Livability, Affordability and Architectural Legacy Threatened as Development Pressures Increase, According to New Report Commissioned by the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts

10/08/2015

Planning and Zoning Study Proposes Ways to Preserve Community Character, Local Businesses, Affordable Housing, and Architectural Legacy of Communities at Risk Due to Development Pressures, Second Avenue Subway Construction, and Prospective Zoning Changes
Download the Report (PDF - 49 MB)

New York, NY (October 7, 2015) – The Upper East Side—A Framework for the Future of Five Neighborhoods, a planning and zoning study released today by FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Historic Districts (FRIENDS) identifies specific development risks threatening community integrity in the neighborhoods of Lenox Hill, Yorkville, East Harlem, Carnegie Hill, and the Upper East Side in the wake of inappropriately scaled, poorly sited, and non-contextual high density development on the horizon as the Second Avenue Subway’s opening draws near.  Risks include the loss of existing small businesses and a diverse range of housing options, including a vast stock of stabilized and regulated housing (38 percent of all parcels in the Study Area include affordable units). Download the Report (PDF - 49 MB)

The report, prepared with the assistance of BFJ Planning, addresses the impact of the irreversible transformation that will happen rapidly without a measured approach by the City for sustainable and contextual development and offers 12 recommendations for balanced growth.

Among the findings:

  • Much of the area between Central Park and Lexington Avenue has been protected by historic district designation. Meanwhile, the easternmost portion has relied on hard-won contextual zoning regulations to help maintain the area’s human-scale character in the mid-blocks, while limiting higher-density development to the wider streets and avenues.   Any zoning changes would shift this intricate balance.
  • These neighborhoods, especially Yorkville, Lenox Hill, and East Harlem, are characterized by great income diversity and high population density of people aged 62 years and older, while at the same time they are the locus of the largest proposed development projects in the area. Unmitigated change in these neighborhoods has the potential to displace the most vulnerable populations who reside in this community in large numbers.

“Our community has witnessed the ongoing transformation of neighboring 57th Street with great concern. We are not opposed to change, but with development pressures arising from the new Second Avenue Subway, the displacement of local businesses and longtime residents by luxury supertowers is a real threat. But, it is not inevitable,” said Franny Eberhart, President of FRIENDS. “Our report offers an antidote -- a comprehensive vision of smart growth for our neighborhood. We look forward to working with the de Blasio administration to achieve this goal.”

In order to plan for appropriate development, control the consumption of public services by increased density, and ensure that the Upper East Side remains home to people from diverse income levels, FRIENDS makes these 12 recommendations:

1.      Preserve and Protect Contextual Zoning.

The “hills and valleys” approach of maintaining lower-scale buildings on the mid-blocks while allowing higher-density along the avenues must be preserved and strengthened. As this study shows, the low-scale building stock, especially in mid-blocks of Yorkville, creates an environment that encourages pedestrian activity.

2.      Maintain Existing Densities.

Capacity exists under present zoning for some redevelopment to occur along Second Avenue, as well as along other avenues and wide streets in the Study Area, including Lexington, Third, and First Avenues. We recommend that there be no change in overall density on the Upper East Side.

3.      Create New C1-9X Contextual Zoning for Avenues.

A new contextual zoning district should be mapped along all avenues in the Study Area currently zoned C1-9 (the predominant zoning along the avenues). The new zoning district would be a contextual version of C1-9 and would require all development to be built as “tower on base.” Alternatively, the C1-9 districts could be remapped to R10X with a C1 overlay.

4.      Restrict the Height of Buildings to 210 Feet.

To strengthen the existing zoning and ensure that potential community impacts are mitigated, we recommend that the existing higher-density zoning districts mapped along the avenues be modified to require a height limit of 210 feet.

5.      Limit Zoning Lot Mergers.

As a pilot program, we recommend a restriction on the size of zoning lot mergers across the entire Upper East Side. Restricting the area of zoning lot mergers would effectively prevent the addition of lots that allow for exceptionally tall “pencil towers” that have been constructed elsewhere in the city. This recommendation could also be strengthened by limiting the FAR of merged zoning lots. Finally, greater transparency should be practiced with regard to zoning lot mergers, through mandated provision of information to the public and elected officials.

6.      Protect Affordable Housing.

Approximately 38 percent of all buildings in the Study Area include either rent-regulated, subsidized, or public housing units. Preservation of these units is critical if the City wants to ensure that the Upper East Side remains affordable to a broad range of households. New development should be required to replace one-for-one any rent regulated units lost due to redevelopment. This replacement would be additional to any requirements or proposals a developer may make to provide new affordable units on site. All units should be affordable in perpetuity. We support recent legislation protecting tenants from harassment by landlords and further recommend legislation to make a public inventory of rent-regulated units in order to facilitate their protection and replacement in case of redevelopment.

7.  Investigate Financial Opportunities for Property Owners.

Operation and maintenance of rent-regulated housing stock can be difficult for private property owners. The City should investigate potential opportunities for relief such as tax credits, revolving loans, or grants that would help owners with the upkeep and energy efficiency of their buildings, thus ensuring the quality of our built environment and minimizing incentives for redevelopment. A study should be initiated that examines operation and maintenance costs incurred by owners of buildings with rent-regulated units in the Upper East Side Study Area.

8.  Revisit “Zoning for Quality and Affordability.”

Any changes that affect building height and envelope configuration in contextually zoned areas could negatively affect the built and historic character of the Upper East Side Study Area. Given the substantial number of existing rent-regulated units in the Study Area, new construction under the proposed “updates and refinements” could actually result in fewer affordable units through a pattern of “tear down and rebuild” development. Furthermore, the City has not examined the effects its proposed zoning changes may have on primary and secondary displacement as a result of increasing density, land prices, and new construction.

9. Ensure Small Businesses Thrive.

It is important to have a diverse assortment of services available to residents in their immediate vicinity—especially those who live on the eastern ends of Yorkville, Lenox Hill, and East Harlem—and senior residents. Small businesses are the best way to ensure that diversity and help preserve neighborhood character and sense of place. To support these local businesses, we recommend the Manhattan Borough President's initiatives to prevent the expiration of ground-floor retail use and reform commercial rent tax. Furthermore, we recommend that DCP develop regulations to promote active and varied retail environment along the avenues, similar to the Special Enhanced Commercial District Upper West Side Neighborhood Retail Streets.

10. Implement Open Space and Infrastructure Improvements.

The City should investigate and mitigate the lack of open space in the Study Area. We recommend a study of existing POPS, along with a program for incentivizing upgrades, enforcing regulation, and a streamlined review process for redesign. New POPS should be located in consideration of any existing POPS in the area to ensure a stronger and more apparent network of open space. Furthermore, active open space such as the East River Esplanade should be prioritized over passive open space.

11. Require Community-Based Planning around Station Areas.

With the imminent arrival of the Second Avenue Subway, market demand is expected to increase for parcels within walking distance to the new subway stations. To ensure that development activity in these key areas does not proceed in a piecemeal fashion and that new development contributes positively to the neighborhood, we recommend a community-based planning process be launched by DCP for areas around future Second Avenue Subway stations. The objective would be to produce plans based on sound community input and engagement that take into account not only overall density and height, but also light and air, public realm improvements, community school and traffic impacts, and good urban design principles for these areas.

12. Create 197-a Plan(s) for the Upper East Side Study Area.

In considering a future framework for the Upper East Side Study Area, we recommend FRIENDS work with other community groups to encourage Community Boards 8 and 11 to create or update 197-a Plans for their respective jurisdictions. A 197-a Plan would allow the Upper East Side communities to engage in a participatory planning process and reach consensus on a wide variety of issues related to the objective of preserving the best of the Upper East Side neighborhoods while accommodating growth.

New York State Senator Liz Krueger, who represents the East Side, said, "New York City is constantly growing and changing – it’s part of our DNA. But in the midst of all this change, we must keep in mind the needs, strengths, and benefits of our existing neighborhoods. I have long advocated for pro-active planning for the future of our neighborhoods, which requires the kind of in-depth study that FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Historic Districts has provided.  I thank FRIENDS for their efforts, and look forward to continuing to work with the community to help ensure the Upper East Side remains a livable and vibrant neighborhood."

“In their new report, Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts offers thoughtful analyses and approaches to community preservation and balanced growth--many of which I’ve been advocating already,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. “Community involvement like this should happen more often.”

New York City Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island, said, “I commend FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Historic Districts and BFJ Planning for undertaking this thoughtful, responsive study. Our diverse neighborhoods are threatened by a perfect storm of development interests and outdated zoning laws. By acting now and working cooperatively with the City, together we can preserve local character and build contextually and sustainably to benefit the community.”

“The charm of Upper East Side residential neighborhoods deserves to be preserved, and this study makes many thoughtful recommendations on how to do that,” said Council Member Dan Garodnick, whose district also includes the Upper East Side.   “I appreciate the research and advocacy of the FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, and look forward to working with them on this project."

For more information, contact the FRIENDS of the Upper East Side Historic Districts at 212-535-2526 or infoatfriends-ues [dot] org.

Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts was founded in 1982 and is an independent, not-for-profit membership organization dedicated to preserving the sense of place of the Upper East Side. As an active participant in public decisions that affect the historic and cultural resources of the neighborhood, the organization also serves the community by holding lectures, sponsoring walking tours, and issuing annual awards for community service and outstanding preservation projects.

Download the Report (PDF - 49 MB)