West and Murray-3

To anyone with eyes, the current zoning code has completely failed to protect Tribeca’s character and architectural heritage.  Want evidence?  Look at the photo above.  We’ve shown it before, but it is worth showing again.  Those are just four of the buildings that are coming up around us, burying Tribeca in a sea of luxury glass.

To anyone who cares about the character of our city, it is clear that the zoning code needs big-time reform. If you want some background, see my earlier post here about how Big Real Estate murdered the interesting reform proposals made by then-chair of City Planning Joe Rose back in the 90’s..

So what kind of zoning reform do we need and who will it serve, exactly?

Given how complicated zoning can be, how easily Big Real Estate can manipulate it, and how completely the Department of City Planning and the Board of Standards and Appeals are managed in the interests of Big Real Estate rather than the public good*, Tribeca Trust seeks to obtain independent zoning counsel to do a thorough review of the zoning code, both existing and proposed.  Our question is: how it might be changed to better protect Tribeca’s character and keep our existing stock of affordable, rent-stabilized units?  Stay tuned for an invite for our fundraiser to get that done.

Meanwhile, here is a rundown of the state of affairs with lots of links to educate yourself.  I’ve tested the links and they work for us, but if you can’t use them, send a comment and I will try to give you an alternate means of access.

A definition:  To understand this debate, you have to know that most of Tribeca not in a historic district is “contextually zoned.”  NY City Planning website defines it thus:  “Contextual zoning regulates the height and bulk of new buildings, their setback from the street line, and their width along the street frontage, to produce buildings that are consistent with existing neighborhood character. Residential and commercial districts with an A, B, D or X suffix are contextual zoning districts.” 

A Comment: Obviously the definition above is a weak tool to protect neighborhood character.  Sometimes it works in its stated goal, sometimes it doesn’t.  It depends on the judgement of the humans using it.  The weakness lies in limiting “contextual” to the ideas of bulk and height.  Why not include in the definition something about materials used, method of construction, and architectural language?   Imagine new construction that respected the dominant method of construction, the dominant building materials, and the dominant architectural language of a block.   Now that would provide a stronger tool for protecting neighborhood character.   

The story begins when the Mayor and Big Real Estate suddenly announced (last week) a new citywide zoning change.  The change is packaged prettily in a misleading, 20-page glossy Powerpoint document called “Zoning for Quality and Affordability.”  It was obviously written with a strategic eye for public relations.  It succeeds in splitting the opposition by getting the housing-for-the-aged advocates and the American (“Build Anything – as Long as You Hire One of Us”) Institute of Architects onto the side of the proposed change.  Those interests testified in the recent hearing and are willing to throw the wider public interest under the bus in favor of their particular agendas.

It is hard for anyone to give a truly detailed assessment of the proposed changes.  That’s because City Planning bizarrely allowed only two summary zoning change documents to be made available for public view.  The first is the aforementioned glossy sales pitch (available here).  The pitch would make any used car salesperson proud.  And it launches the official 90-day land use review process called ULURP.  As part of that process, an environmental review has to take place.  The staff at City Planning charged with conducting that environmental review therefore then what they call a “scoping document” and put that paperwork up for public review last week.  That’s the second document available for public study.  It is some 190 pages long, more than half of which consists of a dull recapitulation of the half-baked arguments for change that favors Big Real Estate.  It is available here.

Last week there was a public hearing about that scoping document.  There was a huge, citywide public outcry.  As outcries go, it was very articulate and informed.  It was an exciting hearing too, as hearings go.  As testimony after testimony was being presented giving rational arguments against the zoning change, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer suddenly bustled in.  She was given immediate access to the microphone, where she read aloud a letter that her office wrote.  It was signed by 8 City Council members, 9 State Assembly members, 3 New York State Senators, and 4 members of our U.S. Congress. Good going Ms. Brewer!  The letter in question was largely against the proposed zoning change.  It is very good.  You can be extremely proud of voting Gale Brewer into office, if indeed you did that.  You can read it here.

Meanwhile the range of testimony presented was eloquent and powerful.

Here are some links you can use to educate yourself on the issues (and don’t forget about the upcoming fundraiser to get independent zoning counsel for Tribeca):


A link to what Tribeca Trust said:

A link to what Historic Districts Council said:

A link to a video of Simeon Bankoff of the Historic District Council giving an interview on a Brooklyn news station here 

A link to an article in the Villager here. and the Gotham Gazette article here.

Here is a link to what the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation said

Here is a link to what the Landmarks Conservancy said:

A link to what Landmarks West! staff said here

A link to what the Friends of the East Side Historic Districts said is here

The long 40 minute Youtube video of the GVSHP-organized press conference here

And here is the press release for that event here.


If you don’t want to read all that testimony, here is a summary of a few of the key points:

  • The proposal will create an incentive for developers to tear down low- and mid-rise buildings with rent-stabilized units in them and replace them with luxury towers and a consequent net loss of affordable units (this is happening in several places in Tribeca).
  • The environmental review needs to consider and illustrate the impact of the change on every single neighborhood and every single historic district and include a history of the idea of “contextual” zoning and how it came to be in New York City in the first place.
  • Nobody objects to eliminating parking lot requirements.
  • “One size fits all” city zoning changes do not work.  New approaches are needed.
  • The elimination of “contextual” zoning is wrong-headed in the extreme
  • The raising of height limits is wrong, and likely the opposite of what needs to happen, and the impact of loss of air and light in each individual neighborhood and street needs to be modeled as part of the environmental review.
  • the chucking of the idea of a Jane Jacobs street wall doesn’t seem necessary
  • the “justifications for the zoning change don’t hold water and seem to have been written by lobbyists for Big Real Estate, which is pretty much what the Landmarks Conservancy concluded in their testimony.
  • The proposed process is too short.  The ramming through of this proposal should not be taking place and is disrespectful to the public.

One of the most interesting pieces of testimony was from an architect who apparently decided not to ignore the AIA official line and use his own judgement.

Here it is in full:

Dave Holowka

Architect and Chelsea resident
March 25, 2015
As an architect, I have to tell you the rationale for higher floor-to-floor levels in this proposal based on so-called “changes in best practices” in construction doesn’t make sense. The proposal cites modular and concrete plank construction specifically. It says contextual zoning’s typical building depth of 65 feet isn’t achievable with concrete plank because of 30-foot span limitations, and that building depths should economically use two spans to achieve a new standard depth of 60 feet, with lost area recouped by adding allowed floors. I called two concrete plank manufacturers. Molin Concrete Products in Minnesota said its 8-inch deep planks can be reinforced and tensioned to span longer than 30 feet for not a lot of money; Oldcastle Precast of Selkirk, NY, said their span limit for 8-inch deep planks is 32 feet, not 30. Adding 6 inches front-and-back for brick facing and an air space results in the now-standard 65-foot building depth. Only slightly more expensive 10-inch deep planks can span much farther. No one says you have to span perpendicular to the street or use concrete plank in the first place. There are countless ways to make floor structure thinner or stronger even in modular construction. It’s what engineers and architects are there for. To buy into this proposal’s arguments, you’d have to believe advances in construction technology have introduced rigid limitations rather than the efficiency and flexibility demanded by free market competition. Does anyone believe sprinklers eat up enough space to warrant adding fifteen feet to the height of a building? Zoning shouldn’t be driven by construction details at any rate, and never was  Zoning should be about urban-scale issues of light and air and compatibility of building forms, which this proposal conveniently ignores. Affordable housing is a zoning concern, too, but of a categorically different kind. It would be one thing if we were talking about substituting one kind of open space for another to everyone’s benefit, but open space and contextual building envelopes are apples and affordable housing units are oranges. The plan’s claim that greater height will allow more interesting building forms is unbelievable. There are countless ways to achieve architectural interest.  Market forces are interested in the bottom line, not artistic expression. The developers of New York’s designated landmark, Lever House, achieved its celebrated design by consuming less than the site’s zoning-allowed area, an option still open to any developer not driven solely by profit.                                                                                                                               Given additional height to work with, today’s developers will make building envelope decisions that enhance the value of the individual apartments they have for sale, at the community’s expense. The plan’s proposed changes will only make for taller and more luxurious market-rate housing for the rich, blocking light and air for the general public. The plan’s assumption that zoning envelopes should allow full development of floor area ratios shows a willful disregard for zoning fundamentals, as does its application of across-the-board height limit changes.                                                                                       The worst thing about this proposal is that it will sacrifice the entirely separate benefit of painstakingly crafted contextual zoning without making New York any more affordable. It will only put New York’s already-runaway gentrification on steroids. In Chelsea, the cost of new condominiums is over $2200 per square foot. Not coincidentally, rents in the neighborhood are now among the highest in New York, even as neighborhood businesses are being driven out by rent increases. This proposal’s scoping must include the option of communities’ retaining existing height limits where, as in Chelsea, raising them will harm both neighborhood fabric and affordability.


Last, What can YOU do?

  • Google the Mayor’s office, where you can find an email link to send him your thoughts.  Tell him that this new zoning proposal “Zoning for Quality and Affordability” is NOT the way to get what he wants.  Contextual zoning should be saved and even strengthened.
  • Join the Tribeca Trust and come to our upcoming fundraiser – with a checkbook in hand!
  • Tell all your elected officials (they did hear you the first time when we issued a call to action two weeks ago) to not get cowardly and make stupid compromises, that if anything, “contextual” zoning should be strengthened, not weakened.  Here is Councilmember Chin’s email: “chin@council.nyc.gov” <chin@council.nyc.gov> and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s email:  gbrewer@manhattanbp.nyc.gov

*  Has anyone not connected to Big Real Estate or reluctant to schill for them ever been appointed as Chair of City Planning?  What about the people who have occupied the job of Director of City Planning for Manhattan?  Has any person who is not a member of the “Friends of Big Real Estate” ever been in that position?  The answers are all no, no, no.