New York, NY—During his tenure as City Councilman, Ben Kallos has worked towards building and preserving at least 1,000 affordable housing units in his district. But some units have been lost to demolition to make way for residential towers that exceed the average building height of 200 feet tall. He has a plan that would compel developers to build more affordable housing when they are building very tall.

Wendy Machaver, an Upper East Side resident at 81st and 1st Avenue, was one of many constituents that joined the Councilman in his monthly community discussion session via Zoom.

She bemoaned an ongoing plan to build a mega development between East 79th Street and East 80th Street along 1st Avenue that could exceed 350,000 square feet, saying that for too long New Yorkers have been told that taller buildings would bring numerous community benefits.

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“For decades, New Yorkers have been given the false promise that taller real estate construction would provide upgraded transportation, affordable housing, lower homeless rates, new senior centers, schools, permanent housing and the like, and we began to hear again as the economic devastation of the pandemic became increasingly apparent that these false promises are again resurfacing,” said Machaver.

She told Council member Kallos that’s she very grateful for the units that he has been able to bring on line, but added that the demolition of the cluster of buildings between East 79th Street and East 80th Street probably alone destroyed about 1,000 units of affordable housing.

“And, I was told by a city planner that in District 5, our neighborhood, about 7,000 units have been destroyed already,” Machaver said.

Kallos noted that on the Upper East Side the maximum density allowed for a residential district is a floor area ratio of 10. According to NYC Planning, the floor area ratio is the principal bulk regulation controlling the size of buildings.

“FAR is the ratio of total building floor area to the area of its zoning lot. Each zoning district has an FAR which, when multiplied by the lot area of the zoning lot, produces the maximum amount of floor area allowable on that zoning lot.”

And so, the maximum density allowed under law can be 200 feet tall, but the new norm today is that buildings on the Upper East Side are reaching as high as 300 feet tall, and one development at 180 East 88th Street the building will be 550 feet tall. 

“And so the question is what is the relationship between the height and the density and the answer is that the zoning code is a two-dimensional measure, so all they’re doing is that they’re taking the same amount of housing that can be squeezed into a building that is 200 feet tall and spreading it out over a building that is 550 feet tall,” said Council member Kallos.

He also noted that developers charge a different price for a one-bedroom when it is 200 feet in the air versus when it is 500 feet in the air. Therefore, one of the items he’s pushing for is a height limit of 210 feet tall as a starting point in the Upper East Side.

“Developers could go to 12 FAR, and we could do more to actually get affordable housing if people wanted to build tall, and we could also have a cross subsidy between the luxury units and the affordable housing units in a building that was particularly tall,” Council member Kallos said.

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