Proposed Bill to Raise the 12-FAR Limit for Residential Buildings Discussed By a Panel of Experts
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
On September 19, the Municipal Art Society of New York hosted a panel of experts to discuss a controversial bill S5469(Felder)/A7807(Wright) to lift the limit on residential densities in New York City. These proposed changes to the zoning law are being analyzed as we approach the 100th anniversary of the original New York City zoning law, which was passed in 1916.
This bill, supported by the NYC Mayor’s Office, was proposed in Albany just before the close of the last session, but didn't advance in either house. Senator Liz Krueger, New York State Senator 28th District, representing the East Side of Manhattan, assisted by the advocacy and education offered by key community groups and preservation experts, including the MAS and Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts were instrumental in putting this legislation on hold. The New York State Multiple Dwelling Law currently limits residential buildings to a 12 Floor Area Ratio. The floor area ratio is the regulation controlling the size of buildings. FAR is the ratio of total building floor area to the area of its zoning lot. The limit was adopted in 1961 to prohibit buildings that were considered to be oversized. The new bill would apply to residential buildings in New York City—giving the City the ability to lift the 12-FAR limit in specific instances—and was conceived as a path towards expanding affordable housing. The bill would have amounted to one of the most sweeping zoning changes in history. However, it was tabled for further review by the State Legislature.
For a long time zoning decisions have been made without public involvement. The current administration is trying to do things better regarding community involvement and transparency. State Senator Liz Krueger in her July newsletter stated, "Infrastructure in Manhattan is already strained to the limit. What communities in my district and throughout the city are calling for is neighborhood-based community planning."
State Senator Liz Krueger spoke at the MAS meeting, as did the President of MAS, Gina Pollara. In addition, there were four panelists: Carl Weisbrod, Chairman of the NYC Planning Commission, Moses Gates, urban planner, Michael Kwartler, President, Environmental Simulation Center and George Janes, Founding Principal, George M. Janes & Associates. Their views are summarized below.
Gina Pollara remarked that people are apprehensive about the changes that are taking place in the City. She noted that we are planning now for New York City 50-100 years from today.
Carl Weisbrod expressed the opinion that zoning and planning are better when done at a local level where there are processes for review and discussion. The community boards should be brought into the process. We should go through an extensive planning process if a developer wants more than 12 FAR. Oversight should also be provided by local government entities, since the State doesn’t have the expertise. Zoning changes should be decided on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, and communities should be able to reject zoning changes. The new rules would work with the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing law. The City needs more density to help solve the problems of over-crowding and homelessness.
Moses Gates stated that we should provide housing where the jobs are and jobs where the housing is. Affordable housing is needed for an equitable city.
Michael Kwartler urged that we need to have a better understanding of the consequences of any zoning changes and should have a substantive conversation before changing zoning laws. The analyses should be formatted in a way that makes sense to the lay public so that the public can participate in the decision-making. We need more time to deliberate before the final text of the law is released.
George Janes remarked that buildings are expensive to build—we need to lift the FAR cap. In business districts we want mixed-use buildings with non-residential uses on the ground floor. Mandatory Inclusionary Housing can’t be done in R10 districts, preservation districts, or historic districts. This leaves few places to construct buildings with MIH in some neighborhoods. If we want mixed income communities, the FAR cap must be lifted so that larger buildings can be built.
Some of the other issues that came up in the zoning discussion were:
The City should make zoning decisions, not the State. We should move the FAR caps into City zoning law, but this could have an unintended consequence of leading to unfettered development on state-owned land. Now the State is limited by its own laws to the 12 FAR. Under current law, the State can override City zoning laws. The MTA can also violate city zoning, building and fire codes. We need to reverse the section of the State law that allows this.
We are in the process of a careful rezoning of East Midtown for Class A office space. The rezoning is not intended to increase residential space in this area, but East Midtown would have the potential for upzoning under the proposed new law. It is a very dense area both commercially and for residential buildings. City planning should look at what would be gained and lost. We don’t want to lose affordable housing by upzoning.
Other alternatives were discussed, such as whether there should be a cap on the transfer of development rights to prevent super-tall skyscrapers. Or should affordable housing be supported using other remedies, such as subsidies? Zoning is not the only tool. Perhaps a new 421-A tax law would be a more effective tool. Tools can be stacked on top of each other. MIH provides permanently affordable housing; the 421-A tax break does not. Or should affordable housing go to other neighborhoods where housing is not as dense?
We will keep you posted as we learn more about zoning changes. The Legislature begins a new session in January. The bill may or may not be re-introduced.