Laura Sanburn, Wikipedia Commons

It was buildings like 'Blue,' on Norfolk Street in the Lower East Side, that drove Community Board 3 to pass a rezoning limiting building heights in the East Village in 2008. Critics say it pushed development pressures south to Chinatown.

It’s not that Park Slope’s community board wanted to displace low-income renters from Fourth Avenue. In fact, its members recognized the need for affordable housing. The board just wasn’t convinced, at the time, that instituting an inclusionary housing program—even, albeit, a voluntary one—would necessarily work. When asked about the impact of that 2003 rezoning, Brooklyn community board 6’s longtime district manager Craig Hammerman’s take could be boiled down to three words:

“Hindsight is 20/20.”

From 2001 to 2013, the Bloomberg administration recast the built form of New York by enacting 120 rezonings covering about 40 percent of the city’s land mass. Some were called “downzonings” because they reduced the allowable height and density of buildings in homeowner neighborhoods throughout the outer boroughs. “Upzonings” enabled soaring new high-rises in Williamsburg, Long Island City, and other central areas. In many cases, the Bloomberg rezonings did something of both—preserved the character on residential blocks while allowing higher buildings on central corridors.

As we reported in January, rezonings that increased residential density were followed by stark demographic change in those neighborhoods at rates higher than city averages, though it’s of course impossible to assess exactly how much change would have occurred without the rezonings. According to MIT scholar Leo Goldberg, downzonings were often pushed by neighborhood homeowners seeking to protect their neighborhood character, while upzonings were pushed by the mayor’s administration and developers seeking to promote growth for housing.

A neighborhood’s community board can play an important role in shaping the discussion about a particular rezoning plan, though at the end of the day its vote is only advisory. City Limits spoke to members of four community boards or their district managers about why their board supported or opposed a rezoning, and how they evaluate the impact today. (All board members spoke as individuals, not on behalf of their boards—and those with differing perspectives are invited to e-mail their views to or call 844-ZONE-NYC.)

In Park Slope, some regret

In 2003 Mayor De Blasio was Park Slope Councilmember De Blasio, while Councilmember Brad Lander was director of the Fifth Avenue Committee. Both were important voices in the rezoning debate.

At the time, the board worked with Mayor Bloomberg’s administration to design a contextual zoning that would protect the character of Park Slopes’ brownstones from out of context development. The mayor’s people, arguing that Fourth Avenue was underdeveloped and had great subway access, proposed adding an upzoning of Fourth Avenue, allowing it to act a “pressure valve” to release some of the real-estate interest in Park Slope, according to Hammerman, who as district manager is not a voting member of the board, but expressed support for the rezoning at the time.

Lander, De Blasio, and others advocated for the introduction of a voluntary inclusionary housing program on the avenue. Under such a program, the avenue would still be upzoned, but by a smaller degree; developers could achieve even more height if they agreed to offer some units at below-market rates. At the time, the city did not have an established inclusionary housing program outside of specific areas of Manhattan, and the Bloomberg administration recommended against applying it on Fourth Avenue.

“We did not want to end up with a bunch of underbuilt buildings by having Fourth Avenue become the proving ground for whether inclusionary zoning would work—so we kind of stepped aside,” says Hammerman.

In 2003, the board voted 32 to 4, with one abstention, to approve the rezoning without an inclusionary housing program, though members hoped the city could ensure the creation of affordable housing through its subsidy programs, Hammerman says. After the rezoning, however, things didn’t go as expected. Buildings went up without active ground-floor uses, forcing the Department of City Planning to step in later to make amendments to the zoning code. Furthermore, no developers were interested in working with the city to develop below-market housing: with its proximity to Park Slope and access to transit, developers could make a killing demolishing rent-stabilized tenements and building luxury apartments. Hammerman guesses the rezoning may have also contributed to the rise in property values along either side of the corridor.

“I’m sure there are people who regret us not pushing harder for it,” Hammerman says of the inclusionary measure. De Blasio, who also approved the rezoning despite his misgivings about the lack of an affordable housing measure, has also expressed regret.

But Hammerman says the experience 13 years ago doesn’t mean it will be simple for board members to decide their vision for the Gowanus, which the then-Councilmember and current mayor has proposed rezoning.

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Read more
on the potential Gowanus rezoning
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“Gowanus is more complex,” Hammerman says, listing a number of new factors the board will have to take into account: whether or not to preserve manufacturing zones, the expense of cleaning up brownfield sights, the new allowable density on Fourth Avenue, and other factors.

Williamsburg was the nightmare expected

Christopher Olechowski, a former Community Board 1 member, led the task force that evaluated the Bloomberg administration’s proposed rezoning of Williamsburg. His task force’s findings ultimately lead the board to vote against the proposal. That didn’t stop City Council and the mayor from approving it, however, in 2005.

While the board had campaigned for 40 percent of the new housing to be affordable, the city decided to institute a new voluntary inclusionary housing program, giving density bonuses to developers who agreed to make 20 percent of the housing affordable—but Olechowski says this was not nearly enough.

“I would say the rezoning was transformational,” he says. “It was pretty much a multi-ethnic, working-class community…and all that has changed, of course, since the rezoning was implemented, so that you have a completely different population, a much higher-end economic population, that resulted in original residents—who are not homeowners per se—pretty much siphoned out of the community.”

Olechowski acknowledges that prior to the rezoning, artists were starting to move into the neighborhood, and that there is a growing wave of young people moving to cities in the country at large. But he contends that the rezoning, by switching the manufacturing zones along the waterfront to residential, triggered huge development interest that affected all of North Brooklyn.

Without the rezoning, he imagines, “we would have probably seen more of a balance, maybe, a mixture of the working-class community along with a new population that would be living side by side.”

While he hasn’t been following de Blasio’s rezonings of other neighborhoods too closely, Olechowski says that based on his experience in Williamsburg, he has reasons to be skeptical.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t work out as well as he had intended,” he says.

Divisions in East Harlem have long roots

In 2003, gentrification wasn’t yet on the minds of many Manhattan Community Board 11 members, according to a knowledgeable source. Rather, they were more concerned with reducing blight, preventing new developments from disrupting neighborhood character, and revitalizing the commercial corridors of East Harlem. The board worked with the neighborhood design organization Civitas to craft a community plan for the area that lead to an upzoning of First, Second, and Third Avenues, with contextual rezonings to protect the character of neighboring side streets. The rezoning passed with unanimous support.

Not much changed on those avenues in the years that immediately followed, and in the midst of the recession, the Bloomberg administration proposed also upzoning 125th Street using the new voluntary inclusionary zoning tool. While many residents and board members were concerned the plan would lead to the gentrification of a historic Black corridor and Community Board 10 (West Harlem) voted against it, the plan ultimately passed Community Board 11, “with conditions.” The board called for an increase in the amount of affordable housing under the inclusionary zoning program, among other demands.

In a planning document for the de Blasio administration’s new rezoning proposal for East Harlem, the Department of City Planning writes that the 2003 and 2008 rezonings did not lead to substantial development, and concludes these areas could be rezoned to even higher densities to facilitate commercial growth and spur the development of new housing (market-rate and a portion rent-restricted).

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on the proposed East Harlem rezoning
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Others say that in recent years, development—most of it market-rate—has begun to surge on those avenues. Civitas lauds the “substantial effect on neighborhood growth” in a blog heralding the success of the rezoning. In addition, the New York Post deemed 125th Street a development “hot spot” in 2015, and a Whole Foods is slated to open later this year. It is these trends that leads critics to say past rezonings have gentrified the neighborhood, and to express concern that De Blasio’s proposed rezoning will only further exacerbate real estate pressures.

Board member Francis Mastrota, who moved to the neighborhood in 1959 and has been a longtime advocate for community gardens and education, recalls supporting both rezonings. Concerning 125th Street specifically, she was eager to help address the lack of safety and high concentration of drug treatment programs on 125th Street.

“[There was] urine that ate away the frames of the door,” she says of the conditions on 125th Street. “In the heat in the summer, the smell of human rot.”

Yet as the years have gone by, she is concerned that the increasing housing density of the area and lack of green space has taken its own toll on people’s psychological and physical health. 125th Street has grown safer, she says, but there’s also still a great deal of poverty, a lack of educational resources, and now the problem of gentrification.

“There’s many a slip between the cup and the lip…It looks wonderful when you write the instructions on paper,” she says, explaining that not all the neighborhood planning efforts have turned out the way people hoped—but it’s also difficult to assess what change they did or didn’t cause. Going forward, she is closely monitoring the de Blasio administrations’ own rezoning plans to make sure they include adequate resources for the neighborhood’s existing young people and green spaces.

Former board member Marina Ortiz, one of the board members who did not support the 125th street rezoning in 2008, says she was concerned at the time that the rezoning would lead to massive gentrification—and feels her fears have now been realized.

“Our concerns and requests were ignored and a lovely publication was produced that listed every community organization that attended any meetings, disingenuously giving the impression that we had endorsed the plan,” she said in an e-mail to City Limits, adding that she participated in protests against the plan, and was heavily lobbied by Speaker (then Councilmember) Melissa Mark-Viverito to give her support to it.

“It was during that time that I began to realize that it was assumed that community board members would vote according to their appointer’s wishes,” she said.

It’s her experience of the 125th Street rezoning that caused her to be deeply skeptical of the meetings Mark-Viverito convened in 2015 to create an East Harlem Neighborhood Plan, a process she says mirrored the community engagement process in 2008. She also opposes de Blasio’s proposed rezoning of East Harlem, which she believes will result in displacement and does not include enough housing affordable for the 38 percent of families making below $24,480 for a family of three.

“Among my (many) concerns about the current rezoning is the fact that, yes, we were already rezoned 14 years ago. It may seem like eons to city planners, but in fact the neighborhood has not even experienced the full impact of that plan—nor has the city adequately assessed its outcome—and yet the mayor and speaker want to move full steam ahead with an obviously flawed plan that does not reflect the needs or wishes of this community,” she wrote.

At least we helped the East Village?

If you’ve attended a protest held by the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, you’ve probably heard reference to the “racist 2008 East Village rezoning.” Members of the coalition say that rezoning preserved the neighborhood character of the whiter East Village while pushing development pressures south to Chinatown and other parts of the Lower East Side. Yet according to some members of the community board, they always had the intention of protecting low-income tenants from displacement—and still believe the 2008 rezoning helped more than it hurt.

The waves of building in Williamsburg and on Fourth Avenue, and the increasing development pressures in the East Village, had not escaped notice of board members in the Bloomberg era. They set about trying to craft a rezoning of the neighborhood that would limit the allowable height of development, which they asked the city to pair with tenant organizing resources, a mandatory inclusionary housing policy to ensure the creation of affordable housing, and an anti-demolition zone.

Ultimately, the Bloomberg administration agreed to heights limits and to institute a voluntary inclusionary housing policy, but did not fund tenant organizing to the levels the board had wanted, or establish an anti-demolition zone. In addition, the administration proposed upzoning Avenue D, Houston Street and Delancey Street to allow residential density. According to former board member Harvey Epstein, a project director at the Urban Justice Center, the board pushed back on the mayor’s plan, but ultimately compromised and voted in its favor.

“If we had said no, we would have gotten nothing,” says Epstein.”I totally get why the organizations fought against it and thought it was a bad thing for the neighborhood,” says Epstein. “[But] in the balance, leaving it alone was worse than what we did.”

He believes the rezoning did protect tenements from demolition, and, because it limited the height of new developments, placed a cap on the influx of new market-rate apartments to the area. He acknowledges that rents continued to rise, but he doesn’t believe that the rezoning pushed development south or made gentrification worse in other areas of the Lower East Side.

“What happened was neighborhoods that needed to rezone gone rezoned, and other neighborhoods that still need to get rezoned still need to go forward,” he says, adding that he hopes that the city will take up a rezoning of not only the core of Chinatown, as the de Blasio administration has offered to do, but also other parts of the Lower East Side as well.

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Read more
on the possible Chinatown rezoning
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Former board member David McWaters and board member Val Orselli offer similar accounts of the positive effects of the East Village rezoning. Board member Damaris Reyes, director of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), agrees that there were some positive effects but thinks the board could have pushed harder for some of its demands. She too does not believe the 2008 rezoning pushed development pressures south, but wishes she and other neighborhood leaders had moved at a faster pace while crafting rezoning plans for other parts of Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” she says.

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Additional Reading

A 2015 analysis by George Janes, Community Board 11’s land use consultant, found that the 2003 East Harlem rezoning accomplished many of its goals, but that the number of rent stabilized units in the rezoning area declined at a faster rate than in the community district as a whole.