NYC Gets a Lot Right in Its New Zoning Proposals. Then There’s These Ideas.
On the heels of a very promising jobs report for New York City, Mayor Eric Adams is proposing an overhaul of its zoning regulations with the goal of spurring further growth for commercial and industrial businesses. There is much in the proposal, known as “City of Yes for Economic Opportunity,” that represents a thoughtful and nuanced approach to updating the city’s antiquated zoning regulations — but there are also elements of the proposal that still need work.
“Economic Opportunity” consists of 18 distinct zoning proposals. Some of these proposals aim to bring the zoning resolution’s use regulations into the modern age, eliminating outdated terminology that has long been a source of amusement in the planning community, and rationalizing use controls that have been a source of confusion. References to “custom furrier shops,” “sailmaking establishments,” “typewriter stores” and the like would be replaced with modern and flexible business descriptions. Restrictions on dancing in restaurants and bars would also be eliminated, bringing zoning in line with the 2017 repeal of the city’s Cabaret Law.
Other items seek to remove zoning barriers to business growth, implementing lessons learned from the city’s post-pandemic recovery. Regulations that today restrict small-business operations in homes, and the location of larger establishments on upper floors of mixed-use buildings, would be relaxed. A new approval framework would be created to allow corner stores in residential districts and larger commercial uses on residential campuses.
Grandfathered storefronts in residential zones would be allowed to take on new tenants, regardless of how long the space has been vacant. Loading requirements for changes of use — which often frustrate efforts to adapt existing buildings to new tenants — would be discarded. And new allowances would be created for small-scale, clean production uses, such as microbreweries, apparel makers and 3D-printing establishments.
These changes are welcome and, in some cases, long overdue.
In contrast, the administration’s proposal for streetscape design standards needs work. This proposal would update and broaden the application of existing streetscape regulations, which require ground-floor frontages in specified areas to contain some mix of glazing, exterior wall treatments, parking wrapping, and/or retail uses.
The proposed changes are well intentioned and reflect a desire to create more pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. However, some of the design standards are so inflexible or broad that they create unnecessary obstacles to new development and retail opportunities, and could frustrate the long-term evolution of the city’s retail streets.
The most exciting changes under the city’s proposal are more forward-looking. A number of the proposals would expand allowances for industries that are expected to play a growing role in the economy, such as commercial life sciences, urban agriculture, amusement and recreation, and entertainment production.
For example, existing interpretations that allow commercial laboratories in most commercial districts would be codified, and the right to operate these laboratories would be extended to commercial districts in which the use is not allowed, subject to performance standards designed to keep out more noxious or hazardous research activities. Other items in the initiative would create new types of manufacturing and commercial zoning districts — districts designed to allow a broad range of nonresidential uses and more generous, loft-like building envelopes — that could be mapped in appropriate areas to facilitate job-intensive development and preserve existing industry.
The public review process for “City of Yes for Economic Opportunity” commenced last month, and the proposal is now undergoing review by the city’s 59 community boards and five borough presidents and borough boards. The public review process will afford an opportunity to support the many things that the initiative gets right, and to tweak those items that miss the mark. If the process plays out as intended, the city will be rewarded with an updated and upgraded zoning resolution to usher our economy into the future.
Adam Taubman is special counsel with the land use department at law firm Kramer Levin.