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Here's Why Architects Like de Blasio's Zoning Plan

By  Amy Zimmer and Danielle Tcholakian | February 23, 2016 6:30pm 

 Images of micro-units at Carmel Place in Kips Bay.
Carmel Place
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MANHATTAN — Would you rather live in an apartment with tall ceilings or low ones?

For most New Yorkers the answer is a no-brainer. Witness how coveted lofts and prewar apartments tend to be.

But in the affordable housing realm, current zoning constraints encourage developers — who are looking to stretch public subsidies as far as they can — to shoehorn apartments into buildings and so they often forgo elements that improve quality of life, like high ceilings.  

This is why many of the city's architects overwhelmingly support Mayor Bill de Blasio’s controversial zoning proposal that would, among other changes, increase building heights — and therefore, help them bring back taller ceilings.

READ MORE: Here's What You Need to Know About the Mayor's Citywide Rezoning Plan

Other design changes included in de Blasio’s "Zoning for Quality and Affordability" plan would allow for more micro-units, decreasing the legal minimum size of new apartments to 300 square feet, from 400, which some believe will make it easier for single New Yorkers to afford to live alone.

Some locals fear taller buildings will mar their streetscapes with oversized structures that would spur developers to tear down existing buildings in favor of taller ones. There are also concerns that micro-units are inhumane or could bring dorm-like scenes that hurt their neighborhood's fabrics.

But architects are trying to allay such concerns.

“ZQA is not a danger to preservation; the opposite,” said Claire Weisz, founding principal of WXY, which is working on public space projects including the Queens Way Plan and Brooklyn Strand.

“It makes it easier in many neighborhoods to design buildings that come closer to the standards of older buildings," she continued, "which were designed for natural ventilation and getting light deeper into spaces [rather] than buildings over the last 20 years.”

Here’s why architects want the zoning changes.

► Zoning hasn’t kept up with developments in construction technology.

New technologies using prefabricated materials have made construction cheaper, but zoning often hampers New York City’s affordable housing developers from fully taking advantage of these techniques.

For instance, the construction practice known as “block-and-plank” — when prefabricated concrete floor planks are used with masonry unit walls — is considered to cost 25 percent less than traditional construction. But the standard size planks tend to be narrower — often by 5 to 10 feet — than what’s typically allowed according to current zoning law.

That means developers either have to make costly customizations or create buildings that contain less space than is allowed on the site, making it harder to maximize the space used inside, explained Mark Ginsberg, of Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, who co-authored a 2014 report from the Citizens Housing Planning Council that highlighted many of the design issues ZQA is now trying to address.

Modular construction — when units are built off-site and then stacked on top of each other on-site — faces a similar problem.  Because each module has its own floor and ceiling, these thicker dimensions mean that the projects need to be slightly higher than allowed when stacked.

 A rendering of an affordable housing project that Marvel Architects is designing for Atlantic Avenue near St. James Place in Clinton Hill shows the first floor under the current zoning regulations (left) with window guards and drawn curtains versus what it would look like under the proposed zoning with encouraging retail.
A rendering of an affordable housing project that Marvel Architects is designing for Atlantic Avenue near St. James Place in Clinton Hill shows the first floor under the current zoning regulations (left) with window guards and drawn curtains versus what it would look like under the proposed zoning with encouraging retail.
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Marvel Architects

While modular construction itself isn’t always less expensive, it often is speedier, Ginsberg said. A quicker timeframe for occupying units in turn saves developers money.

“It should also have better quality control,” Ginsberg said of modules built in sheds protected from bad weather.

► Allowing taller buildings would let architects to use less expensive construction practices.

The city would allow up to 2 stories for senior housing or buildings within areas where affordable housing is mandated.

It would enable block-and-plank buildings, for example, to take the “buildable space” it was unable to use, and instead add that to the building’s height.

The changes would allow for designs that could “breathe” — and encourage apartments with higher ceilings — architects noted.

Some critics, however, believe that using prefabricated techniques greatly reduces the number of local construction jobs.

► Taller buildings can improve the streetscape, many architects say.

There’s another scenario in which the city would allow buildings to be taller and it would apply to all housing, whether affordable or not: Developers who provide taller floors for ground-level retail would get an additional 5-feet of height for their buildings.

Architects say this will not only encourage better retail — since storefronts with higher ceilings can have bigger windows that make their spaces more appealing from inside and out — but also allow them to elevate the first floor of apartments so they are set above the street level.

It allows more privacy and security for residents, and it creates a better public experience for the neighborhood, Marvel said.

“Instead of having windows with curtains or bars facing the sidewalk, you can have retail or lobbies with generous windows," he said. "For me, the ground floor is an extension into the public realm. This makes our buildings more participatory."

► Micro-units can better serve single New Yorkers, many believe.

When it comes to affordable housing, the greatest need is often for studio and one-bedrooms and for three- and four-bedrooms, city officials said. Yet, much of what gets built are two-bedroom units.

The new zoning plan would allow for micro-units, but only alongside a mix of units at larger sizes.

That means the city would not allow another Carmel Place, the high-concept project in Kips Bay that won a city design competition to create a building entirely of micro-units.

Ammr Vandal, of nARCHITECTS, which designed Carmel Place, was excited nonetheless about the possibility of more micro-units aimed at those living alone looking for affordable options.

“For housing in general, this is something that’s been missing,” she said. “People have been trying to achieve it through illegal means like subdividing apartments.”

Allowing for the mix of units would give architects new options, she added.

“It allows us to think about different demographics — families, young professionals, older seniors and counter [the smaller apartments] with more amenity space, especially for senior housing,” Vandal said. “It allows us to be more creative. It’s not just a question of how many apartments are in a building, but to think about it as a neighborhood.”

But some disagree.

At a recent hearing, one city councilman decried this aspect of the proposal, which could allow units as small as 275 square feet for seniors.

"I just know from my own grandmother, she couldn’t fit her hats in an apartment that size," Queens Councilman Donovan Richards said.