Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Post 10: Reality overtakes anticipation: the zoning as it really was

As always, with the exception of public figures, I use altered names to protect the individuals in this history.

It should not have been surprising at all, and that it was a surprise indicates just how narrow local interests are and how uninformed. The EV was (and still is) a residential zone. The FAR – the volume of space allowed by law – was quite restricted. Most of the buildings in the EV are larger than the zoning allows, having been built prior to the zoning law. Replacing such an old building would require construction under the new zoning which would replace a larger building with a smaller one with less space to rent, and a loss of profit. In other words, the zoning of the EV was protective of the neighborhood. The only way to develop a building larger than the existing building would be to take advantage of the community facility bonus. But that would require finding a community facility tenant.

The LES was not a residential zone but a commercial zone, with an FAR equal to the community facility bonus in the residential EV. Since the area was depressed, it was a simple matter for a developer to buy up several lots and construct a hotel of imposing dimensions. And so they did. While the pols and residents of the EV worried needlessly about their zoning, the LES was being transformed under their noses.

One of the members who did not regularly attend the meetings but who had extensive knowledge of zoning and development, Liam (I've altered his name), did eventually appear at a meeting to explain why it was so difficult to develop in the EV. This was not what the Task Force, and especially David the CB chair, wanted to hear. They had come together to save the neighborhood from development and particularly to save P.S.64 from being turned into a skyscraper that would have no place for CHARAS. And David, still pressing for a rezoning of the EV, seemed to want nothing more than to lead them to victory. The members ignored Liam and soon afterward he no longer appeared on their membership roster.

Developments in the LES, however, could not be ignored. The Task Force added the LES to their plans, and so it became an EV/LES rezoning effort. If rezoning the EV was largely pointless, the rezoning of the LES may have been already too late. If you look at the new developments there, it appears that there’s only one per block and each development is roughly 23 stories. Developers can buy development rights, often called air rights – space that is given to a lot by the zoning but unused by the owner of that lot because the existing building is smaller than what the zoning allows. They can only buy these from adjacent lots and cannot add development rights from across the street. The one-tall-development-per-block, each the same height, implies that all these developments bought all the air rights available on the block. If that’s so, then there are no more air rights on any of these blocks, and any downzoning will protect nothing since everything that could be developed had already been developed.

I have not looked through all the financial records of all these developments, so I cannot say that this implication is in fact reality. Someone should undertake that tedious research through the records of the city’s Office of Finance. Too many researchers look only at newspaper accounts. This is an egregious mistake, since reporters often rely only on interviews of agents involved in an action, and such agents may be themselves grossly ignorant of the law, of the financial details, of pretty much everything except what they themselves and their associates have done and what they have been told by other ignorant agents. They are victims of their own confirmation bias, so even accurate evidence contrary to their beliefs are incapable of disabusing them of their inaccuracies. This may seem a harsh assessment, but having been active and involved for some time, it still disturbs me how broad and deep ignorance extends and how falsehoods spread so widely, masquerading as certainty.

Overall, if the Task Force had simply asked to have the community facility bonus eliminated, the Task Force would have succeeded in its goal of relieving the pressure of development in the EV. Instead, the rezoning actually upzoned almost the entirety of the EV in effect giving it the "Quality Housing" upzoning that DCP had tried but failed to implement years before. 

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