The Fight Against Super-Sizing The Borough
The Mayor presented this map of future, current and past rezoning plans. Tribune photo by Ira Cohen
By By Aaron Rutkoff
Virtually any place where the demand for housing outpaces the existing supply – which is virtually every place in Queens – a fierce, bloodless war is fought between builders and homeowners.
This week, in the face of mounting protests from homeowners, Mayor Michael Bloomberg took sides, announcing his support of neighborhood rezoning initiatives to curb over-development.
At Queens Borough Hall, Bloomberg acknowledged that Queens has a development problem all its own and called down zoning the only solution.
“The longer we go without zoning review, the harder it is to stop a process of neighborhood character change that nobody wants,” he said.
Efforts at rezoning, long demanded by development-wary civic groups and local politicians, require an extensive survey of each affected neighborhood, essentially a house-by-house catalogue that homeowner-volunteers often conduct by themselves. With this information, City Planning officials can revise the local zoning map, last overhauled in the 1960s, to more closely match the existing housing stock and eliminate the zoning leeway that has typically allowed builders to legally develop higher-density units in predominantly one and two-family neighborhoods.
At the press conference Bloomberg – flanked by Borough President Helen Marshall and City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden – said, “We have to make sure that multi-family housing is built where it can go, and that people that want to live in a certain kind of neighborhood, where they invest and move, wind up living in that kind of neighborhood.”
By eliminating the gap between what already exists and what the zoning map permits, zoning reform can make it virtually impossible for developers to meet the seemingly unquenchable demand for housing with multi-family units in neighborhoods where intensive housing would be out of character. But the revision process unfolds one neighborhood at a time and must be reviewed and approved by the local community board, City Planning Commission officials, the Borough President and the City Council before taking effect.
As a result, even with its newfound mayoral support, the rezoning movement in Queens takes months if not years to complete. Down-zoning may help keep apartment buildings and multi-family structures out of the most desirable neighborhoods in Queens. But the overwhelming demand for housing takes many shapes and sizes, nearly all of which can seem threatening to quality of life conscious civic groups dedicated to preserving the status quo.
A Surprise Visit
When Bloomberg announced his support for rezoning on the steps of Queens Borough Hall, the location was no accident. Two weeks ago hundreds of civic association members marched on those same steps to demand swift action against over-development.
The Mayor, in response to the rally, surprised the borough with his last minute press conference.
“That was a real surprise,” admitted Councilman Tony Avella, head of the City Council’s Zoning Committee, who also spoke at the Bloomberg event. “We found out late the day before that the mayor was doing this.”
Many politicians have lined up in opposition to over-development and come out in broad support for rezoning in Queens, but Avella has consistently led the pack. While others spoke broadly in favor of reform, Avella used his discretionary funds to hire an independent urban planner to propose a new zoning map for his entire 19th Council District. As a result of this early preparation, the neighborhoods of Bayside, College Point, Auburndale and Whitestone within his district are likely to be among the first to complete the down zoning process.
Altering the zoning map can stop the influx of multi-family buildings in otherwise low-density neighborhoods, where lenient zoning standards threaten to allow whole communities to change.
Neighborhoods like Jamaica Hills, a small-scale residential neighborhood just northeast of the sprawling downtown Jamaica district, could become a haven for apartment-type buildings because of zoning designations in the area.
Volunteers from a neighborhood civic group spent more than a year creating a house-by-house survey of the existing structures in the community. Working in cooperation with City Planning officials, and also with the help of an independent consultant, this information enabled the revision of the local zoning map, which was certified earlier this month by City Planning and will come up for review at a special meeting of Community Board 8 this July.
But even the most effective zoning revisions cannot solve all of the negative residential development trends in Queens.
“Map changes will remove these multi-family developments in areas that don’t warrant them, but what we really need as well are text changes,” said Paul Graziano, a zoning consultant who reviewed the zoning of Northeast Queens for Avella.
Civic groups bemoan the spread of “McMansions,” large single-family residences often built to replace older, more modest homes. These brick behemoths, which often tower over their neighbors, are made possible by loopholes in the zoning text itself. Changing zoning designations, as favored by Bloomberg, will do nothing to stop this trend.
Who Goes First?
According to John Young, director of City Planning for Queens, the neighborhoods of Kew Gardens, Richmond Hill, East Flushing, Bayside and Springfield Gardens are all nearing certification for their revised zoning maps. Unlike Jamaica Hills, which will be pushed through an expedited review process this summer, these new neighborhood zoning maps will have to wait for fall—and the return of community boards and the City Council from summer recess—before they can move ahead.
Following certification by the Queens City Planning office, which requires thorough environmental review, rezoning proposals must pass review by the local community board, Borough President Helen Marshall, the City Planning Commission and finally the City Council.
Normally, this lengthy process can take months, if not years, to complete. The proposal to rezone East Flushing, Graziano said, has been delayed for over a decade.
“What happened [this week] is that Mayor Bloomberg wants to be reelected,” added Graziano. “Northeast Queens gave him 77 percent of the vote last time. Now he polls at 30 percent here. If he wins Northeast Queens, he wins re-election — it’s that simple.”
With that political imperative, there is no telling how rapidly the rezoning initiative might spread through Queens.
The limited resources allotted to the Department of City Planning are likely to slow the pace of reform as well.
Though Young denied that rezoning requires the sort of house-by-house catalogue compiled by volunteers in Jamaica Hills or the independent consultant hired to make recommendations for the 19th Council District, Avella suggested that all neighborhoods under threat of over-development take the first steps for themselves.
“If civic groups can afford to do it, or if other council members want to do it as well, I certainly encourage them because it speeds up the process,” Avella said. “Any civic group that wants to do something like this should reach out to their council member and to Queens City Planning.”