In Morningside Heights, a community wants to plan its own future

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When Robert F. Stern looks at a 33-story condo tower rising on West 122nd Street, the longtime Morningside Heights resident sees a missed opportunity.

That neo-Gothic-inspired building, the Vandewater, includes 183 apartments billed as the “height of luxury,” with multi-million dollar price tags to match. Though it stands out from the Manhattan neighborhood’s mostly low- to mid-rise buildings, it complies with the existing zoning (which hasn’t been touched since 1961) and was not required to go through the city’s seven-month public review process—and thus, didn’t come with extra community benefits like affordable housing.

The Vandewater, which was initially unveiled in 2016, helped galvanize community advocates like Stern in their push to overhaul the neighborhood’s 59-year-old zoning with language that would mandate affordable apartments in new, large buildings, and to restrict heights that are allowable without going through the city’s land use review process. In 2018, there came news of another condo tower—this one a 42-story building planned only a few blocks from the Vandewater. Both projects are the result of cash-strapped theological seminaries selling their air rights to developers for new buildings. And both projects are what Stern, a board member of the Morningside Heights Community Coalition, points to as harbingers of luxury development with neighborhood-altering footprints that do nothing to chip away at the city’s affordable housing shortage.

That community coalition—made up of residents, businesses, and local groups—has identified more than 20 sites spanning 110th to 125th streets from Riverside to Morningside parks that could see major new development because of unused air rights or high vacancy rates. Without new zoning, projects there don’t have to include affordable units, but a new community-driven vision to retool the neighborhood’s byzantine zoning would change that.

“If we do nothing then the only new housing you’ll find would be tall towers—all luxury condominiums,” says Stern. Instead, the community proposal attempts to thread the line between new density and affordable housing by triggering Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, with bulked-up new construction on the neighborhood’s main thoroughfares and contextual building heights on residential side streets.

“We recognize the need for new density, and we want to contribute to more affordable housing,” says Stern. “It’s really a win-win situation.”

The Department of City Planning (DCP), however, rejected a proposed rezoning of Morningside Heights last September, even amid a wave of community pushback to city-driven plans that threatens Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing goals. (Officials cited concerns over whether the changes would meet the requirements to enable new affordable units through Mandatory Inclusionary Housing.) Now, the Morningside Heights Community Coalition—with the assistance and political weight of the City Council—has taken matters into its own hands: The group is pushing forward with a rezoning without DCP, and it’s hit the ground running.

Since September, a neighborhood task force has been developing a block-by-block vision for Morningside Heights with the land use team at the City Council and with the office of local Councilmember Mark Levine. It’s currently reviewing bids from a Request For Proposals for consultants to conduct a mandatory Environmental Assessment Statement of the plan, with the goal of having a draft ready to share with the community sometime in the spring. DCP says agency staffers have been in talks with officials behind the plan, and have provided technical guidance as the group works to assemble its application. Joe Marvilli, a spokesperson for DCP, notes that the agency is open to exploring ways to promote affordable housing in the area, but it is unclear where the de Blasio administration will ultimately fall on the effort.

“When considering neighborhood proposals, we encourage and help communities to look for ways to maximize affordable housing,” Marvilli said in a statement. “We continue to speak with the community about [its] proposal and see whether there are more options for affordable housing in this neighborhood.”

Levine says precise height restrictions are still being ironed out, but estimates that the plan would create “well over 1,000 affordable units, and possibly closer to 2,000.” That’s a notable sum, but perhaps less attractive to city planning officials when previous rezonings have projected several thousand affordable units. In Inwood, for instance, the creation and preservation of more than 5,000 below-market homes was expected, though its fate is currently up in the air.

But Levine argues zoning stipulations that limit heights in neighborhoods that surround Morningside Heights make the area a clearer target for new luxury high-rises that tend to be out of reach for existing residents—or anyone else searching for affordable apartments.

“This community is an island of vulnerability,” says Levine. “All around it there are protections in place to prevent wildly out of context development, but not in Morningside Heights. That needs to change.”

Within the last 10 years, Morningside Heights—a diverse neighborhood with a mix of longtime residents and students from a hodgepodge of academic institutions—has seen major change: A study by the New York City Independent Budget Office found that from 2010 to 2015, about 17 percent of 6,733 rent-stabilized apartments built in Morningside Heights before 1974 changed hands, compared to an average of 11 percent in similar units citywide. In that same period, the area saw its median asking rents jump by 78.6 percent, according to Streeteasy. The high turnover rate fueled the area’s rising rents through vacancy bonuses and vacancy decontrol, allowing landlords to revert rent-stabilized apartments back to market-rate.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, whose support is a major win towards lending the community effort legitimacy, says a rezoning “makes sense for the neighborhood,” opening the door for possible changes.

“Morningside Heights is a prime opportunity for the city to work with a community that is open to growth in tandem with common sense restrictions on building height,” Johnson said in a statement. “We’ve already seen what happens in the absence of zoning changes: 40-floor luxury towers with zero affordable units and no protections for the people who have lived in the community for decades.”

If successful, this City Council-enabled model could have big implications for neighborhood planning. Christopher Walters, a rezoning technical assistance coordinator with the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, notes that zoning proposals are big lifts for community groups who tend to lack resources and planning staff. But having the expertise of the City Council’s land use staff would “go a long way toward changing the paradigm” of typically the city or developers advancing land use changes.

“For the Council to step in on something like this really would be setting a precedent and could offer a new path for communities to take,” says Walters. “Frankly, it shows the political will to get it done.”

It’s a purposeful departure from the city’s usual approach, where locals often complain that their concerns fall on deaf ears. Only last month in Bushwick, the city’s rezoning aspirations fizzled after the de Blasio administration declined to study a community-crafted alternative, which was a four-year collaboration between residents, elected officials, and city agencies to plan the Brooklyn neighborhood’s future.

“When zoning is imposed from above on communities, it makes zoning feel like something that happens to a community not something that happens with the community,” says Levine. “We have, in Morningside Heights, an incredible counterexample. This is a chance to do it differently.”

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