Vinegar Hill developers pull rezoning app after city rejects shrunken alternative pushed by locals

265 Front
A photo of the rendering shows the now-scrapped plans for 265 Front St.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

Developers of a proposed four-story residential building in Vinegar Hill have pulled their rezoning application after city planners denied the builders’ plans to shrink its size to appease concerned neighbors — meaning the property at 265 Front St. will remain a parking lot for trucks, rather than offer new homes. 

“It is regrettable because we’re going from a manufacturing lot that, right now, just is a parking lot for trucks,” said Councilman Stephen Levin at a virtual hearing of the Council’s Land Use Committee on Dec. 16. 

The applicant, Michael Spinard, whose family owns the 6,500 square foot lot — a little smaller than one-and-a-half basketball courts — was looking to erect a 50-foot-high L-shaped apartment building on the property, containing nine two-bedroom units, with commercial space on the ground floor.

The Spinards first sought to change the zoning, which is currently slated for manufacturing, to allow for an R6A residential designation, which would have allowed a building of up to eight stories — but they committed to building only a four-story structure, which would put the development on par with the adjacent 19th-century town houses. That lower height would also allow them to forego including any below-market rate units and requirements to add an elevator.

Both local Community Board 2 and Borough President Eric Adams rejected that proposal, worrying that the developer might flip the property for a new builder to erect a project at the full permitted height, which in turn would have added between five and seven “affordable” units, targeting residents with an average salary of 80 percent of the area median income, or about $81,920 a year for a family of three, with a maximum rate tagged to 130 percent AMI, or $133,120. 

Residents, and the beep, argued that developers should instead go for the next-lower designation, known as R6B, that would allow about the same height as their plans but with slightly less bulk and no affordable housing requirements, saying that it was more “contextual” with the surrounding zoning.

Locals worried that, even if the developer didn’t resell the lot, the change to R6A could set a precedent for bigger buildings in Vinegar Hill, turning the micro-neighborhood of mostly low-slung row-houses into an extension of its more developed and tourist-overrun neighbor, Dumbo.

After the objections, the developers agreed to the requested R6B change, adding that they would replace the ground floor commercial section with the parking required for half of the units under that zoning — a move that garnered them the support of neighborhood associations, community board members, Adams, and Levin, whose vote is crucial for the project to succeed.

However, once those plans came before the City Planning Commission, a 13-member panel, which gives the first binding vote in the city’s lengthy Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, officials rejected the change from R6A to R6B.

The CPC argued that the originally-proposed, more generous zoning was better, as it left open the possibility of a larger development with some below-market-rate units in an overwhelmingly wealthy and white neighborhood close to transit and jobs. 

“The median household income for the census tract of the project area is over $214,000, more than three times that of New York City, and the population is almost 74 percent white,” the CPC wrote in its Nov. 18 report. “The proposed zoning holds the possibility of a development that includes up to seven units of permanently affordable housing, which the Commission welcomes in an area of high opportunity.”

The panel of planners also took issue with switching the ground floor commercial to parking, which they said would lead to a less attractive streetscape by adding more cars to the walkable nabe. 

“Ground floor commercial uses are appropriate in the project area and will activate the public sidewalk, whereas ground floor parking would result in an inactive, unattractive and potentially unsafe streetscape,” the Commission wrote. “Furthermore, encouraging private vehicle use in an area so well served by public transportation is counter to the City’s goals of reducing carbon emissions and furthering sustainability.”