City downsizes zoning plan after local pushback

Prescription for disaster: Ridge preservationist Victoria Hofmo says a plan to relax height restrictions in certain zoning districts puts the city’s historic buildings, like the Lowen’s Pharmacy on Third Avenue in Bay Ridge, at risk for demolition and redevelopment.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

They’re taking a little off the top.

The city is dialing back an upzoning proposal that preservationists fear will put historic Ridge buildings in developers’ cross-hairs.

The Department of City Planning announced plans to let developers build as much as an additional story above currently limits in order to spur the construction of more below-market-rate housing But the department is now scaling back the proposal in the face of opposition from critics in areas like Bay Ridge, who said the plan would encourage speculators to level historic buildings in favor of new development.

The proposal would affect Bay Ridge’s “contextual zones” — areas with hard-and-fast height limits meant to protect neighborhood character — by allowing new construction to rise 15 feet higher than current rules permit.

Now the city is tweaking the proposal by shaving a few feet off the new maximum heights it is pushing for, according to a letter the Department of City Planning issued on May 15. Under the revised plan, the height boost should be hardly noticeable, the letter states.

“With these changes, over 95 percent of medium- and high-density contextually zoned areas would experience height limit changes of five feet or less in all buildings,” the letter states.

Initially, the plan called for a height limit in R6B districts — including much of the Third and Fifth Avenue corridors — to grow from 50 feet to 65 feet. The revised proposal caps development at 55 feet, according to the letter.

Similarly, height limits in R7A districts along Shore Road between Third Avenue and 87th Street were set to grow from 80 feet to 95 feet. The revised proposal calls for an 85-foot cap in most structures, the letter states. It makes additional allowances for buildings constructed under the city’s Inclusionary Housing Program, but Bay Ridge is not zoned for that program, so those allowances will not affect the neighborhood, a department spokesman said.

City Planning is also sending representatives to each community board over the next two months to outline how the massive proposal will affect each district, the letter states.

Ridge leaders got the city to create a “Bay Ridge Special Zoning District” that capped development height in 1978 — the first of its kind and a “precursor to the contextual zoning regulations,” according to the city. Planners later relaxed the district’s height restrictions in a 2005 zoning update, and height was a major sticking point for locals, according to the local district manager.

“Height and density were the two big concerns,” said Josephine Beckmann, district manager for Community Board 10. “So residents were upset going from — in the special Bay Ridge district — a 30-foot height requirement to [32] feet.”

The promised public outreach is a step in the right direction, but letting the developers go even five feet higher is the city’s way of eroding the Ridge’s special protections, a local preservationist said.

“I was very glad to hear they are trying to go neighborhood by neighborhood — that’s a very important thing,” said Victoria Hofmo. “As far as I’m concerned, I want our old special district back.”

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeger@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–8303. Follow him on Twitter @JustTheMax.

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