Thursday, October 20, 2011

Debating Height in Washington Heights

The New York Times recently ran a story on a developer's ongoing efforts to construct several high-rise apartment buildings in the characteristically mid-rise Washington Heights neighborhood.  While much of the article focuses on concerns about gentrification, the zoning angle is equally noteworthy:

"Local residents call the neighborhood the Heights because of its steep terrain and riverside bluffs, not because it has vertigo-inducing buildings.

So a developer’s plan to build four apartment towers ranging from 23 to 39 stories tall has set off alarms in Washington Heights, where buildings typically run 6 to 10 stories. Some residents have protested that the proposed towers, with a total of more than 800 apartments, would darken the sky and introduce more residents than the area’s schools and subways could accommodate.

Last month, the local community board unanimously rejected a proposal for the four towers, which would have required a zoning change by the city, and it urged the developer, Quadriad Realty Partners, to return with a scaled-down blueprint for shorter buildings at the site, at Broadway and 190th Street. ... Despite the community board’s opposition, the developer said it planned to apply to the city’s Planning Commission for a zoning modification in the next few weeks. But if the change is not granted, the firm says it will then build two stouter, market-rate buildings, 28 and 24 stories tall, which it has the legal right to do under existing zoning."
Below is an image of a typical area of this neighborhood, showing an abundance of "new law" apartment buildings with an approximate ground coverage of only around 55 percent, accounting for streets (40 percent) and space between buildings (5 percent).  Even so, the neighborhood is very dense: approximately 130,000 people per square mile, according to the 2000 census.

My question is: what exactly is the purpose of New York's zoning law here?  Do height limits (or FAR limits, as they may be) in the neighborhood reflect a judgment as to adequate light and air, and to population density?  If so, there can be no justification for bargaining with the developer to raise them, any more than it would have made sense to bargain over the setbacks in the 1916 Zoning Resolution.  If the city is open to negotiation, on the other hand, is the limit simply an arbitrary cap designed to trigger review by the planning commission?  And how does the possibility of negotiation affect land values and development?

In an article from 18 years ago, but still relevant today, Peter Salins writes:
"All these changes [to New York's zoning code] have moved the city increasingly toward a regime of discretionary review, in which city planners must review and approve the way a developer uses the options and exceptions that have been added to the original code. Much of this discretion is used to grant developers zoning concessions in exchange for specific public amenities: not just plazas and arcades, but expensive benefits such as subway improvements, theaters, and low-cost housing. This “zoning for sale” is a game only a handful of well-funded developers, flanked by costly lobbyists, lawyers, and expediters, can play. The benefits to the city are questionable: There is no economic test of the costs or benefits of such trade-offs, and the practice distorts the price of land by encouraging speculation based on the possibility of negotiating zoning concessions at some later date. Moreover, for the city to make such trades suggests that the supposedly critical goals of zoning are not really important, since they can be waived for a price.

The quest to custom-tailor land-use regulations is an endless one. Even as the zoning ordinance has grown increasingly complex, it can never quite custom-tailor enough, so planners must give themselves discretion to approve or reject particular projects on a case-by-case basis. Zoning, which was meant to foster orderly and predictable development, has instead become a chaotic, capricious process that deters the development and renewal of the city."
The point being made here is that if investment is desired, consistency and predictability are virtues.  One of the potential purposes of height limits, in an age where skyscrapers are a technological possibility, is as a check against speculation in land.  For the limits to serve that purpose, they must be absolute, and not subject to waiver or variance, or else they risk becoming a cause of speculation themselves.  Endowing community boards with discretionary veto power adds further complexity and uncertainty to the process.

If the neighborhood believes that ten stories is appropriate, then every proposal for a tall building is doomed to follow the same convoluted process of community hearings, disapprovals, appeals, further hearings, etc., all to end back at the "as of right" allowance, and all squandering a great deal of time, money and goodwill.  Those who wish to avoid controversy by constructing a ten-story building, on the other hand, will find many holdout buyers pricing their parcels for much taller buildings, and development will stall.

On his blog, Alon Levy has recently been advocating a consensus-based approach to planning.  If the Washington Heights neighborhood collectively supports new mid-rise development, could a straightforward height restriction, along the lines supported by the community, be a preferable, and achievable, substitute for the current system?  Libertarian-leaning urbanists are fond of criticizing height limits, but such a limit, in this case, could hardly be more unfriendly to new development than the system that the Times and Salins describe.

Related posts: Can New York Build Its Way Up to Affordability?


  1. I'm new to this blog, so forgive me if I forward ideas that have been discussed before, but my best guess as to the real reasoning behind New York zoning runs as follows:

    They create laws and regulations that reflect the views currently in vogue among planners about what makes a good city (views that are nearly always wrong) but they always write them such that politicians and bureaucrats can grant exceptions because it is the right to grant exceptions that make people in government both powerful in their ability to control the lives of others and rich in their able to collect bribes. Hard and fast laws strip all real power away from the people in government who theoretically administer those laws, and people who govern the Northeast do not want that.

    There's a reason why nearly all the corruption arrests in the country come in areas where officials can grant exemptions to written legislation, not under very specific circumstances but in fuzzy instances where the official perceives that an exemption is "in the public interest." The entire political culture of New York is built around the wealth and power that "discretion" brings.

    In other words, to wonder about the ideology of public good that drives most decisions here is to miss the point. You're also missing the point if you think that any consideration for maximizing investment or otherwise benefiting the populace has anything to do with decisions about shaping the system. (The Wire has a very good illustration of how politics in the Northeast actually works.)

    Hard and fast rules, even if far more restrictive to the current rules, would indeed bring more development because they would bring certainty and create a level playing field for countless developers rather than the handful with the money to play ball in the current system.

    But it's never going to happen. New York's zoning laws have changed many times over the decades, but they've always put the power of officials so far above attracting good development but Manhattan has done nothing but lose population, through each new zoning regime, since that first law in 1916, which ranks among the city's worst mistakes ever.

  2. The main effect of current zoning policy is, as you and Andrew say, to empower bureaucrats and enable a game of power brokers. It's a little bit like discussing tax loopholes: yes, we all would like most of them closed (with some persistently popular exceptions, like the mortgage tax credit), but they all exist because someone put them there.

    If I were trying to densify Washington Heights, I would propose to start by uniformly upzoning the entire neighborhood by a little. Currently, the non-project buildings in Washington Heights and Inwood are usually about 6 stories; upping them to 8, and maybe 10 on Broadway and Amsterdam, is not going to result in a sea change to the neighborhood.

    The reason developers want special rules to build high-rises is that there's economy of scales to lobbying. The effort required to get politicians to approve a variance for four 200-unit buildings is much less than that required for a variance for twenty 40-unit buildings.

    That said, Washington Heights really does have a problem with transportation. The 1 is slow and the A is overcrowded; Washington Heights, and Inwood even more so, has an unusually large concentration of people with long commutes and low incomes. In light of what's happening further south, I'd propose that such upzoning be done south to north, i.e. starting from Harlem and Morningside Heights. (In terms of transportation capacity, the main long-term infrastructure problem facing the city, the best place to upzone is the South Bronx, which is eventually going to start gentrifying as the poverty donut is pushed farther out, and which has much less subway ridership today than it did fifty years ago; of course the 4/5/6 are overcrowded, but Second Avenue Subway is going to relieve them.)

  3. Andrew: thanks for the great comment! I agree with most everything you've said. Having grown up in the Northeast I can attest that these issues are not confined to larger cities. Far from it: some of the wealthy and seemingly low-corruption towns of Fairfield County display the same tendencies to sometimes alarming degrees.

    A common occurrence is the zoning of an area for an unrealistic, excessively narrow or low-value use (e.g. "marine industrial") then to make developers beg and plead for variances and special use permits, which are almost entirely discretionary. This is a trap into which many an unwary but well-meaning developer has plunged, never to be heard from again.

    Alon: Given the population density of the area (one of the densest neighborhoods in the United States, it seems), and the frailty of the transportation options, I agree that other areas are probably better candidates for upzoning, at least initially. Even better, I'd suggest, would be to rezone the neighborhood to allow for office use on a wider scale, letting businesses come to the residents rather than forcing the residents to travel far south to jobs. The current zoning map is literally a "crazy quilt" of obsessive cross-hatching for the ten different commercial uses:

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