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City will study how ‘gerrymandered’ zoning lots affect NYC neighborhoods

Politicians aren’t the only people who embrace gerrymandering

The Upper East Side has played host to “gerrymandered” zoning lots that allow developers to skirt regulations.
Max Touhey

Developers who embrace the practice of drawing creative geographical boundaries to plan new buildings could soon face a roadblock.

The Department of City Planning (DCP) will explore mandating a minimum lot size for non-residential projects to stop developers who “gerrymander” zoning lots by slicing off slivers to avoid triggering certain regulations. City planning officials will study the tiny, unusable lots that are a byproduct of this practice and the unintended side effects they create for neighborhoods, according to a May 13 letter from Edith Hsu-Chen, the director of DCP’s Manhattan office, to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson obtained by Curbed. The results will be shared with the City Council by August.

The commitment comes as the city debates an amendment for a contested zoning change that would cap mechanical voids in buildings at 30 feet before those spaces count toward usable square footage. At a Tuesday council subcommittee hearing, lawmakers are expected to discuss amending the zoning change back to DCP’s initially proposed 25 foot limit—it is beyond the council’s power to scale those restrictions back further. The goal is to limit developers’ ability to use massive voids to boost the heights of their buildings. Industry insiders have pushed for greater flexibility, but elected officials say the zoning change lacks comprehensive restrictions to close related loopholes. This new study would be a potential first step toward enacting restrictions that already exist for building residential properties.

“The point of city planning is to have predictability and we have a zoning text that has been under attack by people looking for loopholes, and the newest is these gerrymandered lots,” says Upper East Side City Council member Ben Kallos, who requested the study and has staunchly advocated for the city to crack down on the practice. “The point is to restore the predictability.”

In a May 13 letter to Marisa Lago, the director of the DCP, Kallos suggested applying lot restrictions already in place for residential properties to all zoning districts, with a certification process for instances where carving out a tiny lot is legitimate. In low-density neighborhoods zoned for single-family, detached homes, for instance, the minimum lot area is 9,500 square feet and the minimum lot width is 100 feet. Another solution could be creating a “Minimum Distance Between Lot Lines” restriction, Kallos suggested.

Kallos first became aware of the issue in 2016 when a four-foot-wide space was shaved off of the zoning lot for 180 East 88th Street, which prevented the 521-foot tower’s lot from touching Third Avenue. That then allowed the developer, DDG Partners, to sidestep several zoning regulations and ultimately add 60 feet to the building. In a letter to the Department of Buildings at the time, Kallos argued that the strip of land DDG created set a “precedent for a new and dangerous loophole.” Neighborhood advocates and Kallos appealed the city’s approval of plans to the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), but were ultimately unsuccessful.

The BSA green-lighting the practice adds urgency for city planners to act before neighborhoods are carved into zoning “jigsaw puzzle” pieces at the hands of developers, Kallos argues. Extremes already exist in parts of the city, with a minuscule three-inch lot created in East Harlem in 2013, and a two-foot lot cut off a lower Manhattan property in 2016. An Upper West Side tower has also come under fire for what opponents say is a carefully sculpted lot; neighborhood groups have brought legal challenges against developers SJP Properties and Mitsui Fudosan.

“The BSA’s explicit approval of this tactic has given developers looking to evade zoning regulations a new tool,” says Kallos. “If it is broadly realized that simply slicing off a portion of a zoning lot can insulate a development from certain zoning regulations, the sky will literally be the limit to the at-will sculpting of zoning lots that serve no legitimate purpose.”

The mechanical void zoning change will also include DCP commitments to apply limits on mechanical voids in central business districts in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, which it will share with the City Council in August in advance of its anticipated September certification. Additionally, city planners will conduct a study of unenclosed voids, the results of which are expected by the summer of 2020.