To David West, the Increased Sophistication of the Land Use Process Leads to Better Design

When architect David West joined Costas Kondylis and Parteners LLP in 1995, its founder suggested that he become the firm’s expert on the City’s zoning resolution. West, now a partner, shepherds the firm’s zoning analyses, responding to nearly 300 yearly requests regarding what a site’s zoning will allow and handling the firm’s appearances before BSA, Landmarks and the Planning Commission. In the past few years, he worked on the Plaza Hotel’s complicated conversion, the complex path to City Council approval for Tribeca’s 200 Chambers Street project, and the final design for the mid-town development that used the Hirschfeld Theatre’s air rights.

West talked to CityLand about the City’s intricate land use process, the rise in “star” architecture and his next Tribeca battle.

Three-dimensional Zoning. To learn the zoning resolution, West said he sat down to read it “cover to cover.” He looks at the text with a different perspective than land use attorneys, seeing the text in its three dimensions. West said he knows what building form the text is trying to achieve and the type of architecture that a site will yield, moving beyond listing the site’s permitted uses and its allowable, maximum floor area. Although he, like other architects, gets frustrated with the zoning resolution’s complexity and nuance, he describes it as an amazing achievement. Its complexity allows the bulk of development in the city to be as-of-right, which West, who grew up in Los Angeles and studied architecture at Berkeley, noted is remarkable given the city’s density and height.

Unburdened Design. West finds developers increasingly disinterested in pursuing a development plan that would trigger the ULURP process. Estimating that the process realistically adds oneand- a-half to two years to a project,West sees the significant rise in acquisition costs as the cause of this change and not the time delay of discretionary reviews. Few developers can afford the risk.

In just the past ten years, West said significant changes also occurred in the City’s land use review process. Community boards have become much more sophisticated, and the City Council is now an “active player.” Ten years ago, if the Planning Commission approved a special permit, that would be the end. Now, West said, the City Council wants a say and requires developers to make concessions.

Overall, West viewed the change in the Planning Commission’s review under its Chair Amanda Burden to be the most significant. According to West, the message to architects is clear: the Commission wants to see good design. He explained that even if the permit or request does not involve the design within the Commission’s purview, the Commission wants to see drawings. West sees the change as a positive one since it leads to better architecture. He added that the new trend of bringing in “star” architects “owes something to Amanda Burden.” In West’s opinion, these architects are not brought in solely to get a difficult discretionary approval through; Developers are also more interested in design.

Changing Tribeca. Despite the certain controversy, West speaks almost lyrically about his client’s, Shahab Karmely, new plan for the former plate-glass factory building at 443 Greenwich Street in Tribeca. Talking of the building’s “subtlety of details,” West called it “almost a perfect example” of an airy loft building. Karmely bought the building in 2006 for $113 million and plans to seek Landmarks’ approval to allow use of the manufacturing- zoned building, located within a Tribeca historic district, as a hotel and apartments in exchange for a plan to preserve it. But the building is now fully occupied with artist live-work space and small office users like the Tribeca Film Festival.

The plan faced opposition when West presented it at the March 30th Community Board 1’s Landmarks Committee meeting, prompting Council Member Alan Gerson to comment that the City needs a comprehensive plan to protect artist space within Manhattan’s dwindling manufacturing districts. The debate will play out throughout the process, which will require Landmarks, Planning Commission and City Council approvals. To West, a zoning waiver from Landmarks is “one of the most complicated” discretionary permits to receive, but with the building’s preservation, it gives “something back to the City.”

West emphasized that City Planning was in the midst of a Tribeca rezoning study that, as it currently stands, would propose a commercial zoning for Karmely’s site. It would ultimately allow the hotel/residential use as-of-right. But, West added, Karmely would not wait for that rezoning due to its time delay and uncertainty. — Molly Brennan

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.