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Contextual Rezoning South of Union Square: A Vision Worth Revisiting

On January 28, 2014, Village Preservation submitted a request for consideration of a contextual rezoning of the University Place and Broadway corridors south of Union Square. This proposal, which followed an extensive analysis of the neighborhood, constitutes a significant chapter in our ongoing effort to protect and promote the quality of life in our neighborhoods. Inspired by a recent inappropriate project, the proposal aimed to stave off development that would compromise the area’s human scale and fail to enhance its affordability. The initiative enjoyed the support of the local community board, of elected officials for the neighborhood at every level of government, and of virtually every block association, civic group, and coop or condo board in the affected area. Nonetheless, the City refused to consider it. Because the very same development threats that we identified at the time persist, and because the threat of land use policy organized around the convenience and financial interests of developers always looms, we find it useful to revisit the debate that surrounded our efforts. 

In 2015, a 285 foot story high-rise started going up on the site of the former Bowlmor Lanes, at 110 University Place.

110 University Place

This project was able to advance as-of-right due to the area’s long standing non-contextual zoning — in place since 1961 — which imposes no height restrictions and incentives the development of commercial buildings and community facilities, like dorms, over residential alternatives, as well as the construction of towers surrounded by open space. Although clearly an anachronistic reflection of the neighborhood’s commercial past and of mid-20th century urban planning biases, the decades-old zoning has never invited a review from even the most rezoning-crazy administrations. Concluding that the current zoning would only result in more luxury high-rises, hotels, and dormitories, Village Preservation surveyed vulnerable sites along these corridors, studied zoning fixes based on available tools, and drafted a rezoning proposal that it presented before the community board, whose enthusiastic support it ultimately obtained. 

The proposed zoning kept the maximum allowable residential development roughly constant, with a small bump for including affordable housing and a small reduction for not doing so. It reduced in some areas the maximum allowable commercial and community facility (which in most cases meant dorms for NYU or other private schools) development, eliminating the bonus that incentivized the construction of towers surrounded by open space or on top of podia. Finally, it imposed height restrictions along the streetwall and after setbacks, where none currently existed. In formulating these changes, Village Preservation pointed to the case of 3rd and 4th avenue a few blocks away, where contextual zoning had been imposed to great effect, ensuring greater development conformity with the scale and character of the neighborhood. Examples of pre- and post-contextual zoning development speak for themselves. 

In response to Village Preservation’s proposal and to collective entreaties by elected officials, the Department of City Planning issued a letter finding the proposed rezoning inappropriate and unwarranted, given a) the virtual absence of possible development sites along the corridors in question; b) the low likelihood that the modest increase in density would incentivize affordable housing production; and c) the numerous existing buildings that would exceed the height limits put forward. Village Preservation countered that the 110 University Place luxury development alone would have produced 20,633 SF of affordable housing under the proposed zoning; and it also called attention to potential development sites that strongly suggested the possibility of future construction, given the strength of the real estate market. All to no avail. 

Subsequent events have amply validated Village Preservation’s concerns and refuted the City’s assessments. In the years since the rezoning proposal, these corridors have shown no shortage of projects of the precise kind that the zoning changes aimed to preempt: 

  • The St Denis Hotel building, at 80 East 11th St / 799 Broadway, was demolished to make way for a 10 story boutique office building; 

Because of the de Blasio Administration’s refusal to advance the Village Preservation contextual zoning proposal, the potential remains for development detrimental to the affordability and character of the neighborhood, as well as to the quality of life of its residents. Since then, Village preservation has focused its attention in securing landmark protection for this eminently historic portion of Greenwich Village and the East Village. Landmark status would prevent the demolition of historic buildings and the alteration of their significant features, requiring public hearings, review, and approval before any could proceed, and require Landmarks Preservation Commission approval for any demolitions or new construction, and public hearings and input on all of the above. It would still, however, not regulate land uses and would leave the scale of new development or additions at the discretion of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

If you want to help support landmark designation of this area to protect its historic character and ensure new development is in character and scale, send a letter HERE.

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