Communities are composed of intangible elements: familiar faces, a well-worn path to a well-stocked bodega, the background voices and cooking aromas and church bells that signify home. There are concrete and tangible aspects of community as well, including green space, the height of buildings and the amount of air and light that reach the street. These elements also impact the quality of life and future of a neighborhood, and zoning is an invaluable tool for their regulation.
Zoning determines how land is used, as well as the size, shape and purpose of an area’s built context. It is meant to create and protect cohesive and contextual neighborhoods. This is where spot zoning—or the decision to allow a parcel of land to be zoned separately from its zoned context—is problematic. Spot zoning has led to the current debate over Jewish Home Lifecare’s proposed land swap with The Chetrit Group, and the situation is emblematic of the unintended consequences of this policy.
I generally believe that spot zoning is bad policy. It is also unnecessary. Lower-density zoning does not prevent an entity from seeking to build bigger; a variance can be requested for this purpose. The public review process allows local decision making, and if the organization has justifiable means, a good relationship with the community and a plan that makes sense, it should be granted the variance it seeks. This prevents rampant real estate speculation and precludes rewarding bad actors with potential profits. Spot zoning, on the other hand, codifies these pressures and encourages good actors to reap benefits from zoning exemptions. Well-intentioned entities can be lured to act in ways that are not community-friendly.
Spot zoning is pennywise and pound foolish; it assumes that the land use of today will be the same as that of the future. The situation at Jewish Home’s 106th Street site clearly exemplifies this problem. Jewish Home is a good actor providing a necessary service. It should remain in the community, which is home to many of its residents, staff and their families. But now its 106th Street property might change hands. The potential new owner has not been a good actor in this community, and until the parcel in question is down-zoned to reflect the rest of the area, this new actor has the ability to build out of context and destroy the fabric and texture of the Manhattan Valley community. It can unfairly reap the benefits granted to Jewish Home that were based solely upon its need to upgrade and provide better care to its residents. Jewish Home could have fairly argued for higher density zoning in the variance process. It still can.
If the zoning is changed now and Jewish Home remains on 106th Street, it can request a variance from the Board of Standards and Appeals in order to continue its good work here on the Upper West Side. As opposed to spot zoning, a hardship variance of this type would apply only to the specific project, precluding future misuse. I am confident that the public review process would treat these good actors fairly and that the community would grant Jewish Home its variance. This is the mechanism that exists to provide flexibility to the zoning code, and this is how the system is meant to work to protect and preserve our communities.
Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell represents the 69th Assembly District, which includes parts of Manhattan Valley, Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side.
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