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The (non-inclusionary) Fourth Avenue rezoning, affordable housing, & CB 6

The recent shakeup of Community Board 6 may have been mostly about Atlantic Yards, but it also, apparently, was about affordable housing on the changing fringe of Park Slope.

As City Council Member Bill de Blasio told the Brooklyn Paper, the CB did not fight the City Planning Commission's 2003 rezoning of Park Slope, which protected the scale of side streets from Union Street to Fifteenth Street and allowed increased density along Fourth Avenue, but did not require affordable housing as a tradeoff.
(Rendering of the new Argyle from the New York Post. I originally tagged it as a photo.)

While CB 6 didn't embrace affordable housing, it was hardly the only responsible party. The Bloomberg administration at the time firmly opposed such inclusionary zoning. Meanwhile, affordable housing advocates had not begun their citywide efforts to enact such policies.

But CB 6 was the only target over which de Blasio has power and, as the community board begins to consider the rezoning of Gowanus, he’s put an affordable housing advocate, Brad Lander of the Pratt Center for Community Development, on board to chair the housing committee. (Lander’s been a critic of Atlantic Yards.)

In hindsight, unwise

In hindsight, the rezoning of central and northern Park Slope seems an unwise move, favoring some powerful constituencies—homeowners in an affluent district, real estate developers, and an unbending city administration—without requiring commensurate equity. Now luxury buildings have sprung up along Fourth Avenue, replacing light industrial buildings and three-story apartments, and previous residents have been displaced. Developers—and the people from whom they bought property—have reaped the benefit.
(Photo of Hotel LeBleu from The Gowanus Lounge.)

Moreover, the paltry $6 million the city announced in 2003 to support affordable housing has not apparently been used yet, according to Community Board 6 District Manager Craig Hammerman and Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee.

And the city learned its lesson; 2005 rezonings in Greenpoint/Williamsburg and the South Slope (below 15th Street) did include incentives, but not requirements, for affordable housing.

The shifting landscape

And in hindsight, the city’s failure fostered political support for Atlantic Yards. Advocacy group ACORN, mindful of the lack of affordable housing elsewhere in and around Downtown Brooklyn, chose to sign a private deal with developer Forest City Ratner rather than go through a more public process.

Forest City, recognizing that publicly-owned land experiencing a vast increase in density would have to include affordable housing, took the issue off the table . (And, when convenient, the developer switched its promise from 50% affordable units to 50% of the rentals.) Politicians like de Blasio supported Atlantic Yards because of the housing, before they could assess the project as a whole.

Sure, a fairer Park Slope rezoning would not have provided nearly as many subsidized housing units than are promised at Atlantic Yards. And, given the other losses of affordable housing—such as units leaving the rent-regulated system and Mitchell-Lama conversions—the pressures for housing in Brooklyn would remain, as Lander has pointed out. But it would have indicated that the load was being shared.

Eight stories, or 12?

In its 2003 description of the rezoning, the City Planning Commission (CPC) emphasized scale rather than economic diversity or a sharing of the wealth. It stated:
The goals of the rezoning are to preserve the historic scale of the brownstone neighborhoods, and provide increased opportunities for residential and commercial development on Fourth Avenue.
(Photo of Novo from Brownstoner.)

A 2/26/03 Daily News article headlined KEEPIN' PARK SLOPE REAL quoted Lander, then head of the Fifth Avenue Committee, as arguing that the city should allow buildings on Fourth Avenue to reach only eight stories, not 12, unless they contained some affordable housing.

City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, whose concerns have always been esthetics over equity, was dismissive: "What you don't want to do is freeze the district at eight stories, and then come back at a later date with a nebulous plan that probably won't get through.”

The agency that should’ve supported affordable housing, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), also opposed inclusionary zoning, Lander told me recently. “And we were told at the time that Deputy Mayor [Dan] Doctoroff was unhappy with how affordable housing requirements had delayed development at Queens West, and he was not open to linking zoning and affordability.”

Indeed, Bloomberg's New Housing Marketplace plan, announced in December 2002, offered an array of strategies, including rezonings, to produce new housing, but did not embrace inclusionary zoning.

CB support

CB 6 voted 32-4 to favor the change. CB 6 Chairman Jerry Armer, who was axed apparently because of his leadership in the board’s dissection of the Atlantic Yards plan, said the board didn’t want the inclusionary zoning argument to stall a long-delayed effort to stave off increasing out-of-scale development on the residential blocks.

The Daily News quoted Armer, "Our concern is that this rezoning isn't caught in the politics of the day, because we've waited long enough for it and we don't want to see it get stranded."

Hammerman told me affordable housing at the time was viewed as more of a citywide than neighborhood problem, and that the CB was hoping for a citywide solution--which in fact, began brewing the next year. Those who were lobbying and stood to gain the most from the new zoning, he acknowledged, saw their priorities reflected in the board’s vote.

Then Courier-Life columnist Erik Engquist reported 5/19/03:
Incidentally, Community Board 6's Pauline Blake had earlier denigrated as "political" the politicians' call for an affordable housing component in the rezoning plan.
(Indeed, the resistance to affordable housing was equally "political.")

Borough President Marty Markowitz, a former tenant leader, supported the FAC’s affordable housing plan. But he didn’t make a public stink when the Community Board, and the city administration, shot it down. Nor did he attempt to remove board members, as he did after the Atlantic Yards vote.

Lander recalled that the Land Use Committee and CB 6 as a whole “were totally lukewarm to the inclusionary zoning effort" and, when City Planning threatened to pull the rezoning if the community pushed for inclusionary zoning, the community board backed off. "This enabled City Planning to say that they were heeding the community's wishes.”

The debate thickens

But the rezoning had to pass both the CPC and City Council. The New York Times, in a 4/2/03 Metro section article headlined Highs and Lows in Park Slope Rezoning Plan, quoted Burden as pointing out that the rezoning would preserve the neighborhood's "extraordinary" building stock and prevent the "increasing number of sore thumbs -- one after another -- that have over and over violated the context of Park Slope. And that erodes its value."

Hammerman told the Times that the "canyon of housing” could be a new Park Avenue, but de Blasio pointed out, "We just can't do enough to create affordable housing in this neighborhood.”

In a subtle bit of juxtaposition that suggested support for the advocates’ case, the Times reported:
But city officials say that the approach is unsuited to the unique configurations of the New York housing market. Inclusionary zoning has been tried in the most dense residential zones in Manhattan, Ms. Burden said, but has failed to produce many moderately priced apartments. Advocates and developers say that is because there are more attractive tax incentives available for constructing low-cost housing that do not exist in the other boroughs, and not because the concept is flawed.

Lander was quoted:
''Landowners on Fourth Avenue are essentially seeing their land value doubled,'' he said. ''It's reasonable to ask for some percentage of affordable housing.''

Indeed, unmentioned was that developers would have another incentive to build, the 421-a tax abatement.

Some dismay

A 4/6/03 Daily News article, headlined PARK SLOPE REZONE PLAN OK'D, reported an 11-2 vote by the City Planning Commission. Burden offered a quote she probably regrets: "We are very confident that this will build affordable housing."

The Daily News added a caution:
But City Planning Commissioner William Grinker, who has lived in Park Slope for 25 years, said more needed to be done. "I will vote no, knowing that this is a very good plan, but a very flawed plan," said Grinker. "We are looking forward to the Council to amend this plan and to make it even better."

The only amendment was the assignment of $6 million for subsidized housing.

A 4/29/03 New York Sun article headlined Compromise Reached Over Brooklyn Housing portrayed Burden, yet again, as insisting that the pump must be primed:
"What we're trying to do is get construction on Fourth Avenue," the chairwoman of the City Planning Commission, Amanda Burden, told a subcommittee of the council's land use committee. "The 12 stories will incentivize that. Any additional burden, and maybe no housing will get built."

City Council passage

The City Council passed the resolution on 4/30/03. The vote was unanimous, with even de Blasio avoiding a protest vote. Lander recalled that then-Speaker Gifford Miller made it clear that neither he nor the administration would support changes at the Council level. The compromise was that yet-unspent $6 million.

The effects

Soon after, the real estate pages were reporting the effects. A 6/6/03 Times Real Estate section article, headlined Rezoning Spurs Park Slope Condos, noted that four new projects just off Fourth Avenue would add 150 condos by the end of the year.

The article stated:
The Brooklyn office of the city's Planning Department has projected that 1,100 residences could be built along Fourth Avenue under the new zoning, 440 of them in the next decade.

The article mentioned the $6 million fund:
Carol Abrams, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said the $6 million was expected to be allocated through several existing housing programs and to take different forms, including tax-exempt bond financing and low-interest loans. In return, developers would reserve at least 20 percent of the units for residents whose incomes do not exceed a specific earnings ceiling. Estimates are that the public money would generate at least 130 below-market-rate units, Ms. Abrams said.

Learning from Park Slope

A September 2003 City Limits article, headlined The growth dividend: the city opens Williamsburg and Greenpoint to redevelopment--and won't promise affordable housing, cited the dispiriting experience of Park Slope as driving a community coalition to ask that subsidies for 40 percent of the housing developed under the rezoning be required.

Still, city officials, in this case Regina Myer of DCP, resisted required inclusionary zoning. City Limits reported:
"We're very, very concerned that a requirement for inclusionary housing might possibly discourage housing production," says Myer."It essentially becomes another burden on the developer."
If the city imposed inclusionary zoning, Myer adds, it would also have to allow developers to build bigger projects. "An inclusionary requirement would require more density--taller buildings," she says. "That's not something the community wants."

Such density, of course, is what happened in the Atlantic Yards plan, though it was negotiated privately.

Ron Shiffman, former director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, pointed out that land prices had already gone up, because of speculation about future rezoning, and if the inclusionary zoning rule burdened developers, they could sell their, “land values will go down so that other developers can do it.”

Movement broadens

The effort broadened, leading to citywide movement for inclusionary zoning, City Council resolution in 2004 and a new emphasis by the mayoral administration for voluntary inclusionary zoning, offering bonus density in exchange for affordable housing. Lander cited the role of the community groups in the Greenpoint/Williamsburg and Hudson Yards rezonings, as well as efforts by Shaun Donovan, who became HPD Commissioner in March 2004.

Notable is that some other observers have offered cautious support for inclusionary zoning. Two years ago, the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, in Chapter 11 of its lengthy report, Reducing the Cost of New Housing Construction in New York City: 2005 Update, offered some market-sensitive modifications to the existing inclusionary housing program and cautioned against a mandatory version. In August 2004, Julia Vitullo-Martin of the Manhattan Institute, in Thinking about Inclusionary Zoning, also warned against mandatory inclusionary zoning but suggested tweaks in existing programs.

Rezoning victims

A 7/5/05 Village Voice article by Paul Moses, headlined Poor Excuse: Rezoning plan for Brooklyn's Fourth Avenue forces lower-income neighbors out, tells the story of 76-year-old-pensioner Ann Thompson, who had leave the $550-a-month apartment she'd rented for 20 years:
"The result of this rezoning is they're kicking all the minorities out of here—I can give it to you in two words," said Thompson, who is black. "And my God, they're giving the seniors hell."

Moses pointed out the "housing opportunities on Fourth Avenue" promised by Burden were "far from 'opportunities' for Thompson and her neighbors."

Moses noted:
There is a trickle-down argument to be made for rezoning land for big luxury housing developments in hopes that simply having more housing will lead to lower rents. But it means that the wealthy get theirs now, and the poor take their chances.

Landlord Shahn Andersen, who had applied to demolish a four-story, eight-unit rent-stabilized building to build a luxury condo building (and is now working on Broken Angel, said he would have wanted to include middle-income housing--not low-income housing--had there been subsidies. Moses thinks DCP had made a mistake, and should grandfather in the inclusionary zoning:
It can be done as part of a rezoning now being devised for southern Park Slope. But that would still come too late to help Ann Thompson.

Now, new buildings and reform

Last December, writing in response to the city's proposed reform of 421-a tax breaks, Moses pointed out that the city had evolved:
The Council, prodded by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Planning Commission Chairwoman Amanda Burden, voted in 2003 to re-zone Park Slope with little regard for the need to develop affordable housing. The re-zoning protected brownstoners in the wealthy section of Park Slope by preventing out-of-scale (read: ugly) new developments. But it cleared the way for construction of 10- and 12-story luxury buildings along Fourth Avenue, the area where the Slope’s poorer residents lived. That’s lived, in past tense, since the ensuing real estate boom has driven many of them away.

Indeed, now real estate brokers and investors, at least, applaud the newly shiny, Fourth Avenue. The New York Post published a 5/17/07 article headlined FANTASTIC 4TH: ONCE-GRITTY STRETCH OF PARK SLOPE BOOMS WITH NEW CONDOS & HOT SPOTS, which mentioned the rezoning and even the Fifth Avenue Committee's move near Fourth Avenue, but not the group's effort at inclusionary zoning.

An oddly pessimistic June 2007 article in The Real Deal is headlined Slope slowdown on Fourth Avenue: Transformation of gritty stretch in Brooklyn's Park Slope slow to arrive. There's actually a lot of transformation, but the article cautioned that it might not continue, because of traffic congestion (including from Atlantic Yards), environmental hazards from the nearby Gowanus area, and the 2008 modification of the 421-a tax break, which subsidizes market-rate developments.

Unmentioned is what the change in what 421-a will do: require some affordable housing in exchange for the tax break. In other words, developers will have had well over four years of increased density plus a tax break. And the battle continues to ensure that rezonings that add value to land also result in sharing the wealth.

Within CB 6, the upcoming rezoning of Gowanus includes several blocks along Fourth Avenue and undoubtedly will involve a call for affordable housing. "It creates an opening for City Planning, should they choose to exercise it," Hammerman observed, "of revisiting the entire Fourth Avenue corridor."


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