Suburban legislators are fiercely resisting Gov. Kathy Hochul’s ambitious plan to build 800,000 new homes across the state over the next decade, largely along MTA commuter lines. 

And now April 10 has come and gone, the second deadline Albany has missed to come up with a state budget, with bail reform and housing among the issues still caught in the lurch. 

But the suburbs aren’t the only areas putting up a fight against parts of Hochul’s housing agenda. Here in New York City, several Manhattan legislators have railed against a proposal from the governor to lift a decades-old density cap, which could significantly change how much housing is built in parts of the city that are already relatively dense. 

Right now, current land use rules allow residential buildings to be up to 12 times the size of their lot in what’s known as the density cap — or FAR (floor-area ratio) cap. It’s why residential buildings built after the cap went into effect in 1961 aren’t as dense as those built prior — such as some of the classic large apartment towers on Central Park’s edges. 

It contributes to why many of the city’s newest and tallest buildings are skinny. To maximize a building’s potential density allowed under the FAR cap, builders construct towering spindles on a patchwork of adjacent ground-level lots with dizzying height. 

For example, developers of the slender condos on Billionaires’ Row such as the 1,550-foot-tall Central Park Tower and 432 Park Ave., which is just shy of 1,400 feet, were able to build skyscrapers that technically comply with the cap by merging lots and using zoning loopholes that don’t factor into the FAR calculations. 

Both opponents and advocates for removing the cap point to the supertalls as a problem.

Hochul’s current housing proposal would require localities, including here in the city, to increase their housing stock by 3% over three years or lose their ability to reject development proposals. 

If Hochul gets her wish, the FAR cap would be lifted, allowing for rezoning. And if that happens, developers could start building denser residential buildings, which would likely rise in much of Manhattan, Long Island City and Downtown Brooklyn.

But first, the governor needs lawmakers on board. So far, they’ve largely rejected her idea to change the skyline — with two counterproposals suggested by Manhattan officials, and leaders in the state Senate and Assembly yet to sign on.

State Assemblymember Grace Lee speaks outside City Hall at a rally opposing the lifting of the Floor Area Ratio cap, March 24, 2023. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Those opposed to Hochul’s proposal to lift the FAR cap include Sen. Liz Krueger and Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Grace Lee, all Democrats representing Manhattan, as well as Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon (D-Brooklyn).

Hochul’s plan was also notably missing from budget proposals released by both the Senate and the Assembly earlier this year. 

Glick also previewed a more limited bill she would bring to the floor this session that would only lift the FAR cap for commercial buildings looking to switch to residential that have a density larger than what’s currently allowed. However, for those conversions, 40% of the redeveloped apartments would have to be permanently affordable. 

“Lifting the cap entirely is just the green light for rampant luxury development real estate developers seek,” Glick said in an April 1 press release. 

The Destiny of Density

Mayor Eric Adams, along with real estate interest groups and pro-housing advocacy organizations, have sided with Hochul on the matter. 

Dan Garodnick, Adams’ head of the Department of City Planning, has repeatedly advocated in favor of lifting the cap, recently co-authoring an op-ed on the subject with Council Speaker Adrienne Adams. Garodnick has argued that if the state limitation were nixed, the city could move forward with rezonings that would not only create more housing, but more affordable housing as well.

“We hope our partners in Albany will repeal the cap so that, together with the City Council, we can make our own determinations through the City’s exacting public review process, pursue our fair housing goals, and ensure every neighborhood pitches in to create opportunity for all New Yorkers,” Garodnick said in a statement to THE CITY.

Were Hochul’s proposal enacted in Albany, developers would still have to undergo the city’s monthslong land use review process, known as ULURP. And for upzonings — the name for land use changes that allow for more density — the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) policy would be triggered, which mandates a percentage of units be reserved for New Yorkers earning specific incomes. Those income-restricted units make up the bulk of what housing policy makers call affordable housing.

For Andrew Fine, policy director for the pro-housing group Open New York, the cap prevents further upzonings that could lead to more affordable housing, through MIH, in some of the more affluent neighborhoods.

Fine stressed that many of the city’s iconic residential buildings, such as the Beresford and others that ring Central Park, could not be built today. He also called the cap “totally arbitrary” because it placed limitations on residential buildings but not commercial ones. 

“We think that every neighborhood in every village, and every city and every town needs to do its part to address the housing crisis, and that includes Manhattan,” he said.

Offices Into Apartments?

The governor is also looking to enable more office-to-residential conversions this legislative session by lifting the density cap for commercial buildings built through 1990, which would address both the growing amount of vacant office space and the city’s need for more housing. 

Such conversions won’t require affordable housing, but Hochul’s budget plan also offers tax breaks for office conversions that do proffer affordable units.

While office buildings built before the density cap went into law are currently able to become residential, as well those built before 1977 in Lower Manhattan, those built after are not allowed to be converted.

Among key examples of office conversions is 1 Wall Street, located across from the New York Stock Exchange. Developer Harry Macklowe transformed the office building built in 1931 into a 566-unit residential tower that wrapped up construction earlier this year.

Critics of the current FAR cap say that admired buildings from the past would not be allowed under current rules. Credit: Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

Scores of office buildings throughout the city could technically become residential, even the Flatiron building, which is currently caught up in an auction debacle where a winning bidder went AWOL. However, the FAR cap isn’t the only impediment for conversions, with zoning laws and expensive costs to retrofit buildings making conversions difficult.

Glick’s proposal, which focuses on office conversions, calls for the cap lift for buildings that can ensure 40% of their units are income-restricted affordable housing. She called it “a measured response to permit large residential conversion of commercial property.” 

John Sanchez, the executive director of 5 Borough Housing Movement, a real estate-backed group advocating for more affordable housing, described Glick’s proposal as “sham legislation” that is unrealistic. 

Sanchez said Manhattan has to do more to boost the city’s housing stock, saying that the outer boroughs have helped create more affordable housing in recent years. He referred to the state’s target for downstate locaties to produce 3% more homes in the next three years.

“The only way for neighborhoods in Manhattan to reach the 3% target is by lifting the FAR cap, and with lifting the FAR cap we actually get affordability as a part of that,” he said.

Glick did not respond to a request for comment.

‘One Winner for Decades’

Still, some legislators have argued that lifting the density cap as Hochul is proposing won’t lead to anything other than luxury housing. 

Sen. Krueger told THE CITY that while she wasn’t completely opposed to lifting the cap, she opposed the governor’s proposal as it stands, arguing it won’t lead to more affordable housing. Lifting the cap without any guardrails would only truly benefit real estate interests, she said.

“The city has almost universal control over its own zoning. The only exception is this 12 FAR cap,” Krueger said. “I would argue that the city has so far proved not to be capable of keeping control of its own planning. Because when you look at the reality of, particularly Manhattan Island, there’s only been one winner for decades, and that’s called real estate.”

Krueger said she supports the governor’s plans for office-to-residential conversion because those buildings have already been built. She said that while she supports the direction of Glick’s proposal, she’s not sure “the math works” for 40% affordable housing. 

But she’s been talking to her colleagues about a proposal to lift the cap while preventing the “Dubai model of real estate,” she said, referring to the place where buildings that soar thousands of feet in the air — including the tallest building in the world, the 2,716-foot Burj Khalifa — shape the skyline.

She said her plan would allow developers to go above the density cap if they build rentals and provide 30% affordable units with limitations on the max size of units, so the buildings would not have giant apartments for the wealthy.  

She also said that lifting the density cap in certain neighborhoods has to account for the existing infrastructure, such as schools and fire stations for any increase in population. 

“I believe that it is in the best interests of anyone who actually says they’re concerned about affordability, or open space, or the pluses and minuses of population density to factor in these considerations, and not simply give real estate another giant gift,” she said.