On Thursday August 17, Mayor Eric Adams, with City Planning Director Dan Garodnick, announced the Mayor’s proposed “City of Yes for Housing Opportunity,” a major new initiative to facilitate the production of new housing. The proposal, which is part of the Mayor’s broader “City of Yes” initiative, includes three primary components: (1) conversion of vacant and underutilized office buildings to residential, (2) rezoning manufacturing districts in Midtown South, and (3) amending the Zoning Resolution to ease or remove outdated zoning regulations that impede development. Because it is as yet only a proposal, the announcement contained few details, but the broad outlines of the proposal are these:
Amendments to the Zoning Resolution would allow the conversion of non-residential buildings built before 1990 to housing. Currently, such conversion is allowed for non-residential buildings built before 1961 in Manhattan below 110th Street and parts of Brooklyn and Queens, and before 1977 in Manhattan’s Financial District. The new rules would apply anywhere in the city where zoning allows housing. According to the announcement, this would extend the current conversion regulations to an additional 136 million square feet of office, hotel and other commercial buildings, and produce up to 40,000 new housing units.
In addition, a new Office Conversions Accelerator will be created, comprised of representatives from City Hall, City Planning, the Buildings Department, Housing Preservation and Development, and the Landmarks Commission. The Accelerator will work with commercial building owners to expedite complex office-to-housing conversion projects by helping building owners to analyze the feasibility of individual projects and helping secure necessary permits. The Accelerator will be chaired by Robert Holbrook, currently the Executive Director of the Mayor’s “Get Stuff Built” program.
Midtown South Rezoning
City Planning will undertake the Midtown South Mixed-Use Neighborhood Plan, to study and propose rezoning the area generally between 23rd Street and 40th Street from Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue, much of which, including the Special Garment Center District, is currently zoned for manufacturing only. The new zoning regulations will likely mirror those in the numerous other mixed-use special districts throughout the city, such as the recently enacted Gowanus and SoHo/NoHo mixed-use districts, which pair a manufacturing zoning district with a residential zoning district, with the goal of creating a 24/7, live-work, mixed-use neighborhood.
Eliminate Zoning Impediments
In addition to changing the zoning rules for converting office buildings to residential, City Planning will also undertake a review of current zoning regulations to identify those that have outlived their original purpose and now serve mainly as roadblocks to new housing development. A recent example of the city eliminating such outmoded zoning is the SoHo/NoHo rezoning, which eliminated the 50-year-old rules prohibiting ground-floor retail use and limiting residential use to artist lofts.
Other potential outdated zoning regulations include, as just one example, the “sliver law,” enacted 40 years ago, which strictly limits the height of development on narrow lots. A study by Rosenberg & Estis’ zoning group found that city-wide, there are approximately 20,000 “sliver” lots, which, if the sliver law were removed, would allow the development of up to 65 million square feet and 95,000 dwelling units.
While these initiatives are an encouraging step forward in making housing production easier and faster, two small caveats are nevertheless in order.
First, with regard to office-to-residential conversion, as acknowledged in the Mayor’s announcement, to produce a substantial amount of new housing through office conversion, state action would still be needed, particularly for conversion to affordable housing. If the state again fails to act in the upcoming legislative session, the city’s progress in tackling the housing crisis – particularly the affordable housing crisis – could stall.
Second, amending the Zoning Resolution generally, and especially to create neighborhood mixed-use plans, is a long and involved process. City Planning must first undertake studies and develop the details of the proposed zoning amendments. The studies for Gowanus and SoHo/NoHo, both of which included a substantial amount of public engagement, took years to complete. Then, the rezoning must go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), including review by all 59 community boards as well as the five borough boards and borough presidents. The ULURP process for private rezonings typically takes up to two years. While, as a City Hall priority, the process will almost certainly be expedited, approval and enactment of the proposed zoning changes will not happen overnight.
Still, credit is due to both Mayor Adams and City Planning Director Garodnick for tackling the city’s housing crisis head-on, on multiple fronts. In conjunction with its companion City of Yes initiatives (for Carbon Neutrality and Economic Opportunity), and the Get Stuff Built initiative (to streamline zoning and building approval processes), this Housing Opportunities proposal gives reason for optimism.
If you have any questions about Mayor Adams’ proposed “City of Yes for Housing Opportunity,” please contact your trusted R&E attorney or Frank E. Chaney, Head of the firm’s Zoning and Land Use Department, who authored the above.