CB14 Committees Express Skepticism Over City of Yes

By Katie McFadden

The City of Yes plan has many feeling unsure. On Wednesday, December 6, Community Board 14 got its Land Use and Economic Development Committees together to hear more specifics about the Economic Opportunity portion of the city’s massive rezoning plan proposals, after a presentation at the November Community Board 14 left the board with more questions.

CB14 Chairwoman Dolores Orr called for the meeting with both committees as parts of the Economic Opportunity portion of the City of Yes plan involve residential aspects as well. The City of Yes, which was introduced by the Adams administration earlier this year, comes in three parts; Carbon Neutrality, which “would modernize the city’s zoning regulations to support our climate goals,” Economic Opportunity, which “would remove outdated limitations on businesses and ensure that local retail streets and commercial centers across the city can remain lively places that sustain our neighborhoods,” and Housing Opportunity, which “will create a little more housing in every neighborhood.” The Carbon Neutrality aspect, which includes 17 policy proposals, was discussed among community boards in early summer and as of December 6, passed the City Council, which has the final say on the three zoning text amendments. The Housing Opportunity aspect will be discussed in early 2024.

Currently being discussed is the Economic Opportunity portion. Initially, community boards had until the first week of January to submit recommendations on this plan, but it has since been pushed back to the first week of February 2024 to give them more time to dissect the 1,157-page document outlining the city’s Economic Opportunity proposals. At Wednesday’s meeting, Scott Solomon and Matt Waskiewicz from the city’s Department of City Planning, were in attendance to give a rundown of this zoning text amendment’s 18 proposals. Also on hand was Paul Graziano, an urban planning consultant, who has been visiting community boards and civic groups to provide his analysis of the City of Yes, something he calls, “a direct existential threat to the basic survival of our communities.”

The city planners explained that the 18 proposals of the Economic Opportunity plan came as a result of getting feedback from small business owners across the city and other commercial stakeholders last fall. The city’s Economic Opportunity plan has four goals: 1) make it easier to find space to grow, 2) support growing industries, 3) foster vibrant neighborhoods, and 4) offer new opportunities for businesses.

The proposals are as follows. Under goal one: 1) Lift time limits to reactivating vacant storefronts. 2) Simplify rules for business types allowed on commercial streets. 3) Expand opportunities for small-scale clean production. 4) Modernize loading dock rules so buildings can adapt over time. 5) Enable commercial activity on upper floors. 6) Simplify and modernize how businesses are classified in zoning. Under goal two: 7) Clarify rules to permit indoor urban agriculture. 8) Give life sciences companies more certainty to grow. 9) Support nightlife with common-sense rules for dancing and live entertainment. 10) Create more opportunities for amusements to locate. 11) Enable entrepreneurship with modern rules for home-based businesses. Under goal three: 12) Introduce corridor design rules that promote better activated ground floors. 13) Reduce conflicts between auto repair shops and pedestrians. 14) Encourage safe and sustainable deliveries with micro-distribution. Under goal four: 15) Facilitate local commercial spaces on residential campuses. 16) Create a process for allowing corner stores in residential areas. 17) Rationalize waiver process for adapting spaces for industries like film. 18) Create new kinds of zoning districts for future job hubs.

Board members were open to supporting some proposals, like number one. Currently, there are storefronts in residential areas that were grandfathered in under older zoning requirements, but cannot exist today under new zoning districts, that face a time limit of two years to reopen if they go vacant. Once that limit is up, the property can no longer open as a storefront. This was something that especially came into play when businesses shuttered during Covid.  Proposal one would do away with that time limit, so a commercial space that existed could reopen as a commercial space at any time.

Another proposal that some agreed with was 13, as it would reduce conflicts between auto shops and pedestrians. Currently, many auto shops take up sidewalk space and block sidewalks or take up too much street space. This proposal would limit the space they can take up.

An item that many disagreed with and served as a dealbreaker for many was number 16. This proposal would make it easier for people to open corner stores in residential corner properties within 100 feet of an intersection. This would be subject to community board review, but as community boards are only advisory, many expressed concerns over the city approving unwanted corner stores in residential areas such as Neponsit, regardless of what the community board says.

Another item that many took issue with was number 11, which would change the current allocation of 25% of someone’s residential space to be allowed to be used as a home-based business to 49%. It would also allow for an expanded list of types of businesses that could occupy the home. However, landlords and housing authorities could still prohibit these things in their properties. Some expressed concern of the nearly 50% rule impacting quality of life for neighbors, and many expressed concerns over there not being enough protections for landlords, and home-based businesses could complicate things like evictions even further.

Proposal 15 raised concerns as a residential campus just needs to be a 1.5-acre space for a new commercial property to be built on it. With this, residents of the Surfside Buildings expressed concern over companies like ALMA being allowed to freely build commercial buildings anywhere on the property.

As CB14 has until the first week of February to make a recommendation, Wednesday’s meeting was purely informational, so no vote was held and no formal recommendations were given, but the city planners took notes on feedback they received for certain items. After the city has already gone against many CB14 recommendations over the years, causing trust issues, many board members were skeptical over this plan that would give so much more approval for new commercial space.

Others reminded the city planners that there are other things that Rockaway still needs before new commercial space as there are already many empty storefronts on the peninsula, especially in a flood zone. “It’s 11 years after Hurricane Sandy and there is not even an evacuation plan in place and the city has already added 3,000 more families here in new developments. I don’t think we should be discussing any of this in Board 14 without an evacuation plan. We also have a moratorium on any new construction until certain conditions are met,” chairwoman Dolores Orr said.

In his presentation, Paul Graziano gave an overview that focused on the larger scope of City of Yes, with focus on the housing aspect, which will be discussed next year. As for the Economic Opportunity portion, he said, “I’ve done this presentation with 20 community boards and every community board or their committees I know have either unanimously opposed this plan or nearly unanimously opposed it,” he said. Since the plan is so in depth and lengthy, with 18 very different proposals, Graziano explained that instead of presenting this as one package, each proposal should be discussed and voted on individually. “This entire draft is inappropriate. If you want to pull this draft and start coming with individual proposals, that’s the way to do it. To come out with a 1,157-page document and expect these folks to read it, is not the way to do it,” he said. Waskiewicz defended the bulk document saying the city initially tried to present it piece by piece but received feedback to combine proposals in 2021.

Community Board 14 will continue to discuss the Economic Opportunity portion of City of Yes in future meetings. For more info on City of Yes, see: https://nyc.gov/planning

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