Now that Community Board 8’s land use committee is set again to take up what has been one of Riverdale’s most controversial building projects in recent years, we’re going to hear a lot about the importance of zoning.
Although history may vary depending on who tells it, modern zoning was developed a little more than a century ago right here in New York City, thanks primarily to the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway in Manhattan. While its 40 stories is nothing today compared to the 104 floors of One World Trade Center, for example — when it was built in 1915, Equitable created quite the ruckus.
It’s not that no one was building vertical back then, but its height and volume (more than 1.8 million square feet) cast a shadow over so much of Manhattan that most of its neighbors completely lost sunlight.
Believing Equitable was just the beginning, and that it wouldn’t take long for the borough to exist in total darkness of tall, voluminous buildings, the first citywide zoning ordinances were enacted.
Zoning is a part of everyday life no matter where you live or travel in the country. It is the language of the physical city, aiming to promote an orderly pattern of development, and to separate incompatible land uses — such as industrial uses and homes — to ensure a pleasant environment.
But you don’t have to take our word on that. That’s almost exactly what the city’s zoning department states on its website. Zoning controls what is built and where, and it’s not easy (or cheap) to change it.
A discussion describing zoning and its history is important when it comes to the Hebrew Home at Riverdale’s desire to build a continuing care retirement community, or CCRC, just south of its Palisade Avenue campus.
Daniel Reingold, who runs Hebrew Home’s non-profit parent RiverSpring Health, has made no secret of his plans to expand. The current proposal would build a 12-story building on Hebrew Home’s northern lot and a small group of buildings on the southern parcel that will be between four and six stories tall.
The 12-story building, believe it or not, isn’t really up for debate — that part of the property is zoned R-4, which typically would be appropriate for that kind of building. It’s the smaller buildings that have neighbors upset, because that property not only borders the Hudson River, it’s also on land zoned R-1, restricting it to single-family homes.
The concern about how such a structure could obstruct neighbors’ view of the river is a valid one, as are concerns about traffic, noise and even property values. In the end, the demand is that the property is currently zoned R-1, and zoning must be respected at all costs.
Except zoning is imperfect. Variances and outright rezoning does happen — sometimes for good reason, sometimes for not. That’s because even the zoning process is imperfect.
Yet, the basic tenet of zoning must remain intact — to promote an orderly pattern of development, and to separate incompatible land uses.
Opponents have called the Hebrew Home plans to build the CCRC incompatible. But we have to take a moment to step back and look at the overall neighborhood.
Yes, as we travel south on Palisade Avenue from the Hebrew Home, we find a lot of larger, single-family homes. Such a building as proposed by RiverSpring Health would absolutely be incompatible.
But do we ignore Skyview-on-the-Hudson, where some of the newest opposition to the plans have come from? These are three 22-story buildings that appear to climb even higher because of its raised elevation over the rest of Riverdale. Those aren’t new — they’ve been there for nearly 60 years.
And then you have the Hebrew Home itself, a campus that’s probably more comparable to a hospital facility in terms of size and volume — all in the shadow of the massive campus of the College of Mount Saint Vincent.
It’s also not like Hebrew Home is going to develop a wooded lot for the first time, or raze single-family homes. Instead, it will replace an institutional-style building that already exists on the site.
If a series of four- to six-story buildings aren’t compatible here, where would they be compatible?
In last week’s edition, the Skyview Owners Corp. Co-op — the governing body of Skyview-on-the-Hudson — bought an advertisement calling for RiverSpring Health and government officials to “respect Riverdale.” And we completely agree.
Where we disagree, however, is whether building a CCRC on land where institutional buildings already exist — next to other higher-density institutional buildings, and in the 22-story shadow of three long-standing towers — is disrespectful. Neighbors may say yes, but in the end, it’s going to be hard to convince planning officials of the same.
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