Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine demanded on Tuesday that Albany lawmakers include a provision in the next state budget to change a long-standing law limiting the city’s power when it comes to zoning changes.
Levine’s call comes as the city is staring down a housing crisis — with renters finding it increasingly difficult to find an affordable place to live and as commercial properties in Manhattan’s biggest business districts sit vacant due to an increase in employees working from home.
“Because we’re in the middle of a housing shortage, which really needs to be considered an emergency, and an affordability crisis, we need to at least have the option in existing high-density neighborhoods of creating more housing,” Levine told the Daily News. “We really don’t have that option right now because the state blocks it.”
As it now stands, the state holds sway over the cap on floor area ratio that’s permitted in many buildings.
Floor area ratio is essentially a way of measuring a building’s total floor area in connection with its lot size. A 1961 state law limits floor area ratio in most new residential buildings to 12 times the size of the lot they’re located on, which Levine said isn’t enough if the city plans to make good on its intention to effectively convert vacant commercial space into apartments.
Some property owners are able to bypass that cap by purchasing air rights from other property owners, but that work-around is not always feasible.
Levine framed the immediate debate in Albany as about whether the state or the city should control the city’s fate when it comes to creating housing. For the city to have more control, the state will have to grant it that power.
“We could allow for larger residential buildings — that just means more apartments,” Levine said of what a change to state law could mean. “And we now have a law that says when you allow for up-zonings [more apartments], you require affordable units, so we would also get affordability, which we’re not getting right now.”
Levine noted that lifting the cap will be instrumental to converting office space into apartments because under the current state law a relatively small proportion of that vacant space could be legally converted.
Both Gov. Hochul and Mayor Adams support lifting the 12-to-1 floor area ratio cap, as well as office space conversions. But the state Senate and Assembly did not include any provisions for the floor area ratio cap their budget proposals.
Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at NYU, said the change Hochul, Adams and Levine are demanding is sound policy and one state lawmakers should adopt.
“We have obsolete zoning rules and they should not be imposed by the state,” he said. “This is one of those things where not including it, it then becomes an item for negotiation.”
Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a Democrat who represents parts of lower Manhattan, suggested that the reason behind withholding a change from the Assembly’s budget proposal has more to do with the details and less to do with the politics of the state budget.
She told The News on Tuesday she’s working on a bill that would allow the cap to be lifted for commercial buildings being converted into homes, but said an across-the-board lifting of the cap by the city would pave the way for more market rate housing, not affordable apartments. A complete lifting of the state cap would basically amount to a sop for developers, Glick said.
“It’s trickle down economics in housing,” she said of an across-the-board lifting of the FAR cap. “When people spread manure, you just have to put on your boots and hike through it and say no more.”
Glick clearly views her pending legislation as a compromise on the issue.
A provision for lifting the cap may appear in the Senate’s final budget as well, according to a source with knowledge of the budget negotiations.
Levine and others, like Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, are quick to note that lifting state control of the floor area ratio cap won’t give the city carte blanche when it comes to new development, which will remain subject to the city’s land use review process.
Dan Garodnick, chair of the city’s Planning Commission and director of the Department of City Planning, attempted to reassure detractors on Monday that the city would proceed with caution if state control of the cap is lifted.
“This is an artificial limit that has long outlived its usefulness,” he said. “Give us the ability to make our own determinations, and we will handle it carefully.”
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