Rezoning & Gentrification: How to Develop Without Destroying

As “old” cities become “modern”, the character of neighborhoods often change—usually at the cost of minorities. This sets off a process known as gentrification, a common and controversial topic in the world of urban planning.

However, it is possible to renovate a city without destroying its culture or displacing its people. It all comes down to knowing your issue—rezoning—and knowing your solutions—the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process and racial impact studies.

In this post, we’re going to look into New York City’s zoning resolutions, and describe how a single voice can change the ULURP process. We’ll then detail how the ULURP process can be improved with racial impact studies to avoid the negative aspects of gentrification.

After all, it’s your neighborhood and you pay taxes, so shouldn’t you have a say in how it develops?

New York City’s Zoning History

In the late 1900s, New York City was both the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution, and home to millions of New Yorkers and new immigrants. With no building restrictions, property owners built tall and bulky residential buildings that skyrocketed into the clouds. As a result, many New Yorkers were living in dire housing situations where overcrowding led to a deplorable quality of life.

Buildings were going up in flames due to lack of fire of codes, and good quality indoor air and light were almost non-existent. New Yorkers expressed their concerns which lead to the New York State legislator enacting the Tenement House Act of 1901, which limited the height and width of residential buildings.

Around this time, New York City was also becoming the financial center of the world, which meant that more office space was needed. With traditional methods, buildings could only be built so high. However, innovations in steel frame construction removed height limitations on non- residential buildings, and the Manhattan skyline began to take form.

As iconic skyscrapers were reaching new heights, so too were their shadows. In 1915, a 42-story skyscraper went up in Lower Manhattan called the Equitable Building. This building created a seven-acre shadow over neighboring buildings, which infuriated New Yorkers. Further unregulated development led to warehouses and factories being built near areas of high property value, such as Fifth Avenue. Property owners asked the city for zoning restrictions to separate land uses and restrict how and where buildings could be built.

1916 Zoning Resolution

The Zoning Resolution of 1916 was the first zoning resolution enacted in the United States. It controlled land use, the size and shape of all buildings, and designated residential and commercial areas. The resolution would later become the model for urban communities throughout the United States.

Fast forward to the 1930s, and the City Planning Commission (CDP) and the Department of City Planning (DCP) was created. These two departments claimed responsibility for planning the entire city, and ensuring that the 1916 Zoning Resolution was fulfilled. Amendments were made to the original resolution as time passed, but it still needed a total makeover with the advent of cars and continued population growth. By 1961, a brand new resolution was enacted.

1961 Zoning Resolution

The 1961 Zoning Resolution introduced a number of new concepts, many of which are still relevant today. It created residential, commercial, and manufacturing districts, and also created zones.

Zones help organize how land can be used, and establish an orderly pattern of development
across neighborhoods. Each zone has a percentage of how many residential, commercial, and manufacturing buildings can be built.

The Robert Moses Era

From 1961 to 1975, Robert Moses, an urban planning autocrat, had unbridled power to build anything he wanted in NYC. His decisions single-handedly transformed the city landscape with little to no oversight through radical infrastructure and housing projects. By 1975, New Yorkers wanted to move away from the Moses-era, and have a say as to what and how infrastructure was being built. Correspondingly, the land-use making process became more democratic with the enactment with ULURP.

ULURP Process

ULURP stands for Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, and it is without question one of the most important processes that continues to shape NYC today. It’s where you, as a private citizen, can voice your concerns or approval for infrastructure development. However, the less voices are heard, the more likely developers will build in a way that benefits them and not the community.

ULURP is also a key process for halting the displacement of minorities during rezoning by deciding if communities want new a development to be built.

“The ULURP process is invaluable because it gives the community an opportunity to provide feedback, and to find out if the infrastructure development is going to benefit them or the builder”.

Keven LaCherra, a North Brooklyn resident and activist

Say a developer wants to build a 60-story tower in front of your home, but the zoning for this area does not allow it. Recall each zone only allows a certain percentage of commercial, residential, manufacturing structures. The developer needs to change how the land is being used in a particular zone, otherwise known as rezoning, through ULURP.

ULURP Process - How residents can support or disagree with rezoning proposals

ULURP is a 8-step process that includes a series of public discussions where the mayor and city council make the final decision. There are 5 places within the ULURP process where concerned citizens can make a difference and help advance or stop infrastructure development.

  1. The City or a Community: A developer must submit an application to the Department of City Planning (DCP).
  2. A City Agency: You can make a difference here. While the city gathers and reviews all of the information to create a proposal, they will also hold public hearings where residents of the area can voice their concerns.
  3. Department of City Planning (DCP): You can make a difference here, too. Didn’t make it to the first pubic hearing? Not a problem. In this phase, an Environmental Impact Assessment is conducted to see how the proposed new development will effect the neighborhood. After this step is completed and the proposal is done, the 60-day ULURP clock starts.
  4. Community Board: Yes, you can make a difference here as well. The community board has 60-days to review the proposal and must hold public hearings. Once the Community Boards votes “yes” or “no” (though their vote is only advisory) the proposal goes to the Borough President.
  5. Borough President: The Borough President has 30-days to review the cost and benefits of the proposal, and then votes to recommend or not recommend the new development.
  6. City Planning Commission: You can still make a difference. The City Planning Commission is made up of 13 people, seven members selected by the Mayor and six others named by the Borough Presidents and Public Advocate. They have the power to stop the development in its tracks, or vote to move the project forward. However, before they vote, they still must hold public hearings and review sessions.
  7. City Council: It’s your last chance to make a difference. While the City Council gets to choose which ULURP’s they view, public hearings are still mandated. Traditionally speaking, the City Council’s vote usually coincides with the councilmember whose district the development falls in.
  8. Mayor: The Mayor has 5 days to decide if they’d like to use their veto powers to stop the development. If the Mayor uses their veto powers, the City Council can override the Mayor’s decision with a 2/3rd majority vote. If approved, the developers can begin their work.

The ULURP process provides an opportunity for the public to consider the impact of land use changes or rezoning, how it affects the surrounding neighborhood, and provide feedback. To see all of the current active ULURP processes throughout the city, check out NYC’s zoning application portal.

Now let’s see how rezonings lead to gentrification and displacement of people.

Housing advocates and elected officials rallied on the steps of City Hall to protest rezoning.

Rezoning & Gentrification

Neighborhoods that are up for rezoning are typically low-income, resource poor areas because the land is cheaper. Developers can build at a lower cost, and then rent apartments at a higher rate, often resulting in gentrification, and racialized displacement of minorities.

For example, under former Mayor Bloomberg, two major rezonings occured. One in 2003 in Park Slope, and another in 2005 in Williamsburg. According to the “Zoning & Racialized Displacement in NYC” report, conducted by Churches United for Fair Housing (CUFHH), these rezonings displaced thousands of black and Latino residents as the neighborhoods’ populations grew.

In Park Slope, there was a decrease of 5,000 black and Latino households between 2000 and 2013, but the population grew by about 6,000 residents. In Williamsburg from 2000 to 2015, the population grew by about 20,000 with a decrease of around 15,000 Latino residents.

This is a clear example of how rezoning can displace minorities, and how it promotes segregation between neighborhoods.

Why is this? Don’t we have the ULURP process to ensure we take into account how new developments will affect neighborhoods?

Yes, the ULURP process is one way we can develop without destroying, but the process isn’t perfect. It doesn’t consider all aspects of new development such as the racial impacts and displacement of people.

So how do we fix this issue?

Develop Without Destroying

Rezoning can be done in a way that balances the scale between displacing minorities and modernizing. One method is through the ULURP process, of which we have already covered. The second method is through racial impact studies.

In this vein, housing activists and elected officials in NYC are asking City Council to support a bill introduced by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. The bill would mandate that the city conduct a racial impact study for land use actions that require an environmental review. This means that any development that has to go through the ULURP process would also be required to conduct a racial impact study.

“I made it very clear to city planning, if you cannot get this racial impact study done, this rezoning on Southern Boulevard is dead on arrival. My recommendation is [for the city to] get your act together and stop wasting people’s time.”

City Council member Rafael Salamanca

The racial impact study would assess the “potential direct and indirect racial and ethnic residential impacts of the proposed action.” By mandating such an investigation, which may be added to phase six of the ULURP process, CPC would promote inclusivity, reduce segregation, and prove that they heard the community’s voice.

While the vote is still out on William’s racial impact study bill, the de Blasio administration is conducting their own segregation study. The results will not only help the city make more inclusive policies, but also provide a tool to combat displacement.

Inclusivity in Development

Many people do not know about these processes or that their single voice can have a dramatic impact because the system is designed this way. Developers want to push new projects through as quietly and as quickly as possible, but that time is coming to an end.

More and more people are learning about the ULURP process, and the need for racial impact studies. The last public hearing in North Brooklyn resulted in such a large crowd that they had to turn people away and host a second public hearing. Need any further proof this works?

Back in 2019, Amazon was going to build its new headquarters in Long Island City, but it never happened. This was in large part due to people voicing their concerns and applying pressure on their local elected officials.

When it comes to the elected officials, they will follow the money, but they need our votes to stay in office. If people make enough noise together, that scares them and they gets results.

Keven LaCherra, a North Brooklyn resident and activist

Call to Action

The first step in being involved with your community and how it develops is by knowing about the ULURP process and sharing this information with your network. Through a collective voice, as can have sustainable action.

If you want to learn more about your neighborhood’s zoning, follow your local community board. If you can’t attend a public hearing, you can live stream the discussion online, or bring your concerns directly to your sitting councilmember online.

Furthermore, I would recommend supporting your local community-based organization. There are countless nonprofits, environmental justice, and faith-based groups that are fighting everyday to improve our quality of life.

Whatever your interest is – be it water quality, education, housing, green infrastructure, coastal resiliency, or composting, there is a group fighting for you. Here is a list of the various community-based organizations, and know that your single voice could change everything.