Thursday, May 02, 2013

Thinking About Zoning in Crown Heights West: Events This Weekend

As you may well know, Crown Heights West (as the area featured in the maps above has been dubbed by the Department of City Planning, or DCP) is in the midst of a rezoning process, as discussed at our April 16 Crow Hill Community Association Meeting, as well as on Brooklynian and Brownstoner. ILFA got up and talked about the process to the best of my ability at the April 16 meeting, but as tends to be the case with these sorts of presentations, most folks left with more questions than answers.

If you've got questions, however, never fear, as there are ample opportunities to learn more, hear more, and say more about this process. Read on:

- This starts TONIGHT, when the Housing/ULURP Committee of Community Board 8 meets at 6:30pm (so, yes, approximately 15 minutes from when this was posted) at 727 Classon Avenue. 

- It continues on Saturday, May 4, when the Crown Heights Assembly holds their monthly housing meeting at Ronald McNair Park (Eastern Parkway and Classon) at 1pm. 

- You can tell your story (or perhaps more accurately, hear a story) walking with a Municipal Art Society free walking tour (as part of Jane's Walks), which runs from 9-11am on Sunday and will be led by a pair of Brooklynian's finest.

- Finally, the big shebang, aka the full Community Board 8 public hearing regarding this proposal (at which CB8 will hear testimony and vote on whether to approve the proposal, reject it, or approve with amendments), takes place this coming Thursday, May 9, at 6:30pm. 

That's a lot of options, and if you get to these, you'll hear a lot of different opinions, ideas, and suggestions. If you want to do some home-schooling, the zoning glossary is a good place to start, though you'll want a dictionary or Wikipedia handy to translate it. One key term to understand here is FAR: floor-area ratio. This, and not strict height limits, is the primary way that zoning regulates density. Under an FAR of 1, you could build a one-story building that fills the of the entire lot, or a two-story building whose footprint takes up half the size of the lot, or a ten-story building with a footprint one-tenth the size of the lot. Think of FAR as play-dough - you can spread it flat and low, or tower it tall and skinny. The bigger the lot, the more of it you get. 

I'm not going to attempt a comprehensive review on the proposed zoning here, but a few thoughts are in order. First, zoning basically does three things: it regulates 1) the size of the buildings that can be built, 2) the shape of those buildings, and 3) what goes on in them, all in very broad terms. Additionally, rezoning is a fairly limited process, because the zoning code (essentially, the rules of the game) is set by the City Council. Rezoning is just a reconsideration of the application of those rules to different places, with whatever goals the requesting agency and City Planning have in mind. In this case, the rezoning began at the request of CB8, who wanted three things: 1) preserve the character of the neighborhood (this in response to the boom of glass-and-steel condos next to old-school brownstones or apartments along certain side streets) 2) incentivize the building of some affordable housing (because Crown Heights is getting less and less affordable), and 3) preserve the character of the retail strips (this applied more to Nostrand than Franklin, where the existing zoning would theoretically have allowed for some very big retail spaces to be built). 

So, if you look at map #1 and map #3 above, you'll see the current zoning and the proposed zoning. For the most part, the new zoning essentially conforms to what's already there (and if it doesn't, don't worry - everything already built, or even already under construction that has a foundation, is grandfathered in to the old zoning). The side streets have been rezoned to make new development conform to the existing scale of most buildings, while Nostrand has been rezoned to look more like Franklin than the Fulton Mall (which it already does). Insofar as there are any big potential changes, they're in the block I've singled out, a chunk of Franklin and side streets that's been re-zoned R7A.

What's this? It's the attempt to address goal #2: affordable housing. As it currently stands, the zoning code never mandates that new developments include affordable housing. This has been tried elsewhere, and was raised at the April 16 meeting, but such a change would have to first clear the council and then be applied by DCP. What DCP has at its disposal right now is "inclusionary housing" zones, which create incentives for developers to build affordable housing by giving them more FAR in exchange for building 20% affordable units.

So what's happening in that R7A zone? It's being up-zoned from R6 (it's current status), which has an FAR of 2.43, to an FAR of 3.45 without affordable housing, and 4.6 with it. Why are they upzoning even without affordable housing? It's a good question - the answer, as best I can tell, is that these incentives are only enticing to developers if they can build big, so the whole zone has to go up. That's why you see all those vacant/under-built/soon-to-be-developed lots pictured. They're currently vacant. They'll likely be developed soon, new zoning or not. But with the new zoning, they can go bigger, in exchange, perhaps for some affordable units.

This post could use more explanation and context, but I've taken it as far as I'm able at the moment. Links to alternative programs in other cities (mandatory zoning in Arlington, VA, came up), reviews of the impact of inclusionary zoning elsewhere in NYC, and other such information would be most welcome in the comments.

Gentrification will continue, of course, under the proposed zoning as well as under the current zoning. Ultimately, we're just picking out the color of the car, not what's under the hood (that's the nature of NYC development policy, about which ILFA has a book review posted over at Dissent). But if you live near those lots, or spend time on Franklin Avenue, you may care quite a lot about that color, so take a look at this proposal, and get out and learn about it this week. 


  1. I hope to see all of you on the Jane Jacobs walk on May 5th!

    See Brooklynian link above. Thx

  2. or just click here, for direct link:

  3. "Why are they upzoning even without affordable housing?"

    Perhaps the logic is that more supply of housing stock can also help keep rent down in the area.

  4. An interesting point, but I don't know that new developments with units selling or renting at comparable rates to what current developments are charging are going to have a deflationary impact on local rents.

  5. and once you've formed an opinion, please take our poll:
    we need to hear your voice!!!

  6. It would be helpful to have a concrete sense of what these changes would mean. For the lot on Franklin that briefly housed the Crow Hill community garden, what would FARs of 3.45 and 4.6 allow in terms of a new building's height?

  7. Assuming those small lots are fully built-out, those FARs would amount to 4 or 5 story buildings—so fairly consistent with (or a floor taller than) the rest of the avenue.