Community Wants More Zoning Protections in Union Square South SD Expansion

Proposed Zoning Map Amendment Image Credit: City Planning

Hotel special permitting fails to address other types of development in the Union Square South area. On January 22, 2020, the City Planning Commission held a public hearing on an application by the Department of City Planning for an expansion of the Special Union Square District, and the establishment of a special permit requirement for new hotel development in the expansion area.

Zoning Actions

The zoning map amendment would essentially extend the Special Union Square District South further south into parts of Greenwich Village and East Village and create two special zoning subdistricts. The current Union Square Special district is located roughly between 17th Street to the north, 14th street to the south, Irving Place to the east and Union Square West to the west. This area would be referred to as Subdistrict A. This area is characterized by high-rise residential and commercial buildings ranging in heights from 17 and 26-stories. The expansion area is essentially 25 blocks spanning from East 14th Street to the north, 9th Street to the south, Third Avenue to the east and Fifth Avenue to the west and would be referred to as Subdistrict B. The area is mainly comprised of one and two-family walkup buildings and mid-rise multifamily buildings.

The special district expansion would facilitate the underlying zoning text amendment. Currently, transient hotel uses are permitted as-of-right in the proposed Subdistrict’s C6 zoning scheme. The proposed text amendment would establish a special permit requirement for hotel uses in Subdistrict B only.  This would ultimately require hoteliers to get ULURP approvals for the construction of any new hotel, conversion or enlargement. To get the permit, the applicant would have to demonstrate that the construction or development does not impair the essential character or the future use and development of the neighborhood. Neither the zoning text nor zoning map amendment would affect the other uses permitted as-of-right in the proposed Subdistrict’s C6 zoning scheme.

Special Union Square District Context

Special Purpose Districts are areas where the underlying zoning regulations are modified or superseded to achieve special planning objectives. In this case, the Union Square Special District was initially established in 1985 to inject residential uses into an area mainly comprised of commercial space and office buildings. The hope was to shape Union Square into an active park yet still reinforce the existing retail character throughout the mixed-use development. As recent as September 2010, City Planning approved another zoning map amendment to increase residential FAR, hoping to encourage even more residential uses southeast of the Union Square Park.

According to the City’s Environmental Assessment Statement for this application, more recent residential growth in the area has been met with development and occupancy of larger commercial spaces with technology focused businesses. This includes both the Facebook and IBM office spaces and the under-construction “Tech Hub” site at East 14th Street and Irving Place. The EAS also notes the area’s mix of low-residential uses and institutional uses like the New School expansion and NYU residence halls. In discussing the purpose and need for this zoning action, the EAS states “it is important that hotel developments are compatible with the surrounding context.”

Union Square Park Image Credit: Jane Kratochvil, Union Square Partnership

Public Hearing

At the public hearing there were 13 speakers, all of whom were opposed to the application. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (“Village Preservation”) was a leading voice for advocates against the application.  Harry Bubbins from Village Preservation called the Environmental Assessment Statement “disturbing” for failing to identify historically significant buildings or recognizing the significance of replacing low rise residential buildings with high-rise office towers.

The public as a whole was concerned with the flood of demolition and construction of high-rise commercial office towers. While some recognized that the zoning change might curtail out-of-context hotel development, it does nothing to address the other types of commercial high-rise development or the need for more affordable housing. Multiple parties expressed a desire for more landmark and zoning protections to accomplish this end.


Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer recommended disapproval of the application. Brewer requested more stringent findings for the special permit, additional zoning measures to address the community’s concern with increasing commercial development pressures, and that Landmarks work with the community to identify individual landmarks and properties of historic significance.

The proposed zoning change would affect parts of Manhattan Community Boards 2, 3 and 5. Community Boards 2 and 3 both disapproved the application by practically unanimous votes (0 in favor to 39 opposed and 1 in favor to 37 opposed) and Community Board 5 deferred to Community Boards 2 and 3 because the action would only affect three lots in their district. Community Board 2 sought further zoning protections for the low to mid-rise scale and residential character of the area, stating the amendment “does not address overdevelopment in the area.” Both boards also want a commitment to protecting the architectural and historic significance of the area. Community Board 3 specifically asked that Landmarks work with Community Board 3 to develop another historic district in the East Village and identify potential individual landmarks to preserve historic properties in the area.

CityLand reached out to Andrew Berman, Executive Director of Village Preservation for further comment. Berman stated “Nobody seems to support this measure except the Mayor and those who have endorsed and/or donated to his campaign, for whom this appears to be repayment for their support. This plan, which offers no real protections to the affected Greenwich Village and East Village neighborhoods, is the result of a bad deal struck between the Mayor and Councilmember Carlina Rivera as cover for her support for the Mayor’s 14th Street Tech Hub.  Unfortunately, this does not in fact provide any mitigation from the increased development pressure on these areas caused by that upzoning, as the city’s own analysis says that if implemented, the Hotel Special Permit requirement would merely result in low-scale, historic, residential buildings being demolished and replaced by office towers rather than hotels.  There is zero benefit for the affected communities here which have been clamoring for real landmark and zoning protections to preserve historic buildings and maintain the predominantly residential and low-to-mid-rise character of the area.  This bears no resemblance to Councilmember Rivera’s promise when she ran for office that she would condition her support for the Tech Hub upon the Mayor providing the comprehensive neighborhood protections the affected communities were calling for.” To read more of Village Preservation’s advocacy efforts click here.

CityLand reached out to Councilwoman Carlina Rivera’s office for comment. Jeremy Unger, spokesperson for Councilwoman Carlina Rivera stated “Our office continues to review submitted comments and input from community members and involved parties and look forward to continuing the ULURP process around this application.”

CityLand also reached out to the Mayor’s Office and the Department of City Planning but received no comment.

The City Planning Commission will vote on this application in the coming weeks.

By: Jason Rogovich (Jason Rogovich is the CityLaw Fellow and New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2019)



2 thoughts on “Community Wants More Zoning Protections in Union Square South SD Expansion

  1. Why can’t council member carlina rivera ever take a stand with the community on these land matters the mayor keeps forcing on her, this her staffer can’t even utter a clear statement, she supports the destruction of east river park, she supports the new jails, it is terrible!

  2. Good detailed article on the hearing. As noted, testimony from the public was unanimous in calling upon the City to replace the proposal, which offers virtually no help or protections to our neighborhoods, with real landmark and zoning protections that would protect historic buildings, reinforce the predominantly residential character of the neighborhood (prohibiting or discouraging large new office buildings or hotels) and ensure that any new development matches the existing predominantly low-to-mid-rise scale.

    Powerful resolutions panned the plan and demanded stronger protections for these neighborhoods came from Community Boards 2, 3 and 5, and a very forceful resolution from Borough President Gale Brewer issued the day before the hearing calling for the same.

    Go here to send an email to officials:

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