In the Zone: Brooklyn’s new city planning director has big plans

alex sommer brooklyn director of city planning
Adam Daly

The Department of City Planning’s new Brooklyn director is zoning in on parts of the borough in dire need of planning overhauls in the hopes of increasing the current housing stock.

DCP’s Brooklyn Director Alex Sommer, who took up the position last October, said that the ongoing housing crisis and the challenges that climate change currently pose are at the “forefront” of his agenda as he sat down with Brooklyn Paper for a look at his plans for the year ahead.

Before nabbing the top job, Sommer served as Deputy Director in the DCP’s Brooklyn office, having started his career in city planning back in 2011 when he joined the DCP in a grant-funded position.

brooklyn bridge city planning
Sommer loves being a civil servant, he said, and working for the people of Brooklyn and New York City. Photo courtesy Kidfly182/Wikimedia Commons

“I love being a civil servant,” Sommer said. “The people that I work for are the residents and business owners of the city and that’s what I really love working in the public sector for.”

The borough’s city planning office is composed of over 20 planners and urban designers who are working on projects from daycare renewals to giant multi-phased residential mixed-use developments across the borough from Greenpoint down to Sheepshead Bay. In December, Mayor Eric Adams announced his administration’s ambitious goal of constructing 500,000 new homes in the city over the next 10 years and amid the ongoing housing  crisis – and Sommer says Brooklyn is definitely going to have to achieve its quota.

Building more housing in Brooklyn

“Brooklyn’s population of the last 10 years has grown by about 230,000 people. In the same time period, I think we’ve added between 70 to 80,000 new apartments so there’s a real mismatch,” said Sommer, adding that his office will be focusing on creating new housing and preserving existing affordable housing across all neighborhoods in the borough.

Sommer’s office has a number of proposals in the works, but the first plan taking shape under his tenure is the Atlantic Avenue Mixed-Use Plan — which will run about a 13-block stretch of Atlantic Avenue and neighboring blocks of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

atlantic avenue mixed use plan city planning map
The Atlantic Avenue Mixed-Use Plan would revamp a long stretch of Atlantic Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. Image courtesy NYC DCP

Brooklyn Community Board 8 and local stakeholders asked city planners nearly a decade ago to undertake a study in the area to make the busy corridor from Vanderbilt Avenue to Nostrand Avenue safer and more livable for the local community. Zoning rules dating back to 1961 have hindered any new developments, and it shows. 

Current plans would see mixed-used zoning introduced, which Sommer said would help support new housing with affordable units, new space for jobs and services, safer, more pedestrian-friendly streets, and investments in neighborhood improvements.

The next stage of Atlantic Avenue Mixed-Use Plan will allow the local community to have their say on the changes to the avenue — from streetscape designs to building heights densities. A March 12 community planning workshop will include a walking tour of the area and an open house. Further details are to be announced in the coming week.

Public outreach will continue into the summer to make sure communities in the surrounding neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Prospect Heights and Clinton Hill have an opportunity to give feedback. In 2021, a similar rezoning was approved in Gowanus —  the rezoning is set to include a new six-acre waterfront public access area with 8,500 new apartments, 3,000 of which will be permanently income restricted. 

Addressing climate change and resiliency

With over 130 miles of coastline, Sommer is cognizant of the impending threat the changing climate poses for the borough and is hiring two new staff members to undertake climate resiliency studies in Coney Island and Bed-Stuy. Sommers also plans to build on the DCP’s carbon neutrality zoning plans to support climate goals in the near term.

coney island beach after sandy
Hurricane Sandy devastated the borough ten years ago, and climate change is at the top of Sommer’s mind, and he has hired two additional staffers to undertake climate resiliency studies in Coney Island and Bed-Stuy. File photo by Paul Martinka

“We’re looking to make sure that the zoning and building codes can get out of the way for people to put solar panels across the roof, and do real meaningful installation,” said Sommer.