Monday, March 19, 2018

Breen vs. The Glassing of New York

From her downtown office, Peg Breen, President of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, looks out over historic buildings that the Conservancy had a hand in preserving--Ellis Island, the 1886 fireboat station at Pier A, the U.S. Customs House/National Museum of the American Indian.

They remind her of what can be accomplished--and what is at stake in this age of rampant over-development.

A proposal is right now sitting on the desk of the New York State Assembly. If it passes, the city will become a radically different place. Breen wants to stop it.

The Conservancy is celebrating its 45th year of advocating for and funding the preservation and restoration of what Breen calls "the best of New York," from the Olmsted House and the Picasso Curtain, to neighborhood brownstones and houses of worship.

"Buildings tell stories," says Breen. "And all the different layers in New York tell our history. They tell migration patterns. They give you a sense of continuity of place. Here is a solid place, they say. People have lived here before and people will continue. It's home."

New York has always been in flux, yet it has maintained its character and cultural originality, its openness to new people and ideas. "But change has picked up more rapidly in recent years," says Breen, and that change is turning the city into something that looks more like Shanghai or Dubai.

It's about to get worse--and most of us don't even know it.

2016 protest againt MIH and ZQA, Getty

Breen is most concerned about the de Blasio administration zoning changes that are lifting restrictions on how high and wide developers can build.

First came ZQA. Packaged with the controversial MIH (Mandatory Inclusionary Housing), ZQA (Zoning for Quality and Affordability) was approved by the City Council in 2016, a move met with fierce protest from neighborhood activists and many other advocates for a human-scale city. Simply put, ZQA was a citywide upzoning to increase the sizes of new buildings in the name of affordable housing.

In their statement to the City Council, the Historic Districts Council called it "a concession to developers to sweeten Mandatory Inclusionary Housing." Furthermore, "ZQA loosens the entire city’s existing zoning to allow greater density for market-rate development, under the guise of creating affordable units, which, as we all know, is optional. The provisions for seniors have an expire after thirty years, after which will be converted to more market rate housing."

But the looming towers loosened by ZQA hit a ceiling--the FAR Cap.

The citywide residential FAR (floor area ratio) was capped at 12 back in 1961. FAR limits the size and density of buildings, and 12 is not the biggest--for comparison, the Empire State Building has a FAR of 25. Lower FAR can discourage new construction, and higher FAR often increases land values. For obvious reasons, the real estate industry wants higher FAR.

In New York, the FAR Cap is about to be removed.

"Once this cap is gone," says Breen, "it allows the city to come in and upzone. Communities will have very little impact. And nobody knows this is happening," because there has been no public hearing. 

"This is the opposite of democracy."

from HDC

The Regional Plan Association (RPA) supports the repeal of the FAR Cap. In a recent report (PDF), they claim it will increase racial diversity and fight inequality. Council Member Rory Lancman agreed in a Daily News op-ed. In the age of neoliberalism, where the so-called free market rules all, people have a hard time even imagining affordable housing not tied to big, luxury development. And the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) is a big supporter of the repeal.

"They call it an answer to affordable housing," Breen says, but she is skeptical. Without the residential FAR Cap, she explains, the upzoning "will allow developers to go into neighborhoods they can't go into now," like low-rise areas of Brooklyn and Queens. "This is a radical change," pushed through without public input.

If it is approved, says Breen, "A lot of residential neighborhoods will change drastically. A lot of places that are already liveable, dense, and affordable will change--and not for the good. And we'll still have to solve affordable housing." Real-estate speculation will be a problem, she says, just like it is today with the rezonings in East New York and Inwood. "Once you get a couple of super-luxury buildings, with not really affordable apartments in them, it sets off a chain reaction that forces people out." Lifting the FAR Cap, she believes, will lead to mass displacement of the current population.

Breen is not against change and new growth, as she often has to attest. "We don't have a brick fetish," she says. But density for the sake of density is "not an unalloyed good." For too long, City Hall's approach has been to zone, not plan--and what do you get with zoning and no planning? "You get Long Island City," says Breen. Density and tall buildings, but "Where's the grocery store? Where's the park? You're just stacking people up."

LIC, photo: Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao/New York Magazine

The State Senate just passed the bill (S.7506A) eliminating the FAR Cap. In two weeks, the Assembly will consider similar bills (A.9500B, A.9509B) to put it through. "Every assembly person from New York," says Breen, "needs a barrage of emails and calls to say stop this and let's have a public hearing."

If you think New Yorkers should have a say in their communities, take action to demand a public hearing on this decision:
1. Find your Assembly Member's phone number and email -- click here.

2. Call and/or email them. You can cut and paste this message from the Conservancy, or one you write yourself:
"Don’t Lift the Cap! Eliminating the current 12 FAR cap in residential neighborhoods must not be included in the final budget resolution. It won’t solve the problem of affordable housing and will damage livable, diverse, and already dense neighborhoods.”

OR: The Municipal Art Society (MAS) has a ready-made email you can just fill out with your info and send -- click here.

For more information:
Landmarks Conservancy Alert on Lifting the FAR Cap
MAS: Testimony Against Lifting the FAR Cap
MAS: Accidental Skyline Report
HDC: On ZQA and MIH 
Norman Oder on Lifting the FAR Cap 

3 comments: said...

Breen is so right. New York is not just tall buildings piled on top of each other. There are buildings with stories and history. If we continue to build a city with million dollar condos, that will kick out a lot of people and a lot of local business and will instill a new definition of outsource. I hope New Yorkers speak up at this time to fight for our grocery stores and parks and every other place of value that we love.

Mimi said...

I just emailed my own more rant-y version to my assemblyman, though your suggested language is included as well. Thought you might enjoy:

Dear Assemblyman Gottfried,

One of the few things standing between me (and your other constituents) as a resident of New York City and the absolute real-estate horror of New York as an even-worse version of the dystopian nightmare city in Blade Runner is the residential FAR being capped at 12.

The fact that powers that be are getting ready to remove the FAR cap without any public notice/debate is reprehensible but on par with the machinations and lies of the real estate and construction industries.

Lie #1: Lifting the FAR will increase middle class housing: Bish, please (as the kids say). If they wanted to build middle class housing they would. It's all luxury, luxury, luxury with a few 'poor door' apartments allocated (some temporarily).

Eliminating the current 12 FAR cap in residential neighborhoods must not be included in the final budget resolution. It won’t solve the problem of affordable housing and will damage livable, diverse, and already dense neighborhoods.

Lie #2: Positive effects on neighborhoods: Honey, don't (as the kids say). The twin forces of hideous giant footprint glass megastructures and the homogenizing of street-level storefront life in neighborhoods (look at what's happened to LIC, Queens) means fewer normal businesses that residents need such as:

shoe repair stores
clock and watch shops
barber shops
mid-level beauty salons
beauty supply shops
notions and sewing shops
hardware stores (neighborhood, not big box)
independent restaurants
independent delis
independent bookshops
non-chain movie theaters
non-chain drug stores
non-chain clothing stores

and more, these are just some of the businesses that I specifically was a customer of gone because of real estate depredations (the rent is too damn high!)

Instead we get:
frozen yogurt chain stores
walgreens/duane read (btw Private Equity firms are the effing worst and are also a contributor the the cancer)
bank branches galore
7-11 (this chain should not even exist in NYC. This city is built on independent delis)
Subway (inedible crap food - NYC is known for its plethora of independent restaurants both high and low-priced.)
Big box stores that are unpleasant to look at and shop in.

It's practically at the point where will the last person out turn out the lights, but removing the FAR Cap will absolutely bury us. Please fight on my behalf and the behalf of everyone who still lives here (not just using a condo/coop to park/hide money like the Chinese and Russian oligarchs for whom a lot of these condos are built - they don't live here, they just park money here).

Prof. Barbitonsor said...

Paris is beautiful because it is not a hodge-podge of buildings in constant conflict. There is on the one hand harmony without rigidity, and on the other the respect for ancient structures which would be too onerous to imitate - hence NYC's "built on the cheap" free-for-all mentality.