Contextual Zoning

191 – 199 Grand Street

With all the vitriol passing back and forth over the Grand Street rezoning, perhaps its worth remembering why the City embarked on contextual zoning studies in the first place. Five or six years ago, when the City was first pulling together the large Greenpoint-Williamsburg Rezoning (aka the waterfront rezoning), R6 zoning was seen as pretty innocuous. Most developers opted to use the quality housing provisions of R6, which comes with height and density caps similar to those of R6A and R6B zoning. The height factor provisions were primarily used for center city development, not residential developments. Starting around 2003, Brooklyn began to see more and more of “height factor” buildings, some of them small and some them very large. Because vast stretches of residential Brooklyn are zoned R6, the proliferation of height factor buildings in what heretofore were low-rise rowhouse-scaled neighborhoods was a huge concern for both the communities involved and for the Department of City Planning (DCP). At the same time, the burgeoning housing boom was also resulting in abuses in R6 quality housing development, particularly with regard to the “community facility” bonus, which developers were using to boost narrow street FAR from 2.2 to as high as 4.8 FAR. These quality housing megabuildings, together with the new “finger buildings” allowed under height factor zoning were clearly a threat to the low-scale character of much of residential Brooklyn.

In many neighborhoods, R6 zoning has been in place since the 1961 zoning was instituted. For much of that time, there was little or no new development in residential Brooklyn, and what development there was generally fit within the comfortable confines of quality housing zoning. But as developers and architects started to push the envelope on R6 zoning, it became clear that what had been a acceptable zoning class for more than 40 years was suddenly a major threat to the character, scale and density in many neighborhoods.

So the City embarked on a series of rezonings. The Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront rezoning (enacted in May, 2005) was already underway, and most of the inland blocks there (more than 150 blocks) were switched from R6 to R6A or R6B. In response to the problems that had been cropping up with R6 development, the Borough President and City Council pressed the Bloomberg administration for a study all of the R6 areas within Community District 1 for potential contextual rezoning. It was this action, in May of 2005, that led directly to the Grand Street rezoning (and will lead to a far, far larger rezoning east of the BQE, still in the works at DCP).

In the 2005 waterfront rezoning, a number of blocks at the edges of the zoning area – such as along Metropolitan Avenue and Meeker Avenue – were left R6 in the original zoning. In a January, 2006 follow up action, contextual zoning was imposed on these blocks as well. (For whatever reason, two blocks of Metropolitan east of Havemeyer were left as R6.) This follow up action also instituted contextual zoning on the two blocks of Grand Street from Kent to Berry, and though the Community Board asked for the same treatment for the rest of Grand to the BQE, it was deemed out of scope by DCP.

While DCP was beginning discussions with Community Board 1 over potential study areas for further contextual zoning (as required by the agreement with City Council), it was actively developing contextual zoning plans for other Brooklyn neighborhoods as well. In fact, DCP has been incredibly busy in this regard. In 2007, contextual zoning was implemented on 206 blocks in Bedford-Stuyvesant South, 99 blocks of Fort Greene / Clinton Hill and 160 blocks in Dyker Heights / Ft. Hamilton. In 2006, the City rezoned almost 160 blocks in the Midwood, Homecrest and Sheepshead Bay neighborhoods; in 2005, almost 420 blocks were rezoned in South Park Slope, Bensonhurst and the Special Bay Ridge District; in 2003, 110 blocks were rezoned in Park Slope.

So lest anyone in the 13-block Grand Street rezoning area feel singled out by this latest action, bear in mind that over the course of five years, the City has imposed contextual zoning on over 1,300 blocks in 11 neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn. Some of these rezonings represented dramatic downzonings, with FAR cuts far beyond the 9% imposed on most of the owners in the Grand Street area. Many were carried out at the request of the local communities and with the support of local politicians. In each of these rezoning actions, there was a recognition that the existing zoning – R4, R5, R6 and R7 for the most part – was no longer appropriate for the character of the community.

In general terms, these rezonings follow a pretty standard (and desirable) model. Speaking of the Bed-Stuy South rezoning, DCP had this to say: “The proposed rezoning aims to preserve neighborhood scale and character, maintain opportunities for mid-rise apartment building construction along appropriate corridors, and allow for residential growth with incentives for affordable housing along the Fulton Street transit and retail corridor”. That is exactly what the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill rezoning did, it is exactly what the Williamsburg/Greenpoint rezoning did, and it is exactly what the Grand Rezoning did. In the case of Grand Street, the higher density zoning (“opportunities for mid-rise apartments”) were located on Metropolitan, a wide street that is also a major thoroughfare. Neighborhood scale and character were maintained along Grand, South 1st, North 1st, Fillmore and the avenues with R6B zoning. In the case of Grand Street, this is appropriate because Grand has a context that is generally three and four story buildings, with an average height somewhere around 40′ (there is only one six story building on this entire stretch of Grand Street, and only a handful of other buildings that break 50′). Grand Street is also not a wide street (in the zoning sense), and, with the construction of the BQE, no longer a through street.

In the 2005 Williamsburg/Greenpoint rezoning, the community (through both the ad hoc rezoning committee and the Community Board) supported contextual zoning in the Northside and in the western portions of Greenpoint. By and large, the community felt at the time that the extent of R6A zoning proposed by DCP was too much, that it would result in out-of-character buildings, and that the neighborhood’s infrastructure couldn’t handle the number of people this would bring. The City’s contention (which won the day) was that R6A was needed in order to encourage the redevelopment of the formerly manufacturing areas to the east and west of the core Northside neighborhood (which was rezoned R6B).

From the point of view of the community at large, contextual zoning clearly makes sense. It limits out of scale development (both finger buildings and bonused behemoths under quality housing). It concentrates higher density development along avenues and near transportation nodes, allowing a finer application of zoning than a blanket R6. It introduces bonuses for inclusionary (affordable) housing. In the long run, it will help maintain property values by controlling (but not overly limiting) growth and maintaining the low-scale residential and mixed-use character that drew so many people to the neighborhood in the first place. Contextual zoning also discourages the massive lot (or air rights) assemblages that result in demolition of character-defining buildings and the construction of finger buildings or quality housing behemoths.

The fact that the contextual zoning categories do not match up one to one with the non-contextual categories has resulted in the loss of about 9% of allowable floor area (2.2 FAR to 2.0 FAR) in much of the Grand Street district. While some wild numbers ($100 million, $400 million) have been thrown around, the truth is that the full impact of this is only felt by the development sites. For those unimproved properties, the value of the land is the value of the property, and the two correlate almost directly with the allowable floor area. So if you reduce FAR by 9%, you probably reduce the value of the property by 9%. The same is not true of improved properties – there, the value of the land is only a part of the value of the overall property. And since each property is different – some are overbuilt, some underbuilt, some have grandfathered uses, etc. – the cumulative economic impact is nearly impossible to measure. And that’s without factoring in the positive (yet intangible) economic effects of this rezoning mentioned above. Those effects are more long term, but if you weigh all of the different factors, for the vast majority of property owners the overall economic impact of this rezoning is probably a wash, or pretty darn close.

For some owners (perhaps 10% of the total), the rezoning could actually be seen as a boon. That would be the owners of wide street properties who were rezoned from R6 to R6A. For them, the floor area remains the same, albeit with height caps, so the intangible community-wide benefits could actually result in an increase in property values, at least in the long term. On the other hand, for wide street property owners that have been rezoned to R6B, the economic impact is clearly negative. This is also a minority (between 10% and 15%), and again, the effects are not evenly distributed. All of these owners see their FAR drop by a third, but since most of these properties are not development sites, the actual value of each property does not drop by a third. The value of the underlying land does theoretically drop by a third, but with the exception of developers and speculators, most people buy for the improvement (the building), not the land value.

Again, from an macro, urbanist, neighborhood-wide point of view, contextual zoning is a good thing. It maintains neighborhood character and scale, discourages tear downs, allocates height and density more rationally, and allows for bonuses for something the community needs – affordable housing. It eliminates finger buildings and the much-abused community facility bonus. That is why so many neighborhoods have pushed for contextual zoning. That is why neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens are jumping up and down demanding contextual zoning (and getting pretty upset when told they have to wait for the “East Greenpoint” contextual zoning).

Unfortunately, with the Grand Street rezoning, a small number of owners in the midst of development projects have combined with a large number of owners with little or no information about why the zoning was done or how it actually impacts them to try to overturn the whole zoning. Clearly owners in the process of development are impacted, if only by the loss of time (which = money), but also by having to redo plans and reduce height and floor area. But for 95% of the property owners, the consequences are not that dire, and quite possibly not dire at all. All of this has split the neighborhood, most unneccesarily. Hopefully both sides (and there is plenty of bad blood on both sides) will take a step back, take time to understand the situation, and get back to life as normal. Because for most people, very little has changed with the Grand Street rezoning.

11 responses to “Contextual Zoning”

  1. rich rossmassler

    my FAR went from 3 to 2 on 3000 sf of land
    so the loss is much bigger than 9% it is 33%
    3000 sf that could have been sold at 700 psf
    i live on hope street with 6 neighbors over 60′
    i am not being contextually rezoned as an example
    also not only do these small development sites
    lose time = money like you say
    but we are all trying to make the 421a deadline
    which this rezoning may delay our chances
    and considerably jeopardize our projects
    the timing and scale of the rezoning
    will hurt many small development projects
    i am being forced to change my project
    from 8 units to 6 units
    and it will also affect owners
    who planned additions to their homes
    i also fall into this category
    and will no longer be able to add to my home

  2. First of all it’s unfair to discribe this as a two-year process. This was a fast track ammendment that could not be found on the CB1 website or City Planning website before December. Notices for hearings were given on New Year’s Eve and the deliberation and vote occured on the SAME DAY in the January 8th Hearing. A condition so unusual the CB1’s own chairman voted against on principle alone. No notices were ever given in Spanish and the few notices that were given in English misleadingly stated the agenda as ‘stopping the towers’…
    My project went from 4.0 FAR to 2.0 FAR equaling a full 50% loss. We were building an as-of-right R6 Development on a wide street with a community facility (a daycare center already in contract for the space) which we planned to occupy upon completion. I’ve lived in the Grand Street area for 4 years and want to see it survive and prosper as much as anyone who claims to be saving it by supporting this rezoning.
    Roebling street, the location of our project, has 6 story buildings on either side of grand and is one of the widest streets in Williamsburg. Along with Grand it should be allowed to develop as a thriving commercial boulevard, particularly because its not a thru-street and would be very pedestrian friendly. The R6b zoning however will not allow for enough density to support the storefronts however and instead they will languish in disrepair or as illegally occupied apartments.
    The fact is that Grand street is painfully underdeveloped and many of the existing structures lining the blocks east of Driggs are poorly built, badly maintained firetraps that are inefficient, unattractive and beyond repair. There are several notable buildings of exceptional quality that nearly all exceed 50’ and would never be torn down under a regular R6 zoning. Even R6A would have allowed for Grand Street to develop in a way that was contextual with the proud terracotta co-ops to the south and made it financially viable to build a consistent and quality streetwall.
    To say that this was a 9% drop in value is a mischaracterization since it does not take into account the numerous properties eligible for wide street bonuses not to mention those of us who’d planned to build legitimate community facilities. Furthermore, as many of the owners in the affected blocks have relied on these homes to be their sole investment. This equity is relied upon to help kids get through college, start small businesses and fund retirements. It is not pie in the sky but a very literal manifestation of a family’s net worth. Is it really ok with you to tell 254 property owners that you think its ok to lose 9%-50% life savings because someone has nostalgic feelings about aluminum siding and leaky windows??
    Even if you said every affected property was worth $1 million which is wildly understated by any measure, a 10% loss of $254,000,000 is a staggering $25,000,000 loss to the community.

  3. Dear Halden,
    Thank you for your thoughtful and informative article, you really did a good job of explaining why contextual rezoning is right for the community. With so much misinformation being posted on the blogs, it’s refreshing to hear from someone who actually knows what he’s talking about and doesn’t have an ax to grind.I just wish these developers would direct their attention to quality building rather than their endless blog commenting.

  4. Halden
    I have followed and admired your posts on blogs for a long time. Your nom de plume is well taken. Thanks again for a rational and clear explanation of something that is very difficult for most people to understand and that can easily be distorted and exagerated.

  5. There will be no loss to the community without a line 5/6/7/8-storey fancy little condo buildings on it with a boutique below each. I dont feel sorry for the various wanna-be developers who call “community” the amount of money that they can personally make. These people have confused “community” with personal gain. AND NO FAST TRACK?? Sorry but where were all these people over the past years while many homeowners and longtime (longer than four years) memebers of the COMMUNITY were attending meetings, going to hearings, working with the people from Neighbors Against Garbage, working with the local Council member, etc??

  6. Concerned Citizen

    I love how you ‘activists’ try to take the high road when you leave comments like this on Curbed.
    ‘….you’re a developer. I am so sick of you people and your dirty underhanded disinformation and mudslinging campaign. I hate you all. I hate you so much I wish I was two people so I could hate you twice as much. ‘

  7. This isn’t Curbed, and I will delete any comments that degenerate to that level (pro or con).
    Healthy debate = OK; ad hominem attacks = NOT OK.

  8. I am a long time neighborhood resident, a business owner and also a developer (yes, that’s right, well, a small developer) and I actually understand why contextual zoning is important to a community. It seems quite clear the few people that are upset with the zoning being passed, only understand the context as it related to them and their own projects. I feel your pain, but you cannot see beyond your own project to fully comprehend what this neighborhood means to people, residents, renters, small business owners in the context of the city. You could stand to have some humility and maybe try to have a wider and more concise complaint than simply how the zoning affects YOUR project. This zoning is a win for all of us, including us smaller developers. You just don’t see the forest from the trees, you only see your own tree. This narrow view demonstrates a lack of sense of history and depth. You are invested in yourselves, but not truly a neighborhood and EVERYTHING that a neighborhood means- past, present and future. We should all be celebrating, and if you feel like there is no reason to celebrate, then you are missing the point of why you are in this neighborhood in the first place, and how you benefit from it. Hooray for the people of the neighborhood!

  9. The quote “concerned citizen” refers to was part of a rebuttal by an preservationist who got tired of all the malicious and dishonest comments planted on Curb by an operative hired by the high-priced lobbying firm hired by 227 Grand LLC, the tower developer. They’ve engaged in a vicious campaign to demonize the group that supported the rezoning, really ugly stuff. Numerous nasty blog comments have often given the names and addresses of people in the preservationist group. Here’s an example:
    I removed the woman’s name from the quote, but her name is on the Curbed blog comment.
    No one on the preservationist side has stooped so low as to post names and home addresses of the developers, and certainly none of us has made a comment anywhere near as nasty as the one I quote, so I guess we are still on the high road.

  10. Neither side has played particularly nice on Curbed. Lets just leave it at that, OK?

  11. I rent (last 8 years) within a block of the 227 Grand site, and I am really glad this rezoning happened. One need not walk many blocks to see massive & ugly condos going up. Grand st. and surrounding already have a reasonably dense, bustling & safe feeling atmosphere (remarkable growth over last 10 yrs) , and this with much of the nearby condos still vacant/unfinished (not to mention the rush hour subway commute is already horrendous). I feel a tiny bit bad for the ambitious developers at 227, but not too bad, because I’m sure they can still make millions off their land. Now they just have to do it in a way that is appealing to live next to, right?
    Tim, I hope you can still find a way to make your daycare work, I saw your angry posters up in your window; but it seems like a greater good is being served by this R6B rezoning. Also I would say that Grand st. is already thriving. If it thrives any more I guess I will be priced out! And a site like the Fischer one at 227 takes away alot of opportunities for street level, intimate and accessible development, right? Not that its anything but an empty lot now, but if it becomes a giant building where rich people live, then who does it serve?
    Thanks you for your article Halden it helped me understand what is going on with my neighborhood.