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Canarsie Fears Building Boom Will Swallow Up Nabe

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Why is Canarsie experiencing a wave of development unprecedented in the area? Very simply, the major reason for the onslaught is that the area’s underlying zoning doesn’t correspond to the area’s built environment, creating an opportunity for developers. “You’re suffering from zoning put in place in 1961 that didn’t match the neighborhood,” explained Richard Bearak, deputy director for zoning and housing development for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, during the January meeting of the South Canarsie Civic Association (SCCA), which was held at the Hebrew Educational Society (HES), 9502 Seaview Avenue. Bearak was invited to the meeting to discuss the issue of over-development. The result, he said, is that developers buy up homes where they see the potential to expand and make a profit. “When you have a mismatch of zoning with what a house looks like, they want to overpay,” he told his listeners. “What they see here, is a house is built only so much. The zoning says they could double, triple, quadruple. That’s enough for them to overpay for a house.” “Developers are not fools,” added Assembly candidate Alan Maisel. “If Canarsie were not a desirable community, people wouldn’t be coming here to spend an insane amount of money to buy these houses or apartments.” In that, he added, the community is far from unique. “All of New York City is so hot, that no matter where the developer is going to put something down, someone will buy it,” Maisel pointed out. “There’s a huge demand for quality housing. My fear is that as communities elsewhere are successful in down-zoning, the developers are not going to go out of business. They are going to focus on areas that are not yet down-zoned.” What’s Here Now According to Bearak, the zoning in residential areas of Canarsie is largely R-4 and R-5. While, as he pointed out, such zoning categories are, “Basically meant for low-rise development,” the zoning categories, “also allow community facilities,” such as schools, religious institutions and medical center. That is a key issue. Adding a community facility to a development allows the developer a bonus in terms of the amount of floor area that can be built. This results in a building that is denser – and more profitable – and usually more objectionable to nearby residents as well. As Bearak put it, “Because of mixing with a community facility, R-4 and R-5 sometimes create things you are not expecting to see in your neighborhood.” Nonetheless, this is very enticing to profit-minded developers. “With this market, it’s what we call hit and run – make your profit, it doesn’t matter what you leave,” noted Daniel McCalla, a member of the Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance. A solution for that, Bearak said said, can be contextual zoning districts – such as R4-1 or R5B which, said Bearak, “Make it a lot harder for someone to take a community facility and change the neighborhood.” It is this sort of district that is being mapped in areas now undergoing rezoning by the Department of City Planning (DCP), to help maintain the existing streetscape of low-rise one and two-family homes, with districts allowing more extensive development generally on main thoroughfares where higher-rise multi-family dwellings already exist. This approach, Bearak said, “Balances preservation with growth.” Thus, in the rezoning of Midwood, for example, which is currently before the City Planning Commission (CPC), most of the side streets have been given designations of R4-1and R5B, which do not allow for the construction of multi-family dwellings. In contrast, the main thoroughfares, such as Ocean Avenue, already lined with apartment buildings, are generally being mapped R7A, which allows apartment buildings up to 80 feet in height. Looking Ahead Because the majority of Canarsie is not zoned for high-rise development, what could area residents expect out of new zoning that might be put in place to rein in over-development? Some of the zoning changes that could be contemplated for Canarsie might not reduce the height or bulk of new buildings, but, rather, “control the number of units,” said Bearak It is the number of units, he stressed, that lead to a sense of overcrowding and over-use of infrastructure – an increased number of cars on the street, more students in local schools, more crowded public transportation. These are key issues for area residents. “A lot of people here I don’t think object to more people moving to the neighborhood,” remarked Steve Kaye. “But, they do object to the crunch on services and our way of life that are coming with this, where you have single-family or two-family houses, and they’re not very big houses, and you don’t have that many people, and then you build three-story condos (in their place). You’re probably going to have between three and six extra cars, and you’ll have a lot more mail collection and a lot more garbage, so it’s overwhelming the existing community where it’s happening.” Sheryl Fass concurred. “Why do we want all these people coming into Brooklyn and crowding the neighborhood?” she demanded. “We have no space for the people as it is. Our services are being compromised. Public transportation stinks. The schools stink. If we have more people in the community, everything will stink more, so then we can all go someplace else. We’re losing the beauty of our homes.” “We have to work together,” suggested Leo Cukier. “It’s a war between the developers and the community. It shouldn’t be that way. A community like this, it’s open season for the developers.” Time of the Essence When can Canarsie expect to get the attention of DCP? That is the big question. With neighborhoods throughout the city clamoring for zoning relief from over-development, the agency, said Bearak, has been overwhelmed by the demand for rezoning. “There are tools out there,” he told the crowd. “The question is when they would be brought to various neighborho­ods.” DCP, he suggested, is likely to focus first on neighborhoods where the potential for damage is greatest – those, for instance, that have high-rise zoning districts such as R-6, but where the built environment is generally one and two-family detached homes. The agency, he said, has almost completed a round of rezoning in Brooklyn that took in not only Midwood, but Bay Ridge, Sheepshead Bay, Homecrest, Park Slope and southern Park Slope. With one exception, Bearak said, this was the first rezoning in the borough since 1993 that had been oriented toward preservation. The borough president’s office, he said, does not advocate with DCP on behalf of one community at the expense of another. “Marty’s position for a lot of the neighborhoods is preservation-based,” Bearak told his listeners. “We couldn’t say work here first or work there first.” Do-It-Yourself One factor that can help move a rezoning forward, said Bearak, is when area residents do some of the footwork and come up with a concept of what they would like to see. This, he said, would involve a block-by-block survey, and would result in, “Developing a consensus” that could be taken to DCP as a starting point. “The legwork,” he explained, “lets City Planning know what’s acceptable to the community and kind of gives them a head start. If you want to expedite things, it sometimes helps to be more hands-on.” “Harass the Department of City Planning,” suggested McCalla. “When they say there’s a waiting list,” he stressed, “there’s a waiting list just to change the zoning, to down-zone.” There is a caveat in efforts to promote preservation zoning, said Bearak. The reality, he pointed out, is that the borough is undergoing a building boom because, “People want to be in Brooklyn.” The borough’s population, he said, “Grew about the size of a small city – 250,000 people – in the last decade. If we do just preservation zoning, we are going to have a different kind of crisis.

Posted 7:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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