The New Bay Ridge Zoning Changes Aren’t Bad

Apartment buildings in Bay Ridge
Photo via Google Street View

The plan is nuanced. The reaction from the community has been anything but.

The de Blasio administration has proposed citywide zoning changes intended to improve the interior environment and façade design of new developments, plus ease the way for providing new senior housing. A representative from the department of city planning met with the local community board’s zoning committee on June 11 to explain the plan (known as Zoning for Quality and Affordability), and the plan was presented to the full board at the regular monthly meeting a few days later.

The new proposal seeks to increase the allowable height of buildings located in very carefully delineated zoning districts in Bay Ridge, to provide better design as well as a slight increase in density for only those specific zones. There is a great deal more to the plan than this, but as soon as the word “density” was spoken, the predictable, knee-jerk reaction is that they’re trying to turn Bay Ridge into another Williamsburg, an unrecognizeable forest of spanking-new condo towers swamping the neighborhood with outsiders and overburdening our infrastructure. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Let me explain.

First, the proposal would apply only to the most densely populated zoning districts in Bay Ridge, R5, R6 and R7 multifamily zoning districts, which basically include the buildings that front Third, Fourth and Fifth avenues, plus certain parts of Ridge Boulevard and Shore Road. (See zoning maps of Bay Ridge here and here.) This is where the midrise, multifamily housing in Bay Ridge has been located ever since the neighborhood was built out in the 1920s. Because the basic zoning of these districts would not change, there is no incentive to demolish and replace existing buildings that are still profitable. In other words, the impact of the increased heights allowable in these zones, negligible to begin with, would not be felt for years, possibly decades.

Increased heights would be primarily a result of increased floor-to-floor heights required in the proposal, as well as an innovative allowance for taking floor areas carved out from facades and adding that to the roofs of new buildings. The goal of both of these changes is to allow new buildings to depart from the flat façade, rectangular shoe-box type of design that has been prevalent over the past 40 years, and return to the more artistic designs of the prewar period.

The DCP, for its part, has scheduled the mandatory 60-day period for public comment over the summer, when the CB is out of session and people are away on vacation in a crude attempt to minimize public feedback. Community Board 10 voted to request an extended review period of six months to study this proposal more carefully and assess its impact on the local cityscape in detail. If the DCP is confident these changes are good for the neighborhood, it should grant this extension.

The author is a member of Community Board 10.

Follow Hey Ridge on Twitter @heyridgebk

10 comments on “The New Bay Ridge Zoning Changes Aren’t Bad

  1. Bob, could you please go into more detail on what significance increased floor-to-floor heights will have on these buildings? Does that mean the buildings are only increasing in height by a couple of floors?

    1. Hi David:
      According to the DCP, most of the additional height allowance in R% through R7 zones would be absorbed by the new higher floor to floor requirements, resulting in most cases, in no more than on additional floor. You can be sure that savvy developers will be looking for loopholes in this restriction however.

      1. Yes, most developers are savvy. This height requirement is not a requirement, correct? So the savvy developers, and it seems that the majority of developers are a certain kind of unsavory savvy, will use the extra height to add more floors NOT to give the residents more quality.

        There is also nothing in this zoning plan that requires developers to add affordable housing.

        The addition of more “senior” housing is really just an offering of a larger footprint to the developers. This one will be LOADED with loopholes.

        As an architect I am sure you are frustrated by the regulations that you are put under, but it seems that it would benefit every community if you worked with the city to clarify and enforce existing laws before you cheered on the creation of something even more ambiguous and open to the kind of interpretation that only the savvy will be able to sift through and use to their advantage ($$$$)

  2. Bob, Thanks for your reporting on the presentation. I would warn everyone not to be fooled by the apparently benign wording of the Zoning Proposal, nor should you be lulled by their apparent concern for the “artistic facades of the pre-war period”.

    On reading the full document, many of my alarm buttons were pushed.

    The first section, Key Goals, states that the main points are to:
    “Remove barriers that constrain housing production” (that is “development”; remove restrictions on developers)
    variety of design.” Variety of design can be interpreted by any developer to mean
    whatever is cheapest. Check out south Williamsburg and the “balcony
    parking requirements to avoid costs that hamper the creation of
    housing.” (Again, the noble phrase “creation of housing” means
    “developers”. So it really means, “remove requirements that cost
    developers money”

    Specifically, it proposes to remove the requirement to create off-street parking for new buildings. Because, and I quote,

    households own many fewer cars and frequently don’t use the
    [off-street] parking that has been provided.”Has anyone tried to park in
    Bed-Stuy recently? Imagine if every block has a new multi-unit building
    with no additional parking provided.

    Part One the proposal intends to: “reduce adminstrative obstacles for
    development”, “Eliminate redundant special permits that burden
    development” (“burden” is their word, oh the burdens placed on
    developers.) “Relax density restrictions”, (that means allow denser construction) “Modernize zoning definitions
    to accommodate today’s housing models” (like Fedders buildings?)

    Two specifically intends to: “Increase the maximum height restriction
    by 1-2 stories in R6-R8 and to 3-4 stories in R9-R10” this will increase
    the building height from 80′ to 105′ on narrow street interior lots. An
    additional 20′ is half the height of a brownstone.
    lot coverage and other requirements that make construction
    uneccessarily difficult” Again, the only benefit is the developer and it
    means removing requirements that were put in place as safeguards. And
    the vague description of loosening “other requirements” is way too open
    to interpretation for my comfort.

    the whole thing is couched in warm/fuzzy language that makes it sounds
    like Affordable Housing is the golden goal at the end of the trail, all
    this proposes to do is to make the building process easier, faster and
    cheaper for developers.

    1. Hi Daniel you raise some good points. Let me take them one by one:

      “Remove barriers that constrain housing production”: Most of these barriers are called out further on int he document. We can’t increase housing production to accommodate a growing population otherwise.

      “Encourage variety of design:” As an architect with decades of experience working for both large and small developers, I love this provision. No architect or developer wants to make ugly buildings but the financial pressures to maximize rentable space always outweigh aesthetics in a developers calculations. This will allow more design flexibility.

      “Reduce parking requirements:” Most city planners agree that minimum parking requirements as currently spelled out not just in NYC but across the nation, add an enormous financial burden to the cost of producing housing, while frequently resulting in expensive parking structures that go underutilized. Look at the white elephant of a parking garage at the new Yankee Stadium for one example. Most new multifamily housing is occupied by renters who own cars at much lower rates than owners of single family homes. Demanding that private developers provide infrastructure for cars only increases incentives for people to drive rather than walk, leading to more traffic congestion. Minimum parking requirements have long fallen out of favor with city planners and it’s time we adjust our policies to enable a more affordable, environmentally sustainable and urbane cityscape that encourages walking, biking and mass transit.

      “Increase maximum height restrictions:” There are no R8 of higher zoning districts in Bay Ridge so we would be looking at no more than one additional floor o, maybe two if the developer and architect are clever enough to work it out, and that would only apply to R5, 6 and 7 zones, and then only in the future when new building lots become available. Nothing will happen immediately.

      “Loosen requirements that make construction unnecessarily difficult:” According to the DCP this is primarily an acknowledgement of the limitations of concrete plank construction which can only span a certain distance. It’s purely a technical provision

      1. Bob, there are many parcels of properties that investors/owners have just been sitting on in these zones in which I am sure the second the zoning laws pass, ground will be broken. To say “nothing will happen immediately” is not really true and it is not really a good answer. People who invest in their homes, usually are in it for the long term. They don’t have the luxury of flipping properties like developers do. I do not think they will be assured with “nothing will happen immediately”.

        1. Jeannine: I don’t doubt that there are parcels ripe for development but there can’t be very many. I’ve been involved for the past several years in scouting locations for new schools and I know that sites are few and far between. Even so, if a few sites get developed immediately that have one or two additional floors than the existing buildings and are 10 or 15 feet higher, that’s still a negligible impact in a neighborhood the size of Bay Ridge. This is New York City after all.

          Nevertheless I agree with you that owners of single family homes, who are a minority among the population of Bay Ridge according to the US census, but who occupy most of the land, will not be reassured. I know from hard won experience that they will not be reassured no matter what happens because most homeowners here would like Bay Ridge to be frozen in time like an insect trapped in amber. Cities however are not artifacts that can be carefully preserved like museum pieces, they are growing, organic systems. Think of the city as a tree and the zoning laws as a fence. If you build a fence too close to a tree, eventually the tree will just swallow the fence. It’s not good for the fence and it’s not good for the tree either. We need zoning laws that recognize the natural growth of the city and respond to it appropriately, rather than trying to stop it.

  3. Any news regarding status of the proposed 30-40 story glass tower for the former Flagg Court parking lot space? Haven’t heard anything more about it since March; # of floors was originally supposed to have been 50, so there’s some good news at least. Thanks.

  4. A primary concern for me would be the impact on parking. It’s difficult enough now, but putting in space for a larger population without taking parking into account is problematic.

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