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Should site at Flatbush/Dean across from arena block be granted variance because of new context, or does Dean Street's residential scale deserve deference? BSA leaves issue unresolved.

Photo by Tracy Collins during arena construction;
Flatbush Avenue meets south side of Dean Street
It is, perhaps, the Atlantic Yards version of a zen koan: should properties across mostly residential Dean Street from the Atlantic Yards site, like the former Bergen Tile property aimed to rise six stories on its Flatbush Avenue side,  be held to zoning rules to maintain the modest character of Dean Street?

Or, given the enormous change on the arena block, thanks to a state override of zoning, has the context changed and a property owner's request for a variance--including allowing four stories rather than two on Dean just east of Flatbush Avenue--be granted?

Those were the unresolved questions lingering from a hearing yesterday before the city Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), the agency empowered to grant variances when "unique physical conditions" impose financial hardship, and that the variance "will not alter the essential character of the neighborhood" and represents "the minimum variance necessary to afford relief."

The BSA postponed any decision, asking the applicant to provide an updated economic analysis of the cost of parking, as well as potential retail rents and attendant revenue. Indeed, while the developer apparently suggested in its submission that retail was about $70/square foot, others pointed out that the figure had more than doubled. A follow-up hearing should be Nov. 27.

(Related: see Gib Veconi's essay in Prospect Heights Patch, The Metamorphosis of Brownstone Brooklyn, which called the variance request "likely be a litmus test for the City's response to future requests from owners of the low-rise buildings adjacent to Barclays Center.")

"The neighborhood is changing"

The north side of Dean Street at Flatbush
Attorney Ray Levin, who indicated that property owners were resisting several requests by Community Board 6 and neighbors regarding the planned 70-unit apartment building, took out a rendering of the planned 32-story, 363-unit tower across Dean Street and displayed it to the BSA members.

"The neighborhood is changing, and it's changing dramatically," Levin declared, with a touch of world-weariness. "And it's changing not blocks away, but immediately across the street... You have a lower-scale neighborhood, and now you're going to have this across the street."

Levin said that, yes, PRD Realty, owners of the triangular Bergen Tile building since 1934, were willing to consider decreasing the amount of glass on the Dean Street facade--extending it only 40 feet west from Flatbush--and replacing it with brick, a request from CB 6 aimed to have the building transition better on Dean Street.

"But as you can see from this rendering, directly across the street, this is all retail, it's all glass," Levin said. "I'm not sure how changing this building's design is going to ameliorate that. The neighborhood is changing, I'm not saying it isn't, but focusing on the south side of Dean Street and not looking at the north side, or what will be on the north side--that will be the context."

The developers also want to waive the requirement for parking, typically .4 spaces per unit, while the Community Board sought 12 parking spaces in the basement, a recognition that parking near the arena has been squeezed. The CB also requested a two-story extension on Dean Street, as detailed in a submission yesterday by CB 6 District Manager Craig Hammerman.

What's the context for parking?

Levin noted that a planned zoning text change for Downtown Brooklyn--"which stops 1.5 blocks from the site"--would cut the required parking in half, to .2 spaces per unit. If it were applied to this site, "we wouldn't be here today," he said, since there'd be fewer than 15 spaces required, and a clause in the law waives parking below that number.

BSA Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan told Levin that  it didn't make sense to put parking on the ground floor, as has been suggested, since that's the location of valuable retail space. Putting in an elevator for underground parking, Levin said, would be expensive, and need staff. Srinivasan asked for a financial analysis.

In testimony, Hammerman noted that the CB was "sympathetic to the challenge of configuring usable parking spaces, so instead of supporting the required amount of parking we instead recommended that the applicant provide a minimum of 12 parking spaces," ideally with provision for car sharing.

How much bigger?

If the variance is granted, the building would be 2900 sf larger than permitted, as R7A zoning on Flatbush would be extended to an R6B site on Dean.

Levin said that "the zoning resolution allows yo to move a zoning district line if you're within 25 feet" of that line, but the triangular site and angled zoning lot line doesn't allow it.

"We're here because of the oddly shaped site, which creates a burden," Levin said. "We would lose approximately 3,000 feet. However, the costs associated with that reduction are not concomitant. We still have to build an elevator to the top floor.... this reduction is not a zero-sum game."

"I'm not persuaded by that argument," Srinivasan responded. "The value of this property is derived by the as-of-right square feet."

What's the value of retail?

Levin said the retail comparables were compiled in March. "I believe those rents already took into account the fact that Barclays was opening," he said.

One board member was skeptical, pointing out that the comps included spaces on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope and Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, rather far away.

"I don't think they were cherry-picked," Levin maintained.

The economic analysis is "very flawed," countered Danae Oratowski, on behalf of Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, which includes the Dean Street Block Association. She cited press accounts describing commercial rents near the arena at $160-$200/sf. (Here's one that says $175/sf.)

"Beyond the numbers," Oratowski added, "the financial analysis should also take account of the unique location of the site."

It's directly across the street from the arena's second-largest entrance, and "Emblem Health has paid a substantial sum for the naming rights to the entrance without selling a single thing inside the arena." So there's value in signage on Dean Street.

In testimony, Hammerman said the Community Board recommended that the retail not be marketed to a large-scale tenant but be subdivided for smaller tenants to reflect the "mom and pop" commercial element that are important to the North Flatbush Avenue corridor. The BSA did not discuss this issue.

Too soon to judge

Oratowski warned that any canvass of area parking, as BSA requested from the applicant, would be preliminary, as parking patterns haven't firmed up. "Already, we know, in a quarter-mile radius, there is virtually no parking for residents--during the daytime it's taken up by arena employees," she said, noting that the arena is required to do a study of parking conditions after six months.

She added that community parking spaces have been removed on Dean Street to accommodate delivery trucks and other arena-related vehicles, and "the arena has a very serious problem with black cars, and people double-parking."

A neighbor's concerns

Stefana McClure, a co-owner of the property on Dean Street next to the site, expressed opposition ot the variance, noting that the new building would put the neighboring property's in shadow most of the day if built as planned.

She supported the Community Board's request for parking and pointed out that the same developer built The Atrium store on Flatbush Avenue, which "was frequently cited for violations" during construction, with $10,000 in penalties assessed. (DOB records are a bit confusing to me on ownership, however.)

The mission of the BSA:
The Board must determine, in granting a variance, that each and every one of five findings identified in Section 72-21 are met. The five findings are excerpted from the Zoning Resolution below:
(a) that there are unique physical conditions …. inherent in the particular zoning lot; and that, as a result of such unique physical conditions, practical difficulties or unnecessary hardship arise;
(b) that because of such physical conditions there is no reasonable possibility that the development of the zoning lot will bring a reasonable return … this finding shall not be required for the granting of a variance to a non-profit organization;
(c) that the variance, if granted, will not alter the essential character of the neighborhood;
(d) that the practical difficulties or unnecessary hardship claimed as a ground for a variance have not been created by the owner;
(e) …the variance, if granted, is the minimum variance necessary to afford relief.