Monday, March 26, 2007

Our Community Board will vote Tuesday March 27, 2007, to approve the City's broad upzoning of the East Village. If the CB doesn't approve the City's plan, the City won't include the CB's concerns in the Environmental Impact Statement, which is the next step in determining which details of the plan are feasible and appropriate. So the CB is now cornered into supporting the plan. And the community is cornered into supporting it because the plan includes a desperately needed cap on development south of Houston where tall-tower hell is breaking loose.

This rezoning resembles, in its small way, the Iraq War: we got into it under false pretenses but now we can't get out. The three false pretenses: the East Village is everywhere threatened with huge, tall towers; Inclusionary Zoning brings affordable housing; tenants will be protected from harassment.

Pretense #1: We need rezoning in the East Village east of 3rd Avenue to prevent more tall towers from being built here.

Do you see any tall towers being built east of 3rd Avenue? There's plenty of development east of 3rd and plenty of large developable lots (Rite-Aid on 1st Ave, Key Food on A among others) but in the last ten years only two tall towers have been built here, the structure above Theater for the New City and the NY Law School dorm. All the many, many huge, tall towers that are being built in the neighborhood are being built in the commercial zones: Bowery, on 3rd Avenue, 4th Avenue and south of Houston. Yet the Bowery, 3rd Avenue and 4th Avenue are not included in the rezoning!! In fact, the rezoning was originally proposed only for the East Village east of 3rd Avenue where no towers are being built. Why? There's a history behind this, but first --

Pretense #2: Zoning will give us affordable housing to preserve our neighborhood.

The City only gives IZ affordable housing bonuses if it can also upzone. But once the neighborhood is upzoned, developers don't need the bonus. Catch 22. Obviously, the City is interested only in the upzoning, in "growing the city," as the mayor's commissioners all say. The City's affordable housing program seems just to be a scam designed to silence affordable housing advocates without really giving them anything. Actually, it's worse than nothing. Upzoning raises real estate values and puts pressure on landlords to evict low-rent tenants. The end result of the mayor's affordable housing program will be a net loss of affordable housing brought about by the affordable housing program itself. And the pittance of affordable housing that is created -- if any -- turns out to be too expensive for the people in the neighborhood. A scam.

So instead of affordable housing, Houston and Delancey Streets will see luxury Avalon-style developments -- huge, hulking, oppressive structures larger than anything else in the neighborhood. And the effects of this development will be felt throughout the surrounding streets in the form of secondary displacement of residents and small businesses.

Pretense #3: Rezoning will protect tenants with anti-harassment and anti-demolition measures and a legal fund for harassed tenants.

The CB knew all along that such measures are outside the jurisdiction of the City's zoning office, the Department of City Planning. And yet, CB advocates for this plan marketed and sold the plan with the promise of these measures. Only the City Council can grant such measures -- the City Council where the landlord and developer lobbies are a lot stronger and better funded than the tenant lobby.

How did we get into this rezoning? None of this would have happened were it not for Charas. The threat of a tower being built on or over PS 64 mobilized Margarita Lopez on the one hand and, on the other, EVCC, whose significant membership resides in Christadora house immediately overlooking Charas. It was EVCC that proposed a rezoning plan for the East Village -- and just for the East Village -- two years ago. Theirs was a good plan: it proposed that the entire EV be zoned to match its current scale. But the CB wanted an affordable housing component and so bought into the City's IZ program, sacrificing Houston and Delancey to upzoning. The city's final response to the CB's requests is a plan which upzones nearly the entire district with the exception of a few blocks south of Tompkins Square Park.

Now we will never know whether the residential East Village which is being upzoned would have been better off left out of the rezoning. Yes, the community facility bonus was a problem, but where are the community facilities now? They are being built in the commercial zones surrounding the East Village, not in the East Village itself. Wouldn't it have made more sense from the very beginning to rezone all the C6 commercial zones (south of Houston, Bowery, 3rd &4th Aves.) where all the outrageous development is occurring and simply ask for and end to the community facility bonus in the East Village?

The CB Task Force members all know this plan compromises the neighborhood. "We don't want the perfect to be the enemy of the good" has become their pet mantra as they eagerly strive to make the imperfect the undoing the good. A thousand iterations of a bon mot cannot excuse a misconceived attempt to placate special interests and political lobbies within our neighborhood, welcoming the City's plan to raise property values, upzone and upscale Manhattan. The board ought to have held these interests at bay.

Aside from the mayor, who has no understanding of the uniqueness of our neighborhood, there's no blame to place for this rezoning. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But when you meet up with a mayor who wags his red tail and says he has a bridge he wants to sell you, it's time to get re-oriented and consider where your road is taking you.

Maybe we'll get lucky and developers will realize that the upscale don't want to live way east on Houston. Maybe we'll get even luckier and developers will keep their hands off the many four-story historic structures on First Avenue.