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Zoning Process Too Fast For CB4

Residents and CB4 members expressed concern at the March 16 Land Use Committee meeting that potential zoning changes could brings disruptions to Chelsea's neighborhood character.  Photo by Zach Williams

Residents and CB4 members expressed concern at the Land Use Committee meeting that potential zoning changes could alter Chelsea’s neighborhood character (in foreground, CB4 chair Christine Berthet). Photo by Zach Williams.

BY ZACH WILLIAMS | Community Board Four (CB4) members want more study time before providing comments to the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP) on potential zoning rule changes which would drastically overhaul regulations on the height, size and shape of new residential developments.

The CB4 Land Use Committee (CLU) decided, at its March 16 meeting, to enlist the help of elected officials in order to postpone a March 25 “public scoping meeting” at which the DCP will receive suggestions on potential topics for analysis.

In the event that the date remains firm, the CLU will testify that they had inadequate time to fully analyze the details and implications of a 166-page, Feb. 2015 DCP draft document examining the scope of a future Environmental Impact Statement (which would address issues pertaining to potential changes to contextual zoning regulations).

Contextual zoning regulates the height, bulk, setback from street, and frontage width in new buildings — with the purpose of maintaining the architectural character of neighborhoods, according to a City definition.

Standard public notification times before such meeting are one month, according to the DCP, whose website (nyc.gov/html/dcp) notes that written comments will be accepted through April 6 and public participation will continue through the fall of this year, according to the department.

CLU co-chair Lee Compton told Chelsea Now that the push for more affordable housing cannot come at the cost of more than a decade of work by the community board on managing neighborhood development. The process is moving along too quickly, he said in an interview.

“This is a citywide initiative that is being rammed through with not enough time to make even the most basic consideration of what [the department] should be studying,” Compton said.

The current rules on zoning came into effect in 1987. Changes are needed in order to meet the demands of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing push, according to representatives of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC), who presented their own research to the committee on March 16. The non-profit group represents the perspectives of a board including nearly 100 architects, developers and lawyers,

Of particular concern to the CHPC is how the limitations on building dimensions (called “the envelope”) reduce the amount of residential units in a new development. A 2014 CHPC study examined the experiences of 17 projects in the city — none of which were in Manhattan south of 99th St. Only one out of that sampling was able to maximize floor space under current restrictions, according to the report.

In the 28 years since the changes, average floor-to-floor heights have increased from about eight feet, eight inches to nine or more feet. Pre-war buildings typically feature even higher ceilings. But building practices require more infrastructure between floors — such as fire sprinklers and soundproofing materials. As a result, this limits the amount of floors permitted by what the CHPC called “rigid” building height limits.

The result is that architects and developers have to maximize floor area as much as possible while keeping construction costs down, according to CHPC president Mark E. Ginsberg.

“We’ve created this straitjacket where if you look at a lot of the buildings there’s very little variation besides the color of the brick because (developers are) trying to take all the floor area and fit it into the building,” he said to the CLU on March 16.

Limiting a building’s height by floors rather than feet is one way to inject more residential units into a development, according to the CHCP report.

“Many CHPC board members believe that New York City should begin to move away from such prescribed requirements for our built environment and make a shift toward performance zoning — an alternative system to traditional land use planning that uses performance-based, or goal-oriented criteria,” reads the report.

Removing obstacles to housing production and reducing construction costs are key strategies of de Blasio’s affordable housing plan, which has the ambition of preserving or creating 200,000 units of affordable housing by 2024.

DCP is in the midst of a yearlong process, preparing recommendations to the City Planning Commission and City Council on zoning changes.

The March 25 meeting will determine the scope of an Environmental Impact Statement, a draft of which is scheduled to be completed this spring. The public land use review process will likely commence at about that time and conclude in the fall, according to the department.

Members of the CLU expressed concern that altering current zoning regulations would lead to higher buildings and questioned whether developers truly need to maximize floor area as much as possible in order to build affordable housing while still making money. But more than anything at the meeting, the biggest worry was that 16 years of development of the community board’s own housing plan could quickly become irrelevant by the city’s plan.

CB4 members said they should contact Borough President Gale Brewer (manhattanbp.nyc.gov) and Councilmember Corey Johnson (council.nyc.gov/d3) in an effort to postpone the meeting.

CB4 chair Christine Berthet (nyc.gov/mcb4) said the chair of neighboring CB2 called to express dismay that informed comment could not be ready by March 25.

Berthet added that the issue will also be brought up at the next meeting of the Borough Board — scheduled for March 19. At stake is the survival of the diversity of Manhattan neighborhoods themselves, Berthet said in an interview with Chelsea Now following the March 16 CB4 meeting.

“The context is what defines neighborhoods. If we want to keep that diversity and character of the neighborhood, we have to keep the context,” she asserted.