Waterfront Zoning Revisions Rock the Boat at City Planning

Event: Dept. of City Planning’s Proposed Waterfront Zoning Revisions
Location: Center for Architecture, 02.20.09
Speaker: Claudia Herasme — Urban Designer & Program Manager for Guidelines, NYC Department of City Planning (DCP)
Panelists: Howard Slatkin — Deputy Director of Strategic Planning, DCP; Bill Woods — Director of Waterfront and Open Space, DCP; Bonnie Harken, AIA — Co-chair, Waterfront Committee, American Planning Association/NY Metro Chapter; Susannah Drake — New York Chapter President, ASLA; Lee Weintraub, FASLA — ASLA National Trustee; Michael Samuelian, AIA — Co-chair, AIANY Planning and Urban Design Committee
Organizer: AIANY Planning and Urban Design Committee; NY ASLA; APA NY Metro Chapter

New Waterfront Zoning Provisions will mandate public access to the waterfront, but could constrain and limit design.

Jessica Sheridan

Proposed by the NYC Department of City Planning (DCP) and in the process of winding its way through the public review process is a text amendment to the Waterfront Zoning Provisions of the 1993 Zoning Resolution. The DCP is pursuing a comprehensive review and revision of the current urban design regulations, which mandate public access to the waterfront. These rules have successfully produced public waterfront access areas, but it has become apparent that they impose design constraints and limitations.

Drawing upon the city’s experience with waterfront developments in recent years, the new standards are designed to address a wider variety of waterfront conditions than anticipated by the existing text. Many of the elements of the DCP’s proposal already exist at the Greenpoint and Williamsburg waterfronts, and at the Ikea site in Red Hook — all in Brooklyn. In brief, DCP’s proposal is intended to improve the quality of future waterfront space by promoting inviting spaces that “read as public,” allowing a greater diversity of experiences through design flexibility, enhancing the variety and quality of plantings, and better accommodating storm water management and other green practices.

All panelists applauded the DCP’s intentions and efforts, but had their concerns. Bonnie Harken, AIA, co-chair of the waterfront committee at the American Planning Associations (APA) NY Metro Chapter, said the APA supports the goals of the revision — to make the waterfront more open and accessible to the public and introduce more flexibility into the design standards — but added, “What we’d like to see next is for the waterfront zoning to fit more consistently with some of the broader planning issues facing NYC.” With climate change already bringing rising sea levels and more intense storms, NYC’s low-lying waterfront areas need to be designed for flood-proofing and absorption, storm water management, and shoreline protection. She believes coordination of the zoning with agencies responsible for the environment, such as the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation and NYC Department of Environmental Protection, and climate change initiatives of PlaNYC is needed to plan in a larger sense for the future sustainability of NYC’s waterfronts.

Attendee Stephen Whitehouse, RLA, AICP, spoke of Gowanus Green, one of the first sizable projects to start a review under the new regulations. His firm, Starr Whitehouse, is part of a competition-winning team composed of Rogers Marvel Architects and West 8 to create affordable housing along the Gowanus Canal in Carroll Gardens. The new waterfront zoning brings the canal under its jurisdiction; the project must comply with the new waterfront zoning’s bulk regulations and criteria for public waterfront access. Whitehouse agrees the new regulations will result in engaging spaces, but based on his experience, the regulations are “complex and require significant effort to demonstrate compliance to the satisfaction of the department. With the changing regulations, the methods of demonstrating compliance have not been standardized, so we’ve had to create them, with an eye both to the text and to feasibility.” He explained that with the large site, for example, compliance formulas are generating requirements for too many benches and tables. The standards for compliance are “far too onerous to demonstrate, and it should be dropped,” he argued.

The proposal is now undergoing review by the City Planning Commission, which is weighing the recommendations from the AIA, APA, and ASLA, along with other recommendations from the Borough Presidents and Community Boards. A vote is expected in April.