After four years of planning, the city's next big rezoning is in the works: Chinatown. And it's not just about changing height limits or property uses?it addresses a bigger question at the forefront of NYC urban planning right now. How does the city protect affordable housing, and who pays for it?
Chinatown and portions of the Lower East Side, which also falls under rezoning consideration, hold a big chunk of the city's public housing. Many of the buildings are surrounded by parks, which are nice for residents, but all the open space means that thousands of apartments could be built using existing air rights. NYCHA was already financially strained, and it's hurting even more after Hurricane Sandy. So there's pressure for the agency to raise revenue, which could be done by selling portions of NYCHA land to private developers. A study by the Manhattan Borough President's office found that Lower East Side NYCHA developments have 7.6 million square feet of unused air rights, or enough for over 9,000 apartment units.
The Chinatown Working Group, which has been organizing the rezoning effort, has endorsed a plan proposed by the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and Lower East Side, The Coalition to Protect Chinatown and Lower East Side has proposed an unofficial zoning plan that calls for 100 percent affordable housing on publicly owned land. This is the same demand the coalition made for the recently-passed SPURA development plans, and developers will surely say that it's an unrealistic requirement. The community plan also seeks to limit the heights of new buildings by decreasing the Floor Area Ratio, or FAR, from around 6 to 3 in many areas. (FAR determines how large a building can be relative to the plot of land. An FAR of 6 means that if the building covers the entire plot, it can be up to six stories tall, so an FAR of 3 would halve that.)
"People are attracted to the community because it is very diverse and vibrant. The only way it can stay that way is if people who are there now?mainly low-income families?are able to stay there," Bethany Li, an organizer with the Coalition, told us. "Otherwise, it's not going to be Chinatown/Lower East Side anymore. It's going to be completely different."
The Chinatown Working Group, which is organizing the zoning review, expects to hire a consultant next spring to refine and finalize existing proposals. This would include a review of the unofficial coalition document, explained Wilson Soo, a co-chair of the Chinatown Working Group. This review process is expected to take around six months.
The Coalition to Protect Chinatown and Lower East Side is pushing for a formal land use review process (ULURP) that would produce an actual rezoning, said Brian Paul, a research and policy coordinator at Common Cause New York, who drafted the original Coalition plan. If a full rezoning does take place, which is still undecided, it would require input from Community Board 1, the Manhattan borough president, and culminate in votes by City Planning and the City Council.
Back in November 2010, the Coalition created a list (Warning: PDF) of vacant lots and stalled construction sites, which were the most vulnerable to development. (There is also a list of other developable sites, which include parking lots and dilapidated buildings.) Last week, Curbed took a nighttime stroll around the neighborhood to update the list, and we've mapped our findings below. A few of the sites are under construction or have been completed, but many are still empty lots. Depending on what happens, we could see another wave of skinny hotel towers and condos, or perhaps something more affordable.
UPDATE, 12/18 3:40 p.m.: This post has been updated to clarify the status of the Coalition Plan and a potential ULURP. Wilson Soo also said that the Chinatown Working Group has not currently endorsed a ULURP.
· Chinatown Rezoning coverage [Curbed]