Three hot topics in New York zoning

Highlights from a conversation on supertalls and more

Once a humdrum topic, New York City zoning laws are now big news. Thank the Bloomberg administration, which oversaw 120 rezonings, for that. Today, both city-wide zoning changes to promote affordable housing and landmark preservation as well as the rezoning of specific neighborhoods are watched very closely. Neighborhood rezonings have included Hudson Square to promote housing and Mid-town East to upgrade office space at a vital transit hub. Community leaders are getting in on the act a with task forces and town hall meetings to discuss the effects of existing zoning and the advent of ultra-high-rise towers already shaping the skylines of Midtown, the Financial District and the South Street Seaport.

Last week,I moderated Creating opportunities for the New York skyline:A conversation and development and zoning, a panel discussion featuring Eldad Gothelf (Herrick Feinstein), David Schwartz (Slate Property Group), Mark Silberman (Landmarks Preservation Commission) and Raju Mann (New York City Council). The experts discussed zoning, affordable housing and ultra high-rises and their impact on the city and the AEC and real estate communities.

In our panel discussion, three pivotal topics emerged from the contemporary New York zoning debate: the need for policy advocacy for affordable housing, increased flexibility in zoning, and the sudden explosion of supertall residential towers in Manhattan.


Affordable Housing
A key policy initiative of the DeBlasio administration, affordable housing is now central to the conversation about today’s multi-family residential development opportunities and land use. For example, DeBlasio’s latest proposal requires any company that takes a tax subsidy to set aside 25 percent of its apartments as affordable. Developers and city officials are continually challenged to agree on the percentage of affordable housing units required in new development and which incentives the developers will receive to offset construction costs and land prices. David Schwartz, principal at the Slate Property Group, speaking on behalf of the development community feels strongly that the market is ripe for a policy overhaul. Panelists agreed that the sooner a clear policy is in place, the better for certainty in the market.

Recently, there have been examples of how relaxing the zoning in certain areas, along the High Line for example, has transformed a neighborhood for the better. New residential buildings have sprouted up all around the famous elevated park, spurred new retail activity and re-energized what had been an industrial wasteland.  Questioning whether the current regulatory trend is towards the more restrictive and discretionary, I read the panel a portion of the proposed East Midtown zoning that required subjective judgment of buildings under development. In the current political climate there are multiple city agencies whose approvals are required in order to green light a project. “Time is what kills development. We closely evaluate how many agencies need to approve a project before we move forward,” said David Schwartz. “The quality of architecture being built now in areas with new development will build the future of New York City,” countered Raju Mann, Director of Land Use at the New York City Council – in defense of public oversight. Admitting there must be limits on regulation, Mark Silberman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission expressed disappointment over the quality of architecture in some recent developments and his desire to improve it through the right balance of flexibility in regulations and public oversight.


The subject of considerable public scrutiny, the supertall residences being developed near Central Park in Midtown have all benefited from the particularly flexible zoning restrictions in that district and the ability to transfer development rights from landmarked or zoning height restricted properties. While some, like the Moma tower, have benefited from zoning variances and favorable landmarks reviews, others, like One57, have been developed as-of-right. Liberalizing regulation of the transfer of development rights in other areas like East Midtown would enable development in a land-scarce and overpriced area, creating new Class A commercial building stock, and internationally significant towers that will keep New York City competitive with leading European and Asian cities.  While some members of community boards detest their new tall neighbors, most people like the new face of the skyline. “One of NYC’s values is its tall buildings,” said Eldad Gothelf, chief land use & development specialist at Herrick Feinstein, added in his closing remarks, “These midtown buildings don’t bother me at all, let there be height!”

Photos: ThinkStock

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