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, June 18, 2014

The Best Offense Is a Zone Defense

Rezoning alert! Rezoning alert!

Not riveted yet? Let me try again.

Rezoning YOUR block alert!!!

Still heavy-lidded? Then you probably won't be interested in the rest of this post. I've been fortunate to be a (fat and vocal) fly on the wall through much of the leadup, and I'm happy to share what I've learned, since I only just started having a clue about these matters very recently. I'm going to presume (wrongly in many cases) that you know as little about zoning as I did, say, one year ago. Because with a little luck and some serious consensus-building, we're about to undergo the first rezoning in more than half a century. So here comes the prologue to what I'm sure will be many posts...

Every square foot of NYC is documented, many times over. The history of who owned it and sold it, what's underneath it, any infrastructure on or adjacent, and these records have been meticulously updated since the Dutch. Unlike the American Indians we encountered when we got here, we come from a culture obsessed with record keeping and property ownership, and the money that can be made FROM that property. To a huge extent, the economic and political history of Western Civilization is inextricably tied to the exploitation and accumulation of property. We take for granted of course that a human being can own, sell and make money off a piece of earth, but 'taint' necessarily so. As a people we could have chosen to honor a different doctrine, but hey, it is what it is. It is an organizing principle, which has, combined with domestication of animals and farming and technology and specialization of labor, made human "progress" what it is. It encourages vast sums to be spent to find further ways to MAKE vast sums. Land is more "real" than anything we got to sell. We even call it "real" estate after all. Colonial powers went WAY out of their way to accumulate ever larger stashes of land to own and exploit. And hey, when land ain't enough, you can always own...people. Then you have the land, the resources on or under the land, and a bunch of labor to work it. Nice hat trick if you can live with yourself I guess.

Focus Q, focus.

Back in 1961, the last time the City's zoning was fully mapped, the Big Apple's development and planning was ruled by something called The Board of Estimate. Made up of the Mayor, the head of the City Council, the Comptroller, and each of the Borough Presidents, this body was obscenely powerful. No wonder people like Robert Moses held on for decades...all you needed was five of these as allies (or even three - the Citywides got two votes each to the BPs one). This cabal was essentially The City of NYC's Board of Trustees, with the Mayor as chair, and they were not only ueber powerful but ueber undemocratic.  The borough of Brooklyn was clearly shafted, since it was represented by one vote for way more people than, say, the Island of Staten. The Supreme Court took notice, and declared The Board of Estimate unconstitutional in 1989, setting the stage for the current City Charter, the system of checks and balances that we now love or loathe.

Anyhoo, it was The Board of Estimate that decided to upgrade the hodge podge of rules that had been in place since before even the first World War. Considering that whole industries, neighborhoods and transportation networks had appeared and disappeared since the original planning documents, it seemed a good time to update things. The BoE paid consultants to study the City, held a relatively few meetings on the matter, and declared the City to be zoned for three classes of properties - residential, commercial and manufacturing. Within each class there were many subclasses, governing everything from height and density to various forms of activity. It was a noble effort, and in same ways it proved to be quite lasting and helpful. But that was more than fifty years ago, and since then too, a lot a lot a lot has changed.

We have the Board of Estimate to thank for our current system of zoning, but the BoE itself was outlawed 25 years ago. And so The City Council got a major boost of power as a result. They now share responsibility for budget and land use (which includes development and planning). The borough presidents are still involved, but not to such a degree. The legislative and executive pass the ball back and forth many times throughout the fiscal year, and the Comptroller gets to play referee now and then. Most of the time, it works pretty well, considering that this particular corporation oversees the interests of more than 8,000,000 people. Visit a park, drop your recycling by the side of the curb, drop your kid off at school, drink a glass of water, flush the toilet, call 911...the list is long indeed. You need the City and it needs you (don't forget to pay your taxes or they might withhold your flushing rights).

To build something or renovate it, all you need to do is dust off your trusty zoning map, buy a piece of property and get to work. If your idea conforms to what's on the map, get yourself some permits and you're off to the races. That's what's called "as of right." You own the property, do your best and god bless.

But sometimes you want to do something that DOESN'T conform to the map. You want to build taller or denser, or go from one class to another (manufacturing to residential, say). Used to was you'd go to the Board of Estimate and they could, right there on the spot, offer you an exemption. Not no more, says the updated City Charter. You must now go through a process. And it is the same process every single time, lest anyone think it unfair. At the end of this process is the City Council, which must vote to allow for a zoning change or amendment. This can happen at the micro level for one building or project. Or (and now we're getting close to the crux) it could be for a whole neighborhood, or at least a big hunk of it.

This process has a name. The Universal Land Use Review Process. Otherwise known as ULURP (pronounced you-lerp).Through the ULURP, that zoning map is changing all the time, but not all at once. Come to think of it, it's unlikely to ever go an exhaustive City-wide's done piece by piece now. You must, in essence, wait your turn, because you need the Department of City Planning to do a study and provide oversight of the ULURP. Last year, a portion of Crown Heights was rezoned. You can read all about it and get a sense of what can be done with ULURP at the neighborhood level. And you've already seen the results of Brooklyn rezonings like Williamsburg and Downtown and 4th Ave in Park Slope. Now maybe you can see why it's such a big (and sometimes tall) deal.

Okay, that's the backdrop. On Monday I sat in a room with a bunch of folks from Community Board 9 in the first of what will be many conversations, now that City Planning has agreed to take up our case. Despite some backlash about "process," the move by CB9 to send the letter initiating the process passed three months ago. I've since been to the Brooklyn Planning office twice, both times at the behest of the Prospect Park East Network. Since I've inserted myself in the process in three ways - as blogger, as CB9 member, and as a PPEN rep - I hope to stay in the game til the end. And it's going to take some time.

Next up, I'll discuss the players and their concerns. I wrote all about zoning at the time of the Community Forum a few months ago. A lot of what will be coming up in ULURP was brought forward then.

1 comment:

Kimplicated said...

And in case you're jaded or frustrated by the slow perceived pace of things, here's a picker-upper from today's Times. In one Dallas neighborhood, archaic laws (like forbidding front yard flowers!) suffocated community. A bunch of residents got pissed, broke the rules, and got them changed.

If they can do that, we can do this :)