Rezoning Changing NYC

David Goldsmith

All Powerful Moderator
Staff member
Lawsuit seeks to void Gowanus rezoning three months after approval

Groups that challenged rezoning last year claim city sidestepped environmental laws​

If at first you don’t succeed, try to get a judge to annul a neighborhood rezoning.
That’s the strategy taken up by Voice of Gowanus and Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus, two groups that filed a new lawsuit against the city Monday to challenge the Brooklyn neighborhood’s rezoning.

The complaint alleges that the city violated various state and federal environmental laws when it approved a measure in November allowing mixed-use buildings in the 82-block area, which had previously been mostly restricted to manufacturing use.
The same groups sued last year to prevent the proposal from moving forward, arguing that the City Planning Commission could not legally hold rezoning hearings virtually, even during the height of the pandemic. That effort forced the city to hold a hybrid in-person and virtual hearing, but the rezoning ultimately moved forward.

The groups’ latest challenge claims that the city did not adequately study the environmental consequences of the rezoning, failed to involve the Environmental Protection Agency in the rezoning process and did not take into account the impact of the upzoning on local infrastructure in the context of multiple large-scale developments underway in other parts of the borough.
“The Gowanus rezoning involves an exceptionally egregious set of failures to comply with the law,” wrote Richard Lippes, an attorney for Voice of Gowanus, in a statement. “This is one of the most complex cases I have seen: the cascading, overlapping failures to comply with state and federal laws is stunning.”
A spokesperson for the city’s Law Department called the lawsuit “meritless.”

“The approval process and environmental review were thorough and reflect years of deep community engagement around a vision and plan to make Gowanus a more sustainable and thriving neighborhood,” said Nicholas Paolucci, the city spokesperson, in a statement.
City officials have estimated that the rezoning will pave the way for the construction of more than 8,500 apartments, 3,000 of which would be set aside for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers. The administration is also fending off a separate lawsuit filed this month, seeking to undo the recent rezoning of Soho and Noho.

David Goldsmith

All Powerful Moderator
Staff member

City Planning head talks 421a, easing into rezonings

Dan Garodnick says Adams administration will be deferential with communities​

City Planning is not exactly itching to tackle another neighborhood rezoning.
Instead, the agency is focused on community-specific investments in infrastructure and public space, and overall, “waiting and sitting back to be guided by communities,” said its new leader, Dan Garodnick.

In an interview with The Real Deal, Garodnick said the Department of City Planning does not plan to “lead” with neighborhood rezonings, but will work on at least two over the next several months.

Garodnick later clarified his remarks, saying in a statement: “The department intends to work with communities on rezonings rather than announcing them first and selling them later.”
The agency has committed to moving forward with a neighborhood plan centered around Atlantic Avenue in Crown and Prospect Heights, along with a proposal, dubbed M-Crown, to change manufacturing zones in the area to allow more residential use.

City Planning also hopes to certify a neighborhood plan in Morris Park in the Bronx by 2023. The agency is also committed to making changes in Parkchester near one of the new Metro-North stations planned for the borough.
Any lack of urgency on rezoning would disappoint groups that see it as crucial to alleviating the city’s housing crunch and providing opportunities for ordinary New Yorkers to live in high-income neighborhoods.

Garodnick, who was appointed in January to the dual roles of director of the Department of City Planning and chair of the City Planning Commission, was a Manhattan City Council member for 12 years. During that time, he oversaw the rezoning of more than 70 blocks in Midtown East to encourage the creation of millions of square feet of new office space.

His agency is now looking into ways to allow other types of construction in that neighborhood and others — an acknowledgment of how the office market has changed during the pandemic and of the city’s continued need for affordable housing.
City Planning’s priorities under the Adams administration are just starting to take shape. Here’s what Garodnick had to say in his first media interview since being appointed.

What do you plan to do differently than your predecessors?​

We are at a critical moment in the city’s history. We are coming out of a serious health crisis, and we continue to face the issues of affordability throughout the whole city.
We want to take a new approach and take on longstanding problems and embrace new opportunities that have presented themselves. For example, people are changing their patterns — in the way they work, the way they spend their time and their money. We want to embrace that through our rules, and to encourage new business areas that previously did not see as much activity. We want to explore loosening the rules to allow building uses to change.

The state budget did not ease zoning rules to allow more conversions of commercial space into housing. What can the city do?​

There is an opportunity for adaptive reuse of obsolete office space. In some cases it is the state’s multiple dwelling law that is our limiting factor. In other cases it is zoning.
For instance, zoning could extend more flexibility to buildings that were built before 1977. It was something that was done in Lower Manhattan 25 years ago. In some areas of the city, a building that was built before 1961 can already convert if it complies with the state law, and it is in an area where residential is already permitted.

So we are going to take a look at these rules. Obviously, we still fully embrace our core commercial districts and high-performing buildings. But in some cases, if they are not living up to their potential, we would like to afford some flexibility.

You have identified Midtown East, Times Square and Midtown as areas where the city could encourage housing. Midtown East was just rezoned to encourage commercial development. Have you identified properties that may benefit from going residential instead?​

We have not cherry-picked buildings here for this purpose. In fact, we are starting our exploration about the rules more generally. The East Midtown rezoning has proven to be an enormous success in that the real estate world continues to bet on the future of that neighborhood. Why? Because it is right next to one of the most important transit hubs.

A proposal to replace 421a was left out of the state budget. The city’s mandatory inclusionary housing program works in tandem with the tax break. What happens to the program without 421a or something like it?​

A tax incentive is hugely important for mixed-income rental development. It is hard to speculate about what will or will not happen at the state level. 421a has lapsed before. I don’t think anyone needs reminding, but we are in a housing crisis. We have accumulated a shortage over decades of inadequate production. We need the tools that enable us to not only incentivize housing, but also to incentivize affordable housing, and that’s why this conversation is so important.

Is there a contingency plan if the program ends?​

I don’t think we are quite there yet. There are a lot of productive conversations happening, and we are hopeful that this will come to a positive resolution.

What neighborhood will City Planning seek to rezone next?​

We are going to take a different approach in how we embark on this journey. We want to work with communities and Council members and other willing partners who are looking to see positive neighborhood change.

“Planners have an admirable purity to them. Politics is a little messier.”
We are looking, and the mayor is committed to, finding catalytic investments that not only correct historic disinvestment but spur growth and economic activity throughout the city. And we are going to do this with or without a rezoning presence because it is the right thing to do.

We are focusing some of our early energy here on infrastructure investments across the city that we believe, themselves, will spur positive change and correct historic imbalances. Zoning is not the only tool that we have in our toolbox. We also of course are open to finding zoning opportunities as well, but we are not leading with that.

What type of projects are being considered?​

Projects that allow for public realm improvements in connection to transit access — that would promote outdoor gathering. Investments that support working parents, like daycares, libraries and playgrounds.

We’re interested in investments that enliven commercial corridors by investing in better public spaces that promote walkability and a sense of place. Overall we want to create opportunity for families that have fewer means, whether that is in creating open space, jobs or housing.

You are the first City Council member to become the head of City Planning, in recent memory at least. How does that affect how you approach the job?​

I understand the considerations of having a constituency that is making demands. It is complicated, and you have to balance a lot. Planners have an admirable purity to them. Politics is a little messier. And I know how to talk to Council members because I have lived that experience.

How do you feel about the tradition of member deference?​

I always liked it when my Council colleagues deferred to me. I think in some cases, it is perfectly reasonable. In those situations that have a broader or citywide impact, I think it is also important for the Council as a whole to weigh in. Like everything else, it is a balance.

The state did not adopt a proposal to lift the cap on residential floor-area ratio in the city. Is this something City Planning supports?​

We are interested in this one because we have such a housing crunch in the city. But it is important for people to remember that just because that cap is lifted does not mean that all planning principles go out the door. We would still need to evaluate the areas where that would be appropriate, consider context and to enable higher densities in a thoughtful way.

Mayor Adams has said streamlining processes is a priority. Is City Planning looking at any aspect of the land use review process?​

Yes. We are determined to find ways to shorten the precertification process to be user-friendly for applicants, and to not sacrifice quality in the process. This is really important.
Frequently applicants get frustrated on one hand by the amount of time City Planning takes to get their projects to the starting gate, and on the other hand, community boards are frustrated because they feel like City Planning is handing them a private project without sufficient consultation.

So we are going to try to shorten the process upfront and make it easier for applicants, and on the back end, encourage more robust and more thoughtful communication with communities around the city.

David Goldsmith

All Powerful Moderator
Staff member

Mayor outlines sweeping rezoning plan​

City Council stands between Adams’ aspirations and reality​

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.

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.
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.”