The Unholy Alliance of New York City Upzoning and how it’s Affecting the Lower East Side [OP-ED]

Posted on: December 16th, 2019 at 5:03 am by

The following editorial was written by nascent grassroots group, Lower East Side Against upzoning. Today City Planning Commission votes on the two-towered development atop Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.

A new tact employed by large for-profit developers is to obliterate zoning rules to capture vast public resources for private gain. The strategy innovated to rewrite city zoning rules is the opposite of what was intended when the current rezoning system was created to stop Robert Moses’ destruction of New York City neighborhoods. It’s a system that relies on spending vast sums to convince the city to permit the construction of enormous buildings, and usually results in radical demographic shifts to the more affluent.

In this piece, we focus on one such developer with multiple projects around the city – the Gotham Organization. More specifically, the co-developed Chinese-American Planning Council building, known officially as GO Broome, which will rise atop the rubble of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol on Norfolk Street. We focus here because it is the most absurd example of the practice, where waivers are sought to allow a project TWICE as large as zoning stipulates.

The play is seemingly textbook. A private developer attaches itself to a nonprofit entity with a heart-warming story. The latter desires to consolidate headquarters or operations into a shiny new space, and is therefore willing to lend the glow of their mission to the for-profit developer. The developer then promises to build a certain percentage of affordable housing, as well as space for the nonprofit, which usually nets the developer tax abatements.

To be clear, the percentage of affordable housing is typically the mandatory, legally required minimum for the proposed height and density of the building. In other words, the developers seek the reward of zoning waivers, just for following the rules. This is like giving tax credits to automobile manufacturers because they generously included seatbelts.

If that’s where the story ended, it would be okay. Except for the tax abatements. Real estate is an enormously profitable business, and developers making money should be paying taxes, period. Their buildings create new infrastructure needs in host neighborhoods, and that tax revenue in turn addresses these new challenges.

Midnight traffic on Grand Street, Photo: Matt Morello

For example: the city, the police, and the Department of Transportation have all publicly admitted that recent development on the Lower East Side (namely, Essex Crossing) has created an untenable traffic situation, particularly on the Clinton and Grand Street approach to the Williamsburg Bridge. GO Broome will undoubtedly exacerbate congestion in this exact location, and appears to have no actual plans to address it.

Photo: Gotham Organization

But there’s one more strange twist in the story.

Developers like the Gotham Organization exist to make money, of course.  And without doubt, they will make less money if earmarking a large portion of their building for not-for-profit use and affordable housing.  So, what’s a developer to do?

Petition the city to build bigger. The developers realize they could potentially offset the decrease in revenue by getting permission to essentially stick another building on top of their affordable housing/not-for-profit building. Only this new building is market rate luxury housing. And of course, glomming on a second requires a much bigger construction than is typical for the neighborhood. Because it’s a building on top of a building.

Who will care, except the thousands of neighborhood residents who stand to lose sky, light, and ground-level open space? (We’ll go bigger, wider, higher!) Capitalizing on the positive halo of the not-for-profit story and the legally required affordable housing onsite, they ask the Community Board, Borough President, City Planning Commission, City Council, and Mayor (in that order) for permission to do good without having it cost them a dime.

Dec. 2010

As a citizen, you expect the response to a developer saying “please let us build twice the size of the neighborhood zoning allows and contribute nothing to infrastructure, and waive our taxes, so we can make more money” would be for those elected and appointed city officials to laugh them out of the room.

You expect your representatives to explain that the process isn’t designed to ensure developers make as much money as possible at the expense of taxpayers and local residents.  You expect them to angrily say that the city isn’t in the business of giving away massive handouts and huge zoning waivers to developers in exchange for building exactly the amount of affordable housing that the law requires.

But that’s not always what happens. Based on public records from the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) we know that developers spend money on lobbying. In Gotham’s case, tens of thousands of dollars paid to lobbying powerhouse Kasirer, who then directs efforts toward city officials.

Photo: JCOPE

Let’s return to 60 Norfolk Street. The proposed development is so big it requires the city to eliminate 30% of the existing sidewalk space (from 15 feet to 10 feet), and give Gotham a waiver to build 30% higher than the heights carefully arrived at after years of planning Essex Crossing.  That means a 30-story tower instead of 20-story.

But even that’s not enough – Gotham’s architect also needs to radically reduce the space between buildings, blocking sunlight for many seniors living next door, and eliminating even more sky and air for everyone. Dattner, a respected architecture firm, should remember that what happens on the outside of buildings is as important as what occurs inside.

This story has multiple pages:

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