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12th May

First Published in The New York Sun, May 12, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

We hear a lot in the press about the big development projects, such as the debates over ground zero or the proposed Jets Stadium on the West Side. But across the city there are hundreds of land use issues, invisible to all but a few, but collectively as significant as the largest projects. In general, the citywide trend is to cut severely back on neighborhood growth.

Great cities are living organisms, constantly moving, changing and evolving. New York is a town where once seedy industrial slums have evolved into chic residential areas. We are now, however, in danger of government stifling the natural development of Gotham, one neighborhood at a time.
This is what is happening in my home community of Riverdale. “Riverdale Confronts Change,” screamed the headline in the New York Times. “In a bucolic pocket of the city, construction sites seem to be everywhere, and tall apartment buildings are going up.”

This may come as a shock to the Times, but the majority of Riverdale residents live in apartment buildings, some as tall as 30 stories. It is true that there is quite a bit of construction going on, mostly single and two-family detached homes. A longvacant house in north Riverdale, an eyesore for more than a quarter century, is finally being restored. After a generation of little new construction, a handful of modest homes are rising on some of the odd empty lots throughout the community. And yes, in the midst of other apartment buildings, a small number of new buildings have begun to rise, usually replacing some especially forgettable smaller structure.

Twenty years ago, plans for a new coop building on Henry Hudson Parkway were shelved. It was felt that the units wouldn’t sell.Ten years ago,the site was finally developed for senior-citizen assisted living, presumably to service what was then perceived to be Riverdale’s aging, stagnant population. Today there would be no hesitancy about building a new co-op here. Once again, families want to live in Riverdale, a healthy and positive sign.

Part of the reason behind this boomlet may be low mortgage rates. Another is that Riverdale has become more attractive to upscale families. Soaring prices for residential real estate in Manhattan have driven many into Brooklyn and Queens. And now, this is starting in the Bronx, with some upscale pockets in places like Riverdale and City Island.

The growth of Riverdale’s Orthodox Jewish community has certainly increased demand for new housing. So has the upswing in the fortunes of local public schools. During the 1990s, successful demands from community residents for a return to local zoning of the area’s middle school, and the creation of a neighborhood high school, have made local public schools an attractive option for Riverdale’s parents.
Beyond the market forces of increased demand, one engine for the recent growth has resulted from the very forces that have sought to stop new construction. A recent draconian down-zoning in Riverdale has removed hundreds of millions of dollars in potential wealth from property owners by limiting the size of new buildings. So savvy developers and homeowners scurried to get their projects started before the deadline, lest they lose the ability to ever realize the true value of their properties.

That window of opportunity is now closed. Henceforth, areas that should be evolving naturally are set as if in amber. This includes dozens of blocks in North Riverdale, where the kind home that Archie Bunker might have lived in routinely sells for three-quarters of million dollars or more. Some of these blocks, particularly those adjacent to major commercial streets, could appropriately evolve into townhouses or small apartment buildings. But this seems to strike fear in the hearts of those who control Riverdale’s political establishment.
There is a general resistance to any change.We have forgotten that the construction of the house you live in was probably resisted by the folks who lived next door. Within reason, New York’s zoning ordinances prevented unfettered development, but still recognized that reasonable change governed by the marketplace is a sign of a healthy city. But today, in Riverdale and elsewhere in the city, we have allowed new restrictive zoning to severely constrain new construction or expansion of old projects.We risk damaging the delicate process by which cities thrive. This has gotten so bad in Riverdale that a project to build a dozen small mansions for millionaires has been hung up for years. How many communities bar the door to the rich?
One way to overcome this is for our neighborhoods to retain at least some of the property tax revenues they generate. At the moment, all go into the citywide general fund. This money could augment local amenities or reduce local tax bills.The result would be “neighborhood improvement districts” similar to the business improvement districts that have proliferated throughout the city.

If the construction of a few new apartment buildings or a few McMansions means a new playground in Seton Park or improvements in P.S.24 or a lower tax bill for Riverdale homeowners, maybe that will act as an incentive to allow the kind of local rational development that enhances the economic well-being of the city as a whole.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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