The final legislative session of 2017 saw an active NYC City Council scrambling to pass almost 40 bills before the term’s end. Among these legislative actions was the passage of a zoning text amendment for the creation of a special permit that will limit self-storage facilities in NYC’s Industrial Business Zones (IBZ’s). City Council’s vote in favor of the new special permit is a victory for the industrial and manufacturing sectors, albeit an imperfect victory marred by compromises that will likely raise more questions about industrial retention in the future.
The new special permit will require self-storage facilities to go through the full ULURP process for approval before building in IBZ’s—with the exception of two zones in the Bronx, two in Staten Island, the Steinway IBZ and part of a zone in Jamaica, Queens. These exceptions will continue to allow self-storage as-of-right up to 50,000 square feet. Buildings larger than that will be required to set aside 25% of their square footage for industrial use. In zones where the new text amendment doesn’t apply, it seems that alternative rules act as a compromise between having a new special permit requirement and not having one at all.
The final iteration of the text amendment is a confluence of special interests and policy dynamics exemplified by the clatter of industrial advocates, the machinations of the self-storage lobby, and mixed messages from various factions within city government. Beginning with Mayor de Blasio’s 2015 Industrial Action Plan there seemed to be strong support for limiting competing uses within the IBZ’s. The plan acknowledged that hotels and self-storage facilities threatened to displace industrial businesses because they could afford much higher lease rates. Not only would these competing uses displace industrial businesses, but also relatively well-paying jobs for the city’s working class and immigrant populations.
The original proposal for a zoning text amendment sought to address industrial job retention by limiting low-job generating self-storage facilities, (DCP is currently studying hotels) but as it moved through ULUPR caveats emerged. Despite approval for the original text amendment by a large majority of community boards, DCP subsequently reworked the text to accommodate a mixture of uses within buildings. Though admittedly short on reliable quantitative data they reasoned that small industrial businesses utilize self-storage services. This assumption was the basis for DCP’s alternative (a-text), which would allow self-storage facilities over 50,000 square feet as-of-right if they reserved space for manufacturing or industrial uses within their buildings.
Limitations on self-storage facilities applied inconsistently across the IBZ’s raises uncertainty for industrial job retention in the future. The fragmented nature of this special permit can be attributed to a small minority within the council. Deference to members whose districts are affected by a land use ruling is standard procedure. Council members traditionally do not to vote against their cohort on localized issues. Further complicating the issue are the IBZ’s that overlap multiple council districts. Prioritizing council members’ opinions on localized industrial land use matters undermine the regulatory integrity of IBZ’s as citywide entities, while also convoluting the city’s industrial action plan.
In the same way that Occam’s Razor suggests that between two solutions the more economic solution is superior, applying consistent regulations across all of the City’s IBZ’s makes better industrial policy. However, with the debate about hotels in IBZ’s on the horizon, the latest compromise on the self-storage special permit suggests competing uses will be able to maintain a foothold here and there, and that IBZ’s will continue on as a notion rather than a reliable zoning tool for protecting industrial jobs.
Michael Devigne is currently the Industrial Business Program Assistant at the Business Outreach Center Network (BOC). He is also a coordinator for the Maspeth Industrial Business Association (MIBA), the East Brooklyn Industrial Partnership (EBIP), and member of the Industrial Jobs Coalition.