How Re-Zoning Destroys Communities

How Re-Zoning Destroys Communities
This review of Zoned Out! Race, Displacement, and City Planning in New York City, published on Good Reads, explains how rezoning works over time to destroy communities. It is about, New York City, but I think rhymes with what we are facing in Arlington.
Zoned Out! Race, Displacement, and City Planning in New York City
by Tom Angotti (Author, Contributor), Sylvia Morse (Author, Contributor), & 3 more
ISBN: 0996004130

Review Submitted By “Lucy”

This is a fantastic overview on the specific mechanisms by which a city neighborhood is “re-zoned” in NYC, and an incredibly disheartening read since it seems like only the rich might have any recourse against unwanted rezonings. The authors identify the 4 steps required for a neighborhood to be re-zoned:

Stage 1. Investors find and buy “under-utilized” parcels of land (often through an LLC). Existing leases are terminated to remove existing commercial or residential tenants. Short-term leases might be issued to businesses such as parking lots and storage facilities that pay higher rents. In the early stages of the speculative period, land value remains low, but as soon as it becomes clear that land is being assembled for future development, land values skyrocket.

Stage 2. The Department of City Planning (DCP)–either of its own volition, or after being asked by property owners or by the community board–undertakes a “land use study” to consider the future of these under-utilized pieces of land. Usually, land use studies are undertaken only when the DCP is already reasonably certain that they will re-zone the neighborhood; the study merely guides the contours of the rezoning. The DCP will consult the local community board as a courtesy (the community board has merely “advisory” votes). While the DCP study is underway, land values increase in anticipation of rezoning. In East New York, since the city administration started pushing for a rezoning in early 2015, the median sales price for a home in the main zip code rose from $25,500 to $275,000.

Stage 3. The DCP has monopoly control over the zoning process and the substance of zoning change. All rezoning proposals must be accompanied by an environmental review that meets the approval of DCP staff. A Chinatown-based citizen advocacy group once sued successfully on the grounds that the DCP did not consider the massive displacement of current residents–an environmental impact–that their rezoning plan would inevitably cause. Unfortunately, the successful lawsuit was a fluke, and the vast majority of environmental reviews do not consider displacement.

Stage 4. In order to be finalized, the DCP’s rezoning proposal must be put through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP): after a few months of public hearings, various officials vote on the proposal, including the local community board, borough president, CPC, city council, and occasionally the mayor. Note that a unanimous NO vote from the community board is not enough to kill the proposal, since their vote is only advisory. For optics/political reasons, the city will often attempt to persuade the community board to vote in line with the others through verbal promises to the local community board; unfortunately, these promises are not legally enforceable, and are almost never carried out.

The authors also identify the common tools of rezoning: upzoning, downzoning, and changing neighborhood use designations (summarized below). Zoned Out looks at a few case studies of recent rezonings: Greenpoint/Williamsburg, Harlem, and Chinatown/LES/East Village. Zoning boards have surprisingly precise tools–a typical rezoning like that of the East Village will see street-facing properties down-zoned to maintain the low-rise, residential characteristic, whereas avenue-facing properties will be up-zoned to allow mid-rise or high-rise residential buildings with ground-floor commercial spaces.

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of zoning changes. A block might be “upzoned,” which might mean that instead of the status quo 4-story residential apartment complexes, developers can now build 8-story mid-rise buildings with ground-floor commercial space. Whereas the old building might have had housing for low or middle-income people, developers usually build luxury condos for a maximum profit margin, thereby displacing the original tenants in the area. Upzoning can also refer to changing the use of a neighborhood from industrial to “mixed-use” or residential. Unfortunately, a new “mixed-use” designation for a neighborhood is often followed by landlords converting formerly industrial properties into higher rent-paying residential properties.

A block might also be “downzoned,” a protective measure usually wielded for middle or upper income white people. In a downzoning, a row of townhouses might come to perfectly fit the maximum height limit and FAR utilization, meaning that future development work can only be renovations and not expansions, thereby limiting profit margin and thereby disincentivizing future development in the area.