With overdevelopment rampant in the neighborhood, community members search for a solution
By Victor Porcelli
On a single street in East Flatbush, there are eight apartment buildings either recently completed or currently under construction, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the neighborhood’s signature early 20th century Victorian houses.
Construction sites crowd New York Avenue, a two-way street that is now a hotspot for new development. Some local residents reported having construction work invade their space, with scaffolding encroaching on their property and debris occasionally covering their lawns. Neighbors say they’ve had enough, with some voicing their frustrations at a recent Community Board 17 meeting.
The type of development going on is largely due to failed efforts to rezone the area some 10 years ago, as its current zoning designation — on New York Avenue, R-6 — allows for the development of apartment buildings that can be as tall as 70 feet. Some still see a rezoning as the solution, although that would be years away, at best.
Out with the old, in with the new
Larry Munroe, who lives on New York Avenue right next to a development site, said that the new developments have changed the character of the block.
“These were landmark homes,” Munroe told Brooklyn Reporter. “My home was a landmark home, and when you start doing these things, you’re destroying the neighborhood.”
Richard Strauss, who has lived in the neighborhood for about 50 years, described one of the homes torn down for a new development. Formerly home to a family of eight that included Strauss’ first girlfriend and childhood friends, 1565 New York Avenue had oak scroll work between the living and dining room, oak doors with etched glass, and a front and back stairway before it was torn down for construction.
“I half grew up in that house,” Strauss said. “That house was magnificent … now it’s just an empty lot,” soon to be occupied by a six-story apartment building.
This is the case for many of the construction sites, where pre-war houses are being demolished for new apartment buildings that line up right beside the few older homes that remain.
Multiple residents Brooklyn Reporter spoke to said they doubted the new housing would go to anyone currently living in the neighborhood. Instead, they expect the developments not only to change the character of the block, but also gentrify the majority black, middle-income community. Many of the apartments have minimum income requirements that would disqualify most area residents from applying to them, despite being labeled as affordable housing.
On the corner of New York Avenue, a Glenwood Road apartment building has a minimum income requirement of about $70,000 a year; at 1538 New York Avenue it’s slightly less, at $63,000 a year and at 1605 New York Avenue it’s a bit more, requiring that applicants earn at least $85,000 a year.
“Who in the middle of Brooklyn is making that sort of money?” Strauss asked.
According to IRS tax return data from 2016, not many. Sixty-five percent of those who live in the developments’ zip code have an adjusted gross income of less than $50,000 a year.
Rezoning as a solution
Rickie Tulloch, who formerly served as land use chair of CB17, told Brooklyn Reporter that he feared overdevelopment and gentrification would be coming to the neighborhood over 10 years ago.
“Back in those times, I recognized that our area was susceptible to overdevelopment because there is a large part of the community board that is zoned R-6, R-7 and even R-5,” Tulloch said, referring to the zoning designations by the city that dictate what types of developments are allowed in a given area. “These are lots that had single family homes, so they were vulnerable. If it is zoned for R-6 and it is a single-family home, all they have to do is knock it down.”
New York Avenue’s R-6 zoning designation allows for taller, multi-family developments to be built on it. Over a decade ago, CB17 pushed for a contextual rezoning that, in part, would have brought it down to an R-5 designation. This would allow multi-family dwellings, but put a 40-foot height limit on them. CB17’s efforts were part of a larger push by communities during former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure that sought rezonings to protect themselves from the type of overdevelopment and gentrification which is now occurring in East Flatbush.
Contextual rezonings often include upzoning on wider main streets, in return for downzoning more residential areas of the neighborhood. Under Bloomberg, the city conducted over 100 rezonings — many of them contextual — while de Blasio’s administration has conducted six, according to Rezoning Technical Assistance Coordinator at the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development Christopher Waters.
A study by New York University’s Furman Center in 2010 found that many Bloomberg-era contextual rezonings occurred in areas that were more affluent and white than the city median.
“The city always has a rationale, sort of a land use and planning rationale,” Waters said. “But there is definitely a political power component to it as well … if neighborhoods have the clout to make enough noise.”
Tulloch said it was a lack of political will that killed CB17’s push for rezoning. He mentioned that other community boards — such as CB14 and CB15 — were able to get contextual rezonings done under Bloomberg with relative ease.
“Those people pushed their stuff, had discussion and meetings . . . they got their stuff done,” Tulloch said. “It depends on the will of the representative at the time. If the representative is not willing to go along, then it is going to be bogged down.”
Of the four representatives whose approval was needed to complete the rezoning, Tulloch said former City Councilmember of District 45 Kendall Stewart — who owns property in the area — was the only one in opposition. After multiple stops and starts during which CB17 came close to getting the rezoning done, eventually, efforts simply stopped, Tulloch said.
According to Waters, if there was ever a time to achieve a contextual rezoning with significant downzoning in areas like New York Avenue, it was under Bloomberg. However, some residents and elected officials still see it as the way forward.
Just last year, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams — then city councilmember for District 45 — called once again for a contextual rezoning in the neighborhood. Just as local neighborhood residents had previously advocated, Williams spoke of a rezoning that would put restrictions on the shape and height of developments built. Although acknowledging that the neighborhood would still change with a contextual rezoning, Williams hoped it would slow down the rapid pace of development.
Councilmember Farah Louis, who won the Council seat after Williams was elected public advocate, said that downzoning efforts can conflict with the effort to provide more affordable housing. As a way to balance the differing needs of the community, CB17 has a “revitalization plan” which entails major community outreach to come up with a new zoning map of the area in the hopes of both protecting the character of the community and allowing for development where appropriate.
“Several residential neighborhoods — New York Avenue, Glenwood Rd, Farragut Rd, etc. — are of concern because all the beauty of these neighborhoods has been eradicated by new buildings, diminishing the character of these beautiful neighborhoods,” Louis said in a statement to Brooklyn Reporter. “From an environmental and public health standpoint, constant construction near our homes and schools is destructive and unacceptable. I believe Community Board 17’s revitalization project can help curb over-development and preserve our neighborhoods from unnecessary building.”
Allyson Martinez, a CB17 member, told Brooklyn Reporter that the revitalization plan was a continuation of the board’s contextual zoning analysis project. As part of the plan, CB17 is partnering with the Pratt Institute to have high school and college-age students “meet people where they are,” sending the student to churches and other community areas to ask residents their thoughts on how the area should be zoned. Martinez said local businesses and relevant city agencies would also be consulted before coming up with a proposed zoning map to share with the city’s Department of City Planning, in hopes that the agency would act on the board’s recommendation.
“The end goal has always been contextual rezoning,” Martinez said. “We know that there are certain things our community does need in terms of development, but it’s how do we do that in a respectful way that doesn’t displace people, that makes people feel like they’re a part of a process … and that the things that they love and live in Brooklyn for remain.”
However, rezoning can take years to accomplish — even after a plan is submitted to the city — and under de Blasio, it has gotten slower. Waters said that it would take at least three years to rezone an area, maybe more.
To Tulloch, who worked to rezone the neighborhood over a decade ago, it’s still better late than never. He said that although he believes the neighborhood has been “transformed” and “tarnished,” rezoning is still necessary to prevent further damage to the community.
“[Rezoning efforts are important] more so than ever,” Tulloch said. “Some of the horses went through the gate, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to close it.”