Thursday, May 29, 2008

In The Zone

I went to Manhattan's public Community Board 3 meeting Tuesday evening to see the DOT's proposal for bike lanes on Chrystie St. I'd never been to even one of my own CB's meetings, so it was at least informative in that sense.

I didn't stick around for the DOT presentation, but in the public comment portion of the meeting there was the one Transportation Alternatives guy talking in favor of the bike lanes in a way that suggested that they had really already been decided upon (basically, "hey, thanks for approving the new bike lanes") and nobody in opposition.

The meeting's real controversy was over a rezoning plan for the East Village. Coming late to the issue, I may be missing out on some history or nuance, but basically it seems that existing zoning regulations in the East Village limit floor area ratio, permitting the development of tall skinny towers as long as they leave enough empty space on the rest of a given lot (as was not considered undesirable in the early 60's when the regulations were enacted). Nobody in the neighborhood likes that idea now, so the new zoning would limit development with absolute height caps.

As far as I can tell, the controversy is not between residents and developers, but residents of the East Village (which composes only a subset of CB3's total area) and residents of Chinatown (the rest of it). (Both sides claim to include the Lower East Side, which, as far as I can tell, seems to straddle the downtown border of the rezoning region.)

Nobody wants their neighborhood taken over by giant towers, but the fewer that are permitted in the rezoned East Village, the argument goes, the more will consequently end up being built in the un-rezoned Chinatown; if the zoning stays as-is, then at least everyone shares the burden of new development, but even better would be a plan that protects everybody. It's a pretty straightforward supply-and-demand argument that's hard to dispute.

Of course, because of which neighborhood is getting rezoned and which isn't, there's also a racial angle that seems to be generating most of the hostility. And looking at the composition of the community board, it's easy to imagine that the process was, if not racist per se, at least somewhat less than complete in taking the opinions of all the affected parties into account.

I gather that people were arrested during the last public meeting, and at this one there was a sizable police presence and lots of shouting and catcalling as various community members and activists made their cases. (I held this blog post up for a day hoping that NY1 would have some video of screaming neighborhood activists and me cowering in the background, but I guess without the handcuffs coming out it's not newsworthy.)

At this point everyone seems pretty entrenched; there was one white guy who had been a supporter of the rezoning throughout the process (I guess it has taken four years to get to this point) but who wanted to broaden the area to include Chinatown. I noticed that he sat near and talked to a bunch of the Chinese activists, and was the only person I noticed who was widely applauded by both sides after he spoke.

A lot of the anti-rezoning (or more correctly, "anti-this-rezoning-plan-now") advocates also came across as more conciliatory, which makes sense, since the nature of their position is that they like the idea of much so that they want their own neighborhoods included in it. I guess the fear of those on the pro-rezoning side is that, in the time it would take to come up with a more inclusive plan, who knows how many new towers could go up in the region currently slated for rezoning. Especially as developers try to "beat the buzzer" and get projects approved before the zoning laws can change.

To which I guess I would say, you should have taken that into account when the process started. And perhaps it's true that in an ideal world, these concerns would have been raised by concerned Chinatown residents earlier in the process; but it's not as if they could not have been anticipated, and pushing rezoning through now, after concerns have been raised, resembles nothing more than "I've got mine, to hell with the rest of you."

A community board that looked out for residents first and property owners second (if at all) would do well to halt all new development until a plan rezoning the entire area could be designed. I don't expect that to happen. My guess is that getting the board's support for the current plan was made a whole lot easier when some developers thought they'd still have Chinatown to work with. But who knows!


Anonymous said...

The reason the bicycle lanes seemed like a done deal is because this had been discussed and voted on for support at the committee. All the agenda items voted on Tuesday night had already had all the work done by committee and was coming to full board for final full board vote. Almost always, full board votes to ratify committee work.
You should attend committee meetings when you are interested in a subject. That is where the agencies make full presentation.

tps12 said...

Ah, thanks, that makes sense.