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New York Post

 

A Pain-Free Fix To Boost City Growth

August 10, 2009

By Peter D. Salins

PRINTER FRIENDLY

Even as City Hall simultaneously struggles to close multibillion dollar deficits and revive the city’s struggling economy, it mustn’t given up on its grand vision for rebuilding New York so it really can function as the world’s leading metropolis.

Here’s one fiscally pain-free way for it to realize this vision and boost economic growth at the same time: Revive building in the city by overhauling New York’s phenomenally complex and outdated zoning code.

During the boom, developers put up with the restrictive regulations and procedural delays that zoning imposed. No longer; with the fall of Wall Street and the real-estate market, building has ground to a halt. The city should start welcoming those willing to invest millions of dollars to revitalize the city’s physical stock.

Zoning was born in New York in 1916. Best characterized as ”simple rules to guide developers in a rapidly growing city,“ this code aimed merely to prevent such egregious development harms as excessive density and the juxtaposition of incompatible land uses. Under it, much of now-iconic New York was built -- Rockefeller Center, Times Square, most of the city’s middle-class residential neighborhoods.

In 1961, the city opted for a new framework, fostering the now-discredited “towers-in-a-park” approach. Best described as “unworkable rules to prevent developers from building what the market wants,” this code regulated building density via the slippery criterion known as the “Floor Area Ratio” (tying a structure’s permissible volume to the area of its site), and set aside much too much land for the city’s shrinking manufacturing sector. And it was far more complex, with 21 zones (versus five in the earlier law, and swelling to 50-plus today).

Finding the new rules to be unworkable, developers sought ways around them. Thus, by the late 1970s, the city’s zoning regime morphed into its most pernicious phase: Call it “exquisitely negotiated rules that allow the richest, most patient developers to build what city planners and the ’community’ think best.”

Today, almost every significant development must win project-specific city approval -- which requires agreement among three sets of actors: the developer, city government and a broad array of interest groups. These include community boards, ad hoc “coalitions” formed solely for the purpose of killing or recasting proposed projects, and such powerful organizations as the Municipal Art Society and the advocacy group ACORN.

Many proposed projects never survive the process. Take Coney Island. Tattered and shabby, this legendary New York beachside playground has clearly fallen on hard times with most of its rides shuttered and beach attendance way down.

But when Thor Equities bought Coney Island’s Astroland amusement park and adjacent properties, hoping to build a 21st-century amusement-park complex that included hotels and large retail facilities, its proposal was scorned by the city’s planners and the local community -- too many stores and hotels, not enough affordable housing.

Now the city’s planners have persuaded the City Council to approve their “superior vision” for the area, hoping to buy out Thor and find other developers to build what the city wants. In the end, either nothing will be done, or Coney Island’s rebuilding will take years longer.

If the city is to have any hope of revitalizing its physical stock, it can no longer afford to let planners and community activists call the shots. It must move to a new philosophy: “simple rules that promote the development of economically feasible, unsubsidized projects with high standards of urban design and respect for neighborhood identity and scale.”

To rekindle building, zoning must facilitate the rapid development of any reasonable project anywhere in the city -- even in its densest sections -- without requiring later review and approval, other than by the Buildings Department.

City officials and advocacy groups will shape the zone specifications, but they must give up their power to micromanage each development. And developers, who whined about the current system but thought that they could always negotiate their way to a more desirable outcome, must learn to abide by consistent and predictable rules.

Two other changes are vital:

* Abandon “Floor Area Ratios,” which are easily manipulated and let developers build structures wildly out of scale with their surroundings. Instead, structure density and scale should be constrained, as they are in most other cities, with specific height and bulk specifications,.

* Scrap narrowly-constrained zones. Traditional zoning establishes a broad set of permissible “uses” -- i.e., several categories of residential, commercial and industrial facilities -- and specifies the districts in which they are permitted. These uses are customarily organized in a hierarchy -- banning a factory, for example, in a commercial or residential zone, since it might degrade the quality of life there -- but allowing retail stores in a manufacturing zone, and homes anywhere.

But the 1961 code began specifying pre cise uses for each zone. This inflexible, Byzantine approach is one of the main reasons every project must be negotiated. Zoning should be organized around a limited number of broad use categories, and it should return to the traditional hierarchical practice.

If the Bloomberg administration wants to give New York a face to match its grandest 21st-century aspirations, it must recast zoning comprehensively, adopting a new ordinance that promotes the development of market-validated projects all over the city that enhance New York’s quality of life while reflecting the highest standards of contemporary urban design.

This should be something that the city’s government, real-estate interests and planning specialists can easily agree on.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/08102009/postopinion/opedcolumnists/a_pain_free_fix_to_boost_city_growth_183780.htm

 

 
 
 

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