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