Density, Sustainability, Affordability
A few days ago, the New York City Zoning Resolution turned 50 years old. As zoning nerds the world over take a moment to acknowledge this milestone, we must not forget to turn our attention to the next 50 years and start considering specific actions that will encourage the progress of this great city and preserve its competitive advantage. It is time to think big—literally.
As we look at the next 50 years, we must have a defined focus guiding our decisions. Architects of the city’s planning and zoning policies should eschew the three words usually associated with real estate—location, location, location—and focus instead on these three: density, sustainability and affordability.
Planning and zoning don’t occur in a vacuum and must take into account a variety of issues, competing needs and disciplines, but every upcoming decision should be viewed through the prism of these three concepts. Every action should be held to the standard of furthering one, if not more, of these over-arching goals. These three goals are often complementary, and meeting one goal can provide dividends for the others. New York City’s Department of City Planning has taken some steps in recent years that meet these three goals.
As to density, there have been many upzonings (increases in permitted size and density of buildings), but also many contextual downzonings (limitations on new developments in existing neighborhoods).
When it comes to sustainability, the Bloomberg Administration as a whole has taken several laudable steps (PlaNYC 2030; the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan; Green Codes Task Force). As for departments within the administration, the Department of City Planning has taken incremental, albeit vital steps, including Zone Green, a series of new regulations intended to encourage development of more efficient buildings.
Regarding affordability, the Inclusionary Housing Program was a major step forward. With a weak economy, however, it remains to be seen if the projected number of units will be achieved.
In the wake of these efforts, which are commendable, but particularly when viewed as stepping stones, the work is only beginning. Urban planners must take the lead, plan and execute major leaps forward and place a priority on these three goals.
When people think of New York City, they picture a dense, urban landscape. This is who we are. This is what makes us New York. We should not run away from this. We should embrace it.
At the recent Zoning The City conference--the Woodstock of New York urban planning--no less an expert than Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation, suggested that we upzone midtown Manhattan. This is a radical idea, and I not only second it heartily, but I would go further: let’s upzone most of Manhattan as well as the transportation spines throughout the outer boroughs.
Greater density leads to more of what makes New York great: a broader labor force, greater exchange of ideas, and an increase in demand for and creation of cultural amenities. Increased density will further define New York as unique and would promote the overlapping goals of sustainability and affordability. An increase of city dwellers means less demand for inefficient suburban living as well as a greater supply of housing, thereby lowering the cost.
We must be far more aggressive in requiring, or at least promoting through the use of fiscal incentives more sustainable construction and retrofits. We should consider mandating strict efficiency guidelines for new buildings and, at the very least, identify and create new ways to encourage developers to utilize the newest, most efficient technologies.
To accomplish this, the City should create a new floor-area bonus program where developers can gain additional square footage for the development of green buildings. The City has something developers covet: development rights, and the ability to grant them at virtually no direct cost. This is a powerful tool that should be put to greater use and attached to incentives so desirable that developers would be foolish to reject it.
When it comes to existing buildings, which PlaNYC 2030 correctly identified as major hogs of finite resources, the City should also find a way to encourage major retrofits. There is money to be made in making existing buildings efficient, but for a variety of reasons, property owners in large numbers remain unconvinced. A major push, again, utilizing lucrative incentives such as property-tax benefits or additional floor area, could get them to dip a toe in the water of retrofitting.
The City's Inclusionary Housing Program has been a great start to encouraging development of affordable housing, but it’s time to take the next steps. First, all areas of the City should immediately be included in the program. Second, the floor area bonuses should be much more robust. Today, the reality is that only certain developers participate in the program. And with the economy weak, a deeper incentive should be offered.
A much greater bonus, available Citywide, would encourage more developers to utilize the program, thereby creating more affordable units while meeting the density goal.
Density, sustainability, affordability. These are the compass points that must guide us as we shape our city over the coming half century. Zoning is merely one tool available to urban planners. Furthering these three goals must incorporate efforts from all City agencies, as well as the non-profit and private sectors. With these three goals as the prism through which all urban planning decisions are made, we can be sure to keep New York City securely in its role of prominence while simultaneously doing right by its current and future citizens.
Eldad Gothelf is a member of the Land Use Group at New York City law firm Herrick, Feinstein. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed are the author’s own.