Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Times takes floor area ratio seriously--in Williamsburg

Sunday's New York Times contained two articles that mentioned the term floor area ratio (FAR), used to measure the density of a building. One article, however, took the issue much more seriously.

In Blogfest Over a Project in Brooklyn, in the Metro section, FAR was treated as a talking point for opponents rather than a topic worth pursuing in general coverage of the Atlantic Yards project:
Mr. Cohn, the architect, who lives in Park Slope, started Brooklyn Views this year and quickly earned attention from other Atlantic Yards bloggers for his analysis of the project's floor-area ratio, a measure of density. His argument — that the Atlantic Yards would be more dense than advertised because it eliminated otherwise open city streets to create the "superblock" on which the project will be built — was quickly added to opponents' talking points.
(Map from OnNYTurf.)

But is it only "other Atlantic Yards bloggers" who should notice? (Actually, the Brooklyn Papers wrote an article.)

By contrast, in a much longer and detailed Real Estate section article about controversial architect Robert M. Scarano Jr., headlined How Big Is Too Big?, the Times reported how Scarano has exploited loopholes and has designed buildings in neighborhoods like Williamsburg with more floor area than zoning rules allow. The trick, apparently, is that Scarano designs mezzanine floors but labels them as storage space and declares them exempt from calculations of square footage.

The Times reported:
The mezzanine has become something of a Scarano signature and has made Mr. Scarano's services very much in demand. Developers, as a rule, are eager to maximize the square footage of their buildings, and in many cases, Mr. Scarano's mezzanines have given them a way to do just that. (Emphasis added.)

Maximizing square footage

Density is typically regulated by zoning, but because the Atlantic Yards project would be managed by the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency would bypass city zoning codes. Still, the density question remains a subject for public argument. As noted, Forest City Ratner VP Jim Stuckey says "the density of this project is really not all that different than what recently went through the public approval process." Though Forest City Ratner likes to conflate the Prospect Heights site of the Atlantic Yards footprint with the rezoning in Downtown Brooklyn, the neighborhoods are not the same.

As the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development stated in its March 2005 preliminary planning analysis of Atlantic Yards, Slam Dunk or Airball:
When the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] for the Downtown Brooklyn Plan was completed, it was expected that the new construction for that area would be substantially taller and more modern than what exists. The same is true – and in a substantially greater discontinuity with the majority of surrounding buildings – for the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards area.

FAR in the Atlantic Yards plan

Cohn makes two points regarding how even the FAR numbers promulgated by Forest City Ratner need to be footnoted. First, the arena lowers the FAR, he writes:
However, because the proposed project includes an arena on the site, the air rights for density will be transferred to the rest of the site, making the non-arena components much denser than they would be without the arena.

(Well, were there zoning restrictions, the air rights would be transferred. In this case, there's nothing blocking FCR from building the rest of the site at the density it prefers. The presence of the arena just helps lower the average FAR for the public debate.)

Second, the taking of Pacific Street lowers the FAR:
An FAR figure for a superblock is not comparable to an FAR for a typical Brooklyn block, because a superblock uses the street for part of the site area.

Regarding the previous iteration of the plan, which has since been downscaled by five percent, Cohn calculated a proposed FAR of 9.5. Stuckey said that the FAR would be 8 to 8.5. But those are simple differences in math. Cohn contends that the real FAR for the non-arena portion of the project would be even higher, because the 9.5 figure includes the low-rise arena, which lowers the overall density, and taking of city streets allows the density to be spread over a larger area.

If the concern and outrage generated by Scarano's attempt to maximize FAR deserve public attention, then why not seriously examine the FAR tactics in the Atlantic Yards project?

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