Unzoning the Rezoning


[The following is a joint post from NAG and GWAPP.]

180 blocks of Greenpoint and Williamsburg were rezoned over 8 years ago to allow for residential development, and during that time a lot has changed in our community. With the recent proposals for modifications to the as-of-right zoning at Greenpoint Landing and 77 Commercial, there is suddenly a a lot of attention on new development in Greenpoint and the prospect that this waterfront could soon see towers between 20 and 40 stories.

We’ve already commented on what we think about these latest zoning actions (here and here), but we wanted to say a few words too about the current talk about undoing the 2005 zoning, and how – and if – that could happen.

While we support the idea of trying to rightsize the 2005 zoning (we worked very hard to get to that 8 years ago) and address the impacts of new development on our community (we have been working very hard at that for the past 8 years), we also need to be realistic about what can be accomplished, how it can be accomplished and most importantly, when it can be accomplished (if it can be accomplished at all).

In the past few weeks there have a lot of frankly misinformed statements about all of these prospects. To understand what can be accomplished, it helps to start with a firm understanding of what is allowed now. Sadly, the 40-story (and other) towers proposed for Greenpoint Landing are allowed as of right under the 2005 zoning. The developer can build these with a permit from DOB, which requires no public review, no new environmental reviews, etc. That is what as-of-right means.

So, how can the 40-story towers in Greenpoint be stopped? The only way to reduce the height and density of the 2005 rezoning is rezone the rezoning. But that is a process that would be extremely difficult assuming that you had a sympathetic administration, and would take years of committed community activism to achieve. A “dezoning” would be fighting against billions of dollars of vested development rights and the entrenched interests of labor unions and affordable housing advocates. These are exactly the forces that came together to make the 2005 rezoning happen in the first place (and others–Domino, for instance). Certainly with the right mayor in office, a waterfront zoning redo is not completely out of the question, but even in that perfect-world scenario, it is a huge lift.

But then there is the question of time. In this best-case scenario, going through the environmental reviews and public review process for such an action would take at least two to three years. More likely, it will be a years-long fight to get to that two- to three-year process. Meanwhile, Greenpoint and Williamsburg will continue to develop, and the community will continue to suffer from growing pains (and, while the 40-story towers make nice lightning rods, the bulk of the density impact of development comes on the 150 or so blocks that are not on the waterfront).

Another idea that has been floated is to challenge the 2005 rezoning using Article 78 of the civil code. Article 78 petitions allow people to challenge administrative decisions made by government agencies–in effect to argue that an agency either exceeded its procedural bounds or refused to act when it should have. But Article 78 is not going to stop towers from coming to the Greenpoint waterfront for the simple fact that the statue of limitations for such petitions ran out almost 8 years ago (7 years and 359 days, but who’s counting?). Even if such a challenge could be mounted, it would be expensive ($100,000 or more), and would be at best, a delaying tactic.

As groups and individuals, we worked very hard (and largely in vain) to get the 2005 rezoning right-sized, and worked very hard (and largely in vain) to get the even-bigger 2010 Domino rezoning right-sized. Those experiences–and many others–have taught us a lot about the land-use process, and why we take a pragmatic approach to the idea of undoing the 2005 zoning.

Yes, the community should organize and fight for changes to the zoning that more closely align with the 197-a ideals we all worked so hard for. But at the same time, we need to harness all of this civic energy toward making sure that what little the community got out of the 2005 is actually delivered. We know that the new development will be delivered – tens of thousands of new residents in thousands of new housing units. The real estate market is hot again, and Greenpoint and Williamsburg continue to be prime targets for development. In the face of all of this development, our community is getting short changed on what has already been promised:

  • 80% (almost 30 acres) of the new open space that was set aside in the 2005 rezoning.
  • Hundreds of units of new affordable housing that was promised on city-owned sites in the 2005 rezoning.
  • The comprehensive transportation study for all of Community Board #1 that the community has lobbied for since 2005 (and that wasfinally promised as part of the Domino rezoning in 2010).
  • $14 million of City funding promised for parks and open space in northern Greenpoint (promised in 2005; not being delivered as part of the current applications).
  • $10 million of City funding promised for infrastructure improvements on the Greenpoint/Williamsburg waterfront.

And that is just to name a few. These are critical issues that are being ignored in the current discussions about development in Greenpoint. These are issues that we have been fighting for for years, and they are issues that the community should come together to address, before it is too late. These issues effect all community members–new and old. In the years it could take to “dezone” Greenpoint (if it ever happens at all), these issues should be getting addressed.

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