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Beep Looks For ‘Balance’ In Latest Rezoning Effort

What is the key to preserving Brooklyn’s residential appeal, while opening the borough to those who want to move here? According to Borough President Marty Markowitz, who presided over a hearing on a proposed rezoning by the Department of City Planning (DCP) of 80 blocks of Midwood, the answer is balance, maintaining the borough’s characteristic small scale architecture on side streets where the scale is generally modest, while allowing appropriate development in other areas, where larger buildings already exist. “We all understand the need for increasing Brooklyn’s supply of housing,” noted Markowitz, addressing the crowd gathered in the community room at Borough Hall, 209 Joralemon Street. “I’d rather take this than what we had, years ago, when people were fleeing Brooklyn. They’re not fleeing Brooklyn anymore. They are fleeing to Brooklyn. That’s the challenge, balancing out the need for providing housing but at the same time preserving the unique character of our distinct neighborhoods. Times Change “We can grow intelligently while respecting the history and character that make Brooklyn what it is,” Markowitz went on. “We all know that, for many years, there was very little investment in Brooklyn. There was no pressure to revise the 1961 zoning laws.” Now, however, he said, “Brooklyn is one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation. We must accommodate newcomers. Brooklyn has always been about immigration and diversity, but we have to do that while not destroying our existing communities. We have a right to expect that new buildings complement the community.” To that end, said Markowitz, “We have to find that balance.” Contending that DCP, “Is the key agency to make this possible,” Markowitz said, “I am hoping by tweaking this (the rezoning plan) here, and here, and there, we can finalize a plan that works for all of us and perhaps becomes a model that have yet to undergo down-zoning.” Markowitz’s prepared speech was clearly a response to concerns raised at the hearing, that the down-zoning of many blocks in Midwood from R-6 to R4-1 was just too extreme. While the rezoning is intended to prevent the condominium development that is tearing apart residential blocks across the borough, the down-zoning, many residents who spoke at the hearing contended, would also hamstring their ability to extend their homes. Root Cause of Concern Why? The reality is that R-6, which also allows for the development of multi-family residential buildings, does so in part because it provides a generous Floor Area Ratio (FAR), which allows homeowners to enlarge their homes significantly. The FAR for R4-1 is significantly less, a key issue because the maximum floor area of a home is determined by multiplying the square footage of the lot on which it is located by the FAR, so, the larger the FAR, the more expansive a home can be. And, this was a major concern for some of those who spoke. Noted Brian Berry, the down-zoning, “Can very easily cause me to have to move. It affects adversely many of my friends and many people in the neighborhood who have homes that are not large enough for our families. The R-6 zoning affords us the opportunity to expand our homes. The R4-1 zoning makes it that my house is over-zoned and yet I have no space for my family.” What Berry said he would like to see was a sort of compromise. “If City Planning could come up with a way to control development and yet allow one and two-family homes to be able to expand that would be in the better interests of the community,” he opined. Some Caveats Sanford Solny, an attorney who lives in the neighborhood and who has clients who have invested in real estate in Midwood with the intention of developing the property, said that residents who had spoken out at the prior hearing, held by CB 14, were, “Opposed not to the concept of rezoning but to the extent of the rezoning.” Said Solny, “Many members of the community feel we went too far too fast.” With so many Orthodox Jewish families living in the area, Solny added, “We need room to expand. We want our children to live in the area and we need affordable housing.” In addition, said Solny, the rezoning “should not be a trap for the unwary,” who may have purchased property thinking they could build to the requirements of an R-6, and who could lose money on their investment as a result. “I believe there should be some grace period,” said Solny, to allow those who had purchased property when it was R-6 to make good on their investment. “I don’t understand what people’s problem is with over-development,” added Barry Chaimowitz. “I have three children of marriageable age. We need over-development. We need to bring the prices of houses down. Young people want to move in.” Cary Rubin said he was one of those who would be adversely affected by the proposed zoning change, as it would likely put the kibbosh to a real estate deal that he and his neighbors were poised to enter into. “I recognize that zoning is a contentious issue in the neighborhood,” he told Markowitz. “However, not all new development is inappropriate. Not all apartment buildings are eyesores.” What Rezoning Entails Overall, for many of the side streets in the area between Coney Island Avenue and Ocean Avenue, from Avenue P to Avenue L, the zoning districts will change from R-6 to what are called “contextual zoning districts,” labeled R4-1and R5-B. The R4-1 district, which would also be used to designate portions of the area between Avenue O and Kings Highway, from just east of Ocean Avenue to East 24th Street, is meant to mirror the area’s detached and semi-detached one and two family homes, while the R5-B zoning district takes its cue from the rowhouses that are predominant in the areas where that zoning district would be used. Stressed Ade Omowale, the project manager for the re-zoning proposal, while the current zoning is R-6, “The existing character of the area is primarily small homes. Our proposed rezoning selects zoning districts that are consistent with the building character of the existing neighborhood and in most cases provides some ability for the existing homes to be expanded.” On the other hand, for most of Ocean Avenue, from Avenue H to Avenue P, as well as for Kings Highway between Ocean Avenue and East 29th Street, the zoning district would be changed to what is called R7A, which allows apartment buildings up to 80 feet in height. The same zoning district would be applied to Avenue K between the Brighton Line and Coney Island Avenue, and for much of Avenue M between Coney Island Avenue and Ocean Avenue, as well as for many adjacent blocks. This zoning district mirrors the built condition of the streets to which it would be applied, blocks dominated by apartment buildings with some one and two-family homes. Exceptions to this rezoning include most of the west side of Ocean Avenue, between Avenue N and Avenue O, which would be zoned R4-1, and most of Ocean Avenue between Avenue L and Avenue M, which would have an R5-B designation. Two Issues Nevertheless, the rezoning of the western side of Ocean Avenue, between Avenue N and Avenue O, appears to have touched a sore spot, as has the proposed down-zoning of East 21st Street, between Avenue O and Avenue P. Numerous members of the public spoke out against the way the proposal would affect these strips. Leonard Wacholder said that the rezoning of that block of Ocean Avenue would cause, “The value of the homes to drop drastically. Not every condo is ugly,” he added. “Not every house wins beauty prizes.” On East 21st Street, said Moshe Florans, “If it becomes R4-1, the majority of houses would become out of context.” City Planning, added Ron Mandel, would “artificially create an environment that doesn’t match the character” of the block if it down-zones East 21st Street, between O and P. “There is a need for housing in the community,” added Yoram Nacmousky. “Otherwise, what will happen in the Orthodox community? Young people who can’t afford the homes are going to have to move out.” The rezoning also touches on some of the area’s commercial strips, specifically Avenue J between the Brighton Line and Coney Island Avenue. The major change in the zoning is from a zone (C4-3) which has no height limit, to a contextual zone (C4-4A) that has an 80-foot height limit. In the case of Avenue M, the agency has opted for a different solution to preserve the strip’s character – an R7-A zone designation with what is called a commercial overlay, that allows business to continue along the merchant strip. Finally, along Coney Island Avenue, the agency has opted to replace the current commercial C8-2 zoning, which exists in three areas with a C2-3 commercial overlay in order to provide an opportunity for residential development on those portions of the strip. Support for Proposal While some area residents and developers may demur at the rezoning, others expressed support for it. Among these was Assemblymember Helene Weinstein, who said, “The residents of Midwood, a diverse and beautiful neighborhood, feel threatened by the ability of developers, who can under current zoning construct buildings grossly out of character with the surrounding housing. This is not an idle threat, as we have seen neighboring communities dramatically altered by developers.” Nonetheless, Weinstein also asked that DCP, “See if it they need to tweak some of the districts. There are people who live on blocks where there are very few homes left, and where there is tremendous commercial development already.” Cecilia Rosenblatt, a resident of Midwood, said she was, “One hundred percent for the rezoning. The development that’s happening is out of control. I think it is definitely due to greed,” she went on, noting that those who sell their homes for the prices being paid by developers, “Move out of the neighborhood, and don’t care any more. We want our neighborhood back.” Ruth Greiper agreed. “I want to be able to let my children go out and play,” she told Markowitz. “I would love to see them stop building. Please rezone it (the neighborhood). I want to see low-density zoning. I want to see my flowers. I want to be able to send my children out. If we have more and more apartment buildings, who’s going to watch them? I can’t be in more than one place.” Winston von Engel, the deputy director of DCP’s Brooklyn office, said that the DCP representatives present at the hearing had taken copious notes of issues that had been raised, and would bring that information back to DCP. “The process is intended to hear what people say,” he told the crowd. “Perhaps there are ways we can improve on the proposal.” CB 14 has already voted its support of the proposal, while asking that DCP make appropriate modifications that reflect the concerns raised at the public hearing. The borough president’s official recommendation will be issued in the next couple of weeks, prior to the next hearing on the matter, which will be held by the City Planning Commission (CPC) at its headquarters, 22 Reade Street in Manhattan, on January 11th, at 10 a.m.

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