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Hell’s Kitchen Scuttles
Rose Skyscraper Plan

By George Spelvin

Last December in its "Hot Developers" guide, the New York Observer chided City Planning Commissioner Joe Rose for failing to get any of his major neighborhood-busting planning projects approved. "How about winning just one, Joe?" it asked.

Perhaps that’s why Rose rushed to hold a news conference soon after the Appellate Division issued its Jan. 25 decision modifying a 1999 lower court ruling on the Theater Subdistrict Zoning Amendments (previously re- ported in Tenant/Inquilino). But while Rose claimed victory (and the real estate-owned media dutifully reported it as such), a closer analysis indicated that his prize was not only hollow, but a sound defeat!

In 1998, Mayor Giuliani sought to allow building owners in the Theater Subdistrict, from 40th to 57th streets and from Sixth to Eighth avenues, to increase building size by up to 44% through the transfer of development rights from Broadway theaters. The plan would have encouraged skyscrapers on the west side of Eighth Avenue in the low-rise residential

Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Residents were concerned about traffic, noise, the loss of light and air, and that the massive office and luxury apartment buildings would lead to working-class immigrants and performing artists being forced out of the neighborhood.

The zoning change, as originally adopted, would have allowed a 44% increase in bulk in two steps--first, a 20% increase that was "as of right," i.e. without further government approvals (and which could be used instead of an existing 20% bonus for including housing), and a second 24% increase by special permit.

The appeals court decision reaffirmed the lower-court ruling that struck down the additional, and unprecedented, 24% special-permit increase. It also left in place the community’s earlier victory, excluding 12 blocks of the west side of Eighth Avenue from the Mayor’s plan.

As a result, the size of new buildings that could be built under the Theater Subdistrict Amendments has been reduced by over 50%, and the two-year delay created numerous missed opportunities for buildings in the pipeline.

"We are disappointed that the first 20% increase was retained, as it allows owners to take advantage of a bonus that will have little, if any, public benefit, rather than using the existing inclusionary housing bonus." said John Fisher, president of the Clinton Special District Coalition, a neighborhood group that brought the legal challenge. "But this first increase is a wash--there’s no increase in bulk impacting the neighborhood, only the mechanism on how to get there."

But he called the court’s ruling abolishing the 24% bonus plan, which was passed by City Council without the required environmental review, "a resounding victory for the neighborhood and for sound environmental planning. We hope the city takes this decision as a message that it cannot ram through zoning changes that authorize increases in building bulk without taking into account the impact on local neighborhoods."

The decision, he added, will somewhat lessen the economic incentives to real-estate owners to replace low-income housing with high-rise developments. The Clinton area community is under tremendous pressures from developers, from Times Square to the east and the proposed stadium and expanded central-business district to the south.

Although the plan was touted as a benefit for the "dying" Broadway theater (which strangely enough had been experiencing its most successful season), the development rights from Broadway theaters would provide only 10% of what was needed; at least 90% the benefit package was dependent on contributions by theatrical unions. When the unions discovered that Rose and theater owners had deceived them, these evaporated into thin air. The theater was the camouflage for a developers’ land grab intended to break the low-rise Special Clinton District.

Although City Planning Commissioner Joe Rose may claim the decision affirms his notion of "public interest," neighborhoods know that really means "public deception."