Mayor outlines sweeping rezoning plan

City Council stands between Adams’ aspirations and reality

Mayor Eric Adams and Kramer Levin's Valerie Campbell (iStock, Getty Images, Kramer Levin)
Mayor Eric Adams and Kramer Levin's Valerie Campbell (iStock, Getty Images, Kramer Levin)

Mayor Eric Adams released a three-pronged plan Wednesday to retool zoning rules to diversify businesses in neighborhoods and boost affordable housing.

But the path to approval is laced with irony.

If the City Council ultimately supports the mayor’s text amendments, certain rezonings could progress without slogging through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, a seven-month gauntlet known as Ulurp.

The irony is that his amendments first need to pass through that very process.

Here’s what’s on the docket for zoning tweaks:

A boost to business

Adams has made New York’s comeback a cornerstone of his agenda and fittingly, his first amendment — Zoning for Economic Opportunity — would make it easier for some business owners to set up shop across a wider reach of the city.

Under the plan, lab and research centers, custom manufacturing, “maker-retail” and nightlife could pop up in areas previously limited by inclusive zoning.

The proposal would be a green light for the growing life sciences sector, which leased a record 443,000 square feet in 2021.

Long Island City has become a hot spot for the industry, pulling fast-growing tenants such as robot-maker Opentrons to the life sciences hub Innolabs. The Queens neighborhood is more heavily zoned for biotech than Manhattan is, according to Innolabs.

Adams’ amendment aims to bring lab space to the other boroughs.

Within that vein, the proposal could also introduce nightclubs to residential blocks that aren’t zoned for dancing.

That measure may be a move to rid the city fo the remnants of the Cabaret Law, a near-century-old measure passed to tamp down on interracial dancing at Black jazz clubs during the Harlem Renaissance. The city repealed the law in 2017; however, the city’s Zoning Resolution still bans dancing in areas zoned for commercial and residential use.

City lawmakers, including City Council Majority Leader Keith Powers backed the nightlife change.

“This is a great dance, dance resolution,” quipped Powers in a statement, referencing the interactive video game.

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But as with all of the mayor’s amendments, the nightlife tweak will go before 59 community boards for public hearings and advisory opinions. It’s likely many New Yorkers won’t embrace the thought of booming house music and inebriated patrons spilling out onto their blocks.

“You do wonder if the nightlife measure is something that will survive the process,” said Valerie Campbell, a partner at law firm Kramer Levin specializing in land use and zoning.

A spokesperson for the Department of City Planning clarified that the city included the measure to address dancing bans in commercial districts where bars and restaurants are most heavily concentrated, as opposed to residential areas that rarely allow such establishments.

For the citywide proposals, a public airing is just the first step in Ulurp, which then requires a recommendation from each community board, then from every borough president, a yes vote by the city planning commission (filled by mayoral appointees), and finally, the City Council.

Another facet of Adams’ Economic Opportunity amendment could see wide variations in support: the elimination of additional parking requirements for expanding businesses.

While residents in transit deserts — much of Queens, for example — will push back against the idea, it’s possible most City Council members would be hip to the change. A number of Brooklyn members are already pushing to end mandatory parking minimums in new developments, according to Streetsblog.

More affordability

Adams’ second text amendment looks to foster more affordable housing in the midst of a shortage of homes and soaring market-rate rents.

The proposal, named Zoning for Housing Opportunity, would allow for more dense affordable housing projects. Minimum unit sizes would be more in line with the 325 square feet required for affordable senior apartments. Decades ago, the city raised the minimum, thinking it would give New Yorkers better living conditions, but the move raised costs and left thousands without any homes at all.

Higher density does lower per-unit construction costs, but affordable housing still needs subsidies to pencil out. Adams has pledged $5 billion to fund affordable housing production over the next decade — $3.6 for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and $1.2 billion for NYCHA.

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Policy wonks have criticized that as a low-ball number, considering NYCHA spent over $4 billion last year and needs 10 times as much to clear its repair backlog.

“I guess the question will be whether the affordable housing requirements are so significant that they really can’t be achieved without public funding,” Campbell said.

Campbell said the proposal will likely meet resistance, too, as residents in some neighborhoods may be “very opposed to the increase in floor-area ratio.”

Neighborhood groups, such as Village Preservation, criticized a state proposal included in Gov. Kathy Hochul’s preliminary budget that would have lifted the cap on the floor-to-area ratio limiting New York City multifamily buildings. Detractors claimed the legislation would usher in development that dwarfs the supertalls of Billionaire’s Row.

Hochul dropped the proposal from the budget.

A separate piece of the housing plans that may work better on paper than in practice is an initiative to spur adaptive reuse: The mayor aims to ease conversions of underutilized commercial buildings into homes.

The city’s been toying with turning vacant hotels and underused offices into housing for years, a consideration amplified by the pandemic.

For offices, the catch has been layouts. Multifamily buildings by law must have a window at least 30 feet from any room. Office towers’ interior rooms often lack an outside view. Under current building codes, such conversions tend to be cost-prohibitive.

Carving a light shaft down the center of an office tower is pricey in and of itself. And after that, the building would still need a rehabbed HVAC system, electric and plumbing, Slate reported.

Adams’ housing amendment would also allow for a wider variety of housing sizes to address the mismatch between New Yorkers’ lifestyles and the city’s dwellings. Broadly speaking, there are too few studios and one-bedrooms and too much underground parking.

A vague, green new deal

Last, Adams took a crack at cutting the city’s carbon emissions, the majority of which derives from real estate.

His “Zoning for Zero Carbon” proposal would dedicate more rooftop space to solar panels. Among other limitations, the Fire Department demands a fair amount of unfettered space on city roofs.

Zoning changes aside, landlords would still need to navigate the bureaucracies of Con Edison, the Department of Buildings and the state Energy Research and Development Authority before installing panels, as Gothamist explained.

The carbon-cutting proposal also seeks to eliminate barriers to the electrification of buildings through heat pump installations or more efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

It’s unclear how, exactly, the mayor would use rezoning to knock down those barriers. Campbell speculated that some neighborhoods may restrict how much roof space mechanical equipment such as HVAC units can occupy.

Overall, though, she sees the mayor’s climate-friendly initiatives being an easier sell to stakeholders.

“I don’t know that anyone is going to object to zoning for zero carbon unless it’s going to increase their cost,” Campbell said.

Streamlining Ulurp

Tucked into Adams’ triad of text amendments is the creation of the Building and Land Use Approval Streamlining or BLAST, a task force to cut through red tape and speed rezonings.

Though Adams’ amendments are also subject to Ulurp, Campbell said the idea is to fast-track private applications that “tend to get bogged down in one or more city agencies.”

“The city kind of has a built-in BLAST,” she said. “If the mayor is working on something, all the agencies will work to make sure it’s done.”

But to date, the mayor’s focus has been on crime, not housing and zoning. The jury is out on how much political capital and time he will devote to seeing his real estate proposals through.

Campbell couldn’t estimate how long the path to approval might be. But she cautioned that the city has yet to release text to accompany its press release and a speech by the mayor at the Association for a Better New York even Wednesday morning.

Not one of his proposals is listed as a current initiative on the city planning website.

“I have no doubt that that’s coming but it’s not there yet,” Campbell said. “So, it’s obviously early days in this process.”

CORRECTION: This article was updated to clarify that dancing is not allowed in commercial areas and the mayor’s rezoning proposal to encourage more nightlife intends to address dancing bans in those commercial districts where restaurants and bars are most heavily concentrated, as opposed to residential areas.