Thursday, March 27, 2008

CB3 mobbed

The Coalition to Protect Chinatown/LES packed Tuesday's CB3 meeting with people and signs. Speaker after speaker denounced luxury development and the exclusion of Chinatown from the rezoning plan. They called for truly affordable housing not tied by inclusionary zoning to luxury overdevelopment and the gentrification and displacement it brings.

After they left many CB members, feeling under attack, reacted defensively, blaming the community for getting involved too late. Closing ranks and blaming the victim is unfortunate and I was disheartened by it. They could instead have reacted positively to the community and constructively by considering the one ameliorative step the board can take even at this late moment: reject the Chrystie Street Alternative Inclusionary Upzoning.

The DCP plan for Chrystie Street downzones as-of-right luxury there. The Alternative, still promoted by a few on the Community Board, upzones as-of-right luxury on Chrystie Street. Both plans provide virtually the same amount of affordable housing.

This one is a no-brainer to me. The DCP plan will bring less gentrification, less harm, to Chinatown than the Alternative plan.

The largest reserve of affordable housing, the cheapest affordable housing to create and the most affordable affordable housing to live in is the affordable housing low-income people are living in right now, much of it right here in the LES and Chinatown. Acquiring new affordable housing by gentrifying neighborhoods and displacing people already living in the most affordable housing, loses far more than could be gained, does more harm than good and defeats its own purpose.

On-site inclusionary zoning with tax breaks should give us 1 affordable unit for every 4 units of luxury. The dilemma of inclusionary zoning is this: large luxury developments gentrify their surroundings, raising real estate values, driving out local businesses, displacing communities. So the question for any responsible urban planner is:

Where should the luxury be located so that it does the least harm?

I heard the Coalition to Protect Chinatown/LES attending Tuesday's Community Board meeting say clearly: not here. Small businesses and low-income residents cannot withstand luxury gentrification. Chinatown residents don't want to be displaced. They don't want to be the lambs sacrificed to the idol of affordable housing that is not affordable to them.

And who among us wants to see Chinatown become a theme park for tourists or yet another upscale nightclub destination?

The DCP plan provides inclusionary zoning on Houston, Delancey, part of Pitt, D and Chrystie -- more than the CB asked for. Why ask for even more upzoning on Chrystie? Why ask only Chinatown to bear the brunt of what would be the most extreme piece of as-of-right upzoning in the entire plan? Why Chinatown?

The Coalition to Protect Chinatown called the plan racist. That's not a word I use, but I don't see how CB members can fend off that charge if they continue to support this alternative that singles out Chinatown alone for the most luxury density in the plan. Maybe the alternative got in play because the residents of Chinatown hadn't come forward before. That's unfortunate, but speculating on why they haven't been part of the process until now would be to invite bitter recriminations from both sides. There's nothing to be gained there. What matters is that they have come forward now. Let's listen and rethink.

The DCP plan is less harmful and doesn't single out Chinatown for extra luxury. The DCP plan is closer to CB Chair McWater's original zoning conception. Let's stick with it.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Upzoning Chrystie Street

Sorry for that last dense zoning post. I wanted it on record that the Alternative Proposal, still supported by CB3, is a luxury upzoning of Chrystie with almost no additional affordable housing benefit over the DCP's plan.

Here's a simpler summary. You can see below that the DCP plan downzones luxury on Chrystie while the Alternative upzones luxury there:

Current luxury allowable: 6.0 FAR
DCP plan luxury with bonuses: 5.76 FAR
Alternative luxury with bonuses: 6.8 FAR

Below you can see that the DCP plan offers nearly as much affordable housing as the Alternative:

DCP plan affordable housing: 1.44 FAR
Alternative plan affordable housing: 1.7 FAR
Difference in affordable housing: only 0.26 FAR

The Alternative allows 1.04 more luxury FAR than the DCP proposal, but only 0.26 FAR more affordable housing.

Worse, inclusionary zoning allows off-site renovations to qualify for the bonus instead of new affordable housing. So there is no guarantee that any new affordable housing will be created under inclusionary zoning (IZ).

With the Alternative, we'll see 14-story luxury developments on Chrystie leading into Chinatown, with maybe a bit of "affordable" housing somewhere far away in the district, affordable in name only.

The CB's quest for every possible crumb of affordable housing has blinded them to the dangers of upscale upzoning.

Upzoning Chrystie Street for luxury housing

The EV/LES rezoning will save much of the LES south of Houston from luxury hotels, but it will push that development onto the Bowery and into Chinatown, which remain unprotected. To reject the rezoning now entails losing the LES, so we are cornered into accepting a rezoning that promises to accelerate luxury development in Chinatown and the Bowery, where that development is already spreading.

It troubles me that Community Board 3 currently supports a planning alternative that upzones Chrystie Street to fourteen stories (from current F.A.R .6 to F.A.R. 8.5), right on the edge of Chinatown. The CB maintains that the inclusionary upzoning will bring 20% affordable housing to the neighborhood. That's still a luxury upzoning to 6.8 F.A.R. And the Department of City Planning (DCP) allows that affordable 20% (1.7 F.A.R.) to be already existing affordable housing, provided the developer renovate it. Even without the IZ bonus, this alternative upzones Chrystie to 6.5 F.A.R.-- that's an upzoning with no affordable housing component at all.

In the worst-case scenario, the CB is inviting a 100% luxury upzoning to 145 feet on Chrystie Street for the sake of a few renovations and no guarantee of any new affordable housing. That's the worst case. When considering development strategies in NYC, the wise assume the worst.

By contrast, the DCP plan actually downzones Chrystie Street, although it allows additional bulk with affordable housing. The DCP plan offers almost as much affordable housing as the CB-supported alternative, but with no luxury upzoning. In fact, DCP actually downzones luxury even with all the bonuses.

I hope the CB will reject the Chrystie Street inclusionary upzoning alternative and accept DCP's downzoning. I don't see how our local community can accept an alternative that brings additional luxury development for only 0.26 F.A.R. (roughly one apartment) more affordable housing than the DCP plan, which actually downzones for luxury.

The numbers speak for themselves:

Current Zoning of Chrystie, C6-1
FAR 6.5 Community Facilities

DCP Rezoning of Chrystie, C6-2A
FAR 5.4 (no affordable housing)
FAR 7.2 (with 20% affordable housing or renovations)
FAR 6.5 for Community Facilities

CB3-supported alternative for Chrystie, C6-3A
FAR 6.5 (no affordable housing)
FAR 8.5 (with 20% affordable housing or renovations)
FAR 7.5 for Community Facilities

As you can see, if CB3 continues to support the alternative, it is asking for 25% larger buildings on Chrystie than are currently allowed, more than twice as large as what is currently built there. This alternative would provide at best 1.7 F.A.R. of affordable housing/renovations along with 0.8 F.A.R. of added luxury over current zoning -- 1.04 luxury F.A.R. more than the DCP plan. And if the developer doesn't take the affordable housing bonus and builds no affordable housing at all, this alternative still gives the developer a 0.5 F.A.R. luxury upzoning. In short, the alternative upzones Chrystie Street for luxury in all circumstances.

The DCP plan would downzone Chrystie Street by 10% from current 6 to 5.4 F.A.R. With affordable housing/renovations, DCP's plan requires 1.44 F.A.R. of affordable housing/renovations, but less additional luxury than what's allowed in the current zoning. DCP's plan allows a maximum of 5.76 F.A.R. luxury, which is 0.24 less luxury than current zoning allows.

In other words, the DCP plan provides almost as much affordable housing/renovations as the alternative, while consistently downzoning luxury F.A.R.

The alternative would allow .8 F.A.R. more luxury than current zoning. The DCP plan allows .24 F.A.R. less luxury than current zoning allows.

Even under the best-case scenario in which we actually get new affordable housing, the DCP plan provides virtually all the "affordable" housing the alternative provides, without the alternative's egregious luxury upzoning. So even accepting the CB's faith that inclusionary upzoning will bring us affordable housing, the alternative has virtually no benefit to the community over the DCP plan. And its price is high: the alternative upzones the street for luxury development without inclusionary upzoning, and significantly upzones it for luxury with inclusionary upzoning.

I hope CB3 changes its position on this alternative that will flood Chinatown with gentrification. It is inconceivable that the local community would welcome significantly more luxury housing than even DCP proposes and without any significant benefit -- possibly no benefit at all.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Public space in danger: Washington Square Park

About ten years ago, Giuliani renovated City Hall Park, entirely eliminating New York City's central location for demonstrations. Moving and down-sizing a fountain, he covered the rest of the park with enclosed, inaccessible lawn, invoking a false utopian past of contented gentry strolling in top hats and parasols through paved paths surrounded by untouched and pristine green -- the new fountain even boasts Disneyesque gaslights -- undisturbed by the desperation and frequent violence in the streets of the immigrant ghettos nearby.

An uncannily similar gentrifying of Washington Square is underway -- moving and down-sizing a fountain, limiting people-space.

A kind of participatory guerrilla theater is planned for Thursday in Washington Square Park that will allow people to express their feelings about a place that defined free expression for generations since Jane Jacobs and Eleanor Roosevelt burnt an automobile in front of the arch in effigy. Here is the advertisement from the organizers:

"Do you have an opinion about the destruction and redesign of Washington Square Park? think it's a tragedy? an outrage? a great idea? want to express that opinion in a quick but effective way?
"On this Thursday, March 13th, Washington Square Park is going to be filled with more than a thousand multi-colored helium balloons, each bearing the opinion of a Village resident, visitor or student about the destruction and redesign of the park.
"Between the hours of 12pm and 8pm organizers will be handing out balloons outside of 11 University Place (just North East of the park) and on the sidewalk just off of the south west corner of the park. Participants are given a balloon, asked to write their thoughts about the changes to WSP on the balloon, then carry it into the park, tie it to something and leave it. At 8pm a group of organizers and volunteers will sweep through the park popping all the balloons and removing them, leaving nothing behind.
"Come by on Thursday and speak your mind, make a statement, show the Parks Department that this space is our space and that we have something to say. The powers that be have been playing deaf to the voice of the public. We aim to see if they'll play blind as well.

"If you would like to be more involved than writing and tying a balloon contact Andrew Butler at We need volunteers.

"See you there!"