The Real Deal New York

Looking for an upside to downzoning

November 16, 2007
By Jaffer Kolb and Stuart W. Elliott

If Manhattan’s skyline is rising anew, the profiles of the outer boroughs are running up against new limits.

In a backlash to the city’s building boom, zoning restrictions on building heights, size, and density – referred to by planners as downzoning – will shape the future look of neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and even Manhattan. The key phrase invoked with these rules is “preservation of the existing character of the neighborhood.”

Though developers are quick to decry downzoning as a curb on their returns, the actual result of these restrictions often makes less of an impact, both developers and preservationists admit.

The New York City Council approved 13 major downzonings last year, while also approving four major rezonings to allow for more development – in Hudson Yards, Williamsburg/Greenpoint, West Chelsea, and Port Morris – which garnered more widespread attention.

Queens led the way in downzoning activity, according to data provided to The Real Deal by PropertyShark.com. Six neighborhoods in that borough saw rezoning aimed at preserving the low-density character of those areas. The Bronx and Brooklyn both had three neighborhoods where restrictions on development were put in place.

More downzonings – including five proposed in the Bronx, two in Queens, and one each in Brooklyn and Staten Island – are up for council approval this year. A Lower East Side downzoning is being looked at by Community Board 3, though consideration by the City Council could be two or three years away, advocates say.

In Manhattan, a downzoning of the far West Village now bars high-rise residential towers in a 14-block area bounded by Horatio Street to the north, Washington Street to the east, Morton Street to the south, and West Street on the west. Two exceptions remain – at 150 Charles Street and at Bethune and West streets, where the Witkoff Group and the Related Companies are building residential high-rises, respectively.

A popular myth, perhaps, is that downzoning and developers don’t mix. “Developers understand why in certain neighborhoods it is more valuable to preserve character and scale,” said Rockrose Development director of planning Jon McMillan.

McMillan said downzoning sometimes works in a developer’s favor, especially for those first in the door. “Because we already have four developments in the [far West Village], downzoning is actually in our best interest because it limits competition,” he said. He noted that typically the only party to lose money because of a rezoning is a person selling post-downzoned property.

Proponents of the far West Village downzoning received extensive press attention for their efforts – through protests, letter writing campaigns, and general loudness, most notably by the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation. Glass towers such as the Richard Meier-designed 173-176 Perry Street were seen by some preservationists as part of the “Miami-ization” of the neighborhood.

“We would have been all right with some development, but really it was the scale that was so surprising,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village society.

The city’s outdated zoning policy was one of the major reasons a downzoning was needed, Berman said. “For the most part, the zoning we have in New York is from 1961,” he said. “That rezoning was based on the expectation that the city’s population would double over the next 40 years, which hasn’t come close to happening.”

Berman said the city has since been sitting on underbuilt land as a result, and now the market is strong enough to realize the full potential of the unused bulk.

The Bloomberg administration – which appointed Amanda Burden as director of the Department of City Planning in 2002 – has been the first since the 1960s to comprehensively re-evaluate zoning, both for preservation and development.

With downzoning, there is also the issue of architecture. Contextual zoning can limit iconic architecture, some say. If the Meier-designed towers are derided by some, they are widely acclaimed by many more.

“Cities are meant to contain diverse architecture of varying sizes to remain aesthetically interesting,” said developer Angelo Cosentini of On the Level Enterprises, whose 16-story Blue condo is set to rise above neighboring tenement buildings at 105 Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side.

But Berman said the risk is not worth it in some cases. “There is always an element of chance, but clearly it’s better to have a small, ugly building that sticks out like a sore thumb than a large one,” he said.

While the Department of City Planning has been far more active than in the past recently in spearheading zoning initiatives, Berman said city agencies remain understaffed.

“It’s frustrating that the agencies – the DCP, the Landmarks Preservation Commission – are woefully understaffed,” he said. “A lot of the functions they had have since been placed on the shoulders of communities.” This includes research, documentation, and monitoring new development.

This trend toward community activism might become the most influential factor that shapes the look of the 21st-century city, since areas that have a civic infrastructure strong enough to ensure some amount of preservation and rezoning can deflect large-scale development to other areas.

“Groups get involved and rally around larger projects when there is a relaxation of regulations,” said developer Mario Procida, president of Procida Realty Corporation.

“We understand the lay of the land pretty well: we avoid where the community groups are most active,” McMillan added. “If you try and build in those places, you’ll never survive the process.”

Rather than battle downzoning, he said he’d rather focus on possibilities opened up by rezonings in places like Hudson Yards and Williamsburg. “The thing that’s great about New York is that there’s always a place to go,” McMillan said. “The whole city is really developing now; there are projects and sites for development all over.”

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