Proposed zoning changes need your attention:

Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation sent out an alert on an important zoning proposal that affects everyone in Tribeca – and anyone who cares about a human-scaled New York.  The alert asks you to write your elected officials and tell them 3 things: no to developers getting rid of what we know as “contextual” development; no to loosening what pathetic height restrictions currently exist; and no to doing away with the idea of respecting street walls. There are better ways to reform the zoning code.

Here is the alert from Andrew Berman that explains the matter.  He uses East Village examples.  I’ve copied his message and edited it for space reasons.  At the bottom are the email addresses to write the elected officials.

“Dear Friend,

The City has just released a citywide rezoning proposal [the link has not been working, but if you google “NYC Planning zoning for quality and affordability” that should lead you to the report on the website of city planning office]

This proposal would lift hard-fought-for neighborhood zoning protections and height limits for new development –by as much as 20 to 30%!
The proposal would change the rules for ‘contextual’ zoning districts throughout the city – zoning districts which communities frequently fought hard to secure that limit the height of new development and keep it in character with the surrounding neighborhood.

Contextual zoning also applies to areas around 14th Street, most of Hudson Square and Chelsea, and throughout neighborhoods like the Upper East and West Sides and Tribeca.  But under this proposal, in all of these areas, the height limits for new development would be lifted across the board, by up to 20-30%.

Under this new plan, any contextual rezoning of these neighborhoods would have to allow taller new buildings… — as much as 20-30% higher… than current rules allow.

Additionally, while height limits are mandated in ‘contextual’ zoning districts, current zoning also encourages lower buildings in many non-contextual residential zoning districts of our neighborhood and throughout the city, providing incentives for new developments to abide by the same height limits found in contextual zones.

But under this plan, those height limits would also be lifted, by as much as 20-30%.

This plan would clearly have an enormous, profound and far-reaching impact upon our neighborhood and our city.
  The City’s proposal is now beginning the public review and approval process; in the coming weeks and months, local Community Boards, the Borough President, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council will hold public hearings and vote upon the plan (see GVSHP’s letter to elected officials outlining our concerns here.)  As soon as those have been scheduled, we will let you know.


  • Write (via email) to your Borough President and City Councilmember to let them know “that you do not want to see existing and future neighborhood zoning protections gutted, height limits lifted or contextual zoning weakened.
  • If you live in Tribeca, here are the emails to use.
  • For Councilmember Margaret Chin:
  • For Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer:
  • For the Mayor (this takes you to a link and form on the Mayor’s website):


Andrew Berman
Executive Director


Thank you Andrew Berman for being on top of this.  

My own take on this problem:   the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) and anti-regulation economists like Edward Glaeser (author of Triumph of the City) have sold our Mayor a self-serving lie that the city needs more skyscrapers in order to get more density into Manhattan and the boroughs.  Of course that is ridiculous.  Central Paris, for example, has very high densities but is mostly composed of 4-8 story buildings.  But logic is not what is in play here, greed is.

After studying this particular zoning proposal, it seems to me that Andrew has nailed it in the message above.  The developers are trying to get City Planning to allow them to build bigger, even more ludicrously profitable buildings anywhere in the city with fewer rules that irritate them.  Zoning rules always irritate developers, as does any regulation at all. But don’t buy into the irritation  – zoning and regulations are meant to (and often do) protect the public good. 

In the current situation, developers have decided to make their case by conjuring up pseudo-problems. A particularly laughable example of this can be found in the zoning proposal where there is a complaint that goes as follows:  developers now have to make apartments with low ceilings due to the constraint of being “contextual”.  Huh?  A developer could obviously choose to build with higher ceilings (many do) but those who don’t are choosing to make MORE money by lowering the ceilings and squeezing in a few more units.  It’s a choice they make between lots of money and extreme amounts of money.

It looks like this is going on:  developers are gerry-rigging an attractive Trojan horse to sell what is really a bum deal.  In this case, the Trojan horse is composed of “apple pie” issues like “seniors” and “affordability” and getting rid of  “parking lot” rules.  Who would disagree with that? But into that pretty Trojan horse they have slipped in what they really want:  poisonous things like a height boost and getting rid of “contextual” constraints.  It is a diabolically effective public relations strategy because it gets the confused YIMBY’s baying “build, build, build, anywhere, anywhere, not matter what, and if you have to wreck the historic districts in the doing, then do it” which is exactly what REBNY wants.  

All in all, these new proposed rules would just make it easier for developers to build hyper-density and destroy what is left of historic, human-scaled New York with endless out-of-context buildings.  And these sneak attacks are not the right way to reform the zoning code. If we want to reform the zoning code we need a different kind of public discussion, a longer one, and a more profound one, a bit like the discussion former City Planning Chair Joe Rose tried to launch back in 1999 (which was killed off by the Real Estate Board of New York).  And any good public discussion also needs to include how to better protect our landmarks and historic districts and insulate the Landmarks Commission from REBNY bullying.

If we want to do a good job on the affordable housing problem, we need to start talking about how to build mid-rise, human-scaled “Parisian-like density” in the boroughs. After all, everyone deserves to live in beautiful, human-scaled neighborhoods.  It just takes a little vision on the part of our elected officials.

Lynn Ellsworth