Volume 74, Number 52 | May 04 - 10 , 2005


197-a is the way to go for Lower East Side’s future

With new building projects for apartment and hotel towers cropping up all over and a bar explosion with seemingly no end in sight, it’s clear that the East Village and Lower East Side are undergoing tremendous change. But the change is not being managed in any ascertainable way. That’s where Community Board 3’s plan to move ahead with a 197-a rezoning process comes in.

The ambitious proposal by C.B. 3 under David McWater, its chairperson for the last year, makes sense on many levels. Although the plan will take five to seven years to complete and be put into effect, the time is now to start the ball rolling. Also, the 197-a process may spin off some particular issues that might lead to results in the nearer future.

Specifically, a 197-a plan is a community-based zoning initiative. Community boards are empowered to lead them, and in this case C.B. 3 is spearheading the process. Councilmember Margarita Lopez is also strongly backing the initiative, but needs the community board to carry it out.

The board will hire a consultant to help them draft the plan, which will then be presented to City Planning. The hope is Planning will accept the community’s ideas for the neighborhood and, without too much dilution, approve them to be implemented. The board will need to raise funds to pay for the consultant. A board task force that will lead the process is being assembled now. There will be regular meetings of the task force, which we certainly hope will be public.

Obviously, rezoning as it affects development needs to be looked at, particularly on the Lower East Side. The area south of Delancey St. was rezoned to allow for high-rise development in anticipation of a crosstown Lower Manhattan expressway. Yet, while the community defeated Robert Moses’ highway, the zoning of 50 years ago remains. Just as the highway would have devastated communities, overdevelopment now threatens the livability, character and very sustainability of the area, which lacks adequate infrastructure to support these new behemoths.

Another concern is bar proliferation. As McWater notes, Use Group 6 commercial zoning allows entire blocks and streets to become bar zones. Now that bars and lounges are outbidding a more diverse mix of businesses in the escalating rent wars, zoning controls are needed to help maintain a modicum of economic and social diversity.

As for other benefits that might emerge from the 197-a process, we hope the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area’s remaining sites are dealt with comprehensively. A 197-a plan focuses on how an area’s mix of residential and commercial uses can best function, and Seward Park is in need of a well-thought-out plan and the hard work of building a consensus. If McWater and C.B. 3 can break through the Seward Park inertia, they will have achieved something local politicians have failed to do for the past quarter century.

C.B. 3 and David McWater seem to be able to rise above their internal differences to address larger community issues. (C.B. 2 take note!) We have high hopes for C.B. 3’s 197-a plan, and hopefully it will start producing results before the Lower East Side and East Village change even more in ways that we’ll regret.

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