Testimony before the City Planning Commission on Zoning for Quality and Affordability and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing

12/16/2015

Chairman Weisbrod and members of the City Planning Commission, thank you for engaging in this public process and for undertaking the ambitious goal of improving the quality and affordability of our city’s development with an ambitious goal of requiring mandatory affordability as part of any new neighborhood rezoning. Thank you to all the members of the public who have joined us today to make their voices heard.

I am Council Member Ben Kallos, representing the Upper Eastside, East Midtown, East Harlem and Roosevelt Island. The City Planning Commission has an opportunity to protect our neighborhoods, our midblocks, make floor area ratio a three dimensional measure, protect our public parks from shadows, build a city that is affordable for all New Yorkers with a strong middle class, with necessary school seats to educate the next generation, and with a plan that reflects the voices and expertise of our city’s communities.

We must protect the light and air of residential midblocks. A provision in the original ZQA proposal that would have raised the height of R6B, R7A, and R8B contextual districts in the midblock throughout Manhattan and my district was of particular concern to me. I joined with Borough President Gale Brewer and several of our Manhattan colleagues in writing a letter to the Department of City Planning raising our concerns about this change, which could have incentivized developers to tear down old, rent-stabilized buildings. I am pleased that the R8B height increase has since been dropped from the plan, and ask that this change remain in the final text.

Unfortunately, the midblock still remains at risk under ZQA plan, in which buildings in R10A districts on avenues receive a 20-foot height increase, while those on side streets receive a 40-foot increase, making buildings the same height regardless of where they are situated on a block. Similarly, building in R8 districts on side streets would receive an increase in height of 20 feet on narrow streets with buildings in R9X receiving 30 feet. This should be fixed so that narrow streets do not see larger height increases than wide streets so that the midblock is protected.

While ZQA seeks to improve floor heights for quality housing, it must also do so for other residential construction where developers are exploiting the fact that floor area ratio (FAR) is a two dimensional measure for a three dimensional building with a 31 story building that will rise 521 feet with 16 foot ceilings in a residential part of my district. A floor or story should be 8 to 12 feet with any height greater than that divided by 8. In this way we can upgrade the zoning code from a two-dimensional fiction to a three-dimensional reality.

Though not a part of the of New York City’s original Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, Central Park, purchased in 1853 and substantially completed in 1873, has been a National Historic Landmark supporting the public health and welfare of New Yorkers of all incomes for generations. The Municipal Art Society’s “Accidental Skyline” report, details theft of light by billionaire foreign investors funding development of superskrapers along 57th Street casting Central Park in shadow. Last month, I joined hundreds in an encore of the 1987 “Stand Against the Shadows” protest in which we marched with black umbrellas across “Billionaires’ Row” on 57th Street. “Zoning for quality” can and must protect our city's park land from superscrapers casting shadows on our parks.

Zoning for Quality and Affordability is already amending section 23-65(c)(1), which prevents the building of superscraper “towers” piercing the sky exposure plane within 100 feet or across the street from a public park. I beg the City Planning Commission, to simply add a zero to zoning text already subject to amendment, to expand this protection from 100 feet to 1,000 feet from a public park. Additionally, this prohibition should apply to any building that would be tall enough to cast shadows on our public parks.

In addition "zoning for quality" must mean amending the zoning code to stop developers from taking density that has been spread all over the city, a borough, or a community district and using air rights transfers and zoning lot mergers to pile it up in one place for density that could never have been constructed when the zoning code was originally drafted.

I share the Mayor's goal for the construction of affordable housing, but believe that we need to create mixed-income housing, rather than looking only at the number of low-income units created. I am concerned that the income inequality we are trying to fight will only be exacerbated as we incentivize the construction housing for low-income and luxury units that will only continue to force the middle class from our city.

Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) currently includes a Workforce Option, with the affordable housing for middle class New Yorkers, which would not be available in neighborhoods with strong markets such as the district I represent. However, the Upper East Side, is seeing middle class New Yorkers displaced and forced out in favor of the wealthy, which is unsustainable. The Workforce Option, should be required in addition to low-income affordable housing, specifically because neighborhoods with a strong market can support this additional affordable housing. Existing affordable housing financing available from Housing Development Corporation or HPD for Mixed Income development provide a model for affordable housing that will create a diverse city with room for people of all classes.

Our city already incentivizes construction of affordable housing allowing developers to quintuple dip with (i) increased density, (ii) tax relief, (iii) unit subsidies, (iv) low-interest loans, (v) floating air rights. If we are giving additional height, we should be getting additional permanent affordable housing on-site without a poor door and without a rich building/poor building. We should not let developers buy out of affordable housing by writing a check through "payment in lieu of" as cash disappears and property is forever.

Just as we are planning for more senior housing we must also address another critical issue facing the City: overcrowding in schools. New buildings continue to rise at a pace that will only increase following your proposed zoning changes. As our City’s population increases with this influx of residential units, the demand for school seats will only rise, even as the availability of land on which to build new schools existing consequently vanishes. Right now, many students are being forced to attend schools far away or squeeze into overcrowded classrooms. According to the School Construction Authority’s (SCA) Five Year Capital Plan released in May of this year, the City will need to create 49,245 seats by 2019 in order to alleviate overcrowding, yet we are only planning to fund the creation of 31,823. I propose that the City Planning Commission include incentivizes in the ZQA for developers to build new schools.

Recommendations and reports have been set forth by the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts and CIVITAS, funded in part by discretionary funds from my office, these two organizations have leant their considerable talent and expertise, which I support and hope to see integrated in the plan brought before the City Council.

I stand with our Community Boards. I share the concerns raised in the November 30 resolutions of the Manhattan Borough Board and request that the City Planning Commission amend its zoning proposals in accordance with these resolutions prior to coming before the City Council. The voices of our communities and the people of New York matter.