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Residents Try to Understand Sunnyside/Woodside Zoning Maze

(Photo Courtesy of: Kamila Harris)

June 2, 2010 By Christian Murray

New York City Planning officials told residents at a community meeting held by Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer last week that it is unlikely that developers would build structures more than 8 stories high along the Sunnyside section of Queens Blvd if the zoning proposal went into effect.

Under the new zoning proposal, developers would be prohibited from building above 125 ft on the Sunnyside section of Queens Blvd. ­– which equates to roughly 12 stories. However, given the floor area ratio limits that are proposed, it would be unlikely that developers would reach these heights unless they owned a whole block.  Furthermore, it would not make economic sense, the planning officials said, for a developer to build that high.

Under the existing zoning, Tom Smith, the Dept. of City Planning’s project manager, said a developer could go as high as 18 stories on Queens Blvd—or 180ft. However, while that may be true, the chances that a developer would reach that limit are extremely remote due to the lower floor area ratios in place today (than what is being proposed), the size of the available lots and the economics of it.

Therefore, bigger, more-compact buildings are what are being proposed. The proposed plan states that between 39th Street and 48th Street developers can erect buildings as much as 5 times the size of the lot.

However, in order for developers to be able to build 5 times the lot size, they would have to set at least 20% of the units aside for “affordable housing” (also known as inclusionary housing), which caters to buyers who earn less than 80% of the median income. Developers who elect not to build “affordable housing” would be limited to 3.75 times the lot size.

Under the existing plan, property between 39th and 41st Street on Queens Blvd is zoned an R5. In this zone, a developer can build a structure that is only 1.25 the size of the zoning lot—significantly smaller.

The proposed up-zoning (although at times the overall proposal was presented like it was a down-zoning) is part of city planning’s goal to increase density from Long Island City through Sunnyside.

Between 41st and 44th street, the existing zoning is a R7-1 which enables builders to develop a structure 3.44 times (excluding a community centers) the zoning lot space. And between 44th and 48th street (excluding community centers) it is currently zoned a C4-2, allowing developers to build 3.4 times the zoning lot size.  That could conceivably go to 4.8 times the zoning lot–in the unlikely event a developer builds a community center.

Under the proposed plan, a developer would be able to build 5 times the lot area (to a maximum of 125 feet). Therefore, there would be more residential dwellings—especially given the affordable housing (or inclusionary zoning) component.

Attendees at the event, expressed concern that an influx of new residents would overwhelm the already crowded classrooms. They were concerned that the police, fire and emergency services would struggle to handle more residents.

City Planners were unable to give estimates as to how many more residents might come to the neighborhood.

Other attendees were concerned that small businesses would suffer, since the new buildings would most likely contain large ground-floor commercial space, which is the type typically leased to large drug stores or other chains.

Smith said that these issues would be assessed when city planning conducts an environmental review. That review process begins after the community board approves the preliminary proposal.  An environmental review typically looks at traffic, transportation, schools and sewerage issues.

The proposal and any new findings would then come back to the Community Board for a 60-day review, before going on to be evaluated by the Queens Borough President and Planning Commission. Then the City council would vote on it.

There was one item that the audience was behind 100 percent. John Young, director of City Planning in Queens, said Queens Blvd would be the beneficiary of side walk cafes. He told attendees that they are looking to create an exemption from a current rule that prohibits sidewalk cafes on the same street as elevated railroads. Young said that with the railway line not actually going above the businesses, it made sense to seek an exemption.

The following report, provided by Tom Smith at the community board meeting, was provided by lawyers from the NY City Planning. It is property of NY City Planning.

Sunnyside-Woodside Rezoning… by on Scribd

Floor area ratio: tables

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Click for Comments 

Interesting study, Angus. I don’t doubt the basic premise that more parking leads to more cars. And I’m all for PT. But I also know that more people lead to more cars.

Also, this is a line from that PDF, presented without comment: “Both Jackson Heights and Park Slope are considered solidly middle class”…


Can Con Ed keep up with these new structures and the people to be housed in them? Woodside/Sunnyside/Astoria is in a blackout-prone area or haven’t any of the local politicians and “planners” noticed? The environmentalists are already clamping down on the Indian Point power plant so the cost of energy WILL skyrocket just as Obama promised. “Carbon credits”, anyone? “Senior” centers can’t be used as “cooling areas” if the juice isn’t flowing to them.

Angus Grieve-Smith

Some percentage, yes. But that percentage varies – based on how much parking is available. I know a bunch of people in the neighborhood who don’t have cars because they don’t want to deal with the hassle of alternate-side rules. I also know a bunch who have parking in their buildings – and they tend to own cars, and drive them. This is confirmed in this study: PDF.


I’m all in favor of sensible, denser development. As long as it’s built on the main thoroughfares, and where transit supports it, it’s potentially a great thing for the neighborhood with new stores, restaurants, services. I don’t get the arguments about the downside – is Manhattan that much worse than Sunnyside due to it’s higher density? C’mon folks, we live in a city, I think it would be exciting if these changes came about.

There was an interesting study published very recently by the Furman Center at NYU that looked at what’s happened with all of the rezonings passed under the Bloomberg adminiinstration. Somewhat remarkably, they found very limited development and a small net increase in the amount of potential residential development.


Angus — Good point. It’s hard to say exactly how many people would have cars. But surely we can agree that some percentage of residents in new apartment buildings would have them. Parking in Sunnyside is already somewhat difficult (as it is in just about every other neighborhood). I’d say that any increase at all would make it just that much more difficult. I’m just not sure why developers building space into their plans is a bad thing.

Angus Grieve-Smith

Thanks for clearing that up about the heights, Christian.

Josh, yes, there will be more people if there are more apartments. But what makes you think there will be many more people who need to park?


Has anyone noticed that the same people who are proposing and explaining these proposed up-zoning changes keep saying that developers are “unlikely to reach these [maximum] heights”? Why rezone that high then? Why not cap it lower? It seems like a very odd statement to make. And misleading: if someone *can* build that high, then it’s a distinct possibility that they *will*.

Also, according to the planning officials, “it would not make economic sense for a developer to build that high.” Again, why zone it that high then? And more importantly, take a look at all the stalled construction sites and failed condos in this city. When was the last time that “economic sense” and “developers” belong in a sentence together? When has that ever stopped them?

Finally, the thing about the ‘remote’ possibility of someone owning a whole block is laughable. It’s entirely possible: Take a look down Queens Blvd deeper into Queens.

My whole point here is not to say this is a good or bad thing (though mostly I think lower is better). It’s that these changes should be debated on the merits of what *could* happen — what is *legally allowable* based on the proposed changes to the code. Not what is (supposedly) *likely* to happen (according to the people who want to change it).

@Angus & Christian: Sidewalk seating on Queens Blvd is fine. I would rather have it than not. But it seems like a distraction at best. And a pretty lame one. So great: everybody’s happy they can eat on a hot, unshaded sidewalk as they inhale exhaust fumes from 8 lanes of traffic, while being deafened by the rumble of the elevated subway, which causes feathers from the pigeons, dust, and track debris flutter down on their pasta or whatever. Again, it’s better than not having it — for both businesses and customers. But let’s not allow it distract us from the important stuff. And Angus, re your comments about parking. How could less parking requirements for new buildings be a good thing?? I mean, I get how it’s good for developers, but not for people who need to park… which there will be many more of when the new buildings go up. And they will…

Sunnyside Post

Hi Angus,

The commerical overlays do not add to the total FAR, Tom Smith from planning told me this morning. Builders can’t go higher than the maximum FAR set by the highest FAR given for a zone. Therefore, the maximums mentioned under the existing plan hold true.

For example, if the maximum residental zoning was a FAR of 5–and the commercial overlay is 2– the FAR wouldn’t be 7. The builder, if he wanted to build commercial, could have a FAR of 3 for residental and 2 for commercial. However, the total could not exceed 5.

Thanks for your feedback and helping to clarify another nook and cranny of the plan.

It is worth noting, that readers should not view these changes as a bad thing–since there are many positives that can come from higher density along Queens Blvd– as we get to understand what it all involves.


Does anyone know what percentage of the currently existing apartment housing in Sunnyside is considered to be “affordable” in this legal sense?

Angus Grieve-Smith

Sorry, that should be Jeff Kroessler. At least I didn’t call him Jeff Heim!

Angus Grieve-Smith

Christian, you’re not taking the overlays into account. The north side of Queens Boulevard from 39th Place to 44th Street is currently a C1-2 overlay; the south side is C1-2 to 39th Street and C2-2 from there to 44th Street.

If I’m not mistaken, these add to the FAR, so that the current effective FAR west of 41st Street is 2.25 and between 41st and 44th Streets it’s 5.44. A community facility (which can include theaters like the Thalia, or schools) would add 2 to these FARs. So east of 41st Street, this is a down-zoning.

The part between 39th and 41st Streets would be a slight upzoning, but seriously – is there anything charming or architecturally redeeming about having single-story retail on those blocks? The stores are in fact much lower than the apartment buildings behind them, which looks silly. To me it makes perfect sense to have density right by the #7 train and the bus lines.

The only person who expressed a concern about chains crowding out independent retail was Jeff Kessler. I asked City Planning to corroborate what Jeff said, and they weren’t able to confirm it.


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