West Clinton Rezoning Seeks to Balance Gentrification and Neighborhood Character



Eleventh Avenue at West 33rd Street, looking north toward West Clinton. Photo: Jim Henderson, Wikimedia Commons.

The swank, 19-story Ink48 hotel and the sprawling construction site of Gotham West, a 1240-unit residential complex anchored by a 31-story tower, are becoming landmarks in rapidly changing West Clinton. But a proposed rezoning of the neighborhood seeks to restrict such soaring developments and increase the number of affordable housing units.

Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, the Department of City Planning has rezoned 118 neighborhoods, a massive undertaking of over 10,500 blocks, across the five boroughs. Controversial upzonings, like Hudson Yards and the pending Midtown East rezoning, have dominated media coverage, but less controversial rezonings, like the 2011 West Clinton Rezoning, also represent an integral part of the mayor’s development legacy and play an important role in determining who gets to live where.

The 2011 West Clinton rezoning ordinance was drawn to promote development in the area west of Tenth Avenue, between 43rd and 55th streets. The proposal encouraged residential development between Tenth and Eleventh avenues and new manufacturing-compatible uses west of Eleventh Avenue. While these changes seem pro-developer, the ordinance introduced three restrictions on new developments in the area: the institution of height limits, a ban on hotels, and the expansion of a special zone with strong anti-harassment and anti-demolition provisions westward to Eleventh Avenue.

The rezoning’s most striking feature is its imposition of height limits in the area for the first time. Mitchell Korbey, a partner at Herrick, Feinstein LLP and the chair of the firm’s Land Use & Environmental Group, declined to call it a downsizing, though, but instead called it a move that “jibes with the neighborhood.”

Before the West Clinton rezoning, the zoning map of the area west of Tenth Avenue between 43rd and 55th streets was a hodgepodge of residential, commercial, and manufacturing zones. On most side streets between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, the Tenth Avenue end of the block was zoned residential, while the Eleventh Avenue end was zoned manufacturing.

Over the years, as the neighborhood gentrified and residential development pushed westward, the zoning map grew increasingly complex, as developers requested lot-specific zoning changes throughout the area. Plots zoned for manufacturing between Tenth and Eleventh avenues began to be individually rezoned for new commercial and residential developments. At the same time, west of Eleventh Avenue, developers began to build more manufacturing-compatible structures like hotels, offices, and utility facilities.

Before the rezoning, the Gotham Organization successfully lobbied the city to rezone their property on Eleventh Avenue between 44th and 45th streets to “R10,” the residential zoning allowing the highest density development. With that victory, the organization started construction on Gotham West, a 1240-unit residential complex. With manufacturing zoning, “M1-5,” Horizen Global built Ink 48, a 19-story luxury hotel on the west side of Eleventh Avenue. Neither development would be allowed under new zoning.

Recognizing gentrification trends in 2006, the city planning department and community board began discussing zoning changes, and in 2011, they jointly proposed the West Clinton rezoning ordinance, which sought to zone all the side streets between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, as well as the east side of Eleventh Avenue, as residential, and capped building heights at 12 stories. Areas west of Eleventh Avenue were rezoned “M2-4,” which allowed for higher density commercial and manufacturing developments but banned hotels.

“This will help prevent the neighborhood from becoming overdeveloped and poorly planned with few relevant amenities, or mechanisms for affordable and inclusionary housing,” said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, in April 2011.

Korbey applauded the ways in which the rezoning altered the landscape on both sides of Eleventh Avenue.

“The east side of Eleventh Avenue is more like the blocks between Tenth and Eleventh avenues,” Korbey said. “This rezoning ensures appropriate growth on the east side of Eleventh Avenue by…not allowing for more than 12 stories.”

“How the city rezoned the west side of Eleventh area shows that they recognize that the city still needs an area for warehouses and other commercial uses,” he said.

Korbey isn’t worried that the new restrictions will scare off developers. “This area will still be attractive to developers and now the development will easily mix with existing buildings,” he said.

Aaron Gavios, executive vice president and general partner of Square Foot Realty, agreed. “Big developers always seem to get some kind of waiver, look at Archstone on 52nd [Street],” said Gavios, referring to the Archstone Clinton, the expansive two block, 23-story commercial and luxury rental complex on Tenth Avenue between 51st and 53rd streets.

“Eleventh Avenue is becoming the new Tenth Avenue,” he said. “It’s still easier to operate a business on Tenth, but Eleventh is up and coming.”

Melissa Pianko, executive vice president of development for Gotham, is also optimistic about the neighborhood. “Eleventh Avenue has a lot going for it,” she said. “It makes sense that the city rezoned it residential.”

While most developers praised the rezoning, housing advocates expressed some reservations. Anti-harassment protections, which can impose steep penalties on landlords with a record of tenant harassment, have won favor with residents since they were established under the Special Clinton District in 1972, but the West Clinton rezoning did not extend these protections throughout the area now zoned for increased residential development.

Bob Kalin, a tenant organizer at the non-profit Housing Conservation Coordinators, generally lauded the rezoning. But he called for the expansion of the Special Clinton District westward as well as stronger affordable housing provisions. When asked why the expansion is needed in areas largely made of manufacturing and commercial buildings, Kalin said, “there are a couple hundred tenants scattered throughout the area.”

“We know of tenants at 600 West 52nd Street [at Twelfth Avenue] that have complained that the landlords have been actively trying to push them out,” he said.

Kalin, however, is hopeful. “[City Council Speaker Christine] Quinn has promised to get the anti-harassment and demolition provisions back into the ordinance,” he said.

The West Clinton rezoning promotes affordable housing by allowing developers to build higher density buildings if 20 percent of the building’s units are affordably priced. But unlike other agreements, these units do not have to be located onsite, which means that the affordable housing can be built elsewhere in the city.

Kalin also pointed to potential issues with the fact that the provisions of the Special Clinton District only cover residential tenants. “A building on 49th and Tenth was demolished and we got all these calls asking what happened,” he said, “we found out it was a purely commercial building so they can just demolish it.”

Gust Hookanson, owner of The American Retro Bar & Grill, is not concerned about his small business being pushed out of the neighborhood. “We haven’t gotten any pressure from our landlord,” said Hookanson, who is excited about the future of Eleventh Avenue. “This used to be no man’s land, like Tenth Avenue used to be no man’s land but now it’s filling up with restaurants.” He continued, “We have seen a steady increase in traffic in the last two years since we have been here.”

“Rents are definitely going up but you pay for more passerby traffic,” he said.

Jimmy Athanasopoulos, part owner of the storied Market Diner, which has sat on the corner of Eleventh Avenue and West 43rd Street since 1962, shared Hookanson’s outlook on the neighborhood.  Market Diner closed in 2006 and was purchased in 2008 by a group that included Athanasopoulos. Athanasopoulos says he was attracted to the neighborhood by its potential for residential growth.

“We’ve seen a little increase in business, “ he said. “We’re really waiting for [Gotham West] to open. Most of our business comes from residents. We are waiting for more residents to move in.”

Gavios, whose firm specializes in the retail rental market on Midtown’s west side, is confident about the future of the retail rental market in West Clinton.

“We have done more deals on that part of Eleventh Avenue,” said Gavios. “But I can’t say if that is due to an improved economy or the rezoning. The rezoning will have long-term effects. More residential development pushes up retail prices.”

“We have seen some important businesses move to the area like Ogilvy & Mather and Ink Hotel,” said Gavios. “That is leading small business to Eleventh Avenue because of the increase in foot traffic.”

Gavios estimated that a retail outlet on Tenth Avenue still goes for about 40 percent more than its Eleventh Avenue counterparts — but more transportation options are the key to a more robust future. “The 7 train extension is going to be huge for the far west side,” he said, “more important than any rezoning.”

The Department of City Planning refused multiple requests for comment.