Chinatown Working Group plan

The Chinatown Working Group plan divided the neighborhood into seven sections; groups are discussing whether to push for the rezoning strategy for Subdistrict D.

Two Lower East Side housing groups say they and local residents plan to apply for an immediate rezoning of the waterfront in order to stop three developers from constructing skyscrapers in the Two Bridges area and prevent future similar development.

CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities and Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) informed the Community Board 3 land-use committee last Wednesday that they intend to apply for a rezoning of the waterfront and are requesting the board and Borough President Gale Brewer become co-applicants.

Usually the Department of City Planning (DCP) or property owners initiate rezoning actions; it’s rarer for a community group to apply.

The last time we spoke to Councilmember Margaret Chin’s spokesperson earlier this month, she said that she would be supportive of an initiative to rezone the waterfront, but was letting the community board take the lead.

The effort comes as a number of groups and elected officials are trying different strategies to convince the City Planning Commission to require more public review for the proposed skyscrapers or to reject the projects completely. While the developers note that 25 to 30 percent of the units in the new developments will be rent-restricted housing, many residents are concerned that an influx of apartments, of which 70 to 75 percent would be luxury housing, will catalyze gentrification and stress the area’s infrastructure.

CAAAV, GOLES and residents are planning to push for the rezoning proposal for the waterfront that was originally outlined in the Chinatown Working Group Plan. That plan, completed by a large group of local stakeholders in January 2014, would have set height limits and affordability requirements for much of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, including the Two Bridges area.

Stakeholders had hoped the de Blasio administration would initiate the rezoning change proposed in the plan, similar to the way the Bloomberg administration had initiated dozens of downzonings for rich communities throughout the city. De Blasio officials said the plan covered too large an area (though it was not as large as some of the Bloomberg-era rezonings), and instead offered to help Community Board 3 work on a smaller rezoning of just Chinatown instead. That Chinatown-only rezoning study has been on the back burner in recent months, however, as Two Bridges issues assumed center stage.

Now, with the immediate threats to the waterfront at hand, advocates are planning to themselves apply for a rezoning of “subdistrict D” as demarcated by the Chinatown Working Group plan—the waterfront area from Catherine Street to the end of East River Park, around East 13th Street—according to the original plan’s “Option 1.”

That area currently contains a six-story storage facility, a sportsfield, a pier, and, north of the Manhattan Bridge, a bunch of apartment buildings of varying sizes—the tallest is 26 stories. The current zoning of the area with the apartment buildings is C6-4, which allows large-scale commercial or residential development with no height limit. This is where three developers are seeking to build skyscrapers, the largest of which would be 1,008 feet high.

The rezoning would remap the sportsfield, pier and adjacent walkways as parkland. It would keep the underlying zoning district of C6-4, but add a 350-foot height limit where there currently is none, so buildings could be no taller than 30 stories. The site of the storage facility, currently zoned for manufacturing, would be upzoned to C6-4 with the height limit.

The rezoning would require 50 percent of the new housing on site to be permanently affordable—twice the amount required by the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy—with 55 percent required at the site of the storage facility. It would also create other restrictions, including special permits for certain commercial establishments like hotels and an anti-harassment certification program, which would require landlords seeking to demolish or renovate a building to prove that they had not harassed tenants.

It seems unlikely that DCP would ever initiate such a rezoning on its own. The de Blasio administration has long insisted that encouraging housing construction is key to addressing the imbalance between the supply and demand of housing, and that, absent the use of city subsidy, it can require no more than 25 to 30 percent of units be affordable in exchange for extra density—that anything more will stymie the housing market. So imposing a height limit, and requiring 50 percent of units to be affordable will likely be read as too anti-development by the administration.

Another coalition of local groups, the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, has long pushed for the passage of the entire Chinatown Working Group plan and last year criticized attempts by the administration, Chin and other community groups to push forward a more limited rezoning of just Chinatown (the borders of which were never clearly defined). On Monday, group representative David Tieu learned of the new effort to rezone just the waterfront from City Limits and asked for time to prepare a comment.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a community coalition tried to initiate their own rezoning application under the de Blasio administration. The East River 50’s Alliance (ERFA), a coalition of residents in the Sutton Place neighborhood of Manhattan, along with several local elected officials like Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, the two local councilmembers, and a State Senator, have applied for a zoning change that would limit building heights, but also grant a density bonus to developers who agreed to provide more affordable housing and community facilities. That proposal is currently making its way through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), the seven-month approval process through which a rezoning is reviewed and voted on by the community board, borough president, City Planning Commission and City Council.

And in partnership with a community group called the Committee to Save Mount Manrisa, Staten Island Community Board 1 has applied for a contextual rezoning to preserve the character of several neighborhoods in Staten Island. That proposal hasn’t yet been certified.

But applying for a rezoning change can be expensive. City Planning waives fees for “federal, state or city governments” as well as for “neighborhood, community or similar association consisting of local residents or homeowners organized on a non-profit basis…in which one or more of its members or constituents reside” that are applying for certain zoning changes and environmental review processes, but there can still be numerous costs associated with putting together an application.

ERFA president Alan Kersh says their final costs on the Sutton Place effort will still likely exceed $1 million—spent on a variety of expenses such as lawyers to represent them at meetings with DCP, land use planners to design the rezoning, and the costs of environmental review. They raised money by going building to building and collecting donations from condo and co-op boards.

Not every community has the ability to raise so much money in so little time: According to the Municipal Arts Society, the East 50’s area has a median income of almost $130,000. Comparatively, the median income of census tracts in the Two Bridges area ranges from $18,944 to $29,418, according to the Municipal Arts Society.

Urban Justice Attorney Paula Segal, who represents CAAAV and GOLES, is not too worried about the financial issue. UJC relies on foundation money to pay for their representation of CAAAV and GOLES and she is confident others will be interested in joining the cause.

DCP’s policy is to allow any application it deems technically complete to be certified, though it will also inform applicants if it thinks that the plan is out of sync with the city’s goals and will not succeed in passing through the public review process. There are also rules that ensure the agency responds to applicants in a certain amount of time. But some groups still feel, or at least fear, that the agency can use small technical excuses to hold up a plan.

Jack Bolembach of the Committee to Save Mount Marissa, which commissioned the creation of the rezoning plan that Staten Island Community Board 1 eventually adopted, says that the city first demanded that their lawyer redo the application on an electronic file, and now is waiting for community board 1 to pay a $20,000 fee (Bolembach did not know what the fee was for).

“They’re just stalling is what they’re doing. Like I said, they’re putting one obstacle after another,” Bolembach said.

“Yes, we were terribly concerned that DCP would simply say ‘no’ and refuse to certify our Application, without any logic or reason,” wrote Kersh in an e-mail about the East River 50’s plan. “We refused to go away. We relied on our elected officials to keep the pressure on City Planning. We told our story to the news media. We gained the support of well recognized and well regarded civic organizations such as CIVITAS, MAS, Friends of the Upper East Side and others. Our community residents wrote letters to the mayor and City Planning by the thousands.”

He added that they made an effort to write the application in a way that did not make their proposal sound anti-development, but rather as a contextual rezoning that would still result in affordable housing. They also hired experienced consultants, and that they were quick to write detailed responses to each of DCP’s concerns.

When a plan is certified and enters ULURP, it could still be rejected by the City Planning Commission. The commission is chaired by the director of DCP, and it approved the mayor’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy last year; the majority of its members are appointed by the mayor.

While Carl Weisbrod, former chair of the commission and the official who thought the Chinatown Working Group Plan unworkable, has since stepped down, it is unclear whether the new chair, Marisa Lago, will feel any differently about a proposal to take up just the waterfront portion of the plan.

The biggest question is whether CAAAV, GOLES, and Two Bridges residents be able to convince the City Planning Commission to adopt the proposal—and adopt it in time to stop the Two Bridges developers. Rezonings often take time—first the pre-certification and environmental review process, then the seven-month ULURP process. Meanwhile, the developers in Two Bridges are trying to obtain certain regulatory modifications which, if approved, would allow them to apply for building permits to begin excavation and foundation work. Once the developers have their foundation in the ground, it will be too late for the rezoning to affect the construction.

Segal is hopeful, however, arguing that it could be a while before the developers obtain their needed regulatory modifications, if they do it all.

The Community Board 3 Land Use Committee will discuss the bid to rezone the waterfront at its next meeting on Wednesday October 18, 6:30 pm at Two Bridges Tower Community Room, 82 Rutgers Slip (2nd Floor).