomberg’s plans for Hudson Yards were ambitious, to put it mildly. After a five-year battle over affordable housing, Bloomberg reached a zoning restriction deal with tenants and the City Council in 2010 that prevented developers from demolishing existing residential buildings. The 7 line extension was scaled back in 2007, but was altered to include a different extension into Hoboken by 2013. The first phase of Hudson Boulevard, a city park planned to shimmy between 33rd and 42nd Street on 10th Avenue, is expected to be completed by 2013, to the tune of $1 billion.

Given the recession, plans are surprisingly coming together for Hudson Yards’ key component: the skyscrapers. The retailer Coach has agreed to build the first tower on the railyard, while 15 skyscrapers have been built in the Hudson Yards area since 2005, and several other tower projects have been announced in the past year.

While it will almost certainly be decades before Bloomberg’s vision for the Far West Side is complete, the project has garnered far more development than other rezoned areas since the financial crisis began. That success is owed to the fact that the Far West Side is choice Manhattan real estate, but also to the intensity with which Bloomberg pursued this monumental rezoning plan.

Jamaica Rezoning (2007)

The image on the left shows Jamaica Avenue in 2006, before the rezoning. The rezoning in 2007 has yet to make a major impact on the look of the neighborhood, largely due to the financial crisis, though the MODA mixed use building (right) is one of the few major new developments. Composite image: Flickr/Person Shaped (l); Photo courtesy of Moda Apartments (r).

Why the area was rezoned: Since the 1990s, Jamaica, Queens has experienced a massive influx of immigrants from Bangladesh and India, joining what had already been a steady pattern of immigration from the West Indies. In the early 2000s it was clear that the neighborhood’s population was outgrowing its predominantly low-density housing stock, and traffic congestion had become a key infrastructural issue.

Adding to that pressure, the city completed the Jamaica Station in 2003. The massive transit hub connected multiple subway lines, the LIRR and the newly created AirTrain JFK — an elevated railway designed to shuttle passengers from the nearby airport into the subway system. The city and the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation saw the coupling of the population boom and transit hub as an opportunity to restructure housing priorities and transform downtown Jamaica into a major commercial district with corporate retailers.

How it was rezoned: In 2005, the Department of City Planning proposed what was, at the time, the largest rezoning under Bloomberg, after debating initial plans with the City Council for two years. The plan called for the rezoning of 368 blocks, making way for chain stores and tall building-friendly, high-density development around Jamaica Station.

The plan demanded the preservation of existing single family homes in certain areas, but because single family home prices had risen by as much as 77 percent between 1991 and 2004, it included provisions for inclusionary housing. The City Council’s Land Use Committee predicted the rezoning would create 5,176 new housing units, 9,600 new jobs and 3 million square feet of new commercial space.

Jamaica’s Community Board 8 unanimously opposed the rezoning, citing concerns that it would generate too many residents for local infrastructure — including schools, police and sewers — to handle, overwhelm parking availability and negatively alter the character of the neighborhood. The City Council passed the plan in 2007.

The results: The rezoning was passed right before the financial crisis began, derailing many of the planned projects. Jamaica had the highest number of fraudulent home loans in the county, and more foreclosures than any other neighborhood in New York City. In many of Jamaica’s poorest areas, developers purchased rows of vacant homes and replaced them with inexpensive multi-family units. By 2011, the only major development out of the 5,176 predicted residential units was a 350 unit mixed-use building called Moda.

Several of the major development projects that were touted as part of the rezoning have experienced delays. The 5,000-square-foot retail project, the Sutphin Underpass, is expected to open in 2012, over a year behind schedule. Groundbreaking is still delayed on another major project, IMAX, which is supposed to better connect the AirTran to New York City transit system.

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