May NB Newsletter Special Edition – Check Out the New Zoning

By Brian Redlein

On March 23rd every New Yorker woke up in a City slightly different than the one they went to sleep in the night before.  On March 22nd City Council passed two very major changes to the Zoning Resolutions:  Zoning for Quality and Affordability, and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing.  Both changes, like most changes to zoning, are retroactive and went into effect the second the gavel hit the mahogany.  Like with previous zoning changes, the only way out of them is to be “vested”, with a foundation in the ground on the date of the zoning change.  Luckily for most sites the changes constituted a bit of an “upzoning” and the rules are actually a little more relaxed with this update, so chances are if a building complied before March 22nd it’ll still be compliant now.  Both revisions form the two cornerstones of the Mayor’s policy towards housing with the emphasis on building homes for seniors and low income individuals and families.

With this month’s newsletter, I’ll be focusing on the 570 pages of changes made to the general zoning ruleset under Quality and Affordability because those changes effect more sites.  We’ll be focusing particularly on residential bulk rules found in Article 2, Chapter 3 (ZR 23-).  To begin I must remind everyone that the Zoning Resolutions are a very complex creature and the changes touched on many aspects of it.  One month is simply not enough time to get to grips with all the adjustments and changes and that any information given out here should be corroborated by others, whether they be architects, engineers, land use attorneys, or all three.  As always, everything with zoning is extremely site specific and can vary from lot to lot.

So let’s start by talking about lot coverage, particularly as it relates to corner lots.  Lot coverage is the ratio of built area to “open space” at the level the lot coverage calculation is taken.  For pure residential buildings, lot coverage is usually measured at grade and for mixed use buildings lot coverage usually begins at the first residential floor.  There are a million different little caveats depending on a lot of varying factors, such as special districts, but those are the general rules.  Now, going back as far as memory serves the only time a residential building could cover 100% of its lot was if it was a corner building in an R10 district – no longer.  Now, for Quality Housing Buildings, which remember are mandatory in contextual districts, they can cover 100% of their lot provided the lot is in an R6 district or higher and located on a corner.  That is a simply huge change as it can make smaller, shallower corner lots economically viable to develop [ZR 23-153].

Changes were also made to dwelling unit factor.  Dwelling unit factor is a number that the total residential floor area of a building is divided by to arrive at the maximum allowed number of dwelling units.  The higher the factor is, the less dwelling units can be put in a given building.  In keeping with the theme of providing more housing however, I’m pleased to report the factor(s) for R8-R10 districts, which were between 740 and 790, are now the same as R6 & R7 districts at 680.  So an R10 building with 25,000 square feet of floor area was allowed a maximum of 31 dwellings (25,000 / 790) and now it can have 37 dwellings (25,000 / 680) [ZR 23-22].

Rear yard structures, which usually take the form of a portion of the first floor that occupies the minimum 30’ rear yard setback, have heretofore never been allowed at all for pure residential buildings in R districts.  The only time you see a rear yard structure in an R district is when it is part of a building that is entirely community facility use, but no longer.  Residences containing the re-defined affordable independent housing for seniors can now have rear yard structures as a “permitted obstruction” in the rear yard, provided of course there are no dwellings in said rear yard structure [ZR 23-44].

Speaking of rear yards, the old rules for shallow interior lots have also been adjusted.  Shallow interior lots have always been problematic to develop on, especially with housing and its light and air requirements.  Having a 60’ deep lot with a 30’ rear yard setback doesn’t leave a lot of space to actually building anything on, so the city has always allowed adjustments for shallow lots.  The old rules said that if my lot was less than 70’ deep than I could take a foot off the required rear yard depth for each foot of lot depth I was short.  The new rules now apply to interior lots less than 90’ deep, but they only allow me to take off six inches off the required rear yard for each foot of lot depth I’m short.  So a 60’ deep lot was allowed a 20’ deep rear yard on March 22nd, (70-60=10, 10×1=10, 30-10=20) and now it would be allowed a 15’ deep rear yard (90-60=30 30×0.5=15 30-15=15).  Also the neighbor on the 80’ deep lot that had to have a 30’ deep rear yard prior to the change now only needs a 25’ deep rear yard (90-80=10, 10×0.5=5 30-5=25) [ZR 23-52].

Keeping the focus at the rear yard, we arrive at perhaps what is one of the most fascinating parts of the new zoning as there are no more base height rear yard setback requirements in R6-R10 Districts, at least for Quality Housing Buildings.  Before March 22nd, not only did a building need to setback from the street above a certain height (the “base height”), it also needed to setback from the yard.  This meant that on any given Manhattan 100’ deep interior lot once the 10’-15’ front setback, 30’ rear yard, and 10’ rear yard setback were all factored in, there was an incredibly small amount of floor plate to work with (45’-50’ long) above the base height.  Considering a 2014 code compliant residential elevator and stair core can be about 35’ long by 8’-9’ wide (give or take), there wasn’t much room left over for anything else, but now at least there is [ZR 23-632].

Back at the front of the building, the zoning now gives architects a lot more options to articulate their street walls.  A street wall sounds exactly like what it is.  Walk down nearly any block in NYC and you’ll find rows of buildings parked next to each other that create the effect of a wall running up and down the street, and this street wall is one of the most sacred cows in the zoning rules.  Now while there are a myriad of special districts with their own rules about street walls and how they should be defined, in general the rules have been loosened up a bit.  The new rules say that in R6-R10 districts (includes the contextuals naturally) I can now push or pull parts of my street wall up to twelve inches “as-of-right” to provide articulation to a façade for elements “including, but not limited to, window recesses and structural expression”.  They also give the option to allow up to 50% of the aggregate width of street walls to be recessed or project from the street wall by up to three feet.  As a reminder this does not mean you can now add a 3’ deep bay window and hang it over the street line – that still world require revocable consent for DOT [ZR 23-661(d)].

Now we get to the changes made to height and setback, with the focus staying on Quality Housing buildings in R6-R10 districts.

While a whole newsletter could be written on the adjustments made to buildings with qualifying ground floors outside the Manhattan core in regards to their height and setback requirements, in general a lot of districts got an extra 5’ of base height to accommodate more ground floor retail and community facility uses.  R7s in the Manhattan core and beyond 100’ of a wide street picked up 5’ of base height with R7s outside the Manhattan core within 100’ of the corner picked up 10’ of base height.  R8s located anywhere in the city on a narrow street past 100’ beyond the corner picked up 5’ in base height and 10’ in building height.  R8s outside the Manhattan core within 100’ of the corner picked up 10’ feet to both base and overall building height.  Even R8Bs picked up an additional 5’ of base height (although one still needs to watch out in the Upper East Side limited height districts).  R9s and R9As within 100’ of the corner even picked up three feet of base height, while R10s in the same corner quadrant picked up 5’ of base height.  Worth noting however is ZR 23-692 (aka “sliver law”) hasn’t really changed much so for lots with street walls less than 45’ in width that section will still govern how high the base height and building can be [ZR 23-662].

In sum, there have been a lot of changes made to the Zoning Resolution and we’ll all be getting used to them over the coming months and even years.  Some of what I’ve touched on in this newsletter may sound incredible to people who’ve worked in NYC for ages with the same general rules about street walls, corner lot coverage, and rear yard base height setbacks.  While to cover all the changes made to the zoning would require probably just as many pages as the updates themselves, I hope I’ve given everyone enough to digest here to begin to get to grips with the basic new rules governing residential bulk.  Now I need to get back to all these post-approval zoning amendments.