Proposals to Rezone Parts of the Upper East Side

The Zoning and Development Committee of Manhattan Community Board 8 met on March 22 to discuss two rezoning proposals. Both aim to keep the neighborhood’s existing affordable housing and seek to expand it. The similarities essentially stop there.

Lenox Hill and Yorkville Special Districts Rezoning

Architect Tuck Edelstein, hired as a consultant by the Committee in November 2020, provided an update on the formal rezoning application to the City that would create special districts in Lenox Hill and Yorkville and restrict construction above 210 feet. The rezoning would be limited to the areas east of Lexington Avenue, along the avenues only and not the side streets (from 59th to 96th streets).

The pre-application is just about ready for submittal and will be just one of many steps in a long process where urgency is paramount. “Timely enactment of these proposals is becoming urgent,” Edelstein said. “There’s a groundswell of concern to address the needs of these neighborhoods in a way that will support a vibrant, thriving community of predictability and benefit for all. In Lenox Hill and Yorkville, it’s essential that reasonable development standards in accordance with our contemporary and likely future world be enacted now.”

READ MORE: “A New Third Avenue Boulevard Proposal”

With great building height comes great consequence, Edelstein explained. Taller buildings have typically led to the loss of existing tenements and with it, regulated affordable housing. Beloved mom and pop shops are regular casualties as well, along with their associated character.

Much ado was made of tall and supertall construction going up all over the city. There is no reason to believe that the Lenox Hill and Yorkville special districts, where most buildings are under 210 feet, would not face the consequences of similar construction. If the talls and supertalls start to crop up in these neighborhoods, they would distort the intent of the zoning controls and create unsustainable pressure on the current fabric of those communities, according to Edelstein.

While the approval of this application was met with almost unanimous praise during the meeting, the Committee does expect a lot of opposition, particularly from the development community, because of the limitation they’re trying to impose on building height. But Edelstein was quick to point out (and repeatedly did so) that it allows reasonable and predictable growth without reducing developable area. In simpler terms, the proposed rezoning has a limited and focused approach that does not seek to limit developers in sum but would limit how tall they can build.


Upper Yorkville Rezoning

Community Board 8 member Adam Wald outlined the framework of a proposal intent on creating more rental opportunities and more affordable housing by rezoning portions of six Upper East Side blocks from commercial or manufacturing to residential. Those streets – officially identified as Blocks 1540, 1556, 1557, 1569, 1570 & 1571 – run along Third, Second, First, and York Avenues from East 90th to East 95th streets.

While there is no specific plan currently for each potentially impacted street, Wald was clear that the proposal’s intent was not to replace existing rent-stabilized housing but to reign in the current zoning that allows for high density commercial uses.

READ MORE: A Major Redevelopment in the East 90s

“You could potentially, in some of these sites, build multiple 100,000 square foot self-storage buildings where you staff two or three people or four people. You take over half a block, you build 150- or 200-foot-tall self-storage building and there’s no one working there,” Wald added. “It’s taking away the opportunity to build more rental housing and more affordable housing in line with our statement of our district needs.”

The two members of public that spoke supported the plan. But Wald received mixed feedback from his fellow board members. At least two of them advocated for the addition of some commercial business in the area, particularly those businesses that are not close by like a gas station or auto repair shop.

But all seemed to agree on one aspect: the need for available affordable housing, specifically for those who fuel the city’s essential business. “Not everyone is rich,” exclaimed one board member.

Wald was equally blunt in his assessment of the neighborhood’s current situation and urged support for his plan before it’s too late. “Hospitals and condo developers are taking every single quality piece of land on the East Side.”

No official action was taken on this proposal but the committee members who gave feedback advised Wald that he was on the right track.
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