Upzoning a neighborhood to encourage new apartment buildings, even with affordability requirements, can increase food prices as higher income tenants move into the market rate units.
To ensure that rezoning improves food access and housing affordability, NYC should:
Neighborhood planning and rezoning are underway in neighborhoods across the city, propelled by Mayor de Blasio’s 10-year plan to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing and the city’s sustainability plan, One New York. Six neighborhoods are in the planning pipeline, with 9 more anticipated by the end of the Mayor’s term. East New York is the farthest along in the process, with a completed plan and a rezoning proposal moving through public review beginning in September. The Jerome Avenue corridor in the South Bronx and Manhattan’s East Harlem are not far behind. Other planning areas include Flushing, Queens, Inwood, Manhattan, and Bay Street, Staten Island.
Because the zoning text defines allowable uses and building shapes and sizes on every parcel of land, the process of rezoning is a core part of the Mayor’s housing plan. It can reduce costly requirements, like onsite parking, increase land value by allowing more profitable commercial or residential uses on outdated manufacturing sites, or eliminate incompatible nearby uses that might otherwise bring property values down. But a key to stimulating the construction of affordable housing is the process of “upzoning” a neighborhood to create mandatory inclusionary housing zones, which permit the construction of larger residential buildings that generate more revenue while requiring those buildings to have permanent affordable units. In theory, the market rate units can cross subsidize the affordable ones, assuming that the market rate and affordable rents are sufficient to cover a building’s construction and operating costs.
Most analysts of rezoning have focused on a few key questions:
To date, however, there has been virtually no attention paid to the effects of rezoning on local food systems and public health, the topic of this commentary.
The use of zoning to support a healthy food environment is relatively new on the urban planning agenda. Throughout the 20th century, planners largely ignored the food system, treating food production as an exclusively rural activity and relegating responsibility for distribution and marketing to the private sector. This perspective began to change in the 1990s, as rising rates of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases made healthy food access a politically salient issue, at the same time as growing consumer demand for locally produced food put the vulnerabilities of regional food systems on the radar screen of activists, entrepreneurs, and political leaders. More recently, the effects of climate change-induced extreme weather, and the prospect of more frequent storms like Hurricane Sandy, heightened attention to vulnerabilities in the food system’s infrastructure.
Advocacy groups and local food policy councils framed these problems as urban policy issues, enrolling the support of local elected officials. Across the US and Canada cities turned to their authority over municipal land use through zoning to address key food system issues. A growing body of scholarly research used geographic information systems to analyze the location of food infrastructure focusing attention to the spatial dimensions of the food system. Planners, public health researchers, and geographers began to publish articles identifying disparities in access to healthy food and correlating obesogenic food environments and diet-related diseases with neighborhood racial and socioeconomic composition. Activists and the media translated these studies, using terms like “food deserts” and “food swamps” to draw attention to these disparities, while framing food policy in spatial terms.
At the same time, the growing practice of urban agriculture created conflicts over the location of farms and gardens, demanding attention to their locations, scale, and operations. Some municipal zoning ordinances prohibited or were silent about urban agriculture, and the growth of activities like raising poultry or proposals for large scale commercial agriculture made it necessary for cities to regulate the type, location, scale and operational parameters of farms and gardens. Cities also needed to accommodate emerging forms of food production and distribution, from rooftop greenhouses to food trucks. These changes have prompted multi-year, multi-stakeholder efforts to accommodate urban agriculture in many cities.
New York City has not had to grapple with zoning for urban agriculture because the city’s zoning text allows agriculture and farmstands “as of right” in all residential, commercial, and manufacturing zones. But like other cities, it has had to address rising rates of obesity and diet-related diseases and the dearth of full-service supermarkets selling healthy food in low-income communities of color.
In 2009,the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP) adopted a program called Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH), which combined financial and zoning incentives to encourage supermarkets to open in neighborhoods designated as having insufficient or inadequate numbers of healthy food retailers. The financial incentives include tax abatements and exemptions, while the zoning incentives allow property developers in FRESH neighborhoods to build larger buildings than otherwise permitted under the existing zoning (one additional square foot of residential floor area for each square foot of grocery store space, up to 20,000 more square feet) by including a neighborhood grocer on the ground floor. To qualify for this zoning bonus, the grocer must have at least 6,000 square feet for general groceries, half for food intended for home preparation and consumption and 30% for perishable food, with at least 500 square feet for fresh produce. FRESH zoning also reduces parking requirements, and allows food stores on land zoned for light manufacturing as well as commercial use.
DCP has also responded to growing interest in rooftop agriculture and a desire to use zoning to stimulate green initiatives and new business development. In 2012 the city amended the zoning text to encourage rooftop greenhouses. New York City is a leader in rooftop agriculture, thanks to large-scale commercial rooftop farms like the Brooklyn Grange and innovative hydroponic greenhouses atop supermarkets like Whole Foods, and affordable housing projects like Arbor House in the South Bronx. To stimulate more rooftop agriculture, which the city has viewed as an economic development opportunity, the zoning text was amended to exempt rooftop greenhouses on commercial buildings from existing bulk and height limits (provided that the greenhouse is no more than 25 feet tall). This zoning change increases the number of commercial buildings that can accommodate rooftop food production and thus supports this emerging business sector.
While the FRESH and rooftop greenhouse zoning changes directly affect the food system, rezoning designed to create housing and economic development, to turn underused and contaminated industrial land into more valuable real estate, or to increase density around transit hubs to support a growing population have potentially much greater effects on food, even if food is not explicitly part of the equation. Rezoning to achieve these goals was quite popular during the Bloomberg administration, which boasted that it had rezoned 120 communities during its three terms.
What effects have these rezoning efforts had on the food system? One effect is to permit or preclude specific types of food retailers in particular areas or on particular parcels. For example, land in East Harlem (between 116th – 119th Streets near the East River) that had been occupied by a defunct manufacturing facility, the Washburn Wire Factory, was transformed through a special permit and related zoning amendments to allow the development of East River Plaza, a project that includes two big box retailers, one now occupied by Costco. The decision to define the permitted form, size, and uses on the site in a way that allowed big box retailing was quite deliberate. During the project’s environmental review, which requires agencies to consider alternatives to a proposed action, the city considered and dismissed as less desirable a “local retail mix” alternative in which the site would be zoned for a mixture of six 10,000 square foot local retail stores and a 60,000 square foot supermarket. Whether one believes that a big box food retailer like Costco, or a conventional supermarket, or some other type of food retailer best serves the neighborhood’s food needs, the outcome is determined by zoning decisions made by planners and developers with the approval of elected officials, not the market alone.
A different project also in East Harlem illustrates how the rezoning process can affect food retail by altering the value of real estate on and around particular parcels. When the City Planning Commission rezoned 125th Street to encourage new residential, commercial, and office development, the new zoning allowed a parcel on 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, now occupied by a Pathmark supermarket, to contain 450,000 square feet of buildable space, 300,000 square feet of air rights for other residential development, and additional development bonuses for affordable housing, significantly increasing its value and changing its use. The rezoning also made higher density residential, commercial and office development feasible along the entire east-west corridor in Harlem, further increasing the value of the Pathmark site. As a result, Extell Development bought the land for $39 million and plans to replace the Pathmark building with something much larger. Extell has not announced whether the replacement will include a grocer, or how much of the ground floor, if any, will be devoted to food retail. The rezoning of the parcel itself and the rezoning of neighboring land has made a wide range of development options financially feasible, but resulted in the displacement of a supermarket that is an important source of healthy food for residents of East Harlem.
Another indirect effect of rezoning on the food environment is the result of changes that may occur to the socioeconomic composition of the community. Upzoning allows higher density construction, but the revenue needed to profitably build and operate a mid- or high-rise residential building in New York City, due to high construction and operating costs, requires rents that may exceed the current local median rent. If affordable units are included in a new residential building, the rents of the market rate apartments that subsidize those affordable ones may have to be even higher. For example, according to a study by NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, a new mid-size residential building that is exempt from taxes, with 20% of its apartments priced to be affordable to those making 60% of the area median income, would require the other 80% of the units to have market-rate rents of at least $2,300 per month to generate enough revenue for a minimum financial return. In low-income neighborhoods like Highbridge/ Concourse in the Bronx (where the Jerome Avenue corridor rezoning is taking place) the median asking rent in 2013 was only $1,350. This means that the residents of new buildings constructed in this community, at least those paying market rate rents, will have higher household incomes than current residents. Developers may not even be able to finance new residential buildings in communities with low market rents unless they receive additional subsidies or are allowed to meet their affordability requirements with more expensive units targeted to middle-income tenants.
By stimulating the construction of new buildings with a mix of higher and affordable rents, and attracting higher income households to the neighborhood, upzoning can put upward pressure on existing rents, leading to direct displacement of tenants in buildings with unregulated rents. But it can also affect the food choices of households. To the extent that new housing drives up the neighborhood’s rents, existing residents may be faced with a higher rent burden (the percent of their income spent on rent), leaving less disposable income for healthy food.
Implementing policies to stabilize neighborhood commercial businesses are also critical in neighborhoods undergoing rezoning. Since commercial rents are not controlled, new development may also cause commercial rents in a neighborhood to rise, forcing out mom and pop businesses, and attracting retailers that can afford the higher rents by charging higher prices and by offering different goods and services. These changes can make a neighborhood a less affordable and perhaps a less welcoming place for existing lower-income residents to shop.
Food retail is not the only segment of the food system that is affected by rezoning. As a neighborhood loses vacant lots and small manufacturing sites to mixed-use buildings with new apartments and shops, spaces for activities like urban agriculture, small-scale food processing, and opportunities for local food distribution hubs, components of a diverse food system that contribute to resilience, may disappear
These effects illustrate the need for planners to assess whether and to what extent a proposed rezoning affects a community’s food system as the planning process begins and before ideas for rezoning are proposed – and certainly before the zoning code is changed. Planners have a professional responsibility to do more than just avoid making the food system in a neighborhood less just, accessible, healthy, or resilient. They should use zoning as a tool to make communities more food secure and healthier.
The environmental review process is one mechanism to ensure that if rezoning increases residential units in a neighborhood it is accompanied by an appropriate increase in commercial spaces suitable for supermarkets, grocers, and other food retailers, so that the neighborhood has more fresh food retail per capita after the change. This kind of analysis is typically done for other infrastructure, like subway station capacity, but is not required for food retail. Adding food to the other systems (transportation, water, schools) currently evaluated in the environmental assessment process would ensure that planners considered food as they developed proposed zoning changes, and the environmental reviews would provide data for communities to more effectively argue for changes that make their food environment more just, healthy, and environmentally sound.
Zoning proposals also go through something called the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which allows citizens, the community board, the Borough President and City Council members an opportunity to analyze and critique a proposal. The ULURP process is another vehicle to voice concerns about the potential effects of rezoning on food infrastructure.
 City of New York. (2014). Housing New York: A Five-Borough, Ten-Year Plan (p. 7). New York, NY.
 Pothukuchi, K., & Kaufman, J. L. (2000). The Food System: A Stranger to the Planning Field. Journal of the American Planning Association, 66(2), 113–124.
 Madar J. & Willis M. Creating Affordable Housing Out of Thin Air: The Economics of Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning in New York City. 2015. NY: NYU Furman Center.
Jerome Avenue streetscape