Last night in Midtown, planner Paul Graziano, President of the Historic Districts Council, explained the American Institute of Architects’ proposed zoning text amendments to a room full of concerned citizens, including many members of community boards from all over the city.

Concerns about the proposal included:

1) The change to lot coverage on small corner lots would take away the required gap between buildings that allows for light and air to circulate in the building and reach the street.  While the AIA claims this design is “more efficient,” it is important to ask, “for whom?”

2) The allowance of multi-family building construction on small interior lots is proposed in the name of affordable housing creation, yet there are no accompanying regulations to ensure that the housing constructed will, in fact, be affordable.  This puts people living in one and two-family homes on such lots at risk of displacement in favor of multi-unit luxury development.

3) The changes to maximum base height restrictions remove the context from contextual districts.  These changes deny the charm of the varied streetscape in landmark districts, and again threaten light and air.

4) The creation of a standard waiver to abolish the side yard requirement in low-density districts is not just an issue for the outer boroughs.  While it does threaten the historic, low-density building stock found in such areas as Victorian Flatbush, it also is a sustainability and open space issue for the whole city.  It even contradicts the recent yards text amendments already proposed by City Planning, which would require all yards to contain some green space.

Putting aside opinions about the content of these amendments, the most important issue here, from a community-based planning perspective, is process.  Council Member Tony Avella, Chair of the Zoning Committee, said that the passage of these amendments could, “open the floodgates,” for other private entities, either organizations like the AIA, or – even more frightening – developers, to push through citywide zoning text changes with little to no community process.

So far, there has been little chance for public input on a proposal that the AIA has been working on with the Department of City planning for the last three years.  Because this is a private application, it is progressing through a process called “expedited ULURP.”  The amendments were distributed to community boards in October, leaving little time for review before the busy holiday season.  Now, because of community outcry, and on request of Brooklyn BP Marty Markowitz, DCP has postponed its public hearing until February 27, to allow more time for the public to become informed.

Council Member Avella said he believes that DCP will approve the amendments, but because of the flawed process, he has pledged to attempt to kill the proposal in the City Council, then encourage the AIA to return to the table and start the process again from the beginning, this time with community input.  However, he stressed that he cannot do this alone, and encouraged anyone interested to contact their local community board, Borough President, and City Councilperson and, if those representatives have not taken a position (which many have not), urge them to do so.

The Historic Districts Council is planning to create a repository of information about this issue, so keep posted to their website for more information, including a letter of opposition written by architects and lawyers from Queens Community Board 9.