In May 2014, a few weeks after Mayor de Blasio released his plan to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, Commissioner of the Department of City Planning (DCP) Carl Weisbrod explained that the city would begin to reach that goal by upzoning fifteen neighborhoods, starting with East New York.
Eight months later, de Blasio revealed five more neighborhoods in his State of the City address: East Harlem, Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, Bay Street in Staten Island, Flushing, and Long Island City. A few months later, the city quietly slipped in a seventh: Inwood, where Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez had long called for a rezoning.
And what about the next eight? For the past year, developers, urban planners and neighborhood residents have awaited the news with excitement and fear. Some are beginning to wonder if the administration is purposely remaining vague, perhaps having learned lessons from the fallout that greeted its early announcement of the East New York plan.
Indeed, at a panel discussion hosted by the Fifth Avenue Committee on May 18, DCP director Purnima Kapur said she had to be careful not to hint at the next eight, since that could encourage speculative activity by developers, as occurred in East New York. And Elena Conte, director of policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development, says the early announcements may have hurt the city in other ways.
“It kind of set up this dynamic where communities felt the need to react and respond,” she says. “It was hard for communities broadly to feel like, ‘OK, this is the kick off of a broad and inclusive planning process that doesn’t have a predetermined result.'”
Perhaps the city’s decision to not (yet) reveal a full list of targeted neighborhoods will allow it to be more receptive to community visions, including the desire to not be rezoned. Yet it’s also left the public in the dark about how the administration intends to choose the next neighborhoods, and what the city might look like after the plan is complete.
“The real question that we and others have asked…[is] what criteria is the administration using to decide…these large-scale rezonings?” says Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer at the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development (ANHD).
Two of the criteria—room for development and good access to transportation—are fairly obvious, she says. And others note that the administration will have the most success when they choose neighborhoods where the local councilmember is strongly supportive of a rezoning. But many advocates wonder why the administration has focused mostly on rezoning low-income communities of color, where it risks catalyzing displacement. In contrast, rezoning a high-income neighborhood would allow rents to cross-subsidize low-income apartments, allowing developers to provide the affordable units required under the city’s new mandatory inclusionary housing policy but without the use of city subsidy.
“I think we’re all really watching and waiting to see whether the rest of the list provides more balance and whether there are some more explicit criteria outlined with how mandatory inclusionary housing will…fit in well with future neighborhood rezonings,” says Goldstein.
Asked why the administration had focused on low-income neighborhoods and if it would rezone wealthy areas in the future, Kapur said that two of the rezoning areas already under consideration, Long Island City and Bay Street, were not low-income, and that the administration would continue to consider a variety of types of communities. (The median incomes for the Long Island City and Bay Street community districts are close to the citywide median income.)
In response to City Limits’ questions about the criteria used to select rezoning neighborhoods, Austin Finan, a spokesperson for the mayor, said in an e-mail that the administration “will work with community stakeholders and elected officials to determine where there is capacity for mixed-income housing and associated public investments…We will strongly consider all community input for any proposed neighborhood plan that moves forward.”
While the administration’s plans remain opaque, some planners have already begun crafting lists of high-income neighborhoods with good transit that could support higher levels of density. Moses Gates, a planner at the Regional Plan Association, published such a list in Metropolitiques last year. It included Murray Hill, parts of the Upper East Side and Manhattan’s west side; Bay Ridge, Manhattan Beach, Sheepshead Bay and parts of Midwood in Brooklyn, Queens Village, Bay Side and Forrest Hills in Queens, and mid-Island areas in Staten Island.
In addition, stakeholders in a few neighborhoods—both high and low-income—are reaching out to the administration with calls for a rezoning study. Here is a look at a few of them, why those residents want the mayor’s attention, and why some of their neighbors don’t.
Far Rockaway: Jobs, Retail—maybe affordable housing?
Downtown Far Rockaway, once home to a thriving commercial center, has suffered from decades of neglect. Vacant storefronts offer few job opportunities to local residents, of whom 75 percent are black or Latino and of whom a quarter make less than 30 percent of area median income. For years, residents have begged for the city’s attention.
In his State of the City address this year, Mayor de Blasio announced he would invest $91 million in Far Rockaway to jumpstart the renovation of a local recreation center, make upgrades to the neighborhood’s streetscaping and transportation infrastructure, develop a city-owned lot, and bring mixed-income housing, retail and community facilities to the neighborhood. The effort, says a document elaborating the plan, will reestablish the area as “the commercial and transportation hub of the Rockaway peninsula.”
While de Blasio hasn’t explicitly named downtown Far Rockaway as a rezoning neighborhood, for all intense and purposes it seems to be one. This year, Councilmember Donovan Richards, in partnership with the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), hosted about half a dozen community engagement workshops to identify the neighborhood’s strengths and needs, and to craft recommendations to guide future development. The neighborhood is also the focus of a number of other agency studies and have garnered a menu of city investments in economic development, including $185,000 to fix up 21 storefronts and $1.1 million to connect residents to employers.
Creating employment is one of Richards’ great hopes for the neighborhood.
“Developing the area is important because we bring jobs down here and then people don’t have to worry about transportation to get off the peninsula to get to Manhattan to work,” says Jordan Gibbons, the councilmember’s press secretary.
Community Board 14 district manager Jonathan Gaskin is also excited for the revitalization of the commercial sector, and believes the area has the potential to attract new residents despite its distance from Manhattan and the island’s vulnerability to hurricane damage. Downtown didn’t suffer as much from Hurricane Sandy as other parts of the peninsula, and the city is also making transportation investments, including in a new ferry line.
“I got to tell you, just before Sandy and right after Sandy we’ve had this influx of younger folks, we like to call them hipsters…buying in areas that people normally wouldn’t buy in,” says Gaskin. He notes, however, that the community board doesn’t want any subsidized housing for people making below 60 percent AMI.
“If we are going to attract businesses that are going to hire locally, they’re not going to come if people don’t have a little disposable income,” he says. “We’ve done our fair share for those in desperate need and we’re really looking for economic development and creating jobs for those in the more impoverished areas.”
Board member Milan Taylor strongly disagrees with Gaskin. He says low-income residents are already struggling with rising rents, and many who were displaced by Hurricane Sandy have been unable to afford their return. Affordable housing created through a rezoning should provide units for families making 30 and 40 percent Area Median Income (AMI), he said.
“I’m very excited to see these changes come to our communities but at the same time a red flag automatically pops up and the first thing that comes to my mind is gentrification,” says Taylor, who is also worried that the economic development will benefit newcomer’s businesses rather than low-income residents of the neighborhood.
“Something that you have to realize is that our community board that is making these decisions on behalf of the entire community does not represent the demographics of this entire community,” he adds.
Taylor has one reason to be hopeful: in the event of a rezoning, the local councilmember has great sway on the level of affordability, and Richards has expressed support for policies that serve a variety of income levels.
“This has been an historic area of contention with the Community Board,” said Richards in an e-mail to City Limits. “Considering the AMI in the Rockaways is 40 percent, will continue to work to provide housing for working families that earn between 30 and 110 percent AMI. These are our police officers, nurses, firefighters and new college graduates.”
Bushwick: Before it becomes Williamsburg
The next stop on the L from Williamsburg, Bushwick is widely regarded as gentrification’s next frontier. According to a Furman Center report, it is the fourth fastest gentrifying neighborhood after Williamsburg, Harlem and Chinatown, with rents increasing an average of 44 percent between 1990 and 2014.
Faced with growing displacement, in 2013 Community Board 4 members called on elected officials to conduct a zoning study to create protections for the neighborhood’s character through downzoning, impose restrictions on night clubs and, in exchange, potentially permit specific areas to be upzoned.
“If we don’t start something for us then it’s going to take its own shape and form…We will have more buildings that are out of context, that are unaffordable,” district manager Nadine Whitted told City Limits.
In 2014, newly elected Councilmembers Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Espinal took up the board’s call for a community-based planning process, conducting a round of public visioning sessions to explore a variety of neighborhood needs and whether or not to pursue a rezoning. City agency staff were also present to inform community members about the legalities of the process and provide some facilitation, according to Make the Road organizer Jose Lopez.
This year, with mandatory inclusionary housing now law, Reynoso has come out in strong support of a Bushwick rezoning, issuing a policy brief in which he argues that a rezoning with mandatory inclusionary housing and other affordability and preservation strategies could help prevent displacement in Bushwick. He and Espinal have convened a steering committee of local groups, again inviting agency officials to participate. In the next months he is expected to announce the structure of a formal planning process.
Lopez says many of the working-class members of Make the Road have hope in the process, but want to ensure the plan leads to deep affordability levels beyond those required by mandatory inclusionary housing.
“East New York was a rezoning that I don’t think our members were thrilled with, in terms of the affordability levels that were reached,” he says. “If we’re going to do it here, than we have to do it right and we have to get a lot more [affordability] than other communities.”
In addition, Make the Road members want to ensure the plan includes sufficient community services, new school seats, and transit access—especially in light of the MTA’s looming disruption of L service. And ultimately, members still hope to make a decision about whether or not a rezoning is necessary at all, Lopez says.
Gowanus: the Real Meaning of “Mixed-Use”
A coalition of stakeholders in Gowanus is also seeking the mayor’s attention. Councilmember Brad Lander, six other local elected officials, Brooklyn Community Board 6 and at least 16 Gowanus organizations are backing a proposal for affordable housing and a mixed-use corridor in one of Brooklyn’s most high-income community districts. The proposal is the outcome of “Bridging Gowanus,” a planning process hosted by Lander in 2014 that involved hundreds of participants.
“We are excited about the possibility of planning in a way that makes…this part of Brownstone Brooklyn more inclusive and diverse,” says Lander. “It also means the opportunity to add affordable housing in a wonderful high-opportunity neighborhood.”
It’s likely that the proposal will get the mayor’s attention, given the fact that the Bloomberg administration already completed a rezoning plan for the area in 2008. The city shelved that plan after the federal Environmental Protection Agency deemed the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site in 2010, for a brief time stymieing investors’ interest in the area. Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee says the Superfund designation was actually a blessing, giving the neighborhood time to craft a plan that reflected a community vision.
The Bridging Gowanus proposal does not include maps or zoning designations, but it provides a variety of strategies to achieve neighborhood goals. These include investments in infrastructure to further environmental remediation and protect the neighborhood from flooding. It also includes provisions to ensure so-called “mixed-use” or MX zones are not overtaken by residential development, such as a requirement that residential developers in such zones preserve or create manufacturing or artisan space.
In addition, the proposal’s “Gowanus Manufacturing Zone” would provide new protections for industry, placing restrictions on uses that yield fewer high-paying jobs, such as hotels and self-storage facilities. Last but not least, the proposal includes strategies to prevent the displacement of rent stabilized tenants, including requiring developers seeking to demolish or renovate a building to acquire a “certification of no harassment.”
Lander says that since 2014, the city is now much more prepared to implement the details of Bridging Gowanus. Not only is mandatory inclusionary housing now in place, but the city is in the process of passing restrictions to limit the development of hotels and self-storage facilities in Industrial Business Zones. The city is also establishing a task force, chaired by Lander and housing Commissioner Vicki Been, to create a citywide “certification of no harassment” provision.
The one challenge, Lander says, will be working with the administration to revamp the rules for the city’s MX zones. Last year, a report by the Pratt Center for Community Development showed that in the city’s 15 MX zones, there had been a 41 loss of industrial square footage and a 71 percent increase in residential and commercial square footage. The de Blasio administration is in the process of studying potential changes to the zoning designation category to preserve industrial space.
Yet Gowanus illustrates that even when a neighborhood crafts a plan independent of the city, not everyone will agree with the process or the final product.
Some participants in the Bridging Gowanus engagement process were strongly critical of the initiative. They feared the city would pick and choose between recommendations, or that rezoning for higher density would merely serve the interests of real estate developers while destroying the existing ecosystem of mixed-use businesses. While Lander’s team interpreted survey data as indicating neighborhood support for raising some building heights, skeptics think the results were shaped to support a preconceived opinion. And de la Uz, though a strong supporter of the initiative, submitted comments suggesting the organizers conduct broader outreach to low-income stakeholders and add more anti-displacement measures to the proposal.
Lander is first to admit that many questions are still to be decided, and that going forward there will need to be a “more find-grained discussion to figure out the right mix of appropriate uses and heights and densities.”
Chinatown and the Lower East Side: Affordability and Height Limits
Chinatown and the Lower East Side are other areas where high rents could subsidize deeply affordable units. The Chinatown Working Group’s plan, crafted from 2008 to 2014 in a process including about 60 community organizations, is much more detailed than Bridging Gowanus, with proposed zoning designations and height caps for each part of the district.
As City Limits reported last year, the plan received a cold reception from DCP, which argued that it was too ambitious and placed too many limits on residential development. In May 2015, Community Board 3 wrote a letter to DCP, expressing a willingness to negotiate and focus on three parts of the plan. After a year with little progress, Community Board 3’s land use committee plans to reach out to the city once again to advocate for the rezoning of the three prioritized areas.
Many neighborhood residents feel the board should take a firmer stand. At a Board 3 meeting on Tuesday, dozens of members of the Chinatown Working Group filled the auditorium and demanded the board fight for the adoption of the entire Chinatown Working Group plan, not just specific sections. They noted the proliferation of high-rise market-rate buildings along the waterfront, including Extell’s 80-story tower on South Street and JDS Development’s proposal for a 77-story tower across the street.
“If this administration would pass the rezoning plan, it would place breaks on the unfettered growth of luxury towers all around us,” said Amelia Aviles, a member of Luchadoras de Loisaida. “If you do not support this plan, all of you are contributing to the destruction of our community.”
Board chair Gigi Li told City Limits that she believes the land-use committee is taking the right approach by focusing on three subdistricts within the plan.
“There has never been a rezoning in the city of New York that has covered this large and diverse of an area,” she says, adding that she believes that in light of all the market-rate development in the area this year, the administration might now be more amenable to discussion.
“It’s in the best interests of everyone to think that if all this development is happening, how do we get all this affordability?” she asked.
If the administration picks Gowanus and Chinatown, both neighborhoods with strong rental markets, it will likely win the praise of affordable housing advocates across the city. Yet Lander suggests that instead of relying on DCP to make the selections, the city ought to create comprehensive development plans every ten years based on citywide infrastructure assessments and neighborhood “fair share” analyses—and then encourage all New Yorkers to debate the merits of the plan.
“That’s not easy to do,” Lander admits. “You can imagine many, many communities mobilizing to say, ‘We don’t want to see growth and development here.’…It would be a lot harder to get things done and people want really tangible outcomes. But if the city got in the habit of doing that kind of planning…I actually think that over time you would achieve you’d see some real benefits.”