Everybody knows there’s a “housing crisis.” But if the city is ever to generate affordable new housing in meaningful numbers, its process for reviewing rezoning proposals — the seven-month purgatory known as ULURP, for Uniform Land Use Review Procedure — has got to go, at least when it involves new-housing creation.
Codified in the City Charter in 1975, ULURP seems a permanent fixture. But it’s time for the city Corporation Counsel’s 1,000-plus lawyers to figure out how to loosen its death grip over expanding the housing stock.
ULURP was created to ensure that no land-use czar like Robert Moses could ever again bulldoze whole neighborhoods. Fine. But its other purpose — to make the public-review machinery fair and rational — has been eclipsed by forces neither fair nor rational. ULURP has been usurped by activists determined to freeze neighborhoods in aspic out of selfish concerns not to allow “outsiders” in.
ULURP subjects every project that requires a zoning change to a seven-month slog through community boards, the Beep’s office, the City Planning Commission, City Council and finally the mayor. Once a useful, if contentious, system for scrutinizing proposals, it has become an invitation to NIMBY madness. It deters developers and often results in nothing getting built.
This is disastrous. Except for a glut of unsold condo units in “Billionaire’s Row” towers, the volume of all new housing in the city is woefully inadequate. Matthew Murphy, executive director of the NYU Furman Center, told Curbed.com that because housing construction has lagged the city’s population growth, today’s vacancy rate for the cheapest apartments, those renting for under $800 a month, is an infinitesimal 0.9 percent.
De Blasio in 2016 pledged to “create” 80,000 newly built units to alleviate the shortage. His Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Program required developers to include affordable units in any residential project that required a zoning change.
But they must all pass through ULURP, which gives decisive clout to “progressive” stakeholders who are, in fact, reactionary. They include community boards and spineless Beeps who march in lockstep with the boards’ “advisory” recommendations.
Worse, the system effectively gives the final say on any rezoning to the council member who represents the district and whose position the full council is certain to uphold when it comes to a final vote.
That’s why a long-aborning proposal to rezone 300 blocks in Bushwick died in January. Local Councilmen Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Espinal killed it, because they insisted on fewer new apartments that would be permitted, among other issues. So, good bye to what would have been 5,613 new homes, including 1,873 that would have been permanently below-market.
A half-dozen de Blasio-driven neighborhood rezonings squeaked through ULURP. They rejuvenated areas such as Brooklyn’s East New York and also made possible unique, specific projects, such as at the Domino Sugar Factory site in Williamsburg, where 700 of 2,200 new units are to be affordable.
But recent setbacks such as the one in Bushwick — and also in Inwood, where a judge threw out a rezoning even after it survived ULURP — have emboldened NIMBY types to hijack the process across the map. Case in point: developer Olnick Organization’s proposal to enlarge Harlem’s Lenox Terrace to create six middle-class, rent-stabilized rental apartment buildings, by adding five more towers with 1,200 market-rate units and 400 affordables.
It requires rezoning the site bounded by Fifth and Lenox avenues and West 132-135th streets. The Planning Commission approved it. But local pols fear “gentrification” and “displacement,” although not one person at Lenox Terrace will be displaced.
Hobbled by rent-stabilization laws, the complex desperately needs repairs and improvements that market-rate rents would pay for. Olnick has pledged $25 million in upgrades and new amenities with the rezoning.
But Councilman Bill Perkins wants to scuttle the plan outright. The possibility prompted Olnick to propose an alternative — four slightly smaller new buildings that wouldn’t need rezoning and could therefore be all market-rate.
That would “gentrify” Lenox Terrace far more than Olnick’s original plan would. But that’s ULURP in action — a way for obstructionists to grandstand while doing nothing to provide New Yorkers with affordable places to live.
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