To attorney Paul Selver, the Market Matters Most

When asked to recall projects throughout his 35-year career, land use attorney Paul Selver’s discussion becomes a vivid narrative of how the economy translates into New York City’s physical changes. Selver sees 1977 as the point when developers started looking ahead for the first time; the 1981 to 1988 development boom coincided with the economy’s exuberance and ended with the stock market crash. To Selver, his current projects, like a six-block rezoning in Coney Island, the potential five-acre reinvention of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, and the Trans Hudson Express Tunnel, New Jersey’s proposal for a second rail tunnel under the Hudson River to West 34th Street, reveal another market change. With the upper-middle class being “priced-out” of Manhattan, development moves to where housing can be built, and the need to transport commuters into Manhattan becomes greater.

Selver talked to CityLand about landing in land use, development bellwethers and potential new battles in Brooklyn.

An Extension of Childhood. Selver mentions many reasons for ending up in land use law, including a summer internship with the Lindsay Administration, a final Harvard Law School paper on affordable housing and his perceived inability to draw as well as needed to become an architect, but he ultimately sees it as a natural extension of growing up in Manhattan. Its buildings, its politics and its ever-changing streets interested him.

When first out of law school, he volunteered for Community Board 6’s zoning committee where, ironically perhaps, he stressed the importance of testifying at agency hearings and prepared article 78 petitions. He later joined John Zuccotti’s law firm and credits the former First Deputy Mayor under Beame and Chair of the Planning Commission as a mentor. Now as cochair of Kramer Levin’s land use department, peers credit Selver with resurrecting the unused theater air rights provision.

Zoned Influences. Selver puts little faith in the zoning resolutions’ ability to force development, believing that only market forces drive it. Although enacted in 1998, the theater air rights provision went unused until late 2006 when Selver guided a client through a transfer from Broadway’s Hirschfeld Theatre to a proposed 42-story residential tower on Eighth Avenue and West 46th Street. Now he has completed the first four transfers under the provision. Asked why the air rights provision sat inactive, Selver said “look where development occurred in the late 90s and in early 2000,” adding that during that time there was little interest in the Eighth Avenue corridor and most of the west side for that matter. Selver sees zoning text as directing change but never forcing it. With the inclusionary housing provisions, Selver called the 1987 bonus mechanism inadequate to spur development but at some point, the market changed in certain areas of the city, making it profitable to use its floor area bonus. It is “not going to get you to build affordable housing if it is not worth your while.” To Selver, no text provision can force behavior.

Upper Middle Brooklyn. Right now Selver finds himself, for the first time, concentrating on large Brooklyn projects. In Coney Island, his client proposes to rezone six blocks south of Surf Avenue to increase residential density. He quoted residential development costs as close to $400 to $500 per square foot, adding that “the city needs this type of housing.” Of the three active proposals for redevelopment in Coney Island, his firm is handling all three.

Along Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, industrial uses have mostly left the industrially- zoned area between Douglass and 3rd Streets, leaving an odd dead zone of underused and vacant buildings amid residential brownstones in neighboring Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens and lower Park Slope. Selver has been pushing City Planning to initiate a rezoning of this area for over two years while his clients continue to hold on to what he describes as basically “fallow land.” Freed up with the completion of rezonings of downtown Brooklyn and Greenpoint/Williamsburg, Selver said Planning has turned its attention to this area and will soon start community presentations. Anticipating community conflict, Selver said, “This is not a simple rezoning.” He predicted that the community will oppose large development while insisting on a waterfront esplanade and underground parking, viewpoints that he believes are at odds. Explaining that the soil conditions are poor and the sewers are inadequate, Selver ended where he started, adding “the issue is ultimately, what will it take to redevelop these sites; it has to make sense.” -Molly Brennan

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