Before the debate over further development devolves too much further on the listserv, in the cafes and bars and on stoops and in bodegas and playgrounds and at Peppa's, the Q wonders if it wouldn't be more appropriate to take this discussion to the only place that it really could be aired with any real-life consequence - the Community Board. Personally I don't think the listserv is the best place for an informed dialogue, and I suspect resentments will result and feelings will be hurt if folks hurl accusations and counter accusations in public on the internet (although come to think of it that's what happens on the Q all the time, so strike that last comment, clearly it's my bread and butter).
The question before us, in my view, is not so much about this particular building or that but rather whether zoning rules should be revisited to reflect current community concerns and sensibilities. To cite a very recent example of how this can work, Crown Heights West (as they're calling it these days, you know, that massively gentrifying section around the Franklin Ave stop on the IRT and north of Eastern Parkway) is in CB8, and it went through a fairly convulsive period of development in a really short period of time over the past five years. While this was initially embraced by many as a positive economic step for the nabe, the rapid pace and then some unpopular projects led the community to petition the City to reopen the books. This was done through the proper ULURP process, which begins at the appropriate Community Board committee. And guess what? Certain compromises were reached and the zoning changes were approved. Not everyone was happy, but most were, and everyone had a say. The Councilman took a leadership role (fancy that!) and the Council approved the changes unanimously. Here's an excerpt from the CB8 website, which can lead you to more detail:
The City Council voted to approve the rezoning of approximately fifty-five blocks of the Crown Heights neighborhood, an area known as Crown Heights West. The rough boundaries of the rezoned area are Atlantic Avenue, Pacific, Dean and Bergen streets to the north; Nostrand Avenue to the east; Eastern Parkway to the south; and Washington and Grand Avenues to the west. Rezoning will preserve the character of this community’s residential blocks and commercial corridors while creating incentives for the development of needed affordable housing.In other words, zoning is an excellent way to influence issues like affordable and contextual development. What folks in Crown Heights seemed to be saying was that they wanted at least a modicum of influence in how their neighborhood was changed by market forces. If you would prefer to leave current zoning rules in place, that's okay too. But an argument over a particular building, like 626 Flatbush, one that's already under way, doesn't really address any of the underlying issues. In fact, it's quite likely that the argument will just be fought again, and again, and again. Because like it or not, the big money has finally discovered Lefferts, and when big money invests, it talks to other big money, and then at the next big money convention your neighborhood gets its very own power point presentation.
After observing the proliferation of new developments that met neither the design conventions nor the affordable housing needs of the community, the volunteer and elected representatives of Crown Heights West requested this rezoning in 2012. Under the revised zoning, the height of new developments will be limited, with developers receiving incentives for voluntarily including affordable units in their portfolios. According to the City Planning Commission, the city’s inclusionary housing program has produced nearly than 4,500 units of affordable housing citywide thus far, 1,100 of which are located in the borough of Brooklyn.
I'll end this post with an observation, not on zoning, but on what I believe to be part of the issue here. I've noticed that many of those in favor of big new developments welcome the potential for positive change in the neighborhood. I wonder though - if we were living on the other side of the park, say in Park Slope or Windsor Terrace, would we welcome these big buildings the same way? Certainly there are tons and tons of big buildings over here already. So are people really looking for more people per square block? The cops told me ours is the densest precinct in the ENTIRE city. So what's really being said?
I think the expectation is that new residents, in higher cost buildings, will bring more middle-class amenities like restaurants and bars and shops. I think the expectation is also that a higher percentage of middle to upper income residents will result in a drop in crime and encourage less trash and graffiti and even more investment from outside businesses and developers. When a neighborhood changes for the more affluent, we can certainly agree that there is a concurrent change in that neighborhood's appearance and character. Good, bad or indifferent, there it is.
On the other side, I think some folks fear or loathe change of any kind, and they will likely need to cede to a new reality. Brooklyn is an incredibly desirable place to live, and demand far outstrips supply. We actually DO need new buildings, we need to renovate or at least salvage old ones, we need to address a whole host of "luxury problems" that come with being at the very center of a particular zeitgeist American culture. Landmarking has its place too, since it can help to preserve some of the character that made Brooklyn so charming and desirable in the first place. What's a popular City to do?
The question remains...is it necessary to grant developers carte blanche to create whatever they want without consideration of the 'hood's history and needs? Or can we be concerned, now rather than later, that we're making choices that have the longterm interests of the neighborhood at heart? Because once buildings get built, you can't easily knock 'em down. And once buildings are developed that are all market rate, you can't retroactively assign affordable access. And once gramma gets pushed or bullied out, you can't push her back in. Maybe you can bully her back in, I don't know.
I think now is an ideal time to start the process, and learn what each other really thinks about this stuff, not just the occasional swipe on the internets. I'll be working with Mike Cetera and the Fanning brothers and district manager Miles and chair Jake Goldstein and whomever else takes an active interest. I'll be sure to post info on the next ULURP committee meeting on the topic, and as soon as the idea of opening up the zoning process comes to a vote, I hope you'll all come out and express yourselves. In the meantime, feel free to use this post as a place to air thoughts, not so much on 626, but on the idea of planning for the future. Much as the gentry who have been here for 20, 30, 40, 50 years have taken stewardship of the neighborhood seriously, I think it's time we step up a bit. As I always like to say to people around my age "we're the adults now. they're counting on us." I'm not sure exactly who "they" is, but it has something to do with the next generation and making the right choices, and trying with all sincerity to leave the world a little better than we found it, corny as that sounds.