NIMBYs on Upper East Side Threaten the Growth of NYC

Housing our growing population is among New York City’s most pressing land use challenges.  You would not know that though when examining the activity of some community groups.

The latest example of NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) behavior is the proposal before Manhattan Community Board 8 to put in place height limits on new buildings between York and Third Avenue between East 59th and 96th Streets. The proposal would limit new building heights to 210 feet.  This height limit would be put in place in a neighborhood that already has over 100 buildings —with approximately 22,000 apartments—that exceed this height.

A sensible approach to land use and planning—along with a need for each neighborhood to share in the City’s growth—dictates that this height restriction not advance.

Supporters of the height limit complain that their particular community is “over-developed.” The truth is the Upper East Side is far from overdeveloped. The call for height limits is simply another tactic of a select few to protect their views and maintain the status quo while keeping other New Yorkers out. Coupled with the existing landmarked districts, this proposal will result in over 75% of the Upper East Side with exclusionary zoning that severely restricts development. Data shows that historic districts result in wealthier communities that are less diverse and have fewer rental units, including affordable ones.

The call for height limits might have credence if a large percentage of the city’s housing stock was vacant. However, New York is in the midst of a housing emergency as it manages to house a population that is growing faster than demographers expected.

Efforts to restrict development don’t end with height limits. Other NIMBY groups that market their initiatives in innocuous terms like “contextual development” or citing specious claims over fire safety are currently working on plans to limit air rights transfers in an effort to downzone parts of the city.

These exclusionary zoning proposals will not only keep new residents out, but will increase development pressures on surrounding areas like East Harlem.

The Upper East Side is the perfect place to build more housing – not less. The expansion of the 2nd Avenue Subway into the neighborhood is an opportunity for new transit oriented development. And thanks to the City’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy there is a unique opportunity to create a more diverse community in an area where land costs are high.

Let’s not forget that the Upper East Side is home to a number of the world’s most treasured medical research facilities. Are we prepared to limit the growth of institutions that oversee life-saving medical research by this short sighted proposal?  Should the New York Blood Center (which, for example, is working on an AIDS vaccine) be denied an opportunity to expand its critical research facilities due to an arbitrary height limit?  While we’re at it, should we put a limit on other institutions at Cornell Weill, Memorial Sloan Kettering, or Rockefeller University due to a fear that their facilities will be too tall? This proposal will have an adverse impact on the City’s economy and its medical research institutions.

Height limits will exacerbate the city’s housing crisis and exclude people who do not live on the Upper East Side.  In that sense, it will operate as New York City’s version of a wall, designed to keep people out and to maintain the status quo.