The Q at Parkside

(for those for whom the Parkside Q is their hometrain)

News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

For Answers To the Debate Over Development In Lefferts, Why Not Look North?

Nostrils are flaring a bit, as ground gets broke on two new developments in the area at 626 Flabush and 31 Lincoln Road, not to mention other soon-to-happen projects on Clarkson I and Clarkson II and of course the old Caledonian Hospital Project on Parkside, known on permits as "123 on the Park," a/k/a "The Apartment Building Apparently Being Built Entirely By Three Guys Using Hand Tools That Will Be Finished When Joe Chetrit Remembers He Owns It And Could Be Making Money Off It."

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.
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.
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.

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 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.


MattOnLincoln said...

After seeing the listserv postings grow mildly heated, thanks for the perspective. Point of curiosity: can a citizen coalition like the Prospect Park East Network start the ULURP process by writing out an application for zoning changes?

Nancy Hoch said...

Thanks Tim for bringing up the importance of community input. I'm a member of a group called Prospect Park East Network (PPEN). We believe 626 Flatbush is not a positive development for our neighborhood. Going forward, we are committed to working on re-zoning our neighborhood so that future development is contextual, especially in terms of height, to what already exists here. One of the reasons we paired with PLGNA to show the film My Brooklyn in our neighborhood at the end of September was to get a community discussion going on development in our neighborhood as well as to provide an example of what has happened to ordinary people and small store owners in another nearby neighborhood when developers were able to build without community input. (By the way, we have a copy of the film and would be happy to orchestrate another showing for those who would like to see it.)

The way development happens in New York, it is often the case that the community is not consulted at all. The building at 626 Flatbush is a case in point. The building is receiving both federal money and state money. The state money is in the form of bonds. Those state bonds, which will finance 80% of the building, were approved on Sept. 18th. No one in our group knew that the bonds were up for approval that day and we had been trying actively to get information about that question for quite a while.

To get state bonds, you have to do an environmental assessment of how your building will affect the area. We have been trying for months to find out if that assessment was done and what it covered. We've asked our state representatives for help getting it and it seems it is hard even for them to get that assessment. The developer's agent for 626 Flatbush met recently with a few neighborhood residents and she was asked if she could provide a copy of the environmental assessment and she said she would not.

So whatever discussions were held about the environmental impact of this building on the community, the community 1) was not informed when the discussions took place so they could be involved and 2) cannot, even now, when the building is a "done deal" because the developer has already gotten his state bonds, get access to.

Continuing on the theme of the community not being informed, when I was leafleting for the showing of My Brooklyn near 626 Flatbush, very few of the residents close by, mostly apartment dwellers, knew about the building. Almost to a person, folks were quite upset when they heard. Their first reaction was Sh...t! My rent is going to go up. I'm going to have to look for a new place.

Nancy Hoch said...

My comment continued:

There has been a history of trying to rein in out of context buildings in our neighborhood. When the building on Lincoln Road right near the Prospect Park subway stop was first proposed back in 2007 or 2008, it was slated to be a 23-story building. As with 626 Flatbush, this building was being built "as of right" so it seemed like there was no legal way to stop it. Community members, me included, did raise our voices against such a high building and Community Board 9 passed a resolution saying that they thought such buildings were too high for our neighborhood. I believe they argued for a height limit of 9 stories in the area by the park and that is, in fact, what the building going up there now is slated to be. There was, simultaneously, a push by a number of neighborhood forces, including Prospect Park, to get the blocks close to the park contextually zoned. The City Planning Commission put off this request to review and contextually zone the area, saying they didn't have time. Every other neighborhood--all of them wealthier than ours--have managed to have the blocks near the park down zoned. None of them would now allow a 23-story building to tower over either their neighborhood or the park. A 23-story building is 50% taller than any other building anywhere around the park. It will rise very high above the tree line and be seen throughout the park. To me it will be an eyesore and is clearly a violation of the intent of Prospect Park's designers Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted who deliberately landscaped the park so that the city disappears when you are inside it...but more of the effect of tall buildings on the park in another comment.

Anonymous said...

There always seem to be not-quite-truths in the opposition's arguments. Patio Gardens, a now longstanding development pro-downzoning people pretend doesn't exist, is 17 stories high and being set way back from Flatbush it's exactly as close to the park as 626 Flatbush or the building site on Lincoln Rd. Same distance. Meaning 23 stories is not 50% higher than all the buildings near the park, as you said. You simply can't claim that. Also the protests are not what stopped the building on Lincoln Rd. That's also not true. The new developer may be more sensitive to concerns and that's great, but the situation is not as it's been portrayed.

Alex said...

Hi Nancy,

Thanks for the info about PPEN and the transparency of the group's agenda. I just hope that the approach is balanced, advocating for limits that protect context but accommodate interests in development as well.


Anonymous said...

a few arguments against this development I've never quite gotten are:

a) the loss of parking. We live on arguably the best mass transit line in the city, and this development is directly adjacent. People moving in there don't need cars, New York City doesn't need more cars, and the last concern should be for more parking. People should be actively discouraged from having cars.
and b) This insistence on Olmsted and Vaux originalism. They would have been horrified by baseball fields as well. Should we plow those under? Central Park's surrounding cityscape is perhaps the greatest interplay of urban form and public space on earth. Prospect Park isn't diminished by having 21st century city dwellers reminded that they live in a city.

c) how exactly are rents going to be further accelerated by this project? It's a rental building, adding 250 units, 50 of which are stabilized. They are already accelerating at breakneck pace across the city, even as thousands of new rental unit come online. Protections for existing renters need to be supported New York is an increasingly desirable place to live, and the population is rising. Our neighborhood, situated between two express trains and adjacent to some of the best public space in the city, is going to have to accept development.

d) this argument about this building being constructed with "public money" is totally misleading. Bonds are how cities get built, and it's a good deal for everyone involved.

anyway, Q's point that we should have a zoning discussion is spot on. But I think the people who are futilely organizing against this project are going to be surprised at how many people in PLG are excited about its possibilities.

Nancy Hoch said...

Dear Anonymous at 12:20,

Patio Gardens is 16 stories high, not 17. Count them sometime. I believe they have, for superstitious reasons, omitted the 13th floor when numbering floors on the inside.

But you are right: 23 floors is 7 floors higher than 16 floors. So a 23-story building is not 50% higher than Patio Gardens. It's, if my math is correct, 43.75% taller.

Anonymous said...


The 626 building is also set back further on its lot than Patio Gardens, so if you want to get into geometry, from across Flatbush the extant building at Patio Gardens will appear much taller and more imposing.

But math fights aren't going to change the fact that the project at 626 is happening, and is the largest addition of new housing (including new affordable housing) to our neighborhood in 40 years.

Anonymous said...

I don't need to count the floors from the outside of Patio Gardens, I've been inside to a friend's top floor apartment many times....and it's on the 17th floor.