A Few Thoughts on the "Zoning for Quality and Affordability" Plan

A Few Thoughts on the "Zoning for Quality and Affordability" Plan

I've heard from many of you about the NYC Department of City Planning’s “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” (ZQA) text amendment proposal. The Park Slope Civic Council and other civic and preservation organizations have also shared their opinions with me, and asked me to take a position on the proposal.

Most of the attention in the civic and preservation communities has focused on the element of this proposal that would allow height increases of 5’ to 15’ in contextual districts, with no requirement of affordable, senior, or supportive housing.

I oppose that element of the plan. There is simply no reason to give developers who include zero affordable housing any additional height, flexibility, or other incentives.

There may be situations where a thoughtful developer would seek to match the context of an adjacent building – for example, to match the stoop height of an Old Law tenement building next door. In these cases, it could be appropriate to allow “plan level review” that would enable some narrow flexibility to match the immediate context.

But a blanket allowance of new height would simply allow most developers to maximize their profit, continue to build with little attention to contextual design, and provide no affordability. Many communities (including Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Windsor Terrrace, and Kensington) fought hard in recent years to win rezonings that protect neighborhood character; developers should not be allowed to construct taller buildings without a very clear commitment to the preserving the area’s surrounding context. For this reason, I oppose the element of the ZQA plan that would allow additional height, with no requirement of affordability.  If that element remains in the plan as it is, I will not be able to vote for it.

It is worth making clear, however, that there are other elements of the ZQA proposal that I believe merit support – including some increased flexibility for builders of senior, supportive, and inclusionary/guaranteed affordablehousing. Making sure that New Yorkers can afford to stay in their homes and creating new, appropriate affordablehousing may be the greatest challenge confronting our city. There is an especially urgent need to preserve & create affordable housing for our neighbors who are seniors, as demonstrated by the painfully limited housing choices faced by the 124 elderly seniors who were cruelly evicted en masse from the Prospect Park Residence last year. I also support the proposals to ease parking requirements in senior and affordable housing in areas well-served by transit.

Thanks to advocacy by civic, preservation, and community groups, the Department of City Planning extended the comment period, modified its proposal somewhat, and as prepared neighborhood-specific analyses.

The ZQA proposal must undergo a multi-step review process, which City Planning says it intends to begin this summer and continue into the fall. That process includes soliciting feedback from local Community Boards and the Borough Presidents. It would also require a vote of the City Council.

My hope is that continued dialogue between the de Blasio Administration and civic, neighborhood, community development, preservationist, and affordable housing groups – as well as with the City Council (which would ultimately be required to vote on any text changes) results in a much better ZQA proposal, which eliminates the “height-bonus-in-exchange-for-nothing” and fairly balances sometime-competing goals.  

Please do not hesitate to be in touch if you have questions I can help answer, and thank you again to many of you for writing about this important issue.

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Some final notes, on the broader context: it is worth noting that “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” is not the de Blasio Administration’s “Housing for New York” plan for affordable housing. The mayor’s affordable housing plan (available here), includes $41 billion in subsidies for more deeply affordable housing, neighborhood-specific rezoning efforts (beginning in East New York) that will include “mandatory inclusionary zoning” that requiresaffordable units (the details of this MIZ program have not been released yet, but are due out this summer), an effort to strengthen NYC’s rent regulation laws, an effort to reform the 421-a tax abatement program so that it would require affordable units in all of NYC (currently, less than 20% of NYC is covered by an affordability requirement), a big plan to address the daunting challenges facing NYCHA, and many other elements.

I understand the anxiety that many New Yorkers feel about density, new development, and changes taking place in our neighborhoods. We have seen far too many examples of developers taking advantage of loopholes, building out-of-scale, out-of-context, often very ugly housing with no affordability whatsoever. We have seen too many long-time residents and business pushed out of communities they lived in for many years. We have seen too much development without planning for necessary infrastructure, whether schools or sewers. And we've seen situations like that taking place in Cobble Hill at the LICH site, where communities have no real say about development in their neighborhoods.

I've offered some longer thoughts about how to address this situation with better public policy in this article, "Rediscovering City Planning and Community Development, Together." And in our own community, we launched the "Bridging Gowanuscommunity planning process precisely to make sure that community voices were central in planning the future for our community, before the City, developers, or other actors put forward proposals.

New York City will continue to grow and change. Done right -- with real attention to planning, infrastructure, and preservation -- that can be a good thing for our neighborhoods. And we certainly need to build and preserve affordable housing for a wide array of families, if we are going to keep this the diverse city that we love. 

These are tough issues, and not everyone will agree. But I'm confident that with real dialogue, and real planning, we can get it right. I look forward to continuing the conversation with you, and to fighting at City Hall to make sure we get it right. The future -- for our city and our neighborhoods -- depends on it.

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