Rezone could put end to low-rise Ridge

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

A citywide rezoning scheme threatens to unravel Bay Ridge’s small-town feel, preservationists say.

The Department of City Planning is floating a proposal to let developers build higher in “contextual zoning districts” originally created to preserve the character of low-rise neighborhoods. The city says the plan will create more affordable housing, but critics don’t believe the hype.

“Encouraging new development will just spur more unaffordable housing, pushing more long-time New Yorkers out of the city,” said Bay Ridge preservationist Victoria Hofmo.

Under the proposal, the city would let developers exceed existing “building envelope restrictions” — limits on the size and shape of structures — in the hope that might encourage developers to build more senior housing and so-called “affordable” housing.

Most notable for Ridgites, the plan would let property owners tack one to two stories onto buildings along Bay Ridge’s commercial corridors and parts of its waterfront.

An influx of new, taller buildings would undo Bay Ridge’s unique architectural character, an observer said.

“I don’t think it’s in context with Bay Ridge at all — to build higher and to build more crowded,” said Joe Raskin, a Cobble Hill resident who photographs city architecture. “We have a lot of character — some of the apartment buildings are completely unique to Brooklyn.”

The plan rolls back decades of work by Ridge preservationists to keep the neighborhood low-rise, critics said.

Community leaders got the city to create a “Bay Ridge Special Zoning District” that capped development height back 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, the local community board’s district manager said.

“Height and density were the two big concerns,” said CB10 district manager Josephine Beckmann. “So residents were upset going from — in the special Bay Ridge district — a 30-foot height requirement to [32] feet.”

The city contends that a new marginal increase in height is a good trade-off for more affordable units, especially for seniors in Bay Ridge, where one in every four residents is age 55 or older, according to census figures. Only there is no actual trade-off, the city admits.

Any developer would be able to take advantage of new height allowances as-of-right, and would not be dependent on any promise to build “affordable” units, according to city spokeswoman Rachaele Raynoff.

CB10 indicated a need for more senior housing in its 2015 District Needs Statement.

The board will take a position on the plan as part of an land-use review the proposal will trigger later this year, according to the board’s zoning committee chairwoman, Ann Falutico.

Forcing through an apparently unpopular zoning measure may not be he best way to achieve desired results, said the area’s city councilman.

“There is no question we need more senior housing,” said Councilman Vincent Gentile (D–Bay Ridge) “I’m not sure whether this is the best way to go about it. Contextual zoning is something we worked very hard for.”

But a senior advocacy group says there is no other way.

“Without the proposed changes from the Department of City Planning, it is very hard to find sites in communities like Bay Ridge that are large enough to support senior housing and help our seniors stay in the community,” said Claire Hilger of Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens.

But Hofmo said the plan boils down to a gift for the real estate lobby and foreign plutocrats who hide their money in pricey pied-à-terres — at the expense of the neighborhood’s architectural heritage.

“It seems to me that we’re giving all the breaks to affluent people,” Hofmo said. “They’re knocking them down, and we’re subsidizing it.”

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeger@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–8303. Follow him on Twitter @JustTheMax.
Last show?: The shell of the old Bay Ridge Theatre, which now houses several chain stores, could also go if the city upzones commercial corridors in Bay Ridge and a developer decides to redevelop the land.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

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