Volume 78 / Number 1 - June 4 - 10, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

talking point

Rezoning isn’t perfect, but we’ve got to support it

By Valerio Orselli

The Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association wishes to express its strong, though qualified, support for the New York City Department of City Planning’s Lower East Side/East Village contextual rezoning proposal. Cooper Square M.H.A. is a member of LESCAZ (the Lower East Side Coalition for Accountable Zoning), which has been working with Community Board 3 and its 197 Task Force to win inclusionary zoning and other significant reforms. LESCAZ is a broad coalition of Lower East Side-based organizations with a long and successful history of fighting for the preservation and development of thousands of apartments for families of low and moderate income. LESCAZ also includes the Lower East Side People’s Mutual Housing Association, the East Village Community Coalition, University Settlement, GOLES, Cooper Square Committee and many other groups.

The Lower East Side has always been a home for poor and working-class families of all races, people that worked in garment factories, small stores, the schools, the post office and so on. It has also been a refuge for artists and writers, political activists, labor organizers and people seeking to practice their beliefs or their religion without fear of persecution. This was largely because our tenement buildings were affordable to working-class families. This has made the Lower East Side a very special place deserving of both historic recognition and preservation. The rezoning proposal prepared by the Department of City Planning goes a long way in recognizing the exceptional nature of our unique neighborhood. But it should go further.

Because of the current zoning laws, the Lower East Side is fast becoming a place for the very wealthy. Luxury housing that is bigger and taller than our tenement buildings is being built all over the place. Hotels are sprouting like mushrooms. We commend City Planning for proposing height ceilings on newly constructed buildings. We support a maximum height for most buildings of 75 to 80 feet on side streets and narrow avenues, resulting in buildings no taller than six to eight stories. And we support a height of 120 feet (but prefer just 100 feet) on the wider avenues designated for inclusionary zoning, that is buildings of no more than 10 to 12 stories. 

City Planning originally proposed inclusionary zoning primarily for the periphery of the Lower East Side zoning district. Planning has since modified its stance and, based on its draft environmental impact statement, seems willing to include all the wide avenues north of Houston St. as an alternative. I support LESCAZ’s position that inclusionary zoning should be extended to all the wide avenues north and south of Houston St. Affordable housing should be mixed into all sections of our community and not just its periphery.

We also support a lower floor-area ratio (F.A.R.) in the inclusionary zones so that developers are not rewarded with greater bulk and density as of right, with no low-income housing included. The 5.4 F.A.R. should be lowered to 4.5 and the inclusionary F.A.R. should be 6.0 instead of 7.2.

Also, in a plan designed to increase the number of low-income units, it is irrational to include a Zoning Text amendment, allowing property owners north of Houston St. to convert ground-floor and basement residential units back to commercial use if at any time in the building’s history they had previously been used as commercial spaces. 

Tenant harassment is a too common fact of life in our swiftly gentrifying neighborhood. We support much of Planning’s proposal, but it can and must be improved. There has to be an anti-harassment provision to prevent landlords from pushing out tenants through failure to maintain their buildings or buy-out offers. There should be a Local Enforcement Unit fully funded to deal with tenant harassment, with direct linkage with appropriate law-enforcement agencies, such as the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the state Law Department and the Department of Buildings. 

Planning’s proposal calls for giving developers a zoning bonus if they agree to set aside 20 percent of the apartments for low-income families. We believe that Planning can do better. We support LESCAZ’s position calling for at least 30 percent of the apartments for poor and working-class families. Landlords should be prohibited from demolishing buildings that could be fixed up for existing tenants. Landlords must be required to provide comparable housing to any tenants they displace. 

With these necessary improvements, we support City Planning’s rezoning proposal. It is urgent for our community that the plan be adopted as quickly as possible to help put an end to rampant development and new luxury high-rises. We support inclusionary zoning. We believe adoption of at least a majority of C.B. 3’s 11 points will make the zoning plan stronger and more effective in meeting its ultimate goal: the preservation of the Lower East Side as a working-class community of many cultures. 

It is regrettable that organizations and community leaders in Chinatown did not choose to get involved in the rezoning process when they were invited three years ago, and that Planning chose not to include the Bowery in this proposal. These areas of our neighborhood are also suffering from displacement pressures. However, given the overdevelopment crisis we are facing, it behooves us to move forward with the rezoning plan, while we begin studying additional neighborhoods, a process that could take a couple of years or more. C.B. 3 has already begun the process of reaching out once again to stakeholders in Chinatown to start this lengthy process. 

It is also regrettable that our community, which has fought for many years for the preservation and development of affordable housing and against rampant real estate speculation, should suddenly be targeted as the enemy by a misguided crowd. They disrupted one meeting of C.B. 3’s 197 Task Force claiming that the rezoning plan and inclusionary zoning were racist. Subsequently, they disrupted other meetings of C.B.3 with a revised and contradictory position: claiming that inclusionary zoning was racist only if it did not include them.

I have known Wing Lam of Chinese Staff and Workers Association for more than 20 years and respect his right to engage in “street theater.” But if Chinatown is to win inclusionary zoning, misinformation and name-calling must be replaced with principled and unified opposition to gentrification in both of our neighborhoods.

At this point, the more we delay going forward with the proposal, the more of our neighborhood will be lost. The ULURP (uniform land use review procedure) train has left the station and it benefits no one in our community to derail it at this point. On the contrary, the process should be sped up to prevent the largely unregulated Wild West-like, market-rate development fever from destroying the Lower East Side as we know it. Let us instead come together and push for the current rezoning plan, with the above-noted modifications, and then together engage in a new planning process to win inclusionary zoning and other appropriate zoning changes for the Bowery and Chinatown. 

-- Valerio Orselli is executive director, Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association

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