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Community Board 6 committee urges restrictions on variance request for apartment building planned for Bergen Tile site across from arena

Not so fast, a Community Board 6 committee said last night to those planning an apartment building at the Bergen Tile site across from the Barclays Center arena, mainly on busy Flatbush Avenue but also extending around to lower-scale--and quiet, for now--Dean Street.

Photo by Tracy Collins
The Landmarks/Land Use Committee urged restrictions on a developer's request for a variance to add density and eliminate parking from a six-story apartment building with nearly 55 units.

PRD Realty, owners of the triangular Bergen Tile building since 1934, want to make sure there's retail on the ground floor, not use it to meet the city's increasingly antiquated parking minimums, spots for 40% of the units.

While nearly everyone at the meeting, board members and commenters alike, agreed that the city's parking requirements don't fit in a zone near transit, some thought that, given the increased--and increasing--competition for spaces in the neighborhood, some spaces should remain in the building's basement, though not on the street level.

Restrictions on variance request

So the committee, which has only an advisory vote, agreed to support the request for a variance from the Board of Standards and Appeals, subject to several conditions: 12 parking spaces in the basement; no commercial entrance along Dean Street, with glass extending only some 40 feet from Flatbush; a six-story maximum height along Flatbush; and a two-story extension along Dean Street above the garage space.

The latter would meet context with its nearest neighbor along the south side of the street, but, of course, vastly out of context with the expected 34-story modular tower Forest City Ratner aims to build and the arena nearing completion.

Council Member Letitia James opposed the application as presented, as did the Dean Street Block Association, giving a push to the committee.

The matter goes to the full Community Board in May, and then to the Board of Standard and Appeals, which is not required to agree. The developer, said attorney Ray Levin, would "prefer not" to follow the conditions requested by the committee. Once a plan is approved, construction could take 18 months--meaning it would continue after the arena opening.

While Atlantic Yards was brought up only a few times, it remains a context. Reprising remarks he made at another committee meeting earlier this week, board member Lou Sones observed, "A lot of people in this neighborhood have been basically screwed."

Either they were kicked out by eminent domain or are inundated by bars, he said, adding, "It was a lose-lose for everybody in the area." (Well, certainly not for some retailers.)

Developer presentation

Video of Levin's initial presentation--though not the Q&A/discussion--is below.

Given the triangular site, as well as the presence of the subway below ground, to fit the full amount of parking, they'd have to build a ramp to go up, thus eliminating a lot of space, Levin said. Instead, the basement would be storage for the retailers and building residents.

He noted that, if they built as of right, because parking doesn't count against bulk limits, the building would be eight stories, even farther out of scale with with its adjacent neighbors, which on Flatbush Avenue are only a couple of stories but could be taller.

Levin later said that the site, given that it was across from the arena, was not seen as a "family-friendly location;" thus the tentative configuration was 25 studios, 20 one-bedroom unites, and eight or nine two-bedroom units. If the market changes, units could be combined.

This is consonant with Forest City Ratner's plans for smaller units in the first residential building. While there's clearly a desire for larger subsidized units, the arrangement of market and affordable units must mirror each other, and singles and couples would be more likely to pay the high market-rate rents, valuing location over tranquility.

Levin said the developer plans affordable housing, though he wouldn't guarantee it would be included at that site. The firm would participate in the 80/20 program, gaining tax breaks for making 20% of the units are subsidized and thus affordable or buying certificates that ensure that affordable housing gets built elsewhere in the city. Skeptical audience members suggested that the latter tactic would be far more likely.

Hardship, support, and criticism

Levin said the application includes a financial analysis that explained why it would be a hardship to build differently--a statement that drew some skepticism, given the increased demand for sites near the arena.

Levin maintained it was unfeasible. "We could develop a two-story commercial building with no parking," he said, but the developer doesn't want to do that. "He's a residential builder." PRD has built the Heritage in Park Slope, among other developments.

Then again, in 2008, the owner was aiming to rent the Bergen Tile site out as retail. PRD also has built the Atrium, a clothing store just down Flatbush Avenue. (Note fines over $10,000 for Department of Buildings violations.)

Regina Cahill of the North Flatbush Business Improvement District said the organization supported the configuration of the building, with retail--not parking--on the first floor. She said that, at six stories, the building was in scale with other properties in the neighborhood.

The Dean Street Block Association sent a letter (below) calling for, among other things, no parking at street level but some below ground; ground floor continuous retail on Flatbush Avenue; and a smaller number of units, meaning larger apartments, and thus a lower demand for parking.

It suggested there was no compelling reason to override the zoning along the Dean Street side of the building to allow a larger building envelope on that segment of the structure.

Council Member James sent a letter expressing skepticism about claims of economic hardship and criticizing the design of the building, suggesting the desire for uniformity crowded out the possibility for a varied structure. She suggested any variance be offered not for the entire parking facility, just the spaces not built.

Dean Street Block Association Letter on 215 Flatbush