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Volume 77 / Number 29 - December 19 - 25, 2007

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Villager photo by Talisman Brolin

Councilmember Tony Avella, center, was one of the grand marshals at Saturday’s East Meets West holiday parade in Little Italy and Chinatown. Flanking him were former District Leader John Fratta, left, and Borough President Scott Stringer.

Avella and Quinn clash over community facilities

By Lincoln Anderson

In October, Tony Avella, the outspoken chairperson of the City Council’s Zoning Committee, joined a trio of local preservationists at a press conference on Sullivan St. outside New York University’s School of Law to call for reform of the community facilities zoning allowance.

Avella, who represents northeastern Queens, introduced a proposal a couple of years ago, but it hasn’t gained any traction in the City Council. That inaction was precisely the reason for the press conference.

Standing with Avella were Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, and Paul Graziano and Simeon Bankoff, president and executive director, respectively, of the Historic Districts Council.

Avella developed his proposal in collaboration with Berman, H.D.C. and civic groups, including the Queens Civic Congress and the Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance.

It was no coincidence that the press conference was on the sidewalk by N.Y.U.’s School of Law. Institutions like N.Y.U. regularly exploit the community facilities allowance to construct buildings up to twice as big as residential buildings in the same spot would be allowed to be.

Local residents are well familiar with the fruits of the community facilities allowance, such as the press conference’s backdrop, the new N.Y.U. School of Law building, as well as the N.Y.U. Kimmel Center on Washington Square. Meanwhile, in the East Village, developer Gregg Singer hopes to use the zoning bonus to erect a towering university dormitory atop the old P.S. 64/former CHARAS/El Bohio cultural and community center on E. Ninth St., though has been stymied since June 2006 when the community succeeded in landmarking the old school building.

Medical and religious facilities are other uses that also qualify for the community facilities zoning bonus.

Avella feels the use of this much-maligned zoning tool is destroying neighborhoods’ character, and that, in fact, these so-called community facilities more often are serving entire regions, rather than the local community as was envisioned in the city’s Zoning Resolution of 1961.

Specifically, Avella proposes that the bulk bonus for community facilities be reduced across the board by 75 percent. Community facilities automatically would be able to get only 25 percent of the bulk increase that they currently enjoy. To obtain the other 75 percent, each institution would have to apply for a special permit, requiring the applicant to undergo the uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP, involving a full-scale public review process.

In addition, Avella is recommending a reduction in the number and type of facilities that qualify as community facilities. For example, student dormitories should not qualify for the bonus at all, Avella says. Even fraternities and sororities currently quality for the community facilities allowance, which the councilmember derides as “ridiculous.”

While a lot of neighborhood rezoning is going on around the city, in some cases the community facilities zoning allowance can still be used in these areas, essentially defeating the point of the rezoning, he noted.

Avella’s proposed changes would be enacted not through legislation but by a modification of the city’s Zoning Code. “Would” is the operative word, however, since Avella has been finding scant support for his idea in City Hall, specifically in the City Council.

“There’s a big lobbying effort by these institutions against it,” Avella claimed. He notes he met with Amanda Burden, director of the Department of City Planning, and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn “some time ago” regarding his idea, and that “nothing has happened.”

“The City Council came back with a counterproposal that none of us could figure out,” Avella said. “It had lots of loopholes for the real estate industry to get around it.”

No Council support

Avella charges he’s not getting enough support from the City Council, meaning Quinn, and that if Quinn was only more receptive, then Burden — representing the Bloomberg administration — would get more serious about community facility reform.

“The administration wants the support of the City Council,” Avella explained. “They don’t want to do it alone. We’re two years into it — the real problem may be at the City Council at this point.” Avella says that the problem is the real estate industry has too much clout, which explains the lack of political resolve to reform the community facilities provision.

“Some of my colleagues in the City Council spend a little too much time bending over for the real estate interests,” he charged. Was he, he was asked, taking a shot specifically at Quinn by that remark?

“I think you could assume that,” Avella answered.

The Trump Soho condo-hotel at Spring and Varick Sts. is “a perfect example of how the rules are bent for the real estate industry,” Avella said. “Small homeowners would never get away with anything. The pendulum has swung way too far for the real estate industry — it’s got to come back.”

Although a transient hotel would be allowed at the Soho site, opponents, including Berman and Avella, charge the Trump condo-hotel will be illegal under the location’s manufacturing zoning since it will function essentially as a residential building.

Quinn worked with the Department of Buildings to craft a restrictive declaration for the Trump Soho hotel-condo, limiting the amount of time residents can stay there at one stretch and during the course of a year.

Following up on his earlier discussions, Avella sent a letter to Bloomberg, Quinn and Burden on Nov. 1, asking for support for his initiative, but has yet to get a response.

Avella stressed that he understands legitimate community facilities provide an important service, but he said they can’t be allowed to destroy the fabric and quality of life of the communities they are supposed to be serving.

Need public process

“We’re not saying you can’t get it,” Avella said of the zoning boost. “We’re saying you you’ve got to show why you need it — demonstrate it through a public hearing.” The ULURP process for a special permit application includes review by the local community board and borough president — both of whose recommendations are advisory in this case — as well as by City Planning and, if necessary, the City Council.

Three years ago, Avella had success in what he terms “Stage I” of his community facilities reform campaign. Among other changes, he was able to modify the Zoning Code to allow religious institutions to build in manufacturing zones, easing the pressure on residential communities, and, on the other hand, ban medical clinics from being built in low-rise residential districts, where they had been used to increase the size of small buildings.

Some might question, however, if community facilities reform would really make a difference. For example, isn’t the impact of, say, four five-story buildings spaced out around a community equal to one 20-story building? Avella says No.

Four scattered smaller buildings compared to one large one “would not have the same visual effect or traffic effect or taking away people’s light and air,” he noted. “It wouldn’t change the feeling of the neighborhood.”

On the contrary, institutions like N.Y.U. argue that they have less impact on the neighborhood by massing uses on one spot, rather than spreading them around.

“They clearly haven’t gotten the message yet,” Avella said of N.Y.U.

No one familiar with City Council politics, however, would be very surprised that Avella says Quinn isn’t helping him. In fact, Quinn won’t do anything to help Avella, said one politically savvy source, requesting anonymity.

“Avella’s got no juice in the Council,” he said dismissively.

Mayoral opponents

Perhaps that’s because Avella, like Quinn, is running for mayor — though, despite Avella’s efforts, his campaign can’t seem to get onto the radar.

Council term limits will kick in for Avella, as well as for Quinn, at the end of 2009. At this rate, Avella might not be able to complete “Stage II” of his community facilities reform plan while in the Council.

“We’re several years down the line now, and I can’t build any momentum with the City Council or the administration,” he admitted. “If I can’t get it done before term limits kick in — that’s why I’m running for mayor.” He said “overdevelopment and the lack of planning” is his major campaign issue. If elected, he said, he would try to give neighborhoods a real stake in local planning, going beyond the 197a community-planning process, the recommendations of which the city currently isn’t obligated to enact and which sometimes, as he put it, end up “sitting on the shelf.” He’s working with the Municipal Art Society on guidelines for a new, more empowering community-based planning process, due to be released in about six months.

Avella isn’t taking any campaign contributions from real estate industry sources.

“A lot of the mayoral candidates are raising huge amounts of money from the real estate industry,” Avella said. “I refuse to sell my soul, because it’s self-defeating.”

Quinn in context

A Quinn spokesperson said the Council speaker feels Avella’s community facilities reform proposal is redundant and unnecessary. Rather, the spokesperson said, the speaker feels that contextual rezoning — such as the one that is being proposed by City Planning for the East Village and Lower East Side — is the way to go. In the East Village/Lower East Side rezoning, community facilities would not qualify for additional bulk, but would be limited to the same allowance as residentially zoned properties.

Similarly, a West Village downzoning, passed in December 2005, to a certain extent, caps community facility heights contextually with those of adjacent properties.

“The speaker believes that the problem Councilmember Avella’s proposal seeks to address has been vastly diminished through a number of contextual downzonings that have already been done,” said Maria Alvarado. “These rezonings are examples of widespread changes made to equalize the community facility F.A.R. [floor area ratio, a formula governing building size] to the as-of-right F.A.R. Through these rezonings, the bulk of community facilities has been reduced, and staff will continue to look at additional communities that could be reviewed.

“Additionally,” Alvarado continued, “City Planning is in the process of rezoning a number of affected districts to contextual districts where there is no additional F.A.R. between the residential F.A.R. and the community facility F.AR.

“We believe it is possible to handle the problem in this way rather than by a community facilities text change,” Alvarado said. “At this point, the Speaker’s Office feels contextual rezonings that have already been done, in addition to a number of others in the city, are the best tool to deal with community facility issues.”

Yet Berman, G.V.S.H.P.’s director, scoffed at Quinn’s position, saying it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

“It’s entirely insufficient,” he said. “Many parts of our neighborhood are not being contextually rezoned. I know that the Speaker’s Office has raised contextual rezoning as a solution, but that’s not a silver bullet by any means.”

South Village case

He noted that G.V.S.H.P., starting three years ago, has repeatedly asked the city for a contextual rezoning for the South Village without success.

“Here we have a neighborhood that’s a poster child for contextual rezoning, but the city refused to touch it,” he said of the South Village. “Take away the community facility bulk bonus and there’s a lot less development potential. In the South Village you get a 90 percent bulk bonus for community facility,” he noted.

Also, Berman said, the city is “carving out” the Third and Fourth Aves. and Bowery corridors in the East Village to allow for “community facility abuse,” despite the fact that G.V.S.H.P. and others asked for a Bowery rezoning a year and a half ago.

And Berman pointed out that not all parts of the Far West Village in the ’05 rezoning were rezoned contextually with height caps for community facilities.

“Even if the East Village rezoning is passed, you would still have by far the majority of Community Board 2 and 3 without contextual zoning, and still with community facility bulk bonuses of up to 90 percent and no height limits,” Berman said. “And by the way, the city’s proposed East Village/Lower East Side rezoning eliminates the community facility bulk bonus in most, but not all, of the areas it rezones.”

N.Y.U. President John Sexton says he would like to see the university add 3 million square feet of new facility space in its Washington Square-area core over the next 25 years. University planners are mulling using 1.5 million square feet of untapped university air rights — and possibly using underground space, too — on N.Y.U.’s two superblocks between W. Third and W. Houston Sts. and Mercer St. and LaGuardia Pl. Using the community facilities bonus on these blocks would be a big mistake, Berman said.

“That’s one of the reasons we’ve been advocating for landmarking of Silver Towers,” Berman said of the N.Y.U.-owned, faculty-residence buildings on the southernmost superblock. “To build in the middle of the I.M. Pei-designed plaza where the Picasso sculpture is would be a mistake.”

Berman agrees with Avella that student dormitories should not get any community facilities allowance at all.

“Student dormitories do not serve any particular public service,” he said. “They only serve the needs of the particular institutions that they belong to. The city did the right thing three years ago when it removed the community facility bulk bonus from faculty housing, and they should do the same for student housing. There’s no rational justification for allowing student dormitories to be nearly twice the size of residential buildings.”

N.Y.U. growth issues

As for Sexton’s hopes of adding 3 million square feet of N.Y.U. facilities to the university’s Washington Square core area, Berman said, “Frankly, we think N.Y.U. should make all efforts to stay within its existing footprint. It would be literally impossible for Greenwich Village and the East Village to remain Greenwich Village and the East Village with an additional 3 million square feet of N.Y.U. added in their midst. Even if N.Y.U. merely took over 3 million square feet of space [as opposed to constructing new buildings], they would still transform the neighborhood completely. It would become, in effect, a company town.

“Why their business school is not in the Financial District, I can’t understand,” Berman said. “Also, their film school, they should be looking at Astoria where there’s Silvercup and Kaufman Astoria Studios in Long Island City.”

Berman said Avella’s zoning reform proposal would definitely make it harder for N.Y.U. to squeeze 3 million square feet of additional facility space into the Village area.

The G.V.S.H.P. director noted that the new building planned by The New School at 14th St. and Fifth Ave., because of the site’s particular zoning, would not qualify for any increase under the community facilities zoning.

For its part, N.Y.U. denies it is lobbying the city to oppose community facility reform. At a recent meeting with The Villager’s editorial staff, several N.Y.U. officials all simultaneously said there is no such lobbying effort, when asked if there was.

Impacts beyond N.Y.U.

Of Avella’s community facilities reform proposal, Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U. associate vice president of government and community affairs, said, “It is difficult to formulate a response specific to a proposal that is really only a press release. Regardless, we would hope that no discussion would go forward without engaging the many nonprofit institutions — of all types — across the city which would be affected by such a proposal.

“What strikes me as odd,” Hurley continued, “is that this effort seems to ignore the important effort on which the city is already embarked: more localized rezonings which can take context into account. This also seems at odds with what the city has been doing to work positively with higher-education institutions across the city — recognizing our importance to the strength and vitality of the city — to ensure that we are able to grow.”

N.Y.U. also disputes the contention that student dormitories should not qualify for the community facilities allowance. Lori Mazor, N.Y.U. associate vice president for planning and design, said that dorms of a certain size are considered communities by the students living in them, and thus epitomize the very definition of community facilities.

Echoing Mazor, Hurley said: “Those living in a student residence are part of a community — a community of students and scholars, focused on learning and research — in a way that those living in an apartment building are not.”

Local leaders had mixed reactions to Avella’s community facilities reform proposal.

State Assemblymember Deborah Glick said she thinks Avella’s idea sounds good but that it’s a city issue for the City Council to decide.

“I think the community bonus piece, it’s a problem,” Glick said. “I think it’s abused in some instances. The Village is a low-scale neighborhood.”

Lisa Kaplan, Councilmember Rosie Mendez’s chief of staff, said Mendez would not comment on Avella’s proposal because “it’s not formed yet.”

Brad Hoylman, chairperson of Community Board 2, said the community board, in his view, should take “a very reasoned perspective” regarding N.Y.U. and issues, in general, otherwise it risks losing credibility in its advisory role in the ULURP review process on important projects.

‘Let’s be realistic’

“I think over all on community facilities reform, it’s something that should be considered,” Hoylman said. “I’m not sure if the Council is taking [Avella’s proposal] seriously. It’s easy for a politician to say they’re proposing this zoning change, but I think we need to be realistic about it. I think it’s interesting that councilmembers from Queens are holding rallies in Manhattan,” he added. “I think our councilmembers are in a better position to make the case.”

As for whether the Village area can absorb an additional 3 million square feet of N.Y.U. dorms and academic space, the C.B. 2 chairperson said, “Do I wish that N.Y.U. wouldn’t build another building? Sure. On the other hand, they’re an extremely important institution to the community and they do amazing things in economic development and research in ways that benefit our lives that are probably hard to quantify. The community board doesn’t want to stand in the way of N.Y.U. being a great institution. It’s a conversation that N.Y.U., the elected officials and the community will be having over their growth — but both sides have to be reasonable.”

Hoylman noted that the board is grateful that N.Y.U. is finally making public its long-range goals as part of its new strategic planning initiative. However, at the same time, he added that C.B. 2 is on record encouraging N.Y.U. to look for alternative sites to expand outside of the Village area.

“The whole idea of community facilities has been perverted,” Hoylman said. “My guess is the community board would support a change in connection with that.”

However, he added of Avella, “Rather than just holding rallies and press conferences, the community would like to see results.”

Gerson: Limits needed

There is at least one person in the Council who supports Avella, however. Councilmember Alan Gerson is thinking along somewhat similar lines as him. Gerson said in a package of land-use reforms that he has put together, he’s proposing that major institutions in each community board district be allowed to build one community facility apiece — a “qualified project” as Gerson put it — as of right under current guidelines; but that after that, subsequent community facilities would have to be reviewed.

“I’ve told this to John Sexton,” Gerson noted, adding, “I think he listened.” Gerson said contextual zoning as advocated by Quinn can be effective, but noted that it’s currently only being used in “limited areas.”

As for why Avella’s proposal hasn’t gotten anywhere, Gerson said Avella might have worked harder to reach consensus in the Council first, and that while Queens’ major community facility issue may have been religious institutions’ parking lots, in the Village it’s universities.

“The details can be worked out,” Gerson said, “but I think Tony and I have the same idea. That there should not be unlimited community facilities — that there should be a limit.”

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