Zoned Out

Zoned Out

Are New Yorkers prepared to let go of the city’s gritty industrial past for a tamer futuree one in which glittering residential and office buildings rise over a sea of retail from one end of the island to the other? Midtown Manhattan’s Far West Sideeparticularly the area between 30th and 59th streets, west of 8th Avenueeremains dominated by industrial uses. But after the 2004 rezoning of the Hudson Yards area (bound by 31st and 43rd streets, west of 8th Avenue), allowing developers to build mixed-use commercial and residential projects, the area’s remaining light industry has been squeezed further north. Now it appears that even this district, one of the last zoned strictly as manufacturing in Manhattan, is being threatened by ambitious development as well as a general decline of these types of industries.

With New York’s tight real estate, developers are accustomed to seeking empty lots in alternative areas. When New Yorkkbased Rockrose Development Corporation built a two-story 216,000-square-foot distribution warehouse for Federal Express at 660 12th Avenue, between 48th and 49th streets in 2001, it first petitioned the city to increase the Floor-to-Area Ratio (FAR) on the block, in order to ensure its ability to build up on the site in the future. The city agreed to increase the FAR in the manufacturing-zoned area from 2.0 to 5.0. So while the FedEx facility was built at the maximum height allowable under FAR 2.0, the project’s architecture and engineering firm, New Yorkkbased Vollmer Associates, designed it to be able to accommodate additional stories by providing beefed-up structural support and an elevator core.

Top and middle: Developer Rockrose asked Dutch architecture firm MVRDV to design affordable housing to be planted on top of FedEx’s facility. In their conceptual plan, the housing component floats above a landscaped park that buffers the noise and air pollution of the manufacturing district below.

Courtesy Rockrose Development Corporation
Above: More recently, Rockrose commissioned Arquitectonica to design a hotel, which also calls for transforming the FedEx building’s roof into accessible outdoor space.

Rockrose began seeking out tenants for a rooftop addition, which is allowed to reach a height of eight stories. Using the guidelines of the Department of City Planning (DCP), Rockrose sought other types of tenantsssports, sanitary, and storage facilities; a tow-pound; even hotelsswith no luck. At this point, John McMillan, Rockrose’s director of planning, conceived of using the space above FedEx for affordable housing, which is needed in all parts of the city. The DCP supported the intention, but encouraged McMillan to look elsewhere, wanting to preserve the manufacturing zone.

McMillan turned to Common Ground, a New Yorkkbased nonprofit established in 1990 to provide housing for the homeless, to help him develop his plan further. We thought that with Common Ground, we could convince City Planning that our situation was unique,, said McMillan. For Common Ground, the prospect was ideal: Their successful first project, a hotel that was converted into supportive housing called The Times Square, is nearby, at 42nd Street and 8th Avenue. [Local] Community Board 4 was supportive of us in the past, and we hoped would help with this project,, said David Beer, director of housing development at Common Ground.

The development team agreed that a design-oriented proposal would help to win over the DCP. We’ve always been enamored with the work of [Dutch design firm] MVRDV, so we reached out to them and they were receptive,, said Beer. Founded in 1991 by Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs, and Nathalie de Vries, MVRDV has completed a number of internationally lauded large-scale housing projects, including the Silodam in Amsterdam, completed in 2002, and the Mirador, finished in 2004 in Madrid.

By mid-2005, Common Ground and Rockrose were armed with several stunning concept models and went with the most practical and feasible design: a rectangular ring of housing supported over an open outdoor park landscaped on the roof of the existing FedEx building. The project would contain 500 housing units at 250 to 260 square feet each, all meant for single adults. Half of the units would be partially subsidized for people recently homeless. The other half would be reserved to those making less than 60 percent of New York’s median yearly income, or roughly $26,000. Rents would be kept at $575 to $600 per month.

Rockrose and Common Ground presented the proposal to the DCP during a pre-application review discussion, which is common for projects that seek zoning changes. City Planning, while interested in the proposal, again suggested the team find another site.

We are trying to encourage certain uses at certain locations,, said Rachaele Raynoff, spokesperson for the DCP. She continued, It’s the city’s fervent hope to encourage housinggespecially affordable housinggbut it just isn’t right for every site..

All of the surrounding buildings are dedicated to industry, including auto-shops, a Con-Edison substation, and a soon-to-be-completed seven-story Verizon garage and utility facility. The DCP argues that the site could be hazardous for future residents. Furthermore the district is ideally suited for industrial uses, especially shipping and distribution given the fact that it links the Hudson River and West Side Highway with Midtown. Introducing housing to the area has the potential to destabilize an active manufacturing district,, said Raynoff. Districts need to be looked at in a broader framework, in how they support one another.. Finally, the area lacks residence-oriented services, so life there would be difficult (though New Yorkers are willing to put up with almost anything for space and cheap rent).

The Department of City Planning is in the difficult position of having to defend dying industry in the city. While it may be important for cities to preserve manufacturing districts, as most community groups seem to agree, the market doesn’t seem to support these districts. The problem is that there’s no real manufacturing in these districts,, said McMillan. These areas increasingly serve distribution uses; they’re all truck-related, and they only want the first couple of floors of a building.. Conversely, were the city to allow residential development in the area, yet another neighborhood could be lost in the tidal wave of residential development that’s overtaking the city. Heavy industry might be disappearing, but contemporary citiessno matter how wired they becomeestill need service and distribution centers of the sort concentrated in Far West Midtown.

The DCP’s decision is by no means final, and the future of the neighborhood remains uncertain. This doesn’t mean that someone can’t make another proposal,, said Raynoff, We’re willing to listen to anything.. The department is currently working with Common Ground to find another site for a similarly scaled housing project in the area. According to Beer, the DCP has been pivotal in helping the nonprofit isolate locations where zoning could be reconsidered. Rockrose, bound by the light-manufacturing district designation, is looking for hospitality tenants again, shopping around schematic diagrams for a hotel commissioned from Miami-based Arquitectonica.

JAFFER KOLB is an assistant editor at an.