Volume 75, Number 17 | September 14 - 20, 2005

Fast-track East Village rezoning gains speed

By Lincoln Anderson

This hotly debated new dormitory on E. Third St. would not have been allowed to be 13 stories if the R7-A zoning proposed by an East Village community group had been in effect before its construction. The dormitory benefited from added height under the community facilities zoning allowance.
Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden has been pounding the pavement and scoping out the situation, a community group has funded a comprehensive rezoning study, the local city councilmember has allocated $50,000 to the community board — and all signs are pointing to a rapid rezoning of the East Village that will limit building heights and eliminate the dreaded community facilities bonus — the use of which to construct oversize buildings has come under fire from residents and the community board.

The East Side rezoning initiative has taken a huge jump forward lately with the above confluence of events. What was originally seen as being a 197-a rezoning plan has now morphed into a 197-c. While both types of plan are community based, the critical difference is that while a 197-a can take five to seven years to shepherd through to implementation, a 197-c can go into affect in as quickly as one to two years, according to David McWater, chairperson of Community Board 3.

“More than a year — less than two years,” he said is what he has been told it will take to put the plan into action.

A 197-a is more of a vision statement for a district, while a 197-c is a specific zoning recommendation. In both cases, the plans must be approved by City Planning.

The ad-hoc East Village Community Coalition was formed last year to fight Gregg Singer’s high-rise dormitory plan on the site of the old P.S. 64 on E. Ninth St. — a project that, under current zoning, would benefit from added height and bulk permitted under the community facilities allowance. E.V.C.C. has jumpstarted the East Village rezoning process by commissioning its own study by the prestigious firm of BFJ Planning. The study looks at the area between Houston and 13th Sts. from Third Ave. east. McWater said the board has been given the results and is studying them. E.V.C.C.’s study recommends changing the area to an R7-A or R7-B zoning, which, according to McWater, “basically eliminates community facility [zoning].”

Currently, the East Village’s zoning is R7-2, with a 3.44 floor-to-area ratio for residential buildings and a 6.5 F.A.R. for community facilities, with no height restriction on either. (F.A.R. is a formula for how much floor space can be built relative to the footprint of the property.)

R7-A would cap building heights throughout the district at 80 feet, R7-B at 75 feet — both in line with the area’s prevailing building heights of around 60 to 80 feet, seen in the East Village’s typical five-to-six-story tenement buildings. R7-A would reduce the community facilities F.A.R. to 4.0 and also cap residential F.A.R. at 4.0.; R7-B would reduce both residential and community facilities F.A.R. to 3.0. (The full rezoning study is online at http://www.evccnyc.org/.)

“What they came up with is basically what the [community] board came up with a few years ago,” McWater said. He was referring to a prior attempt by C.B. 3 to start a 197-a process that didn’t get off the ground.

E.V.C.C.’s proposal wouldn’t change the area’s zoning for Use Group 6, however, which allows bars, McWater noted; a bar owner himself, McWater has previously said he feels zoning should be changed to reduce the area’s amount of Use Group 6 commercial space.

McWater said it turns out changing Use Group 6 was harder than he at first thought, and that the main problem is that Use Group 6 is grandfathered in commercial spaces, even those that aren’t currently bars. Changing this zoning will require a more complicated “text change,” McWater said, apparently referring to the city’s zoning text.

“It’s more difficult, but something we should look at,” he said.

On Aug. 15, a meeting was held with City Planning officials to present the E.V.C.C. proposal, and it reportedly went very well. McWater, who didn’t attend that meeting, says City Planning has been extremely receptive.

“I’m a die-hard Democrat,” he said. “But City Planning, at least in this administration, has been great. They said, like yeah — we can do the whole area.”

Jane Crotty, an E.V.C.C. spokesperson, said the meeting with Planning “went very well.”

Those present included Roland Legiardi-Laura and Aaron Sosnick of E.V.C.C.; Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation; Tom Yardley of BFJ Planning; Barden Prisant, chairperson of the C.B. 3 197-a Task Force; Crotty; Ray Gastil, Manhattan borough City Planning commissioner; and Emily Chen, Gastil’s assistant. City Councilmember Margarita Lopez and District Leader Rosie Mendez had also planned to attend, but didn’t make it.

“It was an informational meeting — information was shared on both sides of the table,” Crotty said, adding it was held in anticipation of the Aug. 23 C.B. 197-a Task Force meeting.

According to Crotty, the BFJ study — which is very comprehensive — could speed up the entire process, since, she said, “The hardest part of a 197-a plan is getting all the information in one place. And this study does that.”

Another plus about the study is that it was financed by E.V.C.C., saving C.B. 3 a major expense.

Michael Rosen, a founder of the coalition, said, “The E.V.C.C. is deeply encouraged by the efforts and energy of C.B. 3 regarding rezoning.”

Rachaele Raynoff, a City Planning spokesperson, said Commissioner Burden and Mayor Bloomberg are fully cognizant of the fact that East Villagers and Lower East Siders are pushing for a rezoning.

“City Planning is aware of the concerns,” Raynoff said. “We’ve met with the community group. We know that the community board is discussing possible approaches, as is City Planning. And the mayor has made clear his priority for preserving and protecting neighborhood character and scale. City Planning will be working with all interested parties to address the concerns that were raised and will work to identify a consensus of what a future framework should be.”

Raynoff said Burden and staff have recently hit the streets to do walking tours of the East Village and Lower East Side to scout out the conditions and have visited “a representative portion” of the area.

Any new zoning would apply as well to development sites, Raynoff said, unless the projects are already vested — meaning their foundations are already in the ground.

In addition, McWater said, the board plans to look at rezoning two other areas: Houston St. to Grand St., from Essex St. to Allen St.; and Houston St. to the north side of Delancey St. east of Essex St.

At the Aug. 23 special meeting of the board’s 197-a Task Force — attended by about 20 to 25 people and “well publicized,” according to McWater — the E.V.C.C. proposal was approved. The full board of C.B. 3 will consider the rezoning at its Sept. 27 meeting and vote on its general principles and areas to be included. “We won’t do anything without the community board voting on it,” McWater assured.

But McWater said that even without looking at the study, “it’s pretty obvious what needs to be done” in terms of rezoning the neighborhood. The study done by the community group only accounts for “15 percent” of what still needs to be done, he noted. “There’s still lots more that needs to be done. That’s just something we feel can be done fast,” he said of the E.V.C.C. plan.

Since much more is left to do, the $50,000 that Councilmember Lopez allocated to C.B. 3 in June for it to conduct what was then envisioned as a 197-a community-based rezoning plan should come in handy.

In May, C.B. 3 and Lopez co-sponsored a meeting on rezoning at which the 197-a process was presented to the community and discussed by a panel of experts. At that time, McWater said the board would need to get a $50,000 grant to hire a planner to do the study, and that the board would probably have to look to foundations and other funding sources for grants.

“As a result of the community forum we had, it’s very clear that the Lower East Side has not been rezoned for 40 years and that the community felt that it’s very important that the community take control of development — and not be led by development,” said Eric Lugo, Lopez’s chief of staff, in a statement on her behalf regarding her allocation to C.B. 3. The study, he said, “would look at commercial, community facilities, height of structures, retain character of [the] area and also look at traffic patterns. It looks at our neighborhood in a holistic way. Because the analysis is comprehensive, it’s costly,” he added.

McWater said the board is glad to get Lopez’s funding, which will now, apparently, be used for a 197-c. “It would have been way too much money. We never could have raised that kind of money,” he said.

G.V.S.H.P. director Berman noted that the E.V.C.C. proposal isn’t anti-community facility, per se.

“Nobody’s looking to eliminate community facilities,” he said. “This would eliminate the size differential. This rezoning plan will preserve the character and scale of the East Village — which the East Village really needs — and it can’t get too soon.”

Berman said — as opposed to the residentially zoned East Village — the Far West Village’s existing commercial and manufacturing zoning doesn’t allow for much of “a bump up” for a community facility project, which is why lowering community facilities heights isn’t part of the Far West Village rezoning plan, which was to be subject of a hearing at City Planning on Wed., Aug. 14.

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