The quiet, massive rezoning of New York

In Bedford-Stuyvesant, new construction next to old. (Mark Hogan)
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While the dramatic, slow-motion failure of Michael Bloomberg’s Midtown East rezoning plan was sucking up the remaining oxygen in the last weeks of his administration, another big rezoning went forward with hardly any notice at all.

It covered 530 blocks of the city—in Ozone Park, way out at the end of the A train—and was the second-largest rezoning in the entire twelve years of the Bloomberg administration. It was also much more typical than Midtown East of the work the administration did to alter the shape of the city.

Sky-high condo buildings in neighborhoods like Williamsburg, West Chelsea and Long Island City attract their share of controversy. After all, it’s hard to ignore a shiny tower.

But most of the Bloomberg-era changes were more like this last rezoning in far-flung Queens: little-noticed, and more about determining what won’t be built than what will.

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OZONE PARK IS A LOW-SLUNG PLACE, WHERE the vast majority of buildings are one- or two-family homes, not row houses or brownstones, but honest-to-goodness houses. Almost one in five of the people who live here were born in Guyana. If you’re looking for good roti, this is the spot.

Part of the reason Ozone Park was up for rezoning is because Richmond Hill, the neighborhood just to the north, had been rezoned in 2012. For the most part, the neighborhood’s streets had been downzoned; only a few commercial corridors had added room for “moderate density development.”

One of the main goals of this change, common in Bloomberg-era rezonings, was to “reinforce neighborhood character.” That sounds innocent enough, but it generally meant limiting new construction and codifying the status-quo of the neighborhood—giving the people who already lived there power to keep these places from changing. In 2005, the New York Times called this trend the “downzoning uprising,” and it has been going on for more than a decade, sweeping from Staten Island to Bayside to Bedford-Stuyvesant to Bushwick.

Neighborhoods pushed for downzoning for all sorts of reasons. Maybe they saw new people coming in, or new buildings, and were worried about crowded schools or roads or restaurants, maybe they liked what they had and they wanted it to stay that way, or they wanted some change, but controlled in a certain way. In a neighborhood where the foreign-born population had grown until more than half the people had been born elsewhere, it was easy to think that it was meant to keep newcomers out.

“The whole genesis of that last downgrade was because the immigrant community was not viewed in a positive way by the establishment,” says Vishnu Mahadeo, of the Richmond Hill Economic Development Council. “The concept was … if you reduce the size of the house, less of them will be here.”

But Ozone Park’s rezoning wasn’t much different than Richmond Hill’s. Although it allowed for more development on main streets, like 101st and Liberty Avenues, it also limited growth on side streets. The main difference was the city did a better job of involving more of the established community groups, including Mahadeo’s. But the impact was the same: These neighborhoods will grow, but like bonsai trees, slowly conforming to a shape determined ahead of time by a powerful designer.

Rezonings push and prod what planners call the “building envelope,” an invisible outline that hovers over the built city and limits what developers can create. The legacy 1961 zoning created an invisible city with a loose shape, like a dress bought a few sizes too big, that the physical city had plenty of room to grow into. The Bloomberg administration has left behind a building envelope that’s more like a corset, pulled tight to the city’s body, cinching around places that were already small and boosting its curves. The Bloomberg administration’s 120 rezonings did as much to change the city’s shape in places where it limited growth as where it let developers build tall, and, as the city expands, those limits could become a problem.

IT’S DIFFICULT TO PINPOINT THE NET EFFECTS OF THE BLOOMBERG ADMINISTRATION’S rezoning. The city planning department doesn’t track, for instance, how much potential space was gained or lost, or how much value it’s created by enabling development.

But what evidence there is shows how even a mayor known for upzoning faced plenty of pressure to put limits on development.

There’s some indication that downzoning more or less kept pace with upzoning. In 2010, N.Y.U.’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy found that, of the 188,000 lots that had been rezoned between 2003 and 2007, 14 percent had been upzoned, 23 percent downzoned, and 63 percent had not had their development capacity changed by more than 10 percent—only the type of building allowed on the lot changed. All those ups and down didn’t change the city’s “on paper” capacity for residential housing all that much—the net effect, the Furman Center found, was to increase capacity by just 1.7 percent. (The center’s director, Vicki Been, is now head of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.)

The Furman Center also looked at what types of neighborhoods were upzoned and downzoned. Upzoned lots tended to be in areas that were less white and less wealthy, with fewer homeowners. Downzoned lots tended to be areas that were more white and had both higher incomes and higher rates of homeownership than upzoned areas. Areas with contextual rezoning were even whiter and richer (with median incomes “much higher than that of the city”), and had “very high rates of homeownership.” In other words, more privileged people were more likely to have the city change the zoning of their neighborhoods to preserve them exactly as they were.

Park Slope’s 2003 rezoning was one of the first to take this form. Like large swaths of the city, the central section of Park Slope, from the park down to 4th Avenue, from Union Street to 15th Street, was zoned R6, a designation with enough flexibility to allow a mix of buildings, up to and including tower-in-the-park style spindles. The new zoning was more granular: it limited the height of buildings on brownstone blocks to four or five stories and made allowances for apartment buildings just a few stories higher along other commercial avenues. Fourth Avenue was the exception, the allowance that some development might be desirable. The rezoning lifted up height limits to 120 feet, allowing for a procession of 12-story, residential buildings to go up.

If upzonings in neighborhoods like Greenpoint give wealthier people a reason to move to less upscale neighborhoods, rezonings like this one can keep already wealthy neighborhoods safe from incursions. Changes like these benefit incumbents—home owners, real estate investors, developers with capital to build big projects—and anyone who can pay them for the value the city has created by saying, You can build here, but not there.

Rezonings aren’t necessarily driven by opportunism. It’s often much simpler than that: People like their neighborhoods, and, as a rule, aren’t fond of change. When Bedford-Stuyvesant, for instance, started the process of rezoning, it would have been difficult to predict how hot
real estate in the neighborhood has become.

“Nobody eight years ago was thinking we would be the booming area for international investors,” said Tremaine Wright, the chair of Brooklyn,’s Community Board 3.

Instead, she said, it was a response to some buildings that stuck out—these were pushed back further from the curb and stuck driveways in between front yards.

“We needed something to protect the character of the neighborhood,” Wright said. “Bedford-Stuyvesant is pretty much a brownstone community, and it was about preserving that brownstone community. If we had waited until developments started going up to 20-story doorman buildings, it’d be too late.”

If you look at enough Bloombergian rezonings, this will sound familiar. New York neighborhoods might each be special in their own way, but apparently what they needed from the zoning board was pretty much the same: changes that could “reinforce neighborhood character” or “match the character of those neighborhood” in order to make development “more predictable” or promote “more orderly and sustainable growth.”

The collective result is something quite limiting.

“The problem with using the status quo construction as the basis of predictability is that those facts [on the] ground were built with a very different population in mind,” says Rick Hills, an N.Y.U. Law professor who’s studied the city’s zoning policies. “New York City may find itself in the de Blasio administration being shrink-wrapped. The zoning envelope will conform to whatever is built there—and that’s a problem for housing supply.”

IMPLICIT IN THESE TINY QUESTIONS ABOUT how certain blocks of the city should be zoned are much bigger ones: What, and who, are cities for, and how should they grow—out or up?

There’s a strong and quite popular argument to be made for up. Denser development uses less land, frees people from cars and promotes public transit, creates markets for small and weird businesses (stamp shops, stores that specialize role-playing games or super heroes, app-making outfits, 3D printers), promotes creativity and means more people can live in lovely neighborhoods. There’s also an argument that building cities up means they’ll be more accessible to people of all classes: Increase supply, and prices will go down.

But, in practice, just saying “we should build more” is not enough, especially if the goal is to make cities affordable. More than 180,000 new units of housing were built from 2002 to 2011—the vacancy rate has actually inched up—and the city has not gotten cheaper.

The push for density runs up against not just empowered neighborhood groups, but developers, who have plenty of incentive to build less. It’s simple math: If they build too much, prices will go down. That would happen in a frictionless economic system, but in reality, they can stop well short of that point. Developers will even admit this out loud, sometimes: “Downzoning is actually in our best interest because it limits competition,” one luxury developer told theReal Deal in 2007.

If Bloomberg didn’t build enough, it’s unlikely that building more will ever translate to building enough, without some other policy intervention.

“Density is important. It’s one component of the puzzle,” says the Association of Neighborhood and Housing Development’s Moses Gates. “You’re not going to ease affordable pressure if you can’t build. But it’s not the be all and end all. Without affordability restrictions tied to increased density, you’ll solve nothing.”

WHETHER UP OR DOWN, THE REZONINGS OF THE BLOOMBERG ADMINISTRATION imparted value into the city’s already valuable land, by creating opportunities to build higher and sell that space, or by restricting supply of units on the lower, calmer side streets.

But this is another metric the data-obsessed Bloomberg administration didn’t keep close track of, and so it’s hard to say how much value was actually generated. ANHD, for instance, is working on answering simple-seeming questions like: How much buildable space was created? How much was it worth?

From the perspective of affordable-housing advocates, the rezonings were a lost opportunity.

“They generate an enormous amount of value. Where does it go?” says Gates. “By default, it goes into the price of the land. All of these public rezoning actions that have a public cost in terms of light and air and building envelope. All of the value is going into private interests. What’s the option of capturing some of that value for the public?”

The city’s voluntary inclusionary zoning policy, instituted in 2005 in response to pressure from affordable-housing advocates, did create a mechanism for kicking back some of that value to less wealthy city residents. (It was spurred, in part, by the Park Slope rezoning, and then-councilman Bill de Blasio was a supporter.)

This policy recognizes that it’s not just a nice building that makes a particular piece of land desirable: The neighborhood around props it up and bears some costs of development, too. Voluntary inclusionary zoning gives developers the option of building taller if they give more back to the community, in units of affordable housing.

In theory, it’s a win-win. Developers can build even more market-rate units in exchange for providing affordable units. But in practice, few developers use it—only 13 percent of the multi-family units in areas flagged for the program were affordable, and those affordable units accounted for only 1.7 percent of all new multifamily units across the city, according to a report that Councilman Brad Lander’s office published in 2013.

Without these sort of give-backs, it’s almost impossible for local politicians to go against prevailing neighborhood sentiment that the status quo is good.

“How do you overcome that obstacle?” says Rick Hills, the N.Y.U. professor. “It might be to come up with a good, regularized bribery system, one that’s much more transparent than the current system.”

What he means by a “bribery system” is, simply, a set of community benefits that developers must provide a portion of, no matter what. The policy that de Blasio supports—mandatory inclusionary zoning—is a simple version of this: To build residential housing, developers must “bribe” neighborhoods with a set proportion of affordable units.

Hills’ idea is a little bit more flexible: the city would come up with a suite of options that developers could choose from, but, as long as they’re willing to pay the extra price, they’re allowed to build. It’s predictable, not in the shape of the buildings, but in the amount of benefit the community will get from allowing the city to grow in their general vicinity.

“If it’s generous enough, a lefty could say we stuck it to the developer,” Hills explains. “Assuming the price sheet is approved, then you find some legal mechanism where you can use it shut down the neighbors.”

If the de Blasio administration wants to add housing to the city, it’s going to need some sort of mechanism to overcome neighborhood opposition to change. The Bloomberg administration’s extensive rezoning captured many of the easiest opportunities for growth—industrial areas that hadn’t had much housing before and, as a result, were less likely to have strong, organized neighborhood groups that could derail development plans.

But after 12 years of rezoning, even these types of neighborhoods know what’s what. Just look at Bushwick—exactly the sort of low-density, increasingly valuable real estate that the Bloomberg administration might have upzoned. Residents there started pushing for rezoning last March. They’re asking for the same privilege that Park Slope was given: to have the ability to “retain the unique character” of their neighborhood and limit where development happens.

What politician wants to say no to that?

This article appeared in the March edition of Capital magazine. 

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