AIA Sponsored Zoning Amendments Challeneged By Brooklyn CB

From Aaron Brashear & Mic Holwin
Concerned Citizens of Greenwood Hts.
P. / F. 718.852.7630
aaron@ccgreenwoodhts.com

Sorry for this belated post (it’s that time-o-year) on last Wednesday nite’s festivities at the CB7 public hearing/Land Use Committee meeting dealing with the oh-so-popular AIA Zoning Text Amendments ( http://www.aiany.org/committees/PlanningUrbanDesign/zoning/) that are currently on the track to CPC and the City Counsel with little-to-no public review…until now. Mic and I typed up a few notes (well, more than a few).

The public hearing on 12/12/07 drew a good crowd, with an especially nice mix of CB7 members, concerned neighbors and a sprinkle of an architect and a tradesman or two, just to make the questions to the AIA interesting. As always, I attempt to be brief, but with such an important topic, you’re in for a good read.

In a nutshell, the meeting went on almost 3 hours, with only “clarifying questions” for 2 hours before the public comment. The mood in the room was so riled up, John Burns, Land Use Chair, decided to forgo comments from CB7 members on the specific 6 text changes (and I had my guns loaded, darn!) in lieu of the Land Use Committee’s recommendation, when voted upon, is very damning of the AIA and their attempt to skate this proposal through DCP. It was very clear by the end of the meeting that the two reps from the AIA were visibly shaken, unprepared for our questions and critiques and hopefully with a bellyful of criticism to take back to the AIA.

Our presenters of the evening were Paul Proulx, a real estate lawyer from WolfBlock and lobbyist for the AIA and Laura Manville, AIA Policy Coordinator. Neither are architects. Ms. Manville has been with AIA four months. Not a great way to start of an evening. This, combined with no formal way to properly present to the public (other than Xeroxed hand-outs…couldn’t they have afforded to bring a projector and a laptop?), lead one Board member to comment that the AIA was treating the public and the Board as “advisory” as the AIA was not there to listen to public opinion and discourse (technically the Board’s vote is advisory, but none the less important in a supposed Democratic process, as pointed out by John Burns and Randy Peers, who ran the hearing).

It is a shame, since it could have been an evening of education on behalf of the public by the AIA. It turned out to be a contentious back and forth between a very condescending and crass Mr. Proulx and the very well informed and skeptical public/Board members.

Here’s a an overview of the evening’s debate, both on the issues and specifically the commentary/answers from the AIA reps, which bordered on insulting several times during the evening. This is not necessarily in specific order.

•Why were we all there? No public outreach to community boards and elected officials had been done since the genesis of this proposal three years ago because “We thought this was a professional issue,” said Mr. Proulx, “not a public issue” (even though this “non-public issue” affects the citizens of New York City and all 5 boroughs). Ms. Manville called the amendments “tweaks to a system to make it more logical” (referring to the zoning code), not really needing public discourse. “They may seem large to you,” she added.

• The “ah” moment. The zoning text changes were time and time again touted as “not affecting FAR (floor area ratio),” thus just allowing architects more flexibility in “rearranging the Lego blocks, “ as per Mr. Proulx. A local architect (and AIA member) made the astute statement that there is no reason for this proposal other than it would allow an architect to further achieve the FAR, which may not have been able to be maximized under the current zoning. So were not changing FAR, just making it easier to max it out!

•Do your research. Six proposals are being put forth by the AIA. Mr. Proulx announced he would discuss only the first five, as the sixth applies to R1-R5 districts only, of which there are none in CB7. CB7 Chair Randy Peers had Mr. Proulx look at the CB7 zoning map hanging on the wall not more than five feet from where Mr. Proulx was standing, which clearly shows the many R5 districts in our community board. Needless to say, an under prepared Mr. Proulx covered all six proposals.

•Let’s get contextual. Many times during the evening, the public and Board members questioned the need for such items as 100% lot coverage on smaller corner lots or the most controversial proposed increase to the maximum base height of a building if an existing structure was taller, with the thought that matching the street wall heights (eliminating those finicky set backs and that “light and air quality” we all fought for). This creates the potential for a domino effect on a low density block if an older building, current no longer contextual under our downzoning, being “contextual” and new buildings aligning with their taller neighbors, one building at a time down the block, with the current “tear them down/build them up” mentality in the area. The AIA “offered” to back date these types of older buildings to the 1987 creation of the Quality Housing program (an idea initially suggested by BP Markowitz’s office, now cooped by the AIA). I made the point of suggesting perhaps we could go further, back to 1961, when the zoning code was originally changed. Mr. Proulx’s answer, “why don’t we go back to 1600.” “If we take it back to 1600, nothing was there,” maintaining that none of us really can define “what is contextual.” This did not go over well with the crowd.

•“Stop the bull crap. This will only benefit developers and architects as their clients.” The best phrase uttered the entire evening by a very agitated Brooklynite. The zoning text amendments, as per opinions expressed by the public, Board members and reluctantly copped to by Mr. Proulx and Ms. Manville are to maximize the buildable and sellable space by the AIA’s clients, developers, making it easier to max out the FAR of a project. In addition, all 6 of the proposed changes can currently be done via variances at the Board of Standards and Appeals. By making these amendments, developers will not need to seek variances and the public will have no say in these new buildings, as they would with BSA appeals. When asked if this was the case, the AIA reps admitted “yes,” and the BSA was a very time consuming and costly process for developers. Again, make the changes to save the developer time and money, thus increasing their profits.

•Public comment. After 2 hours of logical questions asked by the public and Board members on the 6 changes, with very defensive statements from the AIA reps (as stated above), the presentation was concluded. Public commentary ranged form specific issues with some of the 6 changes, especially how they would affect the “light and air” of our lower density rezoned neighborhoods. The final comment, made by CB7’s chair, Randy Peers (made as a resident, not the Board Chair), was the “loss of the Brooklyn he grew up in” due to the over development of the borough. The additional changes to the zoning code would do nothing but add more development to the borough and further change what Brooklyn used to be about, a sense of community between residents, family and friends.

I hope the AIA on Thursday morning received the evening’s synopsis from Mr. Proulx and Ms. Manville, perhaps questioning their lack of public review and discourse.

While the Board has yet to vote on the resolution from the Land Use Committee, the gist will be to demand the AIA to formally withdraw their application with DCP and pursue greater public input (which was evident Wednesday night)
. The full Board votes this Wednesday night, 12/19/07.

As of last Friday, after chatting with fellow advocates, of the supposed 15 presentations had been done throughout the City by the AIA, similar reactions and public outrage to the proposed changes had occurred (especially in CM Tony Avella’s CB district).

At the end of the day, some of these changes might benefit the City’s zoning code. But without the proper public scrutiny in this “Trojan horse” deal between the AIA and DCP, none of these amendments should be made, nor even considered by CPC and the City Counsel.

Let’s see how this develops Citywide. I have a feeling when a majority of the CBs understand the significance of the changes, the AIA and DCP may be changing their tune and any further attempts to benefit the developers in this City…and not the residents who live here.

Posted Under: Community Boards, Planning

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