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How Tall is that Building in my Window?

by Rob Hollander

A large crowd of between 150 and 200 residents turned out for the LES rezoning forum on Monday. DCP presented nearly the exact same plan it presented in July, providing no new data or support. Amanda Burden, the director of DCP, was not present; Executive Director Barth, lurking unobtrusively in the corner, was not introduced. "Kremlin watchers" may judge for themselves whether DCP is genuinely behind the specifics of this plan or waiting to see the community response before mobilizing its research and personal commitments.

Several significant questions were raised at the meeting by community voices:

  1. If current laws were properly applied, would the current zoning not be better than the proposed zoning north of Houston?
  2. If 75% of LES buildings are 5 stories or less, what justifies an 80-foot height cap?
  3. What guarantee is there in this plan that any affordable housing would be created and that current affordable housing would not be lost to the upzoning?
  4. Why are 3rd and 4th Avenues not included in the plan?
  5. Why doesn't the plan include anti-harassment and anti-demolition measures to protect residents in under-FAR structures?
  6. Why won't DCP state its position on commercial overlays and why won't it consider residential zoning for the Orchard Street area, especially in light of the proposed text change which would prevent the conversion of retailers into bars in residential areas?

The Coalition to Save the Lower East Side presented an alternative plan which would better preserve the neighorhood and community, featuring R7-B (75-foot height cap, FAR 3.0) throughout most of the district. LESRRD recommended R6-B (60-foot height cap with a base FAR of 2.0 bonusable to 4.0 with affordable housing). We also presented our study of LES building heights which I have attached and included as unformatted text below (if the tables don't align below, the analysis following them should clarify their contents, or see the formatted attachment):

Contextual Height Of The Lower East Side North Of Houston Street

November 2006

Contextual Height of the Lower East Side North of Houston Street: An address-by-address, lot-by-lot survey Conducted by Lower East Side Residents for Responsible Development

Survey I: Representative Streets

Background
This survey was conducted during the first week of November, 2006, by Lower East Side Residents for Responsible Development (LESRRD), an East Village community network, as a community informational project in preparation for a public presentation of a rezoning plan by the Department of City Planning (DCP), November 6, 2006. The goal has been to provide the public, the local Community Board and the City with reliable, up-to-date data on the height of existing structures for the determination of contextual height, the general height of buildings in the Lower East Side north of Houston street. The survey was commissioned and paid for entirely by LESRRD. No funds were sought or accepted from any other source.

Method
Constraints of time and budget prohibiting a survey of the entire proposed zoning area (see the DCP's proposal map), LESRRD decided to choose, as a first installment of a larger survey, one entire characteristic street and one entire characteristic avenue running through the "East Village" section of the zoning area, Houston east of Bowery/3rd Avenue north to 14th Street. Houston Street itself was included to provide data on the number of easily developed "soft" sites, information crucial to judging the impact of DCP's proposed upzoning of that street.

The survey consisted of a walk through, address-by-address, of each of the chosen streets. Each building was recorded individually with the following information (see the sample record sheet attached): number of lots, number of stories, type of use, period of construction, and number of commercial uses. Type of use included residential, religious, commercial, educational. For lots with no construction, types included park, playground, vacant lot, garden, yard. Serial (contiguous) lots with no construction were counted as one address, with the number of lots recorded under lot number. Period of construction was identified by a variety of historical clues including architectural detail, type, size and color of brick, ceiling height, building height, number of units and number of lots, which clues, taken all together, almost always provide a reliable profile of estimated age. Periods included Pre-Law (prior to 1867), Old Law (to 1901), New Law (to ca. 1920), Pre-World War II (to the 1940's), Post-World War II (through the 1980's), Gentrification (to present).

Data

1st Avenue
# stories   0 1   2 3   4 5   6 >6* total
#addresses  2    4  2    5  40   87    15 1   156
#lots      2   6 2   12    43 98  19   1 183


11th Street
# stories   0 1   2 3   4 5   6 >6* total
#addresses  11   3 1   6 30  49   28    4  132
#lots      25  3    1  9    35 65  42   6 186


Houston Street**
# stories   0 1   2 3   4 5   6 >6* total
#addresses  10   19    4  9    14 27  24   4 111
#lots      34  35   4 16  19   30    28 18  184


Totals:
# stories   0 1   2 3   4 5   6 >6* total
#addresses  23   26    7  20   84    163    67 9   399
#lots      61  44   7 37  87   193   89    25 553

Analysis
Of the three streets, First Avenue has the most consistent overall context, mostly 5 story buildings with a large number of 4 story buildings as well, and little else besides. Only 10% of its buildings rise above 5 stories. Over half the buildings ­ 56% -- are 5 stories tall, 26% stand 4 stories tall. Roughly the same holds true by lot: 54% of lots (not counting 0-story lots) are occupied by 5 story structures. Only 11% of lots have buildings taller than 5 stories. Both median and mode are 5 stories and the mean is between 4 and 5 stories.

11th Street shows only a slightly broader range: 40% of buildings stand 5 stories tall, but 23% rise to 6 stories and an additional 3% rise above 6 stories. 40% of lots (not counting the 0-story lots) are occupied by 5 story buildings, 30% rise above 5 stories. Again, the median and mode are 5 stories, the mean only slightly below.

Houston Street presents a broad spectrum of structures including many soft sites ­ taxpayers, empty lots and two-story buildings. The data on Houston also reflect the consequences of recent out-of-scale development. Already 12% of its lots are built out-of-scale, not counting any of the new Avalon structures.

Overall the neighborhood appears to have a fairly consistent context. In the area surveyed, 40% of lots are built to 5 stories, 20% are built to 4 stories, 18% are built to 6 stories. Only 4% are taller than 6 stories. 38% are under 5 stories (not counting 0-story lots), only 22% are taller than 5 stories.

Conclusion
A realistic and reasonable zoning would include a 60-foot height cap, a base FAR of perhaps 2 bonusable to 4 with affordable housing. This would be similar to an Inclusionary Zoning R6-B but with a lowered base FAR, something akin to mandatory affordable housing. That would preserve our neighborhood context, protect low-income tenants from development-hungry landlords, and create new affordable housing wherever development is ripe (vacant lots and single story non-residential retailers).

Contrary to the expectation that avenues are built taller than side-streets, the buildings on 1st Avenue are typically much lower than those on 11th Street: 89% of buildings on 1st Avenue are 5 stories or lower; only 70% on 11th Street. This is obvious to anyone who has enjoyed the view of wide-open sky on 1st Avenue. More important, a great many of the four-story pre-Law tenements house only three tenants each, which makes them targets for landlord harassment and eviction in an upzoned neighborhood. The DCP plan could create great pressure on a landlord who owns a 4-story tenement with three tenants to evict, demolish and build 8 stories for 16 tenants even at the proposed FAR of 4. The suggestion that avenues should be zoned taller than side-streets should not be assumed -- it requires substantial justification and careful scrutiny, especially considering the historical character of the neighborhood. In large part First Avenue retains the appearance it had in the second half of the 19th century. The tenements are mostly pre-Law (pre 1867); there are fewer Old and New Law tenements ­ the tenements that rise to 6 stories -- than elsewhere in the district. Development is more appropriate in less historically significant neighborhoods (almost any neighborhood in the city is less historically significant than the LES) and the avenues in the LES are at least as historically rich and well-preserved as the side streets.

Proposals
Based on these data, LESRRD offers three proposals for the Lower East Side:

  1. R6-B (60-foot height cap) with a base 2.0 FAR bonusable to 4.0 FAR with affordable housing.
  2. Moratorium on construction until final approval of a zoning plan (after City Council Int. 679/2005).***
  3. Historical District designation for the Lower East Side.

*Buildings over 6 stories are so few and so variable in height that I grouped them together in one category. They represent only 2% of the buildings of the neighborhood, statistically insignificant.

**Because Houston does not fit the 1811 grid, lot size is often difficult to gage. But rendering both the addresses and the lots increases the precision of the picture.

***"By Council Members Avella, Comrie, Fidler, Gentile, Gonzalez, James, Koppell, Martinez, McMahon, Nelson, Palma, Recchia Jr., Sanders Jr., Vacca, Vann, White Jr., Mendez, Monserrate, Addabbo Jr., Mark-Viverito, Weprin and Oddo ..Title A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to the issuance of building permits for areas where a rezoning application is pending. ..Body Be it enacted by the Council as follows: Section 1. Section 27-191 of the administrative code of the city of New York is amended by lettering the existing section as subdivision a and adding a new subdivision b to read as follows: Upon the filing with the council of an application for rezoning by the city planning commission pursuant to section one hundred ninety-seven-d of the charter, the department shall not, except under exigent circumstances involving safety and health, issue any permits for either: (1) new building, (2) alteration, (3) foundation and earthwork, or (4) demolition and removal, within the area that is the subject of the rezoning application until the completion of the uniform land use review procedure process with regards to this application. For the purposes of this subdivision, the term "completion" shall include the requisite passage of time in accordance with all provisions of section 197-d of the charter. Following such completion, the department may issue such permits, in accordance with all applicable provisions of zoning, laws and rules, within the area that was the subject of the rezoning."

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

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