Testimony to the City Planning Commission
New York City Council Member Ben Kallos
Wednesday, October 18, 2017
RE: Land Use Review Application N 180082 ZRM
In Support of Rezoning the Sutton Area
I am here today to give testimony in support of the community-led grassroots zoning text change application submitted to the Commission by the East River Fifties Alliance in partnership with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Liz Krueger, Council Member Dan Garodnick, and me. ERFA, the community coalition leading this application, consists of 45 buildings, represented by co-op boards, condo boards and individual owners, and over 2600 individual supporters living in more than 500 buildings within and beyond the rezoning area.
Thank you to Commission Chair Marisa Lago, Vice Chair Kenneth J. Knuckles, and the members of the City Planning Commission for hearing us today. Thank you as well to your staff, and in particular to the Department of City Planning’s community affairs and Manhattan Borough offices’ professional and dedicated work in handling this application.
In the Sutton Area, a small residential neighborhood by the East River in Midtown Manhattan, we have come together to envision a community that welcomes new construction while protecting the rent-regulated tenants who have lived in our neighborhood for decades, like our friends Herndon Werth and Charles Fernandez.
We are here to support real housing for real New Yorkers, including affordable housing, instead of 800-foot-high full-story penthouses built to serve as investments, often for foreign speculators.
We envision a residential community in the Sutton Area where new buildings serve the needs of the local community and of the City as a whole, adding to our housing stock for working people and fitting the shape and character of our neighborhood.
We have seen the super-tall buildings at 432 Park and 111 West 57th Street, and we believe they have no role on quiet side streets in fully residential neighborhoods. When I first learned that the super-tall buildings could creep onto our residential side streets, I wanted to do something that had not been done before: to organize the community to propose our own plan to rezone the neighborhood for the present and the future. That is what we did, led by residents from the Sutton Area and co-signed by four elected officials: we filed the first ever community-led rezoning at City Planning, which we are discussing today.
This rezoning corrects an accident of history that has left the Sutton Area the only residential neighborhood in the city with uncapped R10 zoning without any further protections. The proposal seeks to impose tower-on-a-base zoning, which would result in squatter, more human-scale buildings, with a dense base and a shorter tower, adding more units to our housing stock, which will be filled by real New Yorkers. Depending on lot configuration, maximum building heights in tower-on-a-base zoning are estimated between 300 and 500 feet, far closer to the built context of the neighborhood than a super-tall building that would cast a shadow all the way across the East River into Queens.
II. The Proposal
The amended version of our plan, N 180082 ZRM, being heard today, is a culmination of two years of effort from community residents, supportive civic organizations, Community Board 6, elected officials, and Department of City Planning professional staff, and it reflects changes in response to those concerns raised in public comment by Chair Lago, as well as in technical meetings and letters by Department staff.
The proposed rezoning would establish tower-on-a-base zoning, providing context for the East River Fifties—roughly the area between 52nd and 58th Streets, east of First Avenue. This area is the only residential neighborhood in the entire city zoned R10 without any type of contextual protection or tower-on-a-base zoning. The Sutton Area is uniquely vulnerable to the development of supertall towers, a building form that was neither contemplated nor feasible when the R10 district was created in 1961.
By implementing tower-on-a-base zoning, we would prevent the construction of super-skinny buildings that get to heights of 1000 feet, by requiring new buildings to pack roughly half of the building into a base under 150 feet, leaving limited FAR for a tower, thus restricting its height. Towers are also restricted to 30%- to-40% of the zoning lot, and buildings must feature 15-foot setbacks and a rear yard of 30 feet. In the East Fifties, this would result in squatter buildings, with more residential units, matching the built context of the zoning area.
Encouraging or requiring below-market housing, to bring more affordability at lower income levels, has been a key priority of ERFA’s, but has presented a challenge. We initially sought not only to include Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) before the program had even come before the City Council, but to become the first neighborhood to do so. We were, however, counseled that because we could not grant developers any additional residential FAR in an R10 district, attempting to impose MIH in this neighborhood could face serious legal challenges that risked undermining the MIH program city-wide.
Instead, at the time the original proposal was certified, we included a measure modifying the 1987 R10 Inclusionary Housing (R10 Program) to create a new Inclusionary Housing Designated Area. As stated in public comment at the time of certification, however, Department of City Planning staff felt that this piecemeal approach to encouraging the construction of affordable housing in Manhattan could actually result in less housing, including affordable housing, being built, because stricter requirements in one small neighborhood would discourage development that would not be subject to those requirements if it moved a few blocks in any direction.
Resulting in part from strong advocacy by Borough President Brewer, Mayor de Blasio’s Administration has committed to making improvements to the R10 Inclusionary Housing program that would go into effect in all R10 districts throughout the city, including here in the Sutton Area, avoiding the potential problem of uneven requirements. I urge City Planning and the Administration as a whole to move forward swiftly with these changes, to encourage the construction of more affordable housing in the Sutton Area and in all R10 districts, as part of the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Plan.
Some have suggested that this proposal constitutes a spot-zoning, but the accident of history that this rezoning seeks to address affects the whole zoning area. With technological innovations in foundations, pumping technology, formwork and structural systems, as well as better building materials, allowing for super-tall, super-skinny construction, several sites in this neighborhood are vulnerable to out-of-scale development. This rezoning seeks to address the neighborhood as a whole, to prevent a highly specific type of construction that was never intended by the original zoning, and which could occur throughout the zoning area, including at sites that may not appear to be at risk today, but which could be when more technological and zoning innovations inevitably come down the road.
III. The Community’s Story
Identifying the Problem
Sutton Area residents, led by the Sutton Area Community neighborhood association’s then-president Dieter Selig, first alerted me in April 2015 to a proposed out-of-scale, 90-story building being planned at 58th Street. We soon saw that this tower was a harbinger of a type of development that could come to several sites in our residential neighborhood. The proposed tower and others like it could exploit the loopholes in the 1960’s era zoning designation that still dictates construction in the Far East Fifties, and which sets no specific height limits on apartment buildings, despite new technologies that allow for super-tall, skinny towers.
After the Our Town newspaper covered the issue on April 7 of that year, I published an opinion editorial calling for a zoning change. I also circulated a petition opposing super-tall buildings in residential neighborhoods, which is hosted on my website and has garnered 1398 signatures to date. Community Board 6 passed a resolution calling for height caps in the neighborhood which was sent to the Department of City Planning for consideration on May 13, 2015, within 45 days of the initial news.
A Community Plan
Over the following months, I went building-to-building in the neighborhood to discuss the issue. We worked with local residents to gradually form the East River Fifties Alliance (ERFA), and to grow it, building support from the nearby community. Local residents who became early members of ERFA, joined me in visiting buildings throughout the neighborhood, getting technical with presentations about the current zoning, and speaking with residents about what they could do, including making donations to the newly formed group. At this point, I've seen almost every lobby and basement in this neighborhood.
In partnership with my colleagues Senator Liz Krueger, Borough President Gale Brewer, and Council Member Dan Garodnick, we began putting together a plan to bring context to the neighborhood, to prevent out-of-scale development, and encourage the construction of affordable housing. In August, the New York Times covered our efforts to rezone and highlighted the story of Herndon Werth, a rent-stabilized tenant who reportedly refused to sell his apartment to the Bauhouse Group in order to save his home and the neighborhood.
We worked with urban planners Douglas Woodward and Sandy Hornick and environmental and land use counsel Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP to draft a proposal that would create an entirely new zoning district to protect community character by limiting height, encouraging contextual residential development, and promoting affordable housing.
On January 21, 2016, ERFA submitted its first-of-a-kind, community-led rezoning proposal to the City Planning Commission, with Borough President Brewer, Senator Krueger, Council Member Garodnick and me as co-applicants.
In the time between January of 2016 and June of 2017, when the proposal was ultimately certified with City Planning, we worked with Department of City Planning staff through the process of preparing a final application for the Commission. At the same time, we expanded our outreach, holding countless public meetings and town halls, as well as publishing reports and op-eds on the issue. Through this work, ERFA expanded its membership to 2600 individual supporters living in more than 500 buildings, with support from civic organizations including the Municipal Art Society, CIVITAS, the Sutton Area Community, Inc., and Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts.
The Public Review Process
On June 5, 2017, the Commission certified our application (N 170282 ZRM), allowing it to move forward through the formal public review process. After Community Board 6 held two public hearings, one conducted jointly with the Manhattan Borough President, the board issued a resolution on June 28 supporting the proposal, citing that the status quo zoning, “if left unaddressed, would otherwise allow extraordinarily dissonant development, well outside the context of the current aesthetic and character of the Sutton Place Community.” The following day, Borough President Brewer issued her recommendation in favor of the proposal, stating, “Consensus on previous planning efforts throughout the city has benefited from the precedent of downzoning our midblocks and allowing for the growth through upzoning the avenue frontages where that density can be supported.” Finally, in July, the Manhattan Delegation of the City Council also sent a letter to the Commission in support of rezoning. The letters from Community Board 6 and Borough President Brewer also acknowledged tower-on-a-base zoning as a potential alternative to the R10-A zoning being proposed by ERFA.
Throughout this process—in technical memos, in public comment at the time of certification, and in letters to the applicants from Chair Lago and Department of City Planning Manhattan Borough Office Acting Director Erik Botsford—the Chair, members of the Commission, and Department staff have provided consistent feedback to our application. The letter from Acting Director Botsford, dated August 3, 2017, stated that the Department of City Planning remained committed to working with the applicants on a version of our proposal that the Department felt furthered the city’s goals. It went on to say, however, that this would require a new application, similar but different to the original application. The letter stated that “the Department believes that a tower-on-a-base approach could produce a result aligned with” the City’s land use and policy goals. The letter noted that this approach would extend the protections that wide streets in the Sutton Area enjoy to the narrow streets. To register this change, we submitted a new application, and upon doing so, withdrew the original. That application is the one being considered today.
After two and a half years of community organizing, discussion, and thoughtful city planning, what we are considering here is a really wonderful thing—not just for our city’s built environment, not just for the residential community of the Sutton Area, but for the precedent of community-based planning and civic participation.
Hundreds of buildings, thousands of residents, and their elected officials all came together with a professional, thoughtful rezoning application that has the support of the local Community Board and leading civic and urban planning organizations. I hope the City Planning Commission will appreciate the good faith with which we have presented our application and responded to the Chair and staff’s feedback, and will support this community-led rezoning. I urge the Commission to vote in favor of this proposal.