Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Looming Threat of Overdevelopment Uptown

For most of the past half century, the livable scale of buildings in Washington Heights and Inwood that makes our community so distinct—and beloved—has been almost completely unspoiled by development. Even the construction boom which has swept the five boroughs in recent years has largely left northern Manhattan intact. But signs are everywhere that this is finally about to change.

No fewer than a half dozen large-scale development projects are now on the drawing board in our community—featuring towers that will be double or even triple the heights of surrounding buildings.

For decades the nearly complete lack of vacant land here uptown has made new development impractical. But the white-hot real estate market has now turned sites with parking lots, rocky terrain, and even existing low-scale buildings into economically feasible targets for new construction.

On 172nd and Broadway, the Taco Bell has been closed to make way for a 14-story office building. On Sherman and Broadway, next to Ft. Tryon Park, a 2-story building housing City offices will be coming down soon to make way for 12 floors of high-end condos. The owner of the single-floor commercial building on 187th St. between Cabrini Blvd. and Pinehurst Ave. is rumored to be considering knocking down the existing structure to put up a 7-floor residential building.

And then there is the mother of all development projects: a 23-story behemoth proposed for 184th St. and Overlook Terrace.

This site is currently covered by a large rock outcropping that until now has made it impractical for construction. But soaring real estate values have turned even this unlikely plot into a potential goldmine, and the developer has chosen to shoot for the stars—literally—with a tower of unprecedented scale which would dwarf the surrounding neighborhood, blocking light and air. The structure as proposed would straddle the subway tunnel on Overlook and would abut buildings that are as much as a century old and sit on stilts, raising serious structural and seismic concerns. The new tower would even have an entrance on Ft. Washington Ave., thus placing it in the already severely overcrowded zone for PS187.

In September, the Buildings Department rejected a first draft of the plans, but NOT BECAUSE OF ITS HEIGHT. The City only cited technical complications which the developer is likely to have addressed on the next submission. Remarkably, there is nothing in our city’s (antiquated) zoning code which prohibits such a gargantuan project.

But our neighborhood has a chance to change that.

New York City’s Charter offers a framework that communities can use to create plans for their “growth, improvement, and future development”. These so-called “197a” plans (named for the section of the City Charter) have been used by communities around the city to put new zoning guidelines in place that call for all new development to be in scale with the existing neighborhood. East Harlem has such a plan in place. West Harlem/Hamilton Heights is well on its way to implementing one. Washington Heights and Inwood deserve the same.

Now is the ideal time for you to make your voice heard in this debate, as a group of urban planners at City College have undertaken research to prepare for creation of a 197a plan here, and they want residents’ input. Click here to print out the feedback forms which you can mail in.

Sadly, it is probably too late for a new zoning plan to block the super-sized projects now underway in our community. But if left unchecked this current wave will turn out to have been only a prelude to an even larger, more damaging, boom in overdevelopment. So if we are to assure that our community remains livable for the NEXT half century, the time to act is now.


Blogger Nichole said...

Northern Manhattan should most definitely have a 197-a plan, but
the community board needs to keep in mind that a 197-a plan is a long-term plan that guides city policy. As such, a 197-a plan generally takes several years to complete and is funded by the community board (many boards receive funds from the Borough President's Office, a City Council Member, or similar sources). And again, this plan is a policy guide - it does not in itself change city policy.

If there are immediate, pressing zoning issues that the community wants the city to address, the best way is to push for them is through a zoning change application (this can get confusing because a zoning change is called a 197-c). The community board (and/or a local organization) can discuss with the city planning department the issues at hand, and the desired zoning changes. If the zoning change is sound planning policy
(meaning that it doesn't result in a large percentage of nonconforming buildings), most times the city planning department will take the zoning change application through the review process. This process will take about a year, instead of the 6-8 years that it has taken community boards to complete a 197-a.

A 197-a plan would be an excellent way for Northern Manhattan to address long-term issues, such as historic preservation (there is an amazing amount of Art Deco architecture up here), the preservation of natural resources (most notably trees and all those wonderful rock outcroppings), street tree planting (which is really needed along Broadway Avenue and along 178th and 179th Streets at the GWB, among other places, for both aesthetics and air quality issues),as well as other less urgent zoning issues. A good 197-a plan to look at for the preservation content would be Riverdale's plan (Bronx Community Board 8).

As far as the pressing zoning issue, right now most of Washington Heights and Inwood is zoned R7-2, which has a maximum Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of 3.44 (meaning the building square-footage can be up to 3.44 times the lot area) and no maximum building height requirements. (For an explanation of this zoning designation, refer to The community board should explore a contextual rezoning to a zoning designation that has a maximum street wall height of four to six stories, such as R7A.

9:20 AM  
Blogger answer-man said...

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6:28 PM  
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