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Zoning For Dummies I - So You Want to Understand Contextual Zoning

Under the current zoning of the LES/EV, developers can build huge towers here

by Rob Hollander

The Lower East Side/East Village is about to be rezoned. Why should that matter to you? Well, under the current zoning of the LES/EV, developers can build huge towers here, way bigger than the old historic tenements which only rise to about 80 feet in height at most. Not only are these towers transforming the character of our neighborhood and its demographic, such lucrative development opportunities are an incentive for developers to empty buildings of tenants, demolish, and build more huge money-making towers. Chain stores follow like the night follows the day. It's a real threat to the community. The City’s new zoning plan is designed to prevent this kind of out-of-scale development and keep developers at bay.

The 80 Foot Height Cap

Under the newly proposed zoning plan, developers may not build above 80 feet high. That's a welcome improvement over current zoning. Imagine you're a developer and you own a six story tenement – most tenements built after 1879 rise at least six stories – would it pay for you to empty your building of all its tenants, raze the building to the ground and build luxury housing just to add two floors? It might be easier and cheaper just to leave the building as is and rake in the rents of all the current luxury decontrolled tenants.

The Department of City Planning's proposed 80-foot height cap puts a damper on new development and it ensures that all new developments will more or less fit in with their surroundings.

This is called Contextual Zoning: it preserves the neighborhood’s context.

The zoning jargon you will hear for this fixed 80-foot height cap is R7-A. The Department of City Planning has proposed R7-A (contextual zoning) for most of the LES district.

(The old zoning from the 60's seems to have been even better for the side streets than this proposed plan. It had a cap of about 50 feet for the side streets. But everything changed in 1994, when greater bulk and height were allowed.)

So Near And Yet So F.A.R.

If you listen in on zoning discussions, you'll hear a lot of talk about FAR – Floor Area Ratio. It's how a building’s size, or "bulk," is determined in zoning: You multiply the base of the property lot by the FAR and you get the total floor area on which you are allowed to build.

For example, on a standard 25-foot wide city lot which is 100 feet deep, a FAR of 1 would allow you to build either a one story building 25X100 feet or a 10 story building 25X10 feet. They both have the same floor area, even though one is tall and thin and the other is broad and short, the overall floor space is the same.

(Actually, in Manhattan you have to leave a 30X25 foot back yard, so the short building could really only cover 70X25. But the developer could then add a 30X25 foot story on top of the 25X70 foot building to get the same full FAR of 1. It's this flexibility that makes FAR a useful measure.)

In a contextual zone, however, the bulk of a building is determined by a fixed maximum building envelope. So no matter how you design your building, in an R7-A zone, you can't "pierce" the 80-foot height of the contextual envelope. Height is fixed, not flexible.

The R7-A zone comes with a 4.0 FAR. If you built straight up on every inch of allowable base, you'd get only about 6 stories out of such a FAR. Remember, you're allowed to build 80 feet high in the R7-A. So the 4.0 FAR in this contextual zone is not very dense – it doesn't allow construction on every available inch of space.

But it does allow a developer some space for flexibility in design. S/he can build a narrower building with more yard space or, if constructing on a couple of lots assembled together, maybe include a nice courtyard to bring in more light, as long as the building doesn't exceed the height limit of 80 feet.

The Dept. of City Planning’s plan gets more complex – Houston and Delancey and Avenue D are getting a 120-foot height cap and, if the developer includes affordable housing, a bonus FAR. And there are all sorts of complexities regarding affordable housing, but I'm saving all that for the next installment of Zoning for Dummies.


R7-A - 80 foot height cap on all new buildings (i.e., a contextual zone)

FAR - floor area ratio, a formula for the overall size or bulk

The R7-A FAR - 4.0, not too dense – it leaves some empty space for design flexibility.

Next installment of Zoning for Dummies: Affordable housing / Inclusionary Zoning

I hope some of you find this useful for understanding current zoning discussions. It was originally published on my blog Save the Lower East Side


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your explanation of zoning may be accurate but your explanation of how this will impact our neighborhood is just wrong. Not one residential tenant was moved in order to build any of the towers going up or recently constructed. They were all built on empty lots or lots previously occupied by commercial buildings. Neither the current zoning nor the proposed rezoning allows landlords to displace anyone. Rezoning is really a question of aestetics. Some people like tall skinny buildings other would rather developers build low squat buildings. It seems that the Department of City Planning and the Community Board are in the low squat building camp. Either way, whatever new construction occurs will most likely house luxury apartments occupied by people with lots of money. The new zoning will actually increase FAR for most properties allowing developers to build more expensive apartments not fewer. Therefore more rich people in the neighborhood so actually contextual zoning will probably accellerate gentrification albeit only slightly.

10/27/2006 1:39 PM  
Blogger Yori Yanover said...

My question is: Will oddities like Blue and Rivington Hotel be possible under the new zoning regs?

10/27/2006 3:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, as I stated in my post, contextual zoning will not permit tall skinny buildings. On the other hand, if someone wants to build blue glass "oddity" they can as long as it is no more than 80 feet tall.

10/28/2006 3:05 PM  
Blogger robcuny said...

Two buildings on my block (11th between B&C), full of wonderful long-term neighbors and friends, were unceremoniously emptied for the construction of luxury housing. The landlord purposefully damaged the structures and then had the city declare them structurally unsound. Residents were all evicted from their homes overnight and the buildings demolished, even though the residents had a pending court case to defend their homes from this developer's plans.

The answer to your question, Yori, is: under the proposed new zoning, on Houston, Delancey, Christie and Avenue D developers will be allowed to build 12 stories "as of right" -- without consulting the community board or the city, without having to buy air rights or include a community facility. Take a look at the new Avalon building on Houston at Bowery. That's the future for Houston, Christie and Delancey. In the rest of the LES, 80 feet would be the height cap. Since about 45% of buildings in the LES are only 5 stories, about 25% only 4 stories and about 25% 6 stories (virtually nothing here rises above 6 stories), the 80 foot height cap, while better than no height cap, is unjustifiably high. The DCP in its prelimanry studies has used a mid-rise category of 4-7 stories that doesn't distinguish 5-story neighborhoods from 7-story neighborhoods. We're hoping that as they study the LES more carefully using more accurate measures, DCP will discover what's actually here and not here.

Currently, south of Houston in the Orchard Street area, developers can build commercial structures like hotels (including so-called hotels that are really residences) up to the sky if they can bring enough lots together. So the 80-foot height cap will help preserve the character of the historic Lower East Side south of Houston. I'd like to see a 60-foot height cap throughout the district, including Houston, Delancey, Christie and D.

11/12/2006 8:46 PM  

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