Maligned zoning plan quietly dies

By Adam Pincus | February 10, 2009 02:48PM

A Giuliani administration proposal opposed by the real estate industry and drafted during the building boom of the late 1990s to restrict building height and density was unceremoniously killed by the city last week.

The citywide plan, known as the unified bulk program, would have restricted the height of buildings in neighborhoods, removed the plaza bonus for apartment towers that allows for taller construction and imposed restrictions on the transfer of development rights, through a comprehensive reform of the 1961 Zoning Resolution.

It was not formally withdrawn until February 5 by the Department of City Planning, but a spokesperson for the agency declined to comment.

The Real Estate Board of New York said in 2000 that even with a modification, the plan was objectionable. Civic groups in the boroughs were also critical of the plan.

The central proponent of the plan, Joseph Rose, former chairman of the City Planning Commission and director of the City Planning Department from 1993 to 2001, said in an email today that the zoning regulations remain difficult to understand.

“In recent years the Planning Commission has chosen to pursue numerous neighborhood rezonings rather than systemic reform of the Zoning Resolution,” he said in an e-mail. “While much has been accomplished, we are alas still burdened with a lengthy and awkward zoning text that few are happy with and even fewer understand.”

The impetus for the plan was the construction of the 856-foot Tall Trump World Tower On First Avenue at 47th Street, which was criticized for being too massive.

The City Planning Commission released the proposal in December 1999, and over the next two years it won a favorable recommendation from the Manhattan borough president’s office, and conditional favorable approvals from the borough presidents of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, according to city records.

The plan lacked strong support from Mayor Giuliani, however. And more recently, the Bloomberg administration never supported it, creating instead targeted rezoning proposals for neighborhoods like the East Village/Lower East Side, Upper West Side and Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, said a city official who asked not to be identified.

Real estate experts such as Robert Knakal, chairman of real estate investment sales firm Massey Knakal Realty Services, were surprised to hear the proposal survived even on a technical basis.
“It was a proposal in response to Donald Trump’s tower on First Avenue but it never went anywhere. I’m surprised it still existed in any form,” he said in an e-mail.