Skip to main content

The Zoning Resolution at 50, and some lessons from Philadelphia, where a new zoning plan makes sure to incorporate community input

On June 8, the Municipal Art Society, along with the New York City Bar Association and American Planning Association New York Metro Chapter, sponsored a decorous panel on the history and future of zoning in New York, with continuing education credits for lawyers and planners.

Looking through an Atlantic Yards lens, it was another reminder that other cities, in this case Philadelphia, are making a greater commitment to public input, reflect greater respect for such input, and have powerful civic institutions that counterbalance government and the private sector.

Philadelphia, with a 1.5 million population (less than one-fifth the size of New York’s 8 million) and a less dense cityscape, may not pose a direct parallel--indeed, New York may be sui generis.

But it still was notable to hear Philadelphia’s Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Alan Greenberger emphasize the importance and value of public input.

Behind zoning

The zoning resolution, passed in 1961, is the closest thing to a comprehensive plan that New York City has, according to the MAS. But it’s not much of a plan, given that it has grown enormously--by 900 pages--with numerous amendments. Does it still adequately and comprehensively address the challenges the city faces today?

In introducing the panel, MAS President Vin Cipolla suggested that the current City Planning Commission (CPC), led by Amanda Burden, has pursued far more rezonings--upzonings and downzonings--and probably done the best job in the history of the CPC to balance the imperatives of growth and the preservation of neighborhood character.

Needless to say, Atlantic Yards, in which the city willingly allowed the unelected Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) to override city zoning and to bypass the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), went unmentioned.

DCP take

As he did last summer at the Charter Revision Commission hearing on land use, where he praised the status quo regarding ULURP as “strong and robust,” The general counsel for the Department of City Planning, David Karnovsky, endorsed the status quo.

He pointed out, not unreasonably, that such plans can freeze a vision for the city, and in that case, was already out of date, promoting a “towers in the park vision” that, tellingly, that year was epically skewered by Jane Jacobs’s landmark The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Moreover, “we are living in a city that really is built out,” he said. “Today we live in a mature city,” with the challenge of conserving and managing an “extraordinary inventory of neighborhoods... a comephensive rezoning would, I think, result in some of the same cookie cutter approaches.”

So he recommended proceeding “carefully and laboriously and in incremental fashion.” He noted that the arguments for a new resolution don’t call for a radical re-visioning, but maintain that the document is too large and complex to be understood.

There’s no question it's large and complex, he said, but “but complexity reflects the city... Cookie cutter approaches don't work.”

Yes, it needs to be updated and clarified, he agreed, but not via a comprehensive rewrite.

What happened 50 years ago


Karnovsky noted that, in the late 1950s, there was an obvious need to adapt the initial 1916 resolution--which aimed to fight massive buildings in Lower Manhattan that blocked light and air but wound up producing “wedding cake” style buildings of stepped pyramids. Such buildings had by then become considered inefficient and passe. And the zoning resolution in many cases did not separate uses between commercial, industrial, and residential.

Moreover, the city was facing demographic change and suburbanization, with a decline in the industrial economy and the departure of the middle class. “There was a sense that the city was too old and obsolete to compete and thrive,” he said, so the 1916 resolution was seen as a drawback.

The 1961 resolution, in a sense, represented a “massive downzoning,” since it was designed for a city of 12 million residents, while the 1916 resolution prepared for 55 million residents. The 1961 also addressed the issue of cars, establishing minimum parking requirements.

“The irony is that the '61 resolution ended up substituting one orthodoxy for another, remaining the city in the International modernist style,” he said. “The problem was the ‘61 resolution was not designed to respond to the city as it is, but to remake the city as it should be.”

Since then, there’s been a plethora of finer-grained responses, with height districts, special districts, and contextual zoning. “If there's any overall lesson, it's that FAR [Floor Area Ratio] matters, but so does form... and form is the way people react to the built environment.”

The 1961 rezoning actually added to land area for industry, anticipating the need for single level modern factory space, but the city’s economy changed enormously, with a new emphasis on loft zoning.
What now?

“The point is not that that the ‘61 resolution is a dinosaur and in need of overhaul, it's that it doesn't really exist any more,” Karnovsky declared.

“With the over 100 rezonings that have taken in place in this administration, and the various text changes, our rules are significantly tilted toward contextualism and the active streetscape.” And the city has pursued growth in neighborhoods well-served by transit, like Downtwon Brooklyn, Jamaica, and Hudson Yards.

While 1961 “was fundamentally a top-down exercise,” he said, “what we do today is a far cry form that,” suggesting that the process is to try to understand local needs while at the same time pursuing city objectives. (At the Charter Revision Commission, critics like Tom Angotti said too little attention is paid to neighborhood voices.)

Karnovsky also said DCP has begun to pursue other goals, such as affordable housing (via inclusionary zoning), food access, alternative transportation, and green technologies. DCP is also studying parking regulations--which many see as promoting the use of cars even in transit-rich neighborhoods.

“If zoning needs to continue to be adapted to emerging needs, let's continue that process,” he said. “But if the idea is to start from scratch, I think we should think twice.”

Lessons from midtown

Former deputy director of urban design for DCP Michael Parley helped craft the rules for the development of Midtown and has been a consultant on many of the city’s recent skyscrapers. He showed how the zoning resolution, initially a slender volume, has grown to 1270 pages, which is 1000 pages more than in 1961.

“I agree with David, this is not bad, this is complexity that we need,” Parley said.

The firm that wrote the 1958 report that became the new zoning resolution praised modern buildings like Lever House, but didn't examine the impact on the city if they were replicated. “They were singular acts in the streetscape,” he said.

The special district for Midtown is extremely complex, but it has to be to get results. “As David points out, this is what City Planning has been doing over many years, under an accelerated pace under Commissioner Burden,” Parley said.

Lessons from Philadelphia

The third speaker was Greenberger, an architect who formerly headed Philadelphia’s City Planning Commission and is now deputy mayor for economic development. (Imagine that transition in New York, where the economic development people tend to be hardcore businesspeople.)

Nearly every major city has a 50-year updating effort. “We also didn't have a comprehensive plan,” he said, and Philadelphia has just published a comprehensive plan, which he said “ goes hand in hand with zoning.” (The implication is that zoning does not substitute for a plan.)

Not only was Philadelphia’s zoning code “full of amazing anachronisms,” referencing abattoirs and tanneries, but there have been so many adaptations to the code that some 40% of the volume of applications require a zoning variance, which “makes the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which is supposed to be sitting on hardship matters, a de facto planning agency.”

Four years ago, city voters approved a ballot measure establishing a 31-member Zoning Code Commission, which hired local and national consultants to developer reform efforts, with the goals that the code:
  • provide consistency and understandability
  • make future construction and development more predictable
  • encourage high quality positive development
  • preserve the character of existing neighborhoods
  • involve the public in development decisions.
After “a ton of civic engagement,” including 36 meetings the number of zoning districts has been consolidated from 55 to 30, and the number of overlay zoning districts from 30 to 11.

“We invented a lot of new process,” he added, “to organize input into projects that have larger impacts.” He noted that some communities have very sophisticated mechanisms, while others don’t.

They’ve also created a design review process for projects of high impact, a provision developers “really hated,” but have come around to understand. And the city is cutting parking requirements down dramatically, particularly for the city center.

The first public hearing by the City Council is this week, with the hope it all will be passed in a few months. Greenberger noted that “we punted on sign controls, because there is no issues that creates greater arguments than signs.” That will be addressed separately.

The web site Zoning Matters was initially developed to educate and inform the public about the need for zoning reform, and was funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation. With the passage of the voter referendum to create a Zoning Code Commission, the site was revised in order to follow the progress of the Zoning Code Commission as members are appointed and they begin their work.

How they got there


The question on New Yorkers’ minds, as Cipolla articulated, was how Philadelphia got such a big, nuanced undertaking done, even with a supportive mayor.

“There was a growing movement of people interested in reform, of zoning, of planning,” Greenberger said, many coming from the Design Advocacy Group, which has a somewhat similar function to the MAS.

“Most critical is that there was a big powerful foundation very interested in this kind of issue,” he said of the William Penn Foundation.

No such foundation plays a similar role in New York, I'd point out.

And the Philadelphia City Planning Commission last week adopted the city-wide vision portion of a new comprehensive plan , according to PlanPhilly, an independent news organization affiliated with PennPraxis, the clinical arm of the School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania.

Community engagement

Asked about community engagement, Greenberger commented,“I’m often surprised how community members get it right.”

“We need their input,” he added. “It’s not Should we or shouldn’t we? It’s We must find an organized way to get it.”

Community members, he observed, seem less interested in details and veto power than simply to be heard. “They’re deeply concerned with individual respect.”

“People don’t trust government,” he noted. “People don’t trust developers. They’re not wrong, many times.”

That might resonate in Brooklyn.

Did zoning in NYC work out?

What took so long for zoning reform? Not only did planners’ ambition decline in the wake of Jacobs’s criticisms, and federal funds for urban renewal declined, Greenberger suggested.
Cipolla asked Karnovsky if the dire predictions from a 1991 conference on zoning in New York had been borne out.

Karnovsky cited “a sense of pessimism, even in 1991, about the capacity of city to change the zoning and make it more coherent and workable.” However, “I think that recent history shows it's not true.”

Can zoning promote great architecture, Cipolla asked Parley.

“Zoning is not an instrument for great architecture,” Parley responded. “Good zoning allows great architecture if there's a desire to produce it... So you want to have a zoning that's flexible enough to allow for great architecture but prevent deleterious things that could happen if things are too loose.”

Caution about big projects

Parley commented that infrastructure has nothing to do with zoning and that the history of planning major projects is a mixed bag. He called Mayor Bloomberg’s West Side Stadium a “big mistake” and suggested that “large-scale plans have to be entered into carefully because the chance of getting them wrong is great.”

No one mentioned Atlantic Yards, but surely similar comments could be made.

Karnovsky, maintaining the party line, noted that most development in New York City was as-of--right, but community engagement is built into the ULURP process, which he suggested “has been invigorated” by the increased amount of information available.

That’s hard to deny, but the lingering, unaswered question is whether ULURP needs simply to be re-invigorated or in some ways rebalanced.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Barclays Center/Levy Restaurants hit with suit charging discrimination on disability, race; supervisors said to use vicious slurs, pursue retaliation

The Daily News has an article today, Barclays Center hit with $5M suit claiming discrimination against disabled, while the New York Post headlined its article Barclays Center sued over taunting disabled employees.

While that's part of the lawsuit, more prominent are claims of racial discrimination and retaliation, with black employees claiming repeated abuse by white supervisors, preferential treatment toward Hispanic colleagues, and retaliation in response to complaints.

Two individual supervisors, for example, are charged with  referring to black employees as “black motherfucker,” “dumb black bitch,” “black monkey,” “piece of shit” and “nigger.”

Two have referred to an employee blind in one eye as “cyclops,” and “the one-eyed guy,” and an employee with a nose disorder as “the nose guy.”

There's been no official response yet though arena spokesman Barry Baum told the Daily News they, but take “allegations of this kind very seriously” and have "a zero tolerance policy for…

Behind the "empty railyards": 40 years of ATURA, Baruch's plan, and the city's diffidence

To supporters of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, it's a long-awaited plan for long-overlooked land. "The Atlantic Yards area has been available for any developer in America for over 100 years,” declared Borough President Marty Markowitz at a 5/26/05 City Council hearing.

Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, mused on 11/15/05 to WNYC's Brian Lehrer, “Isn’t it interesting that these railyards have sat for decades and decades and decades, and no one has done a thing about them.” Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco, in a 12/19/04 New York Times article ("In a War of Words, One Has the Power to Wound") described the railyards as "an empty scar dividing the community."

But why exactly has the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard never been developed? Do public officials have some responsibility?

At a hearing yesterday of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee, Kate Suisma…

Barclays Center event June 11 to protest plans to expand Israeli draft; questions about logistics

At right is a photo of a poster spotted in Hasidic Williamsburg right. Clearly there's an event scheduled at the Barclays Center aimed at the Haredi Jewish community (strict Orthodox Jews who reject secular culture), but the lack of English text makes it cryptic.

The website Matzav.com explains, Protest Against Israeli Draft of Bnei Yeshiva Rescheduled for Barclays Center:
A large asifa to protest the drafting of bnei yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel into the Israeli army that had been set to take place this month will instead be held on Sunday, 17 Sivan/June 11, at the Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn, NY. So attendees at a big gathering will protest an apparent change of policy that will make it much more difficult for traditional Orthodox Jewish students--both Hasidic (who follow a rebbe) and non-Hasidic (who don't)--to get deferments from the draft. Comments on the Yeshiva World website explain some of the debate.

The logistical questions

What's unclear is how large the ev…

Atlanta's Atlantic Yards moves ahead

First mentioned in April, the Atlantic Yards project in Atlanta is moving ahead--and has the potential to nudge Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn further down in Google searches.

According to a 5/30/17 press release, Hines and Invesco Real Estate Announce T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards:
Hines, the international real estate firm, and Invesco Real Estate, a global real estate investment manager, today announced a joint venture on behalf of one of Invesco Real Estate’s institutional clients to develop two progressive office projects in Atlanta totalling 700,000 square feet. T3 West Midtown will be a 200,000-square-foot heavy timber office development and Atlantic Yards will consist of 500,000 square feet of progressive office space in two buildings. Both projects are located on sites within Atlantic Station in the flourishing Midtown submarket.
Hines will work with Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture (HPA) as the design architect for both T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards. DLR Group will be t…

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Revising official figures, new report reveals Nets averaged just 11,622 home fans last season, Islanders drew 11,200 (and have option to leave in 2018)

The Brooklyn Nets drew an average of only 11,622 fans per home game in their most recent (and lousy) season, more than 23% below the announced official attendance figure, and little more than 65% of the Barclays Center's capacity.

The New York Islanders also drew some 19.4% below announced attendance, or 11,200 fans per home game.

The surprising numbers were disclosed in a consultant's report attached to the Preliminary Official Statement for the refinancing of some $462 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Barclays Center (plus another $20 million in taxable bonds). The refinancing should lower costs to Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the arena operating company, by and average of $3.4 million a year through 2044 in paying off arena construction.

According to official figures, the Brooklyn Nets attendance averaged 17,187 in the debut season, 2012-13, 17,251 in 2013-14, 17,037 in 2014-15, and 15,125 in the most recent season, 2015-16. For hoops, the arena holds 17,732.

But official…

So, Forest City has some property subject to the future Gowanus rezoning

Writing yesterday, MAP: Who Owns All the Property Along the Gowanus Canal, DNAinfo's Leslie Albrecht lays out the positioning of various real estate players along the Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site:
As the city considers whether to rezone Gowanus and, perhaps, morph the gritty low-rise industrial area into a hot new neighborhood of residential towers (albeit at a fraction of the height of Manhattan's supertall buildings), DNAinfo reviewed property records along the canal to find out who stands to benefit most from the changes.
Investors have poured at least $440 million into buying land on the polluted waterway and more than a third of the properties have changed hands in the past decade, according to an examination of records for the nearly 130 properties along the 1.8-mile canal. While the single largest landowner is developer Property Markets Group, other landowners include Kushner Companies, Alloy Development, Two Trees, and Forest City New York.

Forest City's plans unc…