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Martin Laplante

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Tue, 11 Apr 2006

New York's Downzoning Uprising

In the past few years, the development of apartment buildings in New York, particularly the upscale condos, has moved from Manhattan to the other boroughs. Like a ticking time bomb, the zoning in Brooklyn and Queens had allowed new buildings a lot bigger than what was already there, but there had been no market interest.

Archie Bunker's houseSince 2002, community associations in NYC have discovered just how much of their neighbourhood is zoned for buildings that are out of character with the surrounding communities, as developers started picking up more and more sites. If you haven't lived in New York, you may not realize that most of Brooklyn and Queens is made up of older single family houses and townhouses.

However, the new mayor Bloomberg was not into business as usual. He started a review of zoning in dozens of neighbourhoods which resulted in downzonings of 42 neighbourhoods, about 3600 city blocks, to something that was more in keeping with the local communities. He appointed new commissionners to the Board of Standards and Appeals that seem to insist that real estate lawyers have a real case when they ask for an exemption from zoning. Downzonings are a more powerful force in New York than in many other jurisdiction. Downzoning applies even to buildings whose construction has begun. If developers don't win their appeals the building gets torn down.

Most of New York's zoning was last revised in 1961, when planners were expecting a continuing increase in population. The population has remained about the same for 50 years. In the meantime, zoning was never revised to reflect the stable population.

This "people power" is different from suburban resistance against density for a number of reasons. Rather than keeping out poor people, it is trying to keep out conspicuously rich people - it is blocking the luxury condos and the McMansions (oversize houses). Some of the rezonings also have measures to preserve availability of affordable housing.

In a normal city, this type of downzoning is an excellent though counterintuitive way to combat sprawl. If the communities close to downtown and to transit already have reasonably high density, you do not change their character. The people who live there, often with children and dual incomes, would do a multiple of the amount of driving if they were to move to the suburbs, while the driving and land use of high-density apartment dwellers are less sensitive to location. However, New York is different from all other cities. Here, people in houses use transit while apartment dwellers drive. But when people in the outer suburbs drive, they drive more than anyone else. I don't know what's best for New York. I lived there for a number of years, and I really appreciate the character and vitality of the neighbourhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. But when I'm drawing graphs of driving behaviour in the U.S., the points only fall on nice straight lines if New York City is excluded. It's just too different.



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