The increasingly desperate attempt by Speaker Johnson to press the passage of what can only be described as top-down, wildly anti-democratic legislation that would completely upend land use in New York City has been to double down on the slender reed that much of the Planning Together report and corresponding bill (Intro. 2186-2020) has been based upon: another report written in 2010, entitled How Have Recent Rezonings Affected the City’s Ability to Grow?
This report, co-authored by then-head of the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate & Urban Policy and now-Deputy Mayor Vicki Been, is a significant factor in the narrative and recommendations in Planning Together, most notably in reference to a perception of a “glaring racial disparity in noting that upzoned areas were disproportionately home to lower-income Black and Latinx renters when compared to the more heavily white, homeowner-occupied downzoned neighborhoods.”
The problem is, this just isn’t true.
The many contextual rezonings which occurred during the Bloomberg years that helped to stabilize and protect neighborhoods from overdevelopment were spread throughout the city, in working-class, middle-class and (less so) wealthier neighborhoods and absolutely reflected the full demographic diversity that our city has to offer. More on that later, but now back to the previous point:
After deep review of the Furman Center report (which, to my knowledge, has never been analyzed or peer reviewed), it is obvious that the authors, including Ms. Been, narrowed and tailored data to fit their narrative rather than writing a report based solely on fact.
Without getting too much into the weeds, the Furman Center report bases its conclusions only on the rezonings which took place from 2003 to 2007, or one-third of the 12-year duration of the Bloomberg administration; treats all lots as essentially equal; and creates extraordinarily narrow definitions of upzonings, downzonings and contextual zonings based solely on benchmarks of decrease or increase of Floor Area Ratio (FAR), or the size of buildable square footage in relation to the lot. The authors acknowledge this remarkable self-serving definition on page 5 of the report, breezily dismissing why we planners consider FAR as only one factor in determining the size, shape and context of a building in a section ironically entitled What is a Contextual-Only Change?
Arguably, basing what attempts to be an authoritative report on land use in New York City while only looking at a relatively small sample – 4 years out of 12 – could be considered insufficient. Of more concern, treating all lots equally in a city where some lots take up an entire city block while others are less than 10 feet wide is not a valid methodology by any standard.
However, the most disturbing part of the Furman Center report hinges on the classification of lots – upzoned, downzoned and contextually zoned – and the racially-charged rhetoric and utterly false conclusions that were proffered at that time and continue to be perpetuated in the justification of Speaker Johnson’s current legislation.
According to the Furman Center report, “of the 816,000 lots that existed in 2003, approximately 188,000 were subject to a City-initiated rezoning action by the end of 2007.” By their definition, 63% of the lots were “contextually” rezoned, while 23% were “downzoned”; only 14% of the lots were “upzoned.” Their definitions – which solely focused on a + or – 10% threshold in FAR – are utterly self-fulfilling, as no zoning categories exist which only go up or down by that percentage.
The 14% of lots that were “upzoned” according to the Furman Center report totaled about 26,000. Using the report’s own color-coded map on page 3, it is evident that “upzonings” took place in areas throughout the city. However, most of these actions are not what they are described or appear to be as per the authors.
For example, in Bedford-Stuyvesant South, a rezoning that was approved in 2007, 92% of the 200+ blocks affected were rezoned to R6B, a contextual zone used throughout brownstone areas of Brooklyn to protect the 19th century streetscape. Approximately 140 blocks were rezoned R6 to R6B, and 61 blocks were rezoned from R5 to R6B. Those 61 blocks, according to Ms. Been, constituted a major “upzoning” in terms of FAR in a lower-income neighborhood of color. But was it?
After analyzing all 3,756 lots that were rezoned R5 to R6B, 714 (20%) were at or below the 1.25 FAR maximum of the R5 zone; another 1,481 (41%) were at or below the 1.65 FAR maximum of the R5 Infill zone; and another 930 (26%) were at or below the 2.0 FAR maximum of the R6B zone. The remaining 461 lots (13%) were above the maximum R6B FAR.
What this rezoning did was to allow buildings that were already near or at their maximum FAR (in the R5 or R5 Infill categories) to be able to expand modestly in the future. More importantly, it brought over 900 additional buildings legally into compliance, bringing total FAR compliance in the former R5 zone part of the neighborhood from 61% to 87%; generally, neighborhoods are not rezoned to a particular category unless a large majority of affected lots – typically upwards of 70% to 75% – meet the standards for a particular zone. In addition, the R6B zone required new buildings to better line up with existing development, where the R5 zone created deep front yards with required off-street parking that broke up the streetscape. These are things that deeply matter and can’t be brushed off by focusing solely on a simple square footage analysis.
While there were smaller areas within the Bedford Stuyvesant South rezoning that were truly “upzoned” – such as Fulton Street, where a high-density R7D inclusionary zoning designation was created – a large portion of the “upzoned” lots identified in the report were not effectively upzoned at all. The key to this rezoning was to stop speculators from destroying the essence of Bed-Stuy, while, according to a Gotham Gazette article from 2007, speaking to the “greatest concerns of the community: increased commercial space to provide economic development and jobs, 400 new affordable apartments and preservation of the neighborhood’s residential character.”
This purposeful misclassification of “upzoned” areas is rife throughout the Furman Center report. For example, in the Kew Gardens-Richmond Hill rezoning of 2005, over 10 blocks of residential housing – 350+ lots – in a working-class Hispanic-majority neighborhood was rezoned from a manufacturing zone – M1-1(1.0 FAR) – to R5 (1.25/1.65 FAR). This was done in order to legalize the buildings; prior to this action, if a house caught on fire and burned to the ground, the owner would be unable to rebuild it by law. Another majority Hispanic part of the neighborhood was rezoned from R3-1, which allows semi-attached one and two-family houses, to R4A, which only allows detached houses at a somewhat higher FAR. Similar to other rezonings, the majority of buildings were brought into compliance with the higher FAR, while protecting the one and two-family detached house character of the neighborhood (81.3% detached houses): out of 304 lots, only 26.6% were at a 0.6 FAR (R3-1) or below, while 87.8% were at or below a 0.9 FAR (R4A).
Another excellent example is the Jamaica Plan rezoning of 2007, which covered 368 blocks. That massive effort significantly increased development potential in the downtown commercial core with inclusionary zoning contingencies – in a largely non-residential business district – while protecting the working-class African-American lower-density areas immediately to the east and south. A large portion of this particular area is shown as being “upzoned” in the Furman Center report; in fact, the area was changed from R3-2, the lowest density “general residence district” which allow apartment buildings and multi-unit buildings, to R4-1, which allows only detached and semi-attached one and two-family houses at a somewhat higher FAR. Why was this done? Besides high compliance rates, the plan was supported by the community, according to the New York Times, “after being reassured that they would not be required to sell their property under eminent domain and that sections of one- and two-family homes would be preserved” which reinforced the neighborhood character in a working-class community of color.
Again, there is no attempt to differentiate between any of these types of carefully crafted actions and the sole focus of the Furman Center report: increase in FAR in lower-income neighborhoods of color. This pattern is repeated throughout the report, accounting for at least 75% of the “upzoned” lots in question.
Let’s be clear: there were parts of the city that were truly upzoned, most often transportation and commercial corridors and hubs, former manufacturing areas and/or waterfront “opportunities.” And, in many cases (though certainly not all), they were enthusiastically supported by the affected communities, particularly when they were included within a balanced plan that downzoned or contextually rezoned a larger neighborhood. However, they make up just a fraction of the overall blocks and lots that the Furman Report infuses with false meaning in order to achieve a desired result and message. By definition, then, the conclusions reached by this report are not actually supported by the true data set, and the Furman Center report can only be described as an ideologically-driven document, not a data-driven, peer-reviewed report.
The co-author, Vicki Been, has wielded this report (among others) as a justification for the unyielding upzoning agenda of the current de Blasio administration for the past seven years, first as the Commissioner of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) from 2014 through 2017 and then catapulting to her current position as Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development since 2019. Unlike most of the Bloomberg contextual rezonings, the current administration’s neighborhood-wide proposed upzonings have been fraught with community opposition, conflict and – in a number of cases – ultimate defeat by some of the Councilmembers who represent those areas due to ‘member deference’ in such matters.
Which brings us back to our current predicament: Planning Together and Intro. 2186-2020.
In my first response to this report and bill in January, I described how the contextual rezonings that occurred during the Bloomberg administration were equitably distributed throughout the city, regardless of economic status or demographics. This proof – along with today’s refuting of the previous Furman Center report’s data and conclusions – demolishes the main fictitious pillar of Planning Together.
Creating another level of bureaucracy as described in Planning Together – with even less interaction, input and decisionmaking from the public, Community Boards and elected officials – with the potential for a Robert Moses-like Director of Long-term Planning does nothing to solve the problems of inequity in our city and, in direct ways, imperils our already-diluted democratic norms even further. In addition, our imperfect system that allows our elected Councilmembers to actually stop a bad zoning proposal that affects a locality – member deference, and it does happen – will be ended for parts of each and every Community Board area that have been deemed appropriate for upzoning and ‘streamlined’ approvals in an adopted comprehensive plan.
Not legally tying land use changes to mandatory infrastructure investments and all of the other indices of life, including schools, parks, transportation, sewerage capacity and the like – something that will emphatically not happen with Intro. 2186-2020 – is not comprehensive planning.
Instead, this bill would create a comprehensive upzoning / housing unit generation / development engine every decade in perpetuity. This position is confirmed by last week’s “news analysis” in The Real Deal by the Senior Managing Editor, Eric Engquist, who stated that a “more predictable approval process would lower costs for developers, who currently might spend $1 million or more to get a single rezoning through the City Council. And sometimes the local Council member, who singularly controls the fate of rezonings, makes extreme demands or simply says no…Johnson’s scheme, in a nutshell, simplifies the process by having planning experts decide what to go where, and any project meeting those terms would be approved.”
Ironically, the Planning Together report derides the fact that the Bloomberg administration “famously rezoned roughly 40% of the City’s land mass” and continues to perpetuate the lie based on the Furman Center report’s phony data sets that lower-income people of color were not included in the dozens of contextual rezonings that were adopted between 2003 and 2013.
During a Community Board presentation February 8th, the co-author of Planning Together, Annie Levers, was mystified as to how to get the rest of the city rezoned in a similar manner without passing Intro. 2186-2020. Had Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Johnson been so concerned about overdevelopment, real affordable housing and community participation (or lack thereof), there is no question that we could have had another 40% of the city carefully rezoned by now. Clearly, that hasn’t happened, and every neighborhood that hasn’t previously been contextually rezoned is being preyed upon by speculative developers.
Where has Speaker Johnson been for the past three-plus years as neighborhoods have been screaming for both the restarting of neighborhood-wide contextual rezonings and real affordable housing? And, if he is so insistent that this bill will enhance community input rather than weaken it, why has he introduced this bill – and the first public hearing! – in the last year of a lame-duck Council in the middle of a pandemic with no notification whatsoever to Community Boards or the general public? And finally, if this is such a popular idea, why did essentially the same bill get rejected by the Charter Revision Commission in 2019 and never make it on to the ballot?
Folks, what we have here is not just a planning problem; it’s a political problem. And, if Intro. 2186-2020 becomes the law of the land, it’s going to tear our city apart.