Responding to an uproar in low-rise neighborhoods over a proliferation of big churches, medical centers and other “community facilities,” the City Planning Commission is set to hold a hearing Wednesday on changes to zoning rules governing those buildings. Under the proposed new rules from the Department of City Planning and City Council, many houses of worship would have to provide more parking spaces than they do now, and medical offices would be barred from some neighborhoods of one- and two-family homes.
But the zoning proposal is facing a serious fight—both from critics who say it goes too far and those who think it doesn’t go far enough. Some religious groups, notably Orthodox Jews who walk to worship, contend they can’t afford to acquire property for more parking, and shouldn’t have to. And many community boards seeking to limit the size and scale of big buildings complain the proposed rules won’t accomplish that.
In Queens, where all 14 community boards have offered feedback on the plan, six disapproved it outright. Another seven approved it but called for modifications, many of them major. “Everyone wants something done with community facilities, but [the proposed plan] creates more problems than it helps,” said Community Board 11 Chair Jerry Iannece. That board approved the plan but called for still more parking spaces for houses of worship and a ban on medical offices from all residential areas.
Resolutions by Riverdale and Upper East and West Side boards protested that community facilities will continue to be allowed to build much larger and higher than nearby homes. “In the end, this was really wimpy in that it did not address the community facility zoning bonus,” said David Reck, chair of the land use committee of Greenwich Village’s Community Board 2, which has contended with the expansions of Cooper Union and New York University. Reck’s board objected to a new rule that would allow houses of worship to open without special permits in areas zoned for manufacturing.
That change also affects another constituency: the adult-entertainment industry. Under the new rules, the current 500 feet required between adult businesses and houses of worship would be reduced to 100 feet.
Meanwhile, City Council members representing Orthodox Jewish communities are criticizing rules that call for the number of parking spaces to be dictated by the capacity of a house of worship’s largest room. Currently, parking is tied to the number of permanent seats, prompting many churches and synagogues to use folding chairs instead. The new parking mandates would “cause nonprofit organizations that are strapped for money as it is to incur additional costs,” said Brooklyn Councilmember Simcha Felder. His colleague Domenic Recchia says he will introduce a measure into the City Council that would exempt synagogues from the new parking quotas.
The community boards’ input is strictly advisory, and City Planning officials warn that now that the rezoning process has begun, the range of possible changes is limited. Spokesperson Rachaele Raynoff says the agency will do its best to incorporate community input. “We will listen and we will consider those proposals that are constructive, that are different ways of achieving the same objective,” said Raynoff.
Elected officials pushing the new zoning rules say community boards can’t afford to be too demanding. Queens Councilmember Tony Avella, who helped broker the proposal, said that if it is not approved, “we’re not coming back to this. The political will power will just not be there.”
Avella said he is not discouraged by the widespread opposition to the zoning revisions. “I knew it was going to be difficult,” he said. When people complain that the bill should be stronger, he said, “that’s not a ‘no.’”