Case Study: Brooklyn Neighborhood Rezones to Combat Out-of-Scale Development

Even in the New York City metro area, with its walkable neighborhoods, areas of high density, and extensive public transit system, many citizens are concerned about development that conflicts with the scale and character of the neighborhoods they love. The New York City Department of City Planning provides this overview of recent rezoning in the Bay Ridge district of Brooklyn:

See also:

Special Bay Ridge District Rezoning: Existing Context and Zoning  

Special Bay Ridge District Rezoning: Proposed Zoning (as approved)

The rezoning proposal seeks to:

  • Preserve neighborhood scale and character by rezoning to lower density and contextual districts and further fine-tuning those districts to reflect the context of midblocks with a detached character, those with both detached and semi-detached building types, and the blocks lined predominantly with limestone rowhouses;
  • Reinforce several of the avenues as corridors for mid-rise mixed retail and residential buildings by mapping appropriate moderate-density contextual zoning districts;
  • Preserve the central commercial district through contextual rezoning and increase permitted density in the auto district to provide for the expansion of commercial and community facility uses; and
  • Retain the SBRD and a limited number of its protective regulations to work in concert with the contextual districts.

The Brooklyn Paper: “In Bay Ridge, Fedders doesn’t mean cool” (3/12/05)
Perhaps most vocal among the complainants decrying the development of “Fedders houses”, as they have come to be known, are residents of Bay Ridge, whose neighborhood awaits city approval of a rezoning measure that would bar such housing developments.

So ugly and bland are those buildings, say some, that their most striking architectural trait may well be the air conditioner sleeve itself.

By all accounts, the term was coined by Bay Ridge resident Victoria Hofmo, a longtime community activist and a member of Councilman Vincent Gentile’s neighborhood preservation committee. A fixture at local zoning and land use meetings, Hofmo believes the term first came to her in 1998, while she was fighting to landmark a block of homes on 95th Street between Marine Avenue and Shore Road. While she was successful in gaining city landmarks designation for one of the buildings, a 158-year-old Greek revival home, two thirds of the block was eventually converted into condominiums and installed with those ubiquitous through-the-wall Fedders air conditioner sleeves.

Dyker Heights/Ft. Hamilton Rezoning – Approved!
The proposed rezoning is in response to community concerns regarding out-of scale buildings and their impact on existing neighborhood character. Over the past several years, a number of multi-family buildings have been constructed which are out of character with their surroundings. On blocks with predominantly one -and two-family homes, developers are building attached buildings ranging from six to twelve units. In addition, the construction of mixed-use buildings combining medical offices and residences has resulted in larger and bulkier buildings.

The rezoning proposal would:

  1. Preserve neighborhood scale and character through the mapping of lower density and contextual zoning districts for the mid-blocks to recognize the existing detached, semi-detached and small rowhouse character;
  2. Reinforce the existing commercial corridors and encourage mid-rise mixed retail/residential buildings;
  3. Limit the maximum floor area for community facility uses (without tax exempt status) located within residential buildings in the proposed one- and two-family and R5B zoning districts;
  4. Identify limited opportunities for new commercial and residential development.

Gotham Gazette: “Bloomberg’s Shadow Looms over Bay Ridge” (11/2/09)
In terms of city agencies, [incumbent District 43 City Councilor Vincent] Gentile credits his “good working relationship with the Brooklyn office of the City Planning Department” for helping him pass Brooklyn’s largest-ever “downzoning” initiative in 2005. The rezoning in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights restricted the development of condominium buildings and other larger structures that would threaten the “contextual nature” of the one and two family brownstones that characterize the district, said Gentile.

If reelected Gentile said he would continue this initiative in the parts of the district that were not involved in the first rezoning efforts. Since 2006 Gentile has been working with the Historic Districts Council to look into rezoning Bath Beach. The council submitted a proposal for rezoning the area, as requested by Gentile, in July 2008. Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the council, said Gentile’s approach to the details of land use was unique for a City Council member.

CNNMoney: Single-Family Homes Part of Turnaround for South Bronx Neighborhood (11/9/09)
Brook’s and [urban planner Ed] Logue’s vision was to go to the rotted core — Charlotte Street — and work outward. But most everyone advised them to rebuild starting from the healthy fringes. They wanted single-family homes; critics wanted density and multi-family dwellings, saying it would promote a lively, safe neighborhood and attract merchants…

Homeownership was made possible by discounting the houses: Each property sold for between $50,000 and $59,000 even thought it cost an average of $110,000 to build. The difference was funded through federal dollars, but the City of New York and various foundations also helped subsidize buyers…

…succeed it did. Original buyers invested and stayed; fewer than a dozen homes out of the 92 have ever been sold. Plus, while the rest of the country is being wracked by foreclosures, Charlotte Gardens has lost just one home to the plague…

Property values, too, have soared. Homes that originally went for $50,000 now sell for ten times that — when one is available…

Condo Monotony: The Future of Ward 3?
If a trend towards dense, monotonous developments gains momentum, we can expect to see larger effects on Ward 3, such as higher temperaturesmore air pollutionmore traffic congestion, a greater risk of flooding from the spread of impervious surface and encroachment on wetlands, and an overall reduction in charm and beauty. This is not inevitable, but it appears we need to adjust our zoning to preserve what’s good about where we live. Let your city councilors know how you feel.

Northampton Media: “Northampton’s Built Environment: Squandered Public Equity” by Tris Metcalfe, AIA (11/2/09)

Video: Zoning Revisions Discusses Making Core Urban Neighborhoods More “Conforming”, More Dense (4/22/10)
The risks of poorly managed densification are substantial. These include parking shortages, traffic jams, overwhelmed infrastructure, vanished greenspace and charming historic neighborhoods turned into an ugly mishmash of incompatible buildings. We hope city officials will study the experience of places like San Diego and Houston, and put protections in place before contemplating higher densities in the infill receiving areas. These protections include infill design guidelines, an appraisal of increased needs for parking and infrastructure, and monitoring tree canopy and impervious surface by ward.

Berkeley, California: Cautions on Infill
Citizen input into long-range planning is excellent—which is why citizens are so astonished when their plans are entirely ignored by the current Planning Division. Developers sometimes work successfully with neighbors to create good and popular developments, but a long list of appeals, lawsuits, and despised large developments indicates a major problem. Staff routinely stonewalls, obfuscates, refuses to respond, and ignores neighborhood concerns. In contradiction to our own ordinances, staff makes no genuine attempt to facilitate cooperation between applicants and neighbors. Instead, propelled by their simplistic “smart growth” philosophy, staff encourages developers to build the largest possible projects over neighborhood objections…

Lessons from San Diego: Why We Need Infill Design Guidelines

The New Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan: Balancing Compact Growth Against Taxes, Urban Greenspace, Homeowner Preferences
Mishandled campaigns for density can trigger an intense political backlash. In suburban Portland, voters recalled a mayor and two council members over dense development and a neighborhood light-rail alignment (J. Terrence Farris,  “The Barriers to Using Urban Infill Development to Achieve Smart Growth”, p.23, 2001, PDF).

Portland: A Photo Tour of Spiraling Densification

Portland, Oregon Voters Sour on Densification Over Time

Scrape-Off Redevelopments Provoke Backlash in Denver Neighborhoods

Vancouver Sun: “Call it EcoDensity or EcoCity –either way it’s a hard sell”

Our Ad in the May 6 Gazette: “How to Avoid Classic Infill Design Mistakes” 

Knoxville Infill Housing Design Guidelines: Lessons from Experience

Portland Infill Design Strategies: Best Practices for Context-Sensitive Infill Design