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Special Districts

Review Districts

Following is a review of the Special District language. The view expressed in the Department of City Planning’s Zoning Handbook is that the advent of contextual zoning has reduced the demand for special district formation (e.g., Clinton type protection is between the lines of this policy) and thereby raises the bar for the status of special in the zoning text.

For example, the special district player in Washington Heights is made special by the alleged need to build a 7-story deep bathtub in Manhattanville and then go up 10 to 15 stories to serve Columbia’s interest in a 21st c. campus. It is not likely that CD12 (aka displacement city) will need to protect itself (as in Clinton) or promote this form of specialness as a blue zone approach. To give it a try, the following is offered as a method for discovering language or precedents that may prove helpful in determining a course of action on this theme.

RLC – From the Washington Heights Study.

DCP’s Website Banner on Special Districts Page
OverviewCitywideBronxBrooklynManhattanQueensStaten Island

Before the passage of contextual zoning, the most widely used affirmative zoning technique was special district zoning. This technique permits areas with unique characteristics to flourish rather than be overwhelmed by standard development. Over the years, the Department of City Planning (DCP) has codified special zoning districts to achieve specific planning and urban design objectives for limited, well-defined areas. Each district stipulates requirements and provides zoning incentives for developers who offer the specific urban qualities the Commission looks to promote in that area. It has proven to be a lawful way of using private capital to carry out public policy, but not without its challenges.

We have an interest in reviewing them all with the assistance of a small graduate team of aspiring planners. The DCP has combined access to these places by Borough — a link will take you to all of them.

Excluding the banner, the special districts in New York City using a simple word count is as follows: Manhattan (30) Brooklyn (13) Staten Island (6) Queens (3) Bronx (4).

Special Atlantic Avenue District (Brooklyn)
The Special Atlantic Avenue District was created to preserve the scale and character of Atlantic Avenue, including certain architectural features of the buildings. The special district provides flexibility in arranging building bulk, mandates street-level commercial uses, and establishes design guidelines for renovation and new construction. Demolition of buildings is prohibited except for unsafe structures or to make way for a new development for which a building permit and financial commitments have been secured. To improve the visual character of the avenue, special sign regulations are imposed for commercial establishments.

Special Battery Park City District (Manhattan)
The Special Battery Park City District was created to govern extensive residential and commercial development in an area close to the business core of Lower Manhattan, following a master plan for Battery Park City.

The centerpiece of the master plan is the office complex. To the north and south of this complex are two large residential neighborhoods with street-level retail uses. One central element of the plan is a continuous esplanade providing public access to the Hudson River waterfront. In addition, the district contains special design controls concerning floor area ratio, required building walls, and permissible building height.

Special Bay Ridge District (Brooklyn)
The Special Bay Ridge District was established to protect the existing scale and character of the Bay Ridge community. The special district distinguishes the scale of development in the midblock from that on the avenue frontage. The midblock street zone encourages two- and three-family homes with a maximum height of three stories. The Avenue Zone promotes the rehabilitation of existing structures and limits new development to a six- to eight-story maximum. In addition, notable setbacks, curb cuts, open space, tree planting, and ground floor commercial requirements have been included to preserve the character of the existing street wall both along the avenues and side streets.

Special City Island District (Bronx)
The Special City Island District was adopted to preserve the nautical uses and low-rise residential character. The special district regulations restrict the size and illumination of business signs, limit building heights to three- to five stories, and ensure adequate parking. The only commercial and manufacturing use permitted are those which reflect the nautical flavor of the island or serve the retail needs of the residents.

Special Clinton District (Manhattan)
The Special Clinton District in Manhattan was created to preserve and strengthen the community’s residential character, maintain the mixture of income groups present in the area, and ensure that Clinton is not adversely affected by new development.

Special Coney Island Mixed-Use District (Brooklyn)
The Special Coney Island Mixed-Use District was established to stabilize residential development while protecting the area’s industrial base. The district allows limited new residential infill and requires special permits for significant new industrial products. Existing residential buildings are permitted for enlargements, alterations, and repairs, and construction of new residential buildings is allowed if the buildings are next to an existing residential or community facility use. New manufacturing is limited to specific light industries compatible with residential uses.

Special Franklin Street Mixed-Use District (Brooklyn)
The Special Franklin Street Mixed-Use District was established to balance residential and industrial uses by remapping the area from an M1-1 district to an R6 (M1-1) district. The district allows residential and community facility uses according to R6 district regulations. All existing industrial uses may expand by 3,000 square feet [? Size of a tennis court], or 50 percent, whichever is less. A more extensive expansion may be granted by a special permit from the City Planning Commission.

A new user group, Use Group M, has been established, allowing light industries and commercial uses in Use Groups 6, 7, 9, and 11 to occupy vacant storefronts.

Special Fulton Mall District (Brooklyn)
The Special Fulton Mall District in Downtown Brooklyn was established to create an attractive shopping environment in a city street mall plan. Special retail use, sign, facade, and circulation improvement regulations are provided. In addition, a special assessment district has been created, through state legislation, to maintain the mall.

Vehicular traffic (except buses) is prohibited within the mall. Major public amenities required within the district include improved transit access, street furniture, street lighting, tree planting, and special sidewalks and roadbeds.

Special Garment Center District (Manhattan)
The Special Garment Center District was created to maintain the viability of apparel production in selected mid-blocks in the city’s Garment Center by making a Preservation Area within which the conversion of manufacturing space to office use is restricted. Conversion to office use in the Preservation Area is permitted only by certification of the City Planning Commission that an equal amount of comparable floor area has been preserved for specified manufacturing uses. The legality of this unique district is currently being litigated.

Special Grand Concourse District (The Bronx)
The Special Grand Concourse District was created to protect the distinctive art deco composition and scale of the Grand Concourse by establishing bulk and design regulations and limiting commercial uses to designated locations that will not conflict with the boulevard’s traditional residential character. The district consists of a Residential Preservation Area and three commercial sub-areas. New construction must conform to R8X (Alternate 1) guidelines.

Special Greenwich Street Development District (Manhattan)
The Special Greenwich Street Development District was established to foster and promote the orderly expansion of commercial development in Lower Manhattan adjacent to Battery Park City and the World Trade Center.

This district attempts to implement an integrated plan for improved pedestrian and vehicular circulation and to encourage the development of a variety of retail and service establishments to meet the needs of the area’s working population. This is accomplished through a series of pedestrian circulation improvements and certain lot improvements in the district for floor area bonuses.

Some unique features of this district are its provisions for involving both the developer and appropriate public agencies in constructing specific pedestrian circulation improvements.

Special Hillsides Preservation District (Staten Island)
The purpose of the Special Hillsides Preservation District is to preserve the hilly terrain and unique natural features of Staten Island by reducing hillside erosion, landslides, and excessive stormwater runoff. The primary concept for regulating development under this special district is the slope coverage approach. As the development site becomes steeper, the permitted building coverage decreases, but the permissible floor area on the site remains the same.

Special Hunters Point Mixed-Use District (Queens)
The Special Hunters Point Mixed Use District was created to permit limited as-of-right status for the enlargement/alteration of existing residential buildings and new infill residential construction. All residential and community facility uses are subject to R5 district regulations. In some cases, a special permit is required for certain residential and community facility uses. New manufacturing and commercial uses, or enlargement of existing buildings containing such services, are allowed as-of-right as long as these developments or enlargements contain no residential uses and do not cause significant adverse environmental impacts. In addition, such new developments or enlargements must meet M1 district performance standards.

The Special Court Square Subdistrict has been created within this special district to encourage high-density commercial development in an area well-served by the subway system.
Special Jacob K. Javits Convention Center District (Manhattan)

The Special Jacob K. Javits Convention Center District was established to enhance the pedestrian configuration and appearance of the area surrounding the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. In addition, it is intended to promote new development compatible with the Convention Center by mandating street walls and streetscape improvements that supplement the underlying zoning district regulations.

Pedestrian circulation improvements consist of landscaped sidewalk widenings and through-block walkways, street trees, and retail frontage along Eleventh Avenue. Height and setback regulations govern all new buildings along Eleventh Avenue, the Convention Center Plaza streets, and the through block walkways. In addition, mandated street wall setbacks and sky exposure planes regulate the distribution of building bulk to define the public spaces on which each front and frame the edges of the Plaza.

Special Limited Commercial District (Manhattan)
The Special Limited Commercial District attempts to preserve the character of commercial areas within historic districts by restricting commercial uses to those compatible with the historic district and mandating that all commercial uses be in completely enclosed buildings. In addition, limitations are also set for the size and illumination of signs within the special district. One such special district has been mapped in Greenwich Village.

Special Lincoln Square District (Manhattan)
The Special Lincoln Square District was established to enhance the character of the area surrounding Lincoln Square as an international center for the performing arts. The district mandates the height of building walls along certain streets and the placement of arcades and types of commercial use at street level as a means of guiding the orderly redevelopment of the Lincoln Square area. In addition, the district offers special floor area bonuses by permit from the City Planning Commission for new development. The following public amenities: mandatory arcades, subsurface concourse connections to subways or subway improvements, and lower-income housing as outlined in the provisions of Inclusionary Housing.

Special Little Italy District (Manhattan)
The Special Little Italy District was established to preserve and enhance this community’s historical and commercial character. Special use regulations protect the retail area along Mulberry Street. Other regulations encourage residential rehabilitation and new development on a scale consistent with existing buildings, discourage the demolition of noteworthy buildings, and increase the number of street trees in the area.

Special Lower Manhattan Mixed-Use District
The Special Lower Manhattan Mixed-Use District was enacted to permit limited residential development in an otherwise industrial 62-block area in Manhattan south of Canal Street. That portion of the district, which is mapped as an overlay on existing manufacturing zones, permits certain older manufacturing buildings to be converted to loft dwellings and joint living-work quarters for artists. New contextual residential development is also permitted where the district is mapped as an overlay on existing commercial zones. At the same time, retention of the underlying zoning protects the economic vitality of this area.

Special Madison Avenue Preservation District (Manhattan)
The Special Madison Avenue Preservation District is intended to preserve and reinforce the unique character of Madison Avenue and the surrounding area (from 61st to 96th streets). Bulk and street wall height provisions limit the height of new development to the scale of existing buildings, require a continuous building facade along Madison Avenue, mandate ongoing ground floor development of a selected list of appropriate shops, and require the provision of usable recreation space at rooftop levels. Within this district, the maximum permissible floor area ratio is 10.0. Since building height is limited, greater building coverage is allowed.

Special Manhattan Bridge District
The Special Manhattan Bridge District was established to preserve this Lower Manhattan community’s residential character, minimize residential relocation on development sites, and provide for selective demolition and rehabilitation of existing buildings. A special floor area bonus is allowed to provide new community facility space and dwelling units for low- and moderate-income families. It is possible to transfer development rights from a site containing existing buildings to new development within this district. The district mandates that street trees be planted in connection with new development. Unless renewed, this district was designed to “lapse” on September 1, 1991. Have to update this, any of you all have a line on this…

Special Manhattan Landing Development District
The Special Manhattan Landing Development District guides off-shore development from Battery Park to the Manhattan Bridge along the East River. This district is under review.

Special Midtown District (Manhattan)
The Special Midtown District was established to guide all development within the midtown central business district. The special district includes three areas of special concern that are subject to additional regulations. These sub-districts are the Theatre Subdistrict, the Preservation Subdistrict, and the Fifth Avenue Subdistrict.

The Special Midtown District has a base FAR of 15.0 along avenue frontages and a FAR of 12.0 in the mid-blocks. The base FAR in the Preservation Subdistrict is 8.0 to restrict development on the side streets surrounding the Museum of Modern Art. The base FAR of the Theatre Subdistrict core (on Broadway and Seventh Avenue frontages around Times Square) is set at 14.0 FAR, the FAR in the mid-blocks between Sixth and Seventh Avenues is set at 12.0, and the FAR in the mid-blocks between Broadway and Eighth Avenue is 10.0.

The core of the Theatre Subdistrict has the highest concentration of legitimate theaters and entertainment-related uses. Therefore, the Theatre Subdistrict requires a City Planning Commission special permit to demolish any of the 44 legitimate theaters that are not designated landmarks.

The Theatre Subdistrict has special use and signage requirements (in keeping with the area’s character). A flexible development rights transfer provision has been established for the preservation of landmark theaters. In the Theatre Subdistrict, a new building above a certain size must reserve at least five percent of its floor space (not FAR) for entertainment and theater-related uses. Areas outside the Preservation Subdistrict and the Theatre Subdistrict are eligible for an as-of-right FAR bonus for urban plazas, through-block galleries, and theater retention. The only bonus available in the Theatre Subdistrict core is the City Planning Commission special permit bonus for rehabilitation listed theaters. The Preservation Subdistrict is not eligible for any floor area bonus. Other remaining areas can receive a floor area bonus for subway station improvements and the rehabilitation of theaters.

Certain urban design features, such as continuity of street wall and retail uses, off-street relocation of existing subway stairs, and provision of on-site pedestrian circulation spaces, are mandated. The special district also includes certain use and signage controls for the Fifth Avenue and Theatre Sub-districts. Special daylight evaluation criteria are included to ensure the availability of light and air on midtown streets. The Special Midtown District represents a shift away from discretionary zoning to more predictable, as-of-right development.

Special Natural Area District (the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island)
The purpose of the Special Natural Area District is to preserve unique natural characteristics, such as aquatic, biologic, geologic, and topographic features having ecological and conservation values, by reviewing all new developments and site alterations on primarily vacant land. Natural features are protected by limiting topography modifications, preserving trees, plant and marine life, and natural watercourses, and requiring clustered development to maximize the preservation of natural features.

Under the regulations of the special district, the City Planning Commission must certify that all new development in mapped natural area districts meets applicable preservation standards.
Special natural area districts have been mapped in the Greenbelt and Von Briesen Park areas of Staten Island, in Riverdale, and in Fort Totten. These areas are endowed with steep slopes, rock outcrops, creeks, and a variety of botanic environments.

Special Northside Mixed Use District (Brooklyn)
This mixed-use district is designed to meet the needs of a neighborhood where housing and industry co-exist. The City Planning Commission selectively mapped mixed-use areas — R(M) when the area is primarily residential and M(R) when it is industrial — to allow controlled residential or light manufacturing expansion where such uses can grow and function without conflict. This and the Coney Island district were the forerunners of MX (I know I worked on them).

R(M) and M(R) districts combine the regulations for R6 and M1 areas. In an M(R) district, manufacturing uses are permitted to develop in the same manner as in any other M1 district. Existing residences may be enlarged and new residential construction is permitted as-of-right on blocks that are already primarily residential. New residential construction is permitted on certain other sites after approval of a special permit by the City Planning Commission.

In an R(M) district, residential uses are permitted to develop in the same manner as in any other R6 district. Limited expansion of selected light industries that do not conflict with residential uses is permitted. Other industries become non-conforming and are allowed to remain but not to expand. New industrial development requires a special permit from the Commission.

Special Ocean Parkway District (Brooklyn)
The purpose of the Special Ocean Parkway District is to strengthen the existing character and quality of the community and to enhance the scenic landmark designation of Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. All new community facility developments or enlargements are limited, except by special permission, to the residential bulk regulations of the underlying districts. All developments with frontage on Ocean Parkway are required to provide a 30-foot unobstructed front yard, subject to limitations on paving and landscaping, thereby preserving the character envisioned by the original designer of the parkway. Accessory off-street parking for all new developments must be completely enclosed and all new developments along Ocean Parkway are required to provide street trees. Isn’t that special…

Special Park Improvement District (Manhattan)
The Special Park Improvement District was created to preserve the character and architectural quality of Fifth and Park Avenues. It limits the height of new buildings to 210 feet or 19 stories, whichever is less, and mandates street wall continuity.

Special Planned Community Preservation District (The Bronx, Manhattan, Queens)
The Special Planned Community Preservation District designation protects the unique character of well-planned communities that have been developed as a unit. Those communities characteristically have large landscaped open spaces and a superior relationship of buildings, open spaces, commercial uses, and pedestrian and vehicular circulation. In many cases, they have been threatened by development pressures. No demolition, new development, enlargement, or alteration of landscaping or topography is permitted within the district except by a special permit of the City Planning Commission. Preservation districts have been mapped in Sunnyside Gardens, Fresh Meadows, Parkchester, and Harlem River Houses.

Special Scenic View District (Brooklyn)
The Special Scenic View District is intended to prevent outstanding scenic views from a public park, esplanade, or mapped public place. No buildings or structures are allowed to penetrate a scenic view plane except by a special permit of the City Planning Commission. To protect the waterfront view of the Lower Manhattan skyline, Governors Island, the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge, a special scenic view district has been mapped for the area west of the Brooklyn Heights Esplanade.

Special Sheepshead Bay District (Brooklyn)
The Special Sheepshead Bay District was devised to encourage development that will strengthen and protect the neighborhood’s unique waterfront recreation and commercial character. In the area immediately north of the fishing fleet wharves, commercial uses are restricted to uses that support waterfront and tourism-related activities.

All new development along Emmons Avenue must provide widened sidewalks, street trees, and plazas which may contain sitting areas, landscaping, kiosks, and cafes. Floor area bonuses are provided for plazas, arcades, usable residential open space and additional accessory commercial parking. Special density and height limits have been established. This district is under review.

Special South Richmond Development District (Staten Island)
The Special South Richmond Development District was established to guide the development of predominantly vacant land in the southern half of Staten Island. The special district maintains the densities established by the underlying zones and ensures that new development is compatible with existing communities.

To maintain the existing community character, the district mandates tree preservation, planting requirements, controls on changes to the topography, height limits, and setback and curb cut restrictions along railroads and certain roads. It restricts construction within designated open space (a defined network of open space set aside for preservation in its natural state). To preserve designated open space without penalizing the owners of such space, owners are permitted to transfer development rights from the designated open space to the balance of their property. The developer must submit a topographic survey and a report on the availability of public services as a prerequisite to any application for development. A performance bond must also be provided to assure continued maintenance and improvement of public open space.

Special South Street Seaport District (Manhattan)
The purpose of the Special South Street Seaport District is to facilitate the preservation and restoration of the seaport’s historic buildings following an approved development plan. The low scale of the port is retained by transferring development rights above the low buildings to specified neighboring locations for commercial development.

Special Transit Land Use District (Manhattan)
The Special Transit, Land Use District relates development along Second Avenue to a future subway line. The special district requires builders of developments adjoining subway stations to reserve space in their projects by providing ease for public access to the subway or other subway-related use. The resulting new subway entrances and mezzanines would be airy, attractive, and functional instead of sidewalk obstructions that impede pedestrian circulation. The district is mapped at locations between Chatham Square and East 126th Street.

Special Union Square District (Manhattan)
The Special Union Square District was established to revitalize the area around Union Square by encouraging mixed-use development. Its urban design provisions provide compatibility between new products, existing buildings, and Union Square Park. The district mandates ground-floor retail uses, off-street relocation of subway stairs, and the continuity of street walls. In addition, unique streetscape and signage controls enhance the physical appearance of the district. Within this district, a floor area ratio bonus for subway improvements is available by special permit of the City Planning Commission.

Special United Nations Development District (Manhattan)
The Special United Nations Development District attempts to guide the midtown area adjacent to the United Nations. A significant feature of the district regulations is a unified design concept. In addition, the primary floor area ratio for the district was increased from 10.0 to 15.0 to promote exceptional public amenities needed in the area and to implement the development plan.

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