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RPA: lift limit on bulk (FAR) in Downtown Brooklyn, other neighborhoods to add affordable housing

Neighborhoods that could fit in more bulk
The Regional Plan Association, elaborating on a proposal in its Fourth Regional Plan (my overview), recently released a report, Creating more affordable housing in New York City’s high-rise area: The case for lifting the FAR cap.

The gist is that a 67-year-old state law capping residential “floor area ratio” (FAR)--the multiple of bulk to floor plate--at 12 is outdated and misguided, and could lead to more affordable housing in Downtown Brooklyn and other areas (Manhattan, Long Island City, Jamaica) that the RPA says have the infrastructure and amenities to support it.

It should be noted that this responds in part to poor planning in the past, such as the upzoning of Downtown Brooklyn, ostensibly to enable office space, which instead led to much market-rate housing, with no requirement for affordability to balance the gift to landowners.

"This cap is blocking the way to better urban design, more needed homes, and more mixed-income neighborhoods” said Moses Gates, Director of Community Planning and Design for Regional Plan Association.

(The case was echoed in a Daily News op-ed from Council Member Rory Lancman. Erik Engquist of Crain's then noted that this rule change would empower local Council Members to extract more concessions from developers.)

Some cautions

That said, the RPA recommends cautions, including:
  • Department of City Planning (DCP) should conduct a Zoning Audit to address any unintended consequences and make sure any buildings with residential FAR beyond 12.0 would be a product of ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] & subject to MIH [Mandatory Inclusionary Housing]
  • DCP working with architecture and planning professionals as well as community stakeholders should issue design guidelines for any higher-density district
  • The City should protect commercial and community facility uses when needed
  • The City should also explore legislative changes to ensure properly-sized apartments are the result of any upzonings
Note that, while the increase in bulk should come from rezonings, the city's current land use review process is hardly foolproof, given a separate RPA report on how to improve it.

Keeping FAR in perspective

Keep in mind that FAR is very variable, and depends on the lot coverage. For example, the overall FAR of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park is expected to be 9, given the open space, but individual buildings range enormously.

For example, 461 Dean, flanking the arena, covers its entire lot area and has an FAR of 29. By contrast, 535 Carlton on the southeast block, part of a larger parcel with open space, has an FAR of 6.1. More details at the bottom.

From the report

The report notes that other urban areas in the region allow for far more development--a FAR of 25 in Jersey City--and that we accept converted office buildings with FAR well above 12, along with buildings that exceed 12 FAR because they have other functional spaces.

It argues for integration, that the areas seen as able to accept more density "are overwhelmingly more affluent, expensive, racially homogeneous and in need of affordable housing than New York City as a whole."

The report suggests that "dozens of individual landmarks in NYC" enormously exceed 12 FAR, including the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building.

The guidelines should proactively address issues like height, streetscape connectivity, open space, architectural appearance, and more, the report says. Also, the city should explore maximum apartment size regulations, or a minimum number of units per building, plus a pied-a-terre tax to discourage oversized luxury apartments.

A political question

Crain's New York Business noted that the areas cited by the RPA are too expensive for the city to finance ground-up affordable housing, hence the idea of adding more bulk.

And while Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Real Estate Board of New York support the repeal, Crain's noted that Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan " did not seem enthusiastic about the idea, echoing some of the criticism from organizations, such as the Municipal Art Society, which contend that allowing more density will create more loopholes for developers to block out light and air."

I suspect an agreement to increase bulk would be more palatable as part of an overall fair-share strategy to increase housing and provide appropriate infrastructure and community benefits. Also, as in debates over proposed projects like 80 Flatbush, subject to severe criticism from neighbors for the dramatic increase in bulk.

What's the FAR at AY?

By the way, there is enormous diversity when assessing the bulk of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park. The overall density for the project is 9.0 without the streetbeds--typically not included in analyzing a project, since they're public--or 7.8 including them.

Empire State Development, in the Final EIS, provided both ratios, after criticism, notably from Jonathan Cohn:



But the arena, while enormous, has a relatively low FAR, at least if you count the plaza in front of it. But when buildings on the arena block are measured against their tight footprints, well, the FAR is quite large.

On the arena block

The FAR is quite large because the lots are small and the buildings are taking up all or most of the site. The lot coverage for 461 Dean is 100% and for 38 Sixth it's 82%.

461 Dean: FAR = 29.3

38 Sixth: FAR = 14
From DOB; note that the purported 4.93 FAR is inaccurate; bulk must be divided by lot area
On the southeast block

The floor area ratio is much lower because, while the buildings are big, the lot area is huge. Note that 535 has a lot coverage of 12% and 550 Vanderbilt has a lot coverage of 50%.

535 Carlton: FAR = 6.1
From DOB
550 Vanderbilt, FAR = 7
From DOB

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