Rezoning Victorian Flatbush
Race to save Victorian Flatbush
By Helen Klein
While Victorian Flatbush is best known for its tree-shaded streets lined with expansive homes, a mismatch between the underlying zoning and the built environment in certain parts of the area has resulted in such anomalies, with residents believing that they are in a race against time to save the neighborhood they know and love from the scourge of over-development.
It was for this reason that they first approached the Department of City Planning (DCP). The agency has been rezoning communities across the city as the pace of development has accelerated in the burgeoning real estate market, often putting at risk not only structures well worth saving but the quality-of-life cherished by those who live in them.
Now, DCP has come back to the residents of Flatbush – not with a plan, but with the promise of one. They could, they say, have a rough proposal aimed at managing over-development in the neighborhood while still allowing appropriate residential growth as soon as this summer.
At a special meeting on the rezoning convened by Community Board 14, and held at the board office, 810 East 16th Street, representatives of the Brooklyn office of DCP updated residents on the status of the project, and asked for feedback on particular concerns that the residents might have.
DCP has, “Already been out in the community and looked around,” said Winston von Engel, the deputy director of the agency’s Brooklyn office. “We know what some of the issues are. We are here to gather the facts.
“We are committed to doing a study,” von Engel added, “and we will try to get back to you with preliminary recommendations in the summer, and then do the application.”
The rezoning of the northern part of the CB 14 area would be the second rezoning within the board’s catchment area.
DCP previously revamped the zoning south of Avenue H, because of “Tremendous development pressure” created by zoning that allowed multi-story apartment buildings (R-6) on blocks that were largely made up of one and two-family homes, said DCP’s Susan Silverman, who went over the general scope of the rezoning study.
The northern area of the board now being studied is far larger than the Midwood section that previously was rezoned, Silverman pointed out. While the Midwood study area comprised 80 blocks, there are 196 blocks in the current area of study, which is generally bounded by Caton and Parkside Avenues on the north, Coney Island Avenue on the west, the Long Island Railroad cut on the south, and East 32nd Street and Nostrand Avenue on the east.
“Generally, in terms of land use, you can see one and two-family homes that are mostly in sync with the existing residential zoning,” Silverman added, “though in some cases they are not.”
There are also densely built-up residential areas in certain parts of the community, along Ocean Avenue and in the Brooklyn College vicinity, said Silverman. These are generally, “Stable areas, because they are so built-up,” she said.
Finally, there is a combination of local and regional commercial areas, ranging from the Junction (regional) to Cortelyou Road, Parkside Avenue and Coney Island Avenue (local).
Incongruous residential development can occur when R6 or R7-1 zoning (both of which permit large apartment buildings) exists in areas whose built environment is largely one and two-family homes.
Because Flatbush’s Victorian houses are located, generally, on large lots, if those homes are razed, developers are able to erect the boxy, multi-family structures that some call “Fedders houses,” because their most distinctive architectural features are the through-the-wall air conditioners.
Because there are no height limits in the R6 and R7-1 zones, it is even possible to erect a full-size apartment building in these areas, if several lots are assembled.
“There is tremendous potential for out-of-character development,” Silverman acknowledged, pointing out that the generous floor area allowance that accompanies community facility development in these zones provides the potential for even denser construction, if a medical office or other eligible facility is included in the plans.
Looking ahead, Silverman said that the next step would be to “collate” all the information that had been collected, and, “Look at what contextual zones might work here.”
One of the goals is to “protect” the existing streetscape in areas such as the Victorian neighborhoods, while also allowing, “Areas of opportunity for new housing,” said Silverman. “That’s something we always look at,” she added.
In general, areas where DCP chooses “to maintain housing opportunities,” said von Engel, are places where it would be “appropriate,” such as broad avenues.
One difference, however, is that the contextual zones that agency now uses have height limits. On Coney Island Avenue, for example, von Engel said that, while, “You’re not going to have 10 stories, seven or eight stories is not unimaginable.”
One concern about the rezoning of strips such as Coney Island Avenue is that it could raise property values to the point where local services might be priced out.
Noted Alvin Berk, the board’s chairperson, “A lot of us would get very annoyed if we had to go to McDonald Avenue to buy gas, or something comparable to that. Those are amenities that are crucial to the balance of the residential area.”
It will be at least a year before any new zoning can be in place. It takes at least several months to craft a proposal and go through the required environmental assessment. Then, the proposal must go through ULURP (uniform land use review procedure), a mandated series of public hearings that can take up to seven months to complete.
Because any projects whose foundations are “substantially complete” at the time the new zoning goes into effect would be grandfathered in under the old zoning, there is often a rush to demolish homes and start new construction as the zoning change approaches.
The amount of time it will take to get new zoning in place is a concern to residents. Monica MacAdams, a board member and Ditmas Park resident, stressed, “What we don’t want is more development.
“Rumors fly in the community every day,” she went on. “I’m concerned about a lot of time being spent doing an environmental assessment while the relatively few lots are snapped up and houses are torn down, and we’re going to be facing a wall of apartment buildings. If that happens, all this is for naught.”
“We will do it as quickly as possible,” von Engel rejoined, adding, “You’d be surprised how much you have to write even if you’re not triggering an impact. You have to explain why you’re not.”
One benefit that will accrue to the Flatbush rezoning study is the fact that DCP has more experience in doing such projects. “We have more models to draw on,” said von Engel, “and we’re getting quicker and more efficient. But, we have to do it and it is time-consuming.”
(c) Courier Life 2007