Who’s Who in New York City Land Use: A Beginner’s Guide to City Agencies

CNY

In the world of land use and real estate development here in New York City – even to those of us who work in (or are students of) it – it can sometimes feel like a foreign language is being spoken, with all the jargon, acronyms and bureaucratic titles involved.

Today’s entry provides a primer on some of the key players in local government who share some responsibility for writing, interpreting and applying the myriad rules and regulations one must navigate long before – and sometimes long after – the proverbial “first shovel” goes into the ground.  In a future post we’ll explain some of the frequently heard terms that describe the rules and issues that we as planners deal with on a daily basis.

After the jump, in alphabetical order (by acronym, as that’s how they we typically refer to them), are just some of the city agencies with a role in the land use process.  If you’re considering any kind of development within the five boroughs, you’ll be getting to know one or more of these entities along the way.  (And for further information on the responsibilities of each, click on the name to visit the official Web site.)

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New York Times Questions Rationale Behind East Midtown Rezoning

East Midtown

Today, the New York Times weighed in with its commentary on the City’s East Midtown Rezoning – and we think they miss the mark.

The piece (which is misplaced in the Arts Section) argues that the plan, developed by the Department of City Planning, calls for too much density, without sufficient focus on infrastructure and mass transit – and it seems to suggest that people won’t be working in high-rises so much (but is silent about living).

Density is good for the environment, and it is good for New York.  It is a key reason why the City’s “carbon footprint” is so low.  Density is also good for the workplace – as it brings people and corporations together.  It is good for neighborhoods and for the life of the City.  The rezoning’s focus on Grand Central (contrary to the main theme of the Times’ commentary) demonstrates an awareness of the basic need to support the highest densities at and around established transit nodes.  The plan is not an irresponsible call for enormous buildings – but an incentive program to encourage the replacement and rebuilding of undersized and obsolete Class “B” buildings.

The plan doesn’t pretend that zoning is a panacea – it’s but one tool in an overall effort to keep New York City globally competitive while also balancing a regional focus among Hudson Yards, Lower Manhattan and Midtown.

The Times piece would be better placed in the Metropolitan section – and would better serve the readers if it were more comprehensive.

(Image borrowed from Department of City Planning presentation of East Midtown Rezoning).

Too much manufacturing or too little?

Notwithstanding the plethora of rezonings accomplished by the City Planning Commission (with the approval of the City Council) over the past decade—many of which erased industrial zoning—New York City continues to maintain multiple manufacturing districts throughout the five boroughs.  Yet, except for certain niche industries and highly specialized manufacturing businesses, the decline of traditional industrial uses continues.  Of course, key concentrations of industrial jobs do exist, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and portions of Industry City (also in Brooklyn), for example.  But it seems quite clear that these are not in the “traditional smokestack” industries, where assembly lines of people engage in round-the-clock mass production.  On the contrary, a range of manufacturing sectors has actually lost hundreds of jobs over the last few decades, of which garment businesses are among the most recognizable.

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Downtown Brooklyn Parking Text Amendment – Is it enough?

 

This summer, City Planning is in the midst of a zoning change that will reduce the parking requirements for new buildings in Downtown Brooklyn.   The text amendment is part of the city’s larger reevaluation of the Zoning Resolution’s parking requirements, as I’ve discussed previously (DCP released a study last year examining Manhattan’s parking situation, but hasn’t yet introduced any text amendment for that area).  To recap the requirements – with the exception of Manhattan below 110th Street, all new buildings in NYC must provide some amount of on-site parking spaces.  This requirement can be as high as one space for 100% of all new residential units in lower density areas, and can be onerous for affordable housing and small buildings – or anywhere there isn’t a market for on-site parking spaces.  The zoning provides few exceptions to the parking requirements – the requirements for affordable housing are less than those for market rate residential buildings, and developments that are small enough can waive their requirement, but in most other cases, the only way that the parking requirement can be reduced is through a variance. 

Downtown Brooklyn’s text amendment, which reduces residential requirements from 40 to 20 percent, is currently winding its way through the public review process.  The reduction has been welcomed by many in the development community – the area continues to see a number of high-density residential development projects, and since it has some of the best transit access in the country, there simply isn’t a market for the required number of on-site parking spaces.  Continue reading

A Blueprint with Two Holes?

Earlier this year, the Department of City Planning unveiled the launch of their new Business Process Reform (i.e. BluePRint). Over the past 18 months, the Department worked with dozens of practitioners and stakeholders in the public review process to improve the way the private sector does business with City Planning. (Full Disclosure: several authors of this blog contributed to the effort.)

With the goal of improving the land use and environmental application review processes, the Department has standardized applications and the drawings, maps, attachments, and all other documentation associated with these applications. This is a huge step forward and will remove the second-guessing and seemingly endless revisions previously necessary to bring an application to the point of certification. Additionally, BluePRint aims to streamline the actual review of these documents to create a predictable and efficient pre-certification process. Again, bringing clarity to a previously unpredictable process will go a long way to improving the development process in New York City.

For a complete description of BluePRint, please see the Department’s explanation here.

In concept and in execution, we are optimistic about the all-around benefits anticipated from BluePRint. We believe in the Department’s sincerity at fixing what has been a long-standing problem. If the reforms are implemented and carried out as planned, all stakeholders – both in the public and private sector – will be better off.

That said, it appears that BluePRint has two major holes. Continue reading

City Planning Looks to the Future with East Midtown Zoning Proposal

Last week, at a meeting of Community Board 5, City Planning finally released details of a much anticipated zoning proposal for East Midtown. The proposal, which could be the last major rezoning initiative of the Bloomberg administration, concentrates on the blocks around and north of Grand Central (the boundaries stretch roughly from Fifth Avenue to Second Avenue and from 39th to 57th Streets), which are already home to a number of high density office buildings.

The rezoning looks to incentivize property owners and developers to upgrade the area’s office building stock by permitting new development at a significantly higher density than is currently allowed.  The new regulations may also incorporate a “district improvement fund” type program, similar to what already exists in Hudson Yards.  As part of this program, developers could contribute to a fund, intended to finance the construction of a pedestrian plaza on what is now Vanderbilt Avenue, in exchange for even more floor area.   Under today’s zoning, a limited number of property owners are permitted to purchase excess development rights from Grand Central, and that program might also be expanded under the new proposal. Continue reading

Transparent Zoning

 

As a pedestrian, we want to see a lively street-scape at eye-level; we want buildings to have a “street life”, not a blank face.  A recent goal of new zoning for commercial strips is to mandate retail use and “building transparency” at the ground floor — see new zoning requirements for Park Slope.  (This follows long-standing rules prohibiting “pedestrian-unfriendly” uses – such as banks – along 5th Avenue in Midtown and Madison Avenue in the Upper East Side.)

Is it “proper” to use zoning on certain streets to achieve a design goal of avoiding a blank wall of dentist’s offices – or worse, interior parking – when such uses are otherwise allowed?  Is this an aesthetic issue – avoiding a solid wall along the street (where a building essentially “turns its back” to the pedestrian)?  Or, is it a question of enlivening the street with retail activity? Continue reading

‘Occupy’ing the Zoning Resolution

On September 17, a leaderless (or, alternatively, leader-full) group of people began a demonstration aimed at highlighting the vast income inequality that exists in this country today. Named ‘Occupy Wall Street’, they gathered to express their outrage at the collusion between the country’s largest financial institutions and the government – a relationship which led to the 2008 financial collapse and one that has greatly increased the already vast wealth gap.

Among the many early decisions made by this group that allowed the movement to be so successful (catchy name, lack of hierarchy, open decision making process, etc.), one additional decision stands out as particularly wise – the location of the demonstration. Continue reading

The Next 50

Next Thursday, the New York City Zoning Resolution turns 50 years old. As zoning nerds the world over take a minute to acknowledge this milestone, we must not forget to turn our attention to the next 50 years and start considering specific actions that will encourage the progress of this great city and preserve its competitive advantage. It is time to think big…literally.

While planning (and zoning, for that matter) doesn’t happen in a vacuum, as we look at the next 50 years, architects of the City’s planning and zoning policies should take three words into consideration – no, not location location location. Urban planning technocrats, elected officials, neighborhood groups, and all other stakeholders should be guided by the following three words: Continue reading