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Downzonings, density, and context

There's a lot to mine from the inaugural issue (Spring 2007) of City Limits Investigates (CLI), the quarterly offshoot of City Limits, which concerns the challenges of building affordable housing in a time of steadily rising construction costs.

One issue is the city's capacity for density, and the attendant context.

Even as the city has began upzonings, increasing opportunities for density in former manufacturing zones and near transit hubs (and, in the case of Atlantic Yards, letting the state override zoning without a similar public process), other neighborhoods have pressed for downzonings, ensuring against out-of-scale development.

For example, in his 2005 State of the Borough address, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz stated, "But smart development is not destroying the lovely character of Brooklyn’s most suburban neighborhoods. Southern Brooklyn has many neighborhoods that are primarily residential and dominated by single family detached homes. I am committed to the down-zoning of these neighborhoods, because we must preserve the community pride that makes Brooklyn great."

Going too far

There's certainly a logic to that, but it can also go too far. As CLI explains, some 40 percent of Staten Island has been downzoned, including some segments near the Staten Island Railway:
Developers who built the cheap, unattractive housing that fueled neighborhoods' demands for the new zoning restrictions have to take some of the blame. But there's little doubt that the city's tighter rules are suppressing not just ugly, out-of-scale buildings but also quality housing development that could be affordable. "They've driven the cost of land through the roof because of downzoning," says Randy Lee, a developer on Staten Island. "The problem you have is in a lot of new zones, they wanted to eliminate two-family houses, so you eliminated the rentals and those rentals represented an affordable housing stock. Almost all zoning that allowed townhouses was eliminated. There is no zoning left for garden apartments, condo housing, senior aparments... And the upzonings don't make up for it, he says. "You can't punch the pillow down in Staten Island and people to pop up on the Upper West Side or Williamsubrg. They pop up in Rockland County or New Jersey."

That also increases the pressure to build as big as possible elsewhere in the city, including projects like Atlantic Yards. Similarly, as I've noted, not-so-dense developments near transit, such as the Atlantic Commons in Fort Greene and the Nehemiah Houses in East New York, in hindsight appear unwise. But they were the only developments the market would support at the time.

Density and balance

CLI cites the city's new push for density:
In his April speech unveiling PlaNYC, however, Mayor Bloomberg announced a push for new zoning rules to increase housing in areas near mass transit lines. Even harsh critics of the Bloomberg administration acknowledge that zoning requires a very delicate balance. "You've got to be careful with density," notes one former political opponent of the mayor's. "How dense a city do you really want to live in?"... And zoning for more density can strain public services and alter the character of beloved neighborhoods.

That's one of the questions presented by Atlantic Yards. Urban planner and Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn Board Member Ron Shiffman has repeatedly argued that the project would strain the local infrastructure.

In a more optimistic take, Atlantic Yards landscape architect Laurie Olin told the New York Observer in February that the challenges culd be overcome: "It’s the future: how to live wisely and well in close quarters with good spaces and environmental conditions and with the highest qualities. What a project!"

Regional challenge

Markowitz and some other Atlantic Yards supporters have backed the project, at the size proposed, because "we need" the affordable housing. While the city suffers a huge deficit of affordable housing, and Atlantic Yards might make a small but not insignificant dent in that (but also might lead to the demise of affordable housing nearby), there is an argument for a larger context.

As noted, at some point, density strains livability. And the context is not only within the city, it's regional. As CLI points out:
"Some of this should be a regional issue," Bill Carbine, HPD's Assistant commisisoner for Neighborhood Preservation, said at a recent conference. "If there's affordable housing in Jersey City or in Yonkers, that helps all of us with this problem."

Meanwhile, the combination of the housing crunch and low incomes means there's a lot of de facto affordable housing in New York, where several families cram into apartments and houses, living in substandard conditions, sometimes violating the zoning code,


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