October 31, 2018

‘Rezone Us, Please,’ Activists Urge City Planners.

(Yes, You Read that Right)

By David Robinson

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The word “rezoning” inspires deep misgivings among many community groups across the city. They regard it as a Trojan Horse for new upscale housing development that will lead inevitably to gentrification and displacement of longtime neighborhood residents.

But that’s not the case in my Manhattan neighborhood of Morningside Heights; here, activists are pushing reluctant City Planning officials to rezone the area. It’s not that we’re blind to the shortcomings of the rezonings that have taken place in other parts of town; it’s that, on balance, the inclusion of affordable housing that would be mandated by rezoning represents the least bad alternative for a neighborhood facing a flood of upscale development.

Here’s the context. Bounded by 110th and 125th Streets and Morningside and Riverside Parks, Morningside Heights is dominated by major academic and religious institutions: Columbia University, Barnard College, Manhattan School of Music, Riverside Church, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Union Theological Seminary, and Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). Morningside Heights has a mixture of housing. We have about 7,100 rent-stabilized apartments, but with a high turnover rate of 17 percent they are at risk of becoming deregulated. We also have working and low-income tenants living in public housing, middle-class co-op owners, as well as many transient students.

About three years ago, residents learned that the two seminaries planned to sell property and air rights they control on or near their campuses. Two towers, 40- and 32-stories high, will go up – and fill up with market-rate condos, with no affordable housing in either. The seminaries justified the market-rate sales because of the need for renovation of existing facilities or for new construction. Unfortunately, this ignores the impact of these major new projects on a community already feeling beset by Columbia’s continuing expansion and worried about upscale development overstraining City services and driving out our small businesses.

In response, neighborhood activists formed the Morningside Heights Community Coalition (MHCC). Over two years of community meetings and workshops, it became clear that it was imperative to reform the existing zoning for the neighborhood, last changed in 1961. 

With the existing zoning, most development is “as of right” and the community has no leverage to challenge the proposed height of buildings or require housing at less than market rate. Rezoning of the neighborhood, on the other hand, would allow for more contextual new development and compel the inclusion of affordable housing as part of the City’s “mandatory inclusionary housing” program. While it’s already too late to stop the 32-story tower now being constructed next to JTS, it isn’t too late to save at least 24 other “soft sites” in Morningside Heights. Rezoning could potentially do that.

MHCC remains aware of serious problems with rezoning under current rules. New construction would still be mostly market rate, with the consequence of threats of displacement. The definition of “affordable” is too high because it’s measured by the metropolitan “area median income,” which includes suburban counties and is much higher than that of New York City and our neighborhood. We followed closely the vehement opposition to recent rezoning in East Harlem and Inwood due to fears of displacement and overdevelopment; we noted that the City held public meetings, but didn’t listen well to the voices of the community. But, without rezoning, there are virtually no limits on private development and we saw no viable alternatives.

A zoning plan was developed in small meetings. We obtained the support of elected officials and presented the plan to at an overwhelmingly supportive community meeting (held before over 150 people on a miserable February night earlier this year).

We’ve also taken our case to City Planning officials, and met a reluctant response, ostensibly due to what they consider a relatively low number of potentially affordable units. However, this hesitance reflects a failure to recognize in the zoning context that existing affordable housing needs to be preserved, as well as the threats that arise when institutional properties once thought to be off-limits for development suddenly go on the market and become hot properties. So we remain hopeful that, with the support of our community, our elected officials, and our Community Board, the City will come around.

Rezoning isn’t the only arrow in our quiver; MHCC is involved in other related activities, such as negotiating for community benefit agreements with private developers, and advocating for the health and safety of workers and community residents affected by construction. We also recognize that in the effort to preserve and create affordable housing, important policy changes are needed. They include strengthening rent regulation to remove some of the incentives for tenant harassment and displacement, and also public commitment to funding housing—public housing, Section 8 vouchers, and new construction for low-, moderate-, and middle-income people.

We’re acutely aware that our overall obstacle is one faced by all communities threatened with out-of-control development: the power of the real estate lobby and the weakness of agency responses to neighborhood organizations who want a voice in the future of their communities.

But for now, for Morningside Heights, rezoning, while not perfect, represents a realistic path to creating affordable housing and an important tool for ensuring contextual development.

Photo Credit: Milan gary

David Robinson is a retired housing attorney and a member of the board of the Morningside Heights Community Coalition.