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

Homing in on zoning as antidote to laundry list of East Side’s ills

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager photo by Robert Stolarik
David McWater read audience questions to a panel of experts at a community forum on zoning last month.
Saying it could potentially solve many of the neighborhood’s problems, Councilmember Margarita Lopez and Community Board 3 are supporting a community-based rezoning plan for the East Village and Lower East Side.

In March, C.B. 3 passed a resolution in support of initiating what is known as a 197-a zoning plan. The process — under which the board will put together a rezoning plan for the area, which the city would then approve and enact some version of — could take five to seven years. The board will have to hire a consultant to help draft the plan.

Lopez and C.B. 3 recently sponsored a zoning forum with a panel of experts to discuss local concerns; hear how C.B. 6 — the community board north of E. 14th St. — has successfully done 197-a plans; and share information about other zoning struggles, such as in Williamsburg. In the Brooklyn neighborhood, the city’s inclusionary zoning plan calling for 47-story towers with some affordable housing on the waterfront is facing stiff opposition. Without affordable units, the towers could be 40 stories, which doesn’t sit much better with the community.

David McWater, chairperson of C.B. 3, said the zoning forum was to “build some momentum” for a local 197-a process. McWater said inclusionary zoning — under which developers would be required or encouraged to include affordable housing in new buildings — could be something that “spins off” from the 197-a plan. Other areas the study could look at would be buildings’ maximum floor-to-area ratios, height caps and landmarking.

However, the main concern, McWater said, is that the district currently lacks a sensible planning process and that change is “developer driven.”

“Right now, no one is really doing any planning,” he said. “No matter what issue people are having down here, it comes down to planning.”

It was pointed out at the zoning forum that the reason tall towers can be built on the Lower East Side is because the area was zoned as a new high-rise district in conjunction with Robert Moses’ plan for a cross-Manhattan highway through Lower Manhattan. The community defeated the highway project but the zoning remains.

McWater said the board is trying to get a $50,000 grant to hire a consultant and is looking at foundations and other funding sources. The board is setting up a 197-a Task Force to lead the process.

“I have my own opinions, but I’m not advocating any,” McWater said. “Hopefully, the task force will decide what’s best and there will be lots of input from the community.”

However, he did offer that he thinks the nonrestrictive Use Group 6 commercial zoning prevalent in the area, originally meant to support a variety of neighborhood-type stores, probably should be reconsidered. As mom-and-pop shops have disappeared, they’ve been replaced by an over-proliferation of bars, in the view of McWater — who himself owns a number of East Village bars — to the point where some streets are wall-to-wall bars.

“I’ve been saying it for 10 years,” he said. “If someone looked at this 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

The area’s zoning, which hasn’t changed in 50 years, simply doesn’t meet today’s realities, McWater said.

“You can’t take a model for development from the 1950s and apply it to the 21st century,” he noted, adding, “Our zoning is closer to Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic than it is to computers and putting a man on the moon.”

Although the community board will initiate and lead the process, Lopez is a firm supporter of the 197-a plan.

“It’s one of the few tools that communities have in order to preempt development that is not wanted and to satisfy the wants and needs of the people,” said the councilmember. “It’s not a perfect tool, but it allows residents, businesspeople and institutions of the community to work together to get a plan that everybody agrees on. In the absence of better instruments, I embrace this one, because it’s comprehensive. Particularly in Manhattan, if things are not done in a comprehensive way, we are going to keep exacerbating the displacement of residents.”

Lopez said she’d like to see Pratt Institute get involved in the 197-a study, because the school has assisted the community on planning issues before. McWater also mentioned Civitas and the Muncipal Art Society as potential participants.

According to Lopez, the 197-a plan will consider from E. 35th St. to Montgomery St., from Third Ave. to the East River. However, the area from 14th St. to Delancey St. has some regulations in place protecting against bulky development; the real concern is the Lower East Side south of Delancey St., she said. This part of the district is largely landfill — so new construction faces problems from the water table — and lacks the necessary infrastructure, such as sewers, water mains, hospitals and schools, all of which makes large-scale development here a problem, in her opinion.

“We need to put a new zoning in place that will deal with the needs of this area and the realities of this area,” she said.

Lopez added that, except for police officers and firefighters, city employees are required to live in the city. But, she said, with salaries ranging from $35,000 to $80,000, it’s increasingly difficult for these employees to meet the residency requirement.

“The city is not providing housing for these people,” Lopez said. “These people are not poor — but they can’t afford a $1 million condo.”

She said she supports inclusionary zoning, noting the concept got its start on the Lower East Side in the Cross-Subsidy Plan, under which some city-owned sites for development were slated for market-rate housing and others for affordable housing.

“It was born here under my leadership of the Joint Planning Council,” Lopez noted. “It was this community that carried the torch.” The Cross-Subsidy Plan had a 50/50 split on sites designated for market-rate and affordable housing. Lopez said that was much better than what former Mayor Ed Koch came up with, the 80/20 program, under which developers only have to build 20 percent affordable units to get tax abatements.

“This area is not a kindergarten area when it comes to fighting development,” Lopez noted. “We are Ph.D.’s in fighting the good fight.”

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