Council modifies controversial Westside plan

Planning Commission approves modifications. On September 17, 2007, the City Council approved, with modifications, the plan to rezone 51 blocks of the Upper West Side. Two days later, the Planning Commission gave its final approval to the plan, finding no objections to the Council’s modifications.

The plan, the result of a two-year collaborative effort between City Planning, HPD, Landmarks, the Manhattan Borough President and local residents, sought to address concerns over out-of-character construction in the area. It down-zoned blocks characterized by low-density townhouses, limiting building heights and further restricting residential density, while focusing high-density development on Broadway, Amsterdam above West 104th Street, and West 106th Street. It also applied the City’s inclusionary housing program primarily along Broadway, allowing developers to increase the size of a project with an agreement to build affordable housing. 4 CityLand 122 (Sept. 15, 2007).

When the rezoning plan reached the Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning & Franchises, the Jewish Home & Hospital of New York, which operates an elder care facility on West 106th Street, requested that its lots be exempt from the rezoning. JHH claimed that the rezoning would hinder its own development plans, which included selling a portion of its property to a residential developer in order to finance the upgrade of JHH’s facilities.

Community Board 7 responded that it was too late in the land use review process for JHH to argue for an exemption. According to the board, JHH had two years to participate in the process and raise its issues, but failed to do so. Other local residents claimed that making an exception for JHH would undermine the rezoning effort to limit building height and prevent out-of-character development.

Council Member Tony Avella, Chair of the subcommittee, said that accommodating JHH would set a poor precedent because some people could interpret such a carve-out as “spot zoning.” Council Member Helen Sears was also wary of accommodating JHH, calling the subcommittee’s attention to JHH’s failure to take part in the long, community- led rezoning effort. Council Member Melinda Katz, however, reminded the subcommittee and the hearing’s attendees that last-minute issues are not a subversion of the rezoning process but rather, oftentimes, a necessary part of it.

The Council eventually modified the plan, carving out JHH’s lots from the rezoning, but only after Council Member Katz helped broker an agreement between JHH and an alliance of local community groups. Under the agreement, JHH agreed to record restrictions on its property, limiting JHH’s facilities to a maximum height of 150 feet and any other development to a maximum height of 120 feet. JHH also agreed to limit the bulk and restrict the use of its rebuilt facility. While the enforceability of any agreement was a significant source of tension at the hearing, the parties eventually agreed to make it subject to binding arbitration.

The Council then sent its modifications back to the Planning Commission. On September 19, 2007, the Planning Commission approved the modifications, finding them to be within scope. The full Council then approved the plan on September 25, 2007.

Council: Upper West Side Rezoning (Sept. 25, 2007).

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