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City planning approves new zoning to strengthen NYC against floods

City Planning Commission (CPC) Chair Marisa Lago today announced that the City Planning Commission approved Zoning for Coastal Flood Resiliency  (ZCFR), citywide zoning rules that will result in all types of buildings being better able to withstand and recover from major disasters and sea level rise and which will also translate to lower flood insurance costs.

MARISA LAGO

“ZCFR is a game-changer for the residents and businesses who call New York City’s floodplain their home. This citywide zoning overhaul is simultaneously broad and flexible enough to help our incredibly diverse communities and building types better withstand, and then recover more quickly from, storms like Sandy, as well as slowly rising sea levels. Thank you, ZCFR, for making our future and our city more sustainable,” said CPC Chair Marisa Lago.

The vote comes eight years after Hurricane Sandy struck our shores, killed 43 New Yorkers and left $19 billion in damage to homes and businesses.

The proposal, which now moves to the City Council for review and approval, updates and improves on emergency rules established in the wake of Sandy, and makes them permanent. These changes will help to better protect the 800,000 New Yorkers, and tens of thousands of affordable homes, businesses and jobs, located in the current and future floodplain.

Currently, buildings are restricted by zoning regulations that do not take resiliency into account and thus force New Yorkers to choose between interior space and resiliency improvements. ZCFR will make it easier for buildings to meet or exceed modern resiliency codes without sacrificing their basement, for example, by adding some much-needed zoning flexibility.

For example, with ZCFR, a NYCHA or Mitchell-Lama complex in Lower Manhattan or Manhattan Beach will be able to construct an elevated mechanical building in its yard to address the needs of the entire campus.

A single- or two-family homeowner in the Rockaways doing substantial rehab or building anew will be entitled to additional overall building height to elevate their structure above the Base Flood Elevation, established by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

An industrial business in the South Bronx will be allowed to build a mezzanine in buildings difficult to floodproof, giving them a space to safely store sensitive equipment or important files.

Critically, the proposal will also limit construction of new nursing homes in high-risk areas because of their vulnerable residents.

“These zoning changes will help make New York City’s coastal neighborhoods safer, stronger and better prepared for extreme weather. As climate change continues to worsen, it has never been more important to unlock new opportunities for New Yorkers who want to invest in the resiliency of their homes and neighborhoods,” said Jainey Bavishi, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. “We applaud the City Planning Commission for their support of this proposal and look forward to its consideration by the City Council.”

After four years of community-engagement, the proposed changes received support from most Community Boards and Borough Presidents. It’s the result of more than 200 public meetings the Department of City Planning held with New Yorkers since 2016, garnering ideas and feedback to develop and strengthen the plan.

The proposal’s four main goals:

  • Encourage resiliency in the current and future floodplain: ZCFR would expand where flood resilient zoning provisions apply, so that buildings in both the city’s 1% annual chance floodplain and 0.2% annual chance floodplain, those areas of New York City that, by 2050, are also expected to have a 1% chance of a flood event in any given year, can meet or exceed the flood-resistant construction standards set by FEMA or NYC’s Building Code. This expanded floodplain increases the number of buildings that could be retrofitted to resiliency standards by nearly 50%, allowing building owners throughout the city’s floodplain to proactively raise living space and important equipment out of harm’s way.
  • Support long-term resilient design of all building types: Flexible zoning would allow building owners to raise habitable spaces and other building support features above expected flood elevations, without causing poorly designed, tall and narrow structures that don’t match neighboring homes. Regulations would incentivize active uses to be kept at the sidewalk level, and floodproofed ground floors with improved streetscapes.
  • Allow for adaptation over time through incremental retrofits: ZCFR would allow buildings to elevate or relocate important mechanical, electrical, and plumbing equipment, or backup systems like generators, above the expected height of floodwaters. This can be done either within the building, atop of the structure, or on a separate platform.
  • Facilitate future recovery by reducing regulatory obstacles: As seen by the COVID-19 pandemic, disasters arrive in all forms. Rather than writing new emergency provisions each time a crisis strikes, ZCFR would place recovery provisions in the Zoning Resolution, so they can be quickly selected based on the issues caused by the disaster and recovery period. These provisions include cutting down on red tape and paperwork, and allowing additional time for an affected, grandfathered business to reopen, even if it doesn’t conform with current zoning. 

In addition to ZCFR, the CPC approved zoning changes in three neighborhoods as part of DCP’s Resilient Neighborhood Initiative – Gerritsen Beach and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, and Old Howard Beach in Queens. These actions address resiliency challenges that are specific to the conditions found in these areas:

  • In Gerritsen Beach, zoning changes, including the establishment of a new Special Coastal Risk District, are proposed to limit future density and cap building heights at 25 feet above the flood elevation to more closely match the area’s built character.
  • In Sheepshead Bay, the existing Special Sheepshead Bay District would be updated to align it with ZCFR and prohibit below-grade plazas, which are prone to flooding.
  • In Old Howard Beach, zoning changes are proposed to limit the construction of attached homes, which are harder to retrofit and elevate than detached homes because of their shared walls. 

The City Council will hold public hearings on all four these proposals, followed by votes later this spring.

“CHPC applauds the City Planning Commission for voting to approve Zoning for Coastal Flood Resiliency. These important zoning changes will help NYC neighborhoods better withstand flooding and storms, streamlining the path for New Yorkers to return home or reopen their business after a disaster,” said Jessica Katz, Executive Director of Citizens Housing & Planning Council.

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