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Zone Defense: Streetsblog on Greening NYC Zoning

Hudson YardsThe ins and outs of green building and green real estate are not the hardest things in the world to learn, and my byline on this blog is a testament to that. I am, professionally, more or less a sportswriter, but simply by reading a lot and badgering Stephen via gchat, I’m occasionally able to muster a comparatively convincing imitation of someone who actually knows what he’s talking about. No, no, hold your applause until the end of the paragraph. Hold it because, despite my increasingly solid bluff game, urban planning and zoning and other macro-level green issues confronting New York (and other cities) remain something I don’t totally get. So while I’ve enjoyed reading the mighty Streetsblog’s three-part treatment of NYC’s zoning issues, I will confess to being more out of my depth than usual, here. I ask only that you be kind in correcting whatever elisions or goofs appear below in the comments or via email. None of the (surprisingly long) post below may be news to you, but the Streetsblog series was something of a welcome reminder for me — a reminder that, as cool as it is to think about low-VOC finishes and LEED certification and denim insulation (it is very cool to think about insulation as much as I do), those things are purely cosmetic relative to the potential good or ill that attends the most mundane city zoning decision.

Noah Kazis does a pretty tremendous job limning the gordian knot of issues surrounding New York’s zoning policies and politics, but he paints a favorable picture of the Bloomberg administration’s ultra-ambitious zoning work overall — nearly one-fifth of New York City has been re-zoned since 2002, and generally it has been re-zoned fairly thoughtfully. In the instance of Hudson Yards (pictured), for example, the city’s decision to essentially create a new neighborhood was predicated on the extension of the 7 train. Not all the development has been that wise, of course. “Even while the Bloomberg Administration has zoned for growth to be centered around transit, it has also closed off the possibility of more intensive transit-oriented development,” Kazis writes in part one. “The overall effect is positive, but it could be even better.” It’s a story gbNYC readers already know: this is a very green city, but it’s also one in which some very real green accomplishments are tempered by agencies that sometimes seem to be operating at cross purposes and the hugely powerful (and hugely regressive) influence of Real Estate Mega-Developers. That all gets discussed fairly often at gbNYC (especially the latter part), but the negative effects of those near-cliche problems are doubled when they’re expanded to the macro dimensions of city planning and leveraged by the jump in scale from one development to entire new neighborhoods. Higher stakes create the possibility for bigger mistakes, in short.

All three parts of the Streetsblog series are worth reading, but I’ll summarize for you the central zoning problem that Kazis keeps coming back to: parking, and the city’s insistence on mandating parking minimums and allowing “upzoning” (that is, denser development) in areas with poor mass transit access, and thus creating car-dependent neighborhoods. Because big, new non-green developments are seldom covered here, it can be easy (for me) to forget just how much parking the city will be adding through elephantine, heavily subsidized projects like Brooklyn’s ham-fisted New Domino, which is slated to bring nearly 1,700 new parking spots to South Williamsburg. One of David Owen’s sharpest points in “Green Metropolis” has to do with New York’s “inherent efficiency” — that is, the way that the city’s diverse, dense, vertical neighborhoods and comparatively auto-unfriendly shape unwittingly incent such sustainable behaviors as walking, mass transit use, living and shopping in smaller (and thus more efficient) spaces, and so on. It’s tempting for New Yorkers to give ourselves high fives over this, but the point is that our city is so sustainable not so much because of anything we (well, non-gbNYC readers; you personally are very responsible, and also look just great today) do, but because NYC’s nature essentially forecloses the option of doing anything but green things. Remove that inherent efficiency from the equation, and… well, then it’s a very different equation.

Of course, given their outsized impact, it’s very easy to notice the results of dunderheaded zoning choices — such as the ones shredded in Transportation Alternatives’ 2008 report “Suburbanizing the City.” Take, for example, the one that re-shaped Brooklyn’s re-zoned Fourth Avenue into something that looks a lot more like outer-ring Tampa than New York City. The majority of NYC’s vanishingly small per-capita carbon footprint has to do with the fact that none of us drive anywhere, but new off-street parking regulations that could add 170,000 cars to city streets by 2030 (and a billion miles’ worth of carbon to the air) would obviously impact that. The people you’d expect to do so have gotten on the city’s case about this, and the city authored a thoroughly on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand study on the matter. It would obviously be nice to see official policy that reflects the general expert consensus on this issue: that New York’s car-unfriendly nature is something to celebrate, not solve. It makes good green sense, after all, but it’s hard for the skeptical among us to shake the sense that Mayor Bloomberg’s commitment to a greener NYC ends at the point where it begins infringing on the preferences of the city’s mega-developers.

The recommendations following on the “Suburbanizing the City” report, in Kazis’ words, “urge the city to eliminate parking minimums, institute parking maximums near transit, stop subsidizing the construction of parking, and separate the price of parking from the price of housing (which can make housing more affordable while discouraging the purchase and construction of parking).” For what it’s worth, gbNYC obviously urges that, too. And not just because I don’t want to be writing about a LEED Platinum for Parking Garages development in South Brooklyn in 2011. Not just for that reason but man, do I ever not want to write about that.

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