The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission approved plans last week for a 1,066-foot-tall tower to be built atop a portion of Flatbush Avenue’s Dime Savings Bank, all but assuring that the Brooklyn skyline will soon be dominated by a giant bronze-and-glass finger rising next door to Junior’s. Reaction ranged from “enlightened urbanism at its best” (landmarks commissioner and architect Frederick Bland) to “I kind of dig the building but huh, it is tall. Too tall” (pretty much all of Twitter).
The Dime skyscraper — being built by union-busting crusader Michael Stern and real-estate arbitrageur Joe Chetrit and designed by SHoP Architects, the same people who gave us the Barclays Center’s dripping-rust-colored exterior — will be undeniably tall, nearly double the height of 333 Schermerhorn Street, the 610-foot rental apartment building that last year grabbed the title of Brooklyn’s tallest in the borough’s never-ending game of top-this. Media reports cited the new building’s soaring height as allowable “as-of-right” — a/k/a, needing no special zoning exceptions — hence the only required permission was from the landmarks commission, an appointed board whose mission is to focus on things like how the tower will affect the neighboring bank lobby. (In case you’re wondering: The teller windows will be maintained as-is until a retail tenant arrives, at which point they’ll presumably be repurposed as Genius Bars or some such thing.)
How developers got to stick up a thousand-foot erection in a borough that had until recently been limited to the height of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, though, isn’t so much a story of picayune landmarks bureaucracy or even the “new Brooklyn” meme. Rather, it’s the fallout of a decision made more than a decade ago by the Bloomberg administration that will end up effectively doubling the height of the Brooklyn skyline.
Downtown Brooklyn has always been a bit of a stepchild: When the “fourth largest city in America” was incorporated into Greater New York City in 1898, its downtown was left largely superfluous. In the 1950s, the city wiped out much of the Fulton Street theater-and-small-business strip to create the Cadman Plaza court campus, while another 250 residents and 100 businesses were displaced in the 1980s for Bruce Ratner’s MetroTech, which soaked up $235 million in city subsidies and never lived up to its promised job-creation claims.
In 2001, the city created the Downtown Brooklyn Special District, which carved out that neighborhood from a then-in-progress citywide redefinition of the alphabet soup of zoning designations. Three years later, the amalgam of downtown business improvement districts and other Brooklyn real estate organizations that would eventually join together as the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, with the backing of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, got the the city council to approve a comprehensive rezoning of the new district to allow for much taller buildings — something that they warned was needed to provide “Class A” office space to keep city companies from relocating to New Jersey.
Under previous law, most of downtown, including the Dime site, had been designated C6-1, which limits residential buildings to a maximum Floor Area Ratio of 3.44 — i.e., the total floor area of the building can’t be more than 3.44 times the footprint of the entire site. The Bloomberg rezoning took a huge swath of downtown Brooklyn — everything in a triangle bounded by Fulton Street, Willoughby Street, and Flatbush Avenue, plus a few adjacent blocks — and changed that to C6-4.5, a newly invented (since this is Brooklyn, we should probably say “bespoke”) category that raised the limit to a least 10 FAR, meaning buildings could be nearly triple the bulk as allowed under the old rules.
Building height, meanwhile, is governed by a set of even murkier bureaucratic designations, including the “sky exposure plane,” an imaginary line rising diagonally from the street that no building is allowed to penetrate. (This gimmick — put in place in the city’s original 1916 zoning law to put an end to the sky-darkening towers that were starting to clog Manhattan’s narrow downtown streets — is what led to the iconic skyscraper form of midcentury, best seen in the Empire State Building’s gently stepped appearance.) There are ways to work around the sky exposure plane — think Sixth Avenue’s wall of glass boxes set amid bland public plazas — but the C6-4.5 designation did away with height limits entirely: Whereas under the old law, towers had to top out at no more than 495 feet; following the Bloomberg rezoning, the sky was almost literally the limit.
Bloomberg’s rezoning took place with little public scrutiny, resulting in — according to a 2008 report by the Pratt Center for Community Development — a plan that was “formulated to cater to the interests of big landlords and developers, often at the expense of many small business owners and residents of modest means.” As with MetroTech, the desired commercial stampede never really arrived, but residential skyscrapers still did, creating a boon for upscale Brooklyn arrivistes and a disaster for the small businesses that had survived MetroTech. (In the 1970s, Fulton Street had become a thriving retail center for Brooklyn’s growing population of African-American residents, who were tired of being tailed by store cops whenever they tried to cross the border into Manhattan.) In particular, the demolition of the Albee Square Mall — the unlovely, 1970s indoor shopping plaza made famous for its name-check by Biz Markie on his 1988 debut, Goin’ Off — evicted dozens of store owners, some of whom had opened stores there after scraping together profits from years of street vending on Fulton. The City Point massif currently going up on the mall site, another C6-4.5 beneficiary, is set to include a ground-floor upscale food court that is unlikely to include many of the mall’s old merchants.
And the current crop of skyscrapers isn’t likely to be the last. Atlantic Yards Report’s Norman Oder noted in February that Ratner and his China-based development partners, Greenland, intended to transfer a pile of development rights from the Barclays Center site across the street, which would allow for a 1.5-million-square-foot monster building as much as 900 feet tall, which Oder dubbed the “Brooklyn behemoth.” And since that site was seized by the state-run Empire State Development Corporation as part of Ratner’s Atlantic Yards mega-project — something that the current occupant, a P.C. Richard store, is suing to overturn — any development there is free to ignore city zoning, meaning the Dime tower could soon have company on the Brooklyn skyline.
The Dime tower, truth be told, isn’t especially ugly by modern skyscraper standards — its bundle-of-sticks profile even tapers slightly as it rises, in a nod to the golden age of setbacks. And if you’re lucky enough, you may even get a chance to enjoy its views without first inheriting hedge fund wealth: Stern and Chetrit have applied for tax breaks in exchange for including twenty percent “affordable” units in their building, though that’s currently on hold until the state legislature figures out whether and how to revive the 421 — a tax break program that expired earlier this year.
The new “supertall,” though, will have ripple effects, both for Brooklyn’s traditionally human-scaled views, and its increasingly non-human-scaled rents — which is pretty much exactly what the architects of the rezoning had in mind. When DBP president Joe Chan, who cut his teeth as an aide to Bloomberg deputy mayor for development Dan Doctoroff, was interviewed in his tenth-floor office shortly after the 2004 zoning vote, he said, “If our views are obscured, we’ll know we’ve done a good job.” If that’s your idea of victory, expect lots more to celebrate in the future.