The inaugural lecture of the Boxer Family Professorship of Law, delivered by Vicki Been ’83 on November 2, highlighted the concrete effects on an urban landscape of local government policies that might seem abstract to some. In “Taking Stock: What the Bloomberg Rezonings Mean for New York City’s Development Future,” Been explained how the administration of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who won a third term the day after the lecture, had set about to change the face of the city, and she presented preliminary findings on the effects of those efforts.

Been, the faculty director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, took pains to convey the magnitude of the changes implemented in the past eight years by Bloomberg’s Department of City Planning, which had just seen the adoption of its hundredth rezoning under the current mayor. The city planners’ amendments to the 1961 zoning plan have affected some 8,400 city blocks and more than 20 percent of the city’s land.

The Furman Center crunched the numbers on 70 of the 100 rezonings, those that took effect between 2003 and 2007, to better understand the net impact of those rezonings on the residential capacity of the city, and to explore what, if any, tensions exist between the administration’s stated goals for growth and the actual outcome of the Department of City Planning’s actions.  The research, which is ongoing, looks at the characteristics of neighborhoods that were downzoned, reducing residential housing capacity; upzoned, bringing new residential capacity; and contextually rezoned, meaning that the rezoning was intended to preserve the overall character of the neighborhood by placing limitations on the scale of new development rather than enhancing opportunities to build more housing units.

The Furman Center has built, and is refining, a predictive model that incorporates the factors city planners use in making rezoning decisions for a given lot. They are also evaluating several factors that may determine what makes a lot more or less likely to actually receive new residential development after a rezoning, including whether the rezoned land contains buildings that need to be demolished, what commercial and manufacturing uses might be competing for the same land, what infrastructure exists to support the needs of the one million additional residents in the city’s projected 2030 population, the level and nature of consumer demand for housing, and the availability of incentives for developers and their financers.

Been’s research begs several critical questions about the land use planning process and about the future of the city. “Where are all these new New Yorkers going to be housed, and at what cost?” she asked. “And what explains the choices that we’re making in these upzonings and downzonings?... We hope very much that we’ve spurred a conversation that will allow a lot more work.... Perhaps most importantly, we need to think about how the rezoning process can ensure that the benefits and burdens of growth are fairly distributed.... Once a rezoning is done, it’s in place for a long time. We’re shaping growth 25 years from now, and it’s important to understand what the implications are going to be 25 years from now.”

Watch the full recording of this event (1 hr, 11 min):

Posted on November 5, 2009