On the Outs in Brooklyn

The city's complicity behind the borough's soaring eviction rate

Laboz has used his spot as co-chair of the Fulton Mall Improvement Associa tion to push a vision of the mall as a "new 34th Street"—which fits well with the Macy's that currently occupies the historic A&S flagship building there, but perhaps not so much the rest of the busy strip, seemingly equally divided between jewelry stores with sneaker displays and sneaker stores advertising "We Buy Gold." "This is not a race issue," Laboz assured the Observer last year. "The car is running on five cylinders. The goal is to make it a better experience and a better environment for everybody." Chan calls it "surprising" that downtown Brooklyn lacks its own H&M, and points to the Atlantic Terminal's Target outlet as a model for a "diversified" retail experience where you find "families from Park Slope shopping next to families from East New York."

The Department of City Planning's webpage on the downtown Brooklyn redevelopment plan declares that its goal is to "serve the residents, businesses, academic institutions, and cultural institutions of Downtown Brooklyn and its surrounding communities." The city's actual environmental-impact statement for the rezoning plan, though, was more blunt, saying that while current businesses would be displaced, they would not be "significant" losses because "they do not have substantial economic value to the City, they do not define neighborhood character, nor do they belong to a special category of business that is protected by special regulations or publicly adopted plans."

The area's council representatives choose their words more carefully. Letitia James, whose Fort Greene district abuts the eastern edge of the rezoned area, lauds the two planned developments on Myrtle Avenue in her district that will include affordable-housing components. As for displacement of the existing community, she calls the situation "a very delicate balance" and says she plans to "continue to monitor the situation."

Barbert Jack Fuzailov can't resist some cutting remarks about the "new Brooklyn."
photo: Filip Kwiatkowski
Barbert Jack Fuzailov can't resist some cutting remarks about the "new Brooklyn."

Most of downtown falls into the district of David Yassky, the chair of the council's small business committee, who has backed the rezoning. He echoes Doctoroff's belief that commercial demand will ultimately rebound, and "when the demand comes back for office space here, the zoning means that people will be ready to respond." Seven years ago, he notes, Goldman Sachs chose to build a new office tower in Jersey City instead of Brooklyn. "I think we do want to make sure that doesn't happen again," Yassky says.

What about the widespread feeling among downtown merchants that the rezoning was designed to push them out in favor of a new clientele with deeper pockets and lighter pigmentation?

"Sure, I've heard some business owners saying things like that," says Yassky. He calls Albee Square Mall an anomaly—some merchants pay as little as a third of the going rate—because "the guy who owned it wanted people who he could kick out at a moment's notice." And as for the rest, well, that's just capitalism. "To me, it's not accurate to say that this is because of the rezoning," says Yassky. "These are market forces here that are making what were formerly low-rent areas, both residential and retail, into high-rent areas. I'm not saying it's a good thing. But it's market reality."

It's a market, though, that was largely created—or at least abetted—by the city's own rezoning. "We had a significant jump in developable floor-area ratio in some of these areas, so some of these buildings would not have gone up without that incentive," says CB2's Perris. "When you increase the size of the building by 50 percent, it changes all the numbers."

The city's ability to create tremendous wealth for landowners simply by tweaking a few floor-area ratio numbers is one reason many urban-planning advocates have pushed for something called "inclusionary zoning," in which developers must agree to provide a certain percentage of affordable housing in order to exceed the existing height limits.

Though inclusionary zoning was used on a limited scale in the recent rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, it was rejected by the city for the upzoning of Park Slope's Fourth Avenue and never even got on the table for downtown Brooklyn. Chan insists that even if the city had known of the coming residential boom, inclusionary zoning was not needed. As with Fulton Mall rents, he keeps faith in the restorative powers of supply and demand, saying that by allowing taller residential buildings with more units, "hopefully, with that amount of supply, prices will kind of balance out."

"I couldn't find some array of forces willing and interested to work on it, honestly," says Brad Lander of the Pratt Center for Community Development, who has been the strategy's most tenacious champion. "I met Jim Whelan when he was head of the Downtown Brooklyn Council, and I tried to pitch him. I said, 'Here's this great idea; it'll work for you, it'll work for everyone.' And he chuckled—he kind of said this seems like a reasonable idea, but the way things are going in this administration . . . "

It's a scenario that, planning experts say, points out one of the main flaws with the city's rezoning process: With public discussion limited to the advisory vote of the local community board, it takes an extraordinarily committed organization of local residents to get the city to veer from its declared path. And even then, the appointed community boards are no guarantee to represent the community—as residents of Brooklyn's Board 6 found out last week when nine members were purged by their political patrons for voting against Atlantic Yards, and the Bronx's CB4 saw last year in a similar purge over the new Yankee Stadium plan.


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