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Is America’s densest city ready to make room?

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Our New York-based architecture critic says, “Yes, in my backyard”

Downtown Brooklyn’s skyline; 80 Flatbush would become the second-tallest building in the borough upon completion.
Max Touhey

At its current rate of growth, Brooklyn is about to be more populous than the entire city of Chicago.

Saying “we need more housing” is a given, but no one agrees on where, how high, and for whom. And New York has been later to that discussion than San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles: While the city is building housing, technically, it is nowhere near enough to meet the needs of 144,000 new Kings County residents since 2010.

All of this zooms into sharp focus on a 60,000-square-foot trapezoidal block straddling scenic Boerum Hill and high-traffic Flatbush Avenue. The proposed mixed-use project known as 80 Flatbush will include two high-rise towers, with offices below and 900 residences above. Twenty percent of its apartments will be affordable, and two existing historic brick buildings will be repurposed as a cultural facility and retail space. Two schools will be built, underwritten by the Educational Construction Fund (ECF), which creates schools on underutilized city sites without public funding.

The developers are seeking a change to the city’s zoning laws in order to build bigger and more dense, but have run into opposition from some Boerum Hill residents, who view the project as out of scale with their low-slung neighborhood. The City Council will decide its fate soon, perhaps by the end of this month.

The debate over 80 Flatbush is not just about one complex, of course—it embodies the battle occurring in expensive cities across the land. It is about how a city as dense as New York should build its way out of a housing crisis and insufficient community facilities. 80 Flatbush represents the private sector strategy: more market-rate units funding the affordable ones, plus schools, open public space, and cultural hubs.

“There’s almost no place in the city where when we’re building something sizable there isn’t going to be some concern,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a media roundtable on August 23, as reported in the Brooklyn Eagle. “But if we can combine a site that has a lot of height density around it with the ability to get a major school facility built and affordable housing, that’s a pretty rare combination.”

If you believe private sector strategy can work, 80 Flatbush is best-case scenario: It bills high-quality design, excellent public transit options, and a desirable neighborhood as amenities for the public good. The skyscraper would also be built with zero parking spots, winning the support of transit groups including Transportation Alternatives and Riders Alliance.

But will it do enough?

The 512-foot-tall Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, with its illuminated clock, was the tallest building in Brooklyn until 2010, a lonely giant near the busy intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. Alloy, the architect-developers behind 80 Flatbush, have woven archival Brooklyn Eagle stories into their public presentation of the project, showing that the bank (completed in 1929) was never meant to fly solo—the Depression stopped the first wave of Brooklyn skyscrapers in its tracks.

In the decade-plus since Downtown Brooklyn was rezoned in 2004, the bank’s height has been bested again and again, largely by undistinguished rental towers. (300 Ashland Place, a faceted 35-story rental building designed by TEN Arquitectos, across the street from the 80 Flatbush site, is better than the average but far from inspiring.)

Back in 2012 when I reviewed Barclays Center, the SHoP Architects-designed arena further down Flatbush, I wrote:

What the Barclays Center does is create a whole new context. A bolder, gutsier, lunar context that suggests not that the arena is too big, but that the neighborhood is too small. What would make the arena fit is towers—towers like the sixteen buildings approved, over a twenty-five-year period, for the eastern stretch of the site. Do I want those towers to be built now, just to make the arena work?

Fast-forward to 2018 and those towers have been built—just not directly to the east. The development boom has occurred in two nodes: one in Downtown Brooklyn proper, the other closer to Fort Greene, around the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower. I’ve long resisted the description of the latter as “downtown” Brooklyn. But with 9 DeKalb, 80 Flatbush, and a few tall buildings in the BAM Cultural District, that label will no longer be wrong.

Once the two areas fully merge along Flatbush Avenue in a line of towers, Barclays will have the context it always called for—just not from the long-delayed towers over the railyard.

A rendering of 80 Flatbush, which will stand just under 1,000 feet tall.
Courtesy of Alloy Development

But has Brooklyn’s burgeoning skyline changed enough to make 80 Flatbush’s two towers, one 986 feet (the $9.99 of building heights), one 560 feet, with an “unprecedented” floor area ratio of 18—much more dense than is typically allowed by the city—politically palatable? (FAR is the quantity of square footage you can build relative to the area of your lot; local elected officials seem concerned about opening a path to other such requests.)

According to City Council member Stephen Levin, in whose district the buildings lie, no. In order to vote yes when the building comes before the Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises (a crucial step in the rezoning process), he has suggested the project be reduced in density by one-third, bringing it down to FAR 12—equal to Downtown Brooklyn’s other towers. He’s agnostic on where those cuts should come from.

“Eighteen FAR, that’s 12 times 1.5, that’s a lot and it is more than this block should handle,” he told me. “I’ve said all along they are probably trying to achieve too many benefits. In this case, there needs to be less density. If that means less benefits, I’m okay with that.”

Alloy could build a 580-foot-tall building without the zoning changes they are requesting, if said building were to take on the broad pyramidal form of 1930s wedding cake towers, or BIG’s VIA 57 West. Instead, they have chosen to go through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) in order to—among other things—build a slimmer, taller tower, a hair under the magical 1,000-foot barrier that 9 DeKalb, designed by SHoP and already under construction over the landmarked Brooklyn Dime Savings Bank three blocks away, will breach.

That nullifies discussion of the block’s existing 2004 “transitional” zoning between the brownstones of Boerum Hill and the towers of Downtown Brooklyn, cited by opponents as a reason not to let 80 Flatbush proceed in its current form. By any rational definition of the term, a transition between the rowhouses on State Street and the height proposed on Flatbush Avenue would be something like 10 stories. After that, it’s all tall building; 400 feet, 500 feet, 986 feet are never going to feel like a transition.

Alloy, no stranger to the process of Brooklyn development, is best known for One John Street in Dumbo, a handsome condominium building that abuts Brooklyn Bridge Park and includes many clever details and a branch of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum on its ground floor. 80 Flatbush is several orders of magnitude larger than that building, but partners Jared Della Valle and AJ Pires aren’t wrong when they pitch their success in Dumbo as a proving ground: the ability to make something that solves urban problems, and has architectural personality and quality, has been sorely missed the rash of new Downtown Brooklyn development.

The smartest move Alloy made was to allow other architects and other centuries to shape the final result, at least at street level. Two extant historic buildings, one currently housing the English-Arabic Khalil Gibran International Academy, will automatically add texture and lower rooflines. The proposal also gestures toward a smaller scale with the design of its two schools, by Architecture Research Office. The elementary school, which will have its entrance on State Street, is three stories tall as it meets the sidewalk.

Alloy has surely built some padding into its opaque funding structure. But I don’t think density—which in this case will likely translate into less height—is where the politicians should be negotiating.

It is clear that the new housing and schools this project provides are far less than what Downtown Brooklyn and its adjacent neighborhoods need. “It’s not up to one parcel to make up for everything that rezoning didn’t achieve,” Levin says, and he’s right.

Yet this project, at this density, represents progress. The unintended consequence of the 2004 Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, meant to spur greater development of office space, has been tens of thousands of new residential units without nearly enough new affordable housing, new schools, new open space, or new multi-modal transit opportunities.

I would press the developers to include more goodies, rather than less height, so that the precedent-setting FAR 18, not out of scale for the avenue as it has developed, comes attached to an elaborate bouquet of requirements. As it stands, the project addresses many of the borough’s, and the area’s, greatest needs: affordable housing, school seats, office space.

Meanwhile, the single open space included in the 2004 Downtown Brooklyn plan, Willoughby Square Park, was designed and provisioned as lunchtime seating and, as Curbed reported in March, has been delayed because of the (unnecessary) parking that’s supposed to go underneath the green square. Build the park, not the parking—and then fund the Brooklyn Strand, WXY’s proposal to unite, and landscape, the string of underutilized open space between Borough Hall and the Brooklyn Bridge. With 11,000 new units, and 9,000 more on the way, downtown needs parks, and the Strand is the only large-scale viable option.

Alloy says their Environmental Impact Statement didn’t turn up any adverse impacts on the capacity of the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center station, but is there another way they could contribute to the pedestrian and transit experience around and adjacent to the block? (Please do not suggest another stop on the BQX route.)

A street level rendering of 80 Flatbush. Courtesy of Alloy Development

It is easier to call out NIMBY-ism in other people’s backyards. I was outraged, for example, by the pushback in Los Angeles to raising height and density limits on wide streets near Metro stations. I was angry when City Councilmember Paul Koretz spoke of density as the choice between single-family homes and Dubai—an over-the-top statement considering that four-to-five-story courtyard housing would create exponentially more housing stock in LA.

But I was as NIMBY as the next person when Fortis, the developers of the multi-block Long Island College Hospital (LICH) site in Cobble Hill, floated the idea of going through a ULURP process in order to build more densely, while adding affordable housing and possibly a school to its proposal. Three years later—and after a concerted effort from area residents to stop the development—the renamed River Park, with several condo towers and no community benefits, is now being built. It is so clearly a missed opportunity for not doing anything more than adding expensive housing to an already-expensive neighborhood.

As Emily Badger recently reported in the New York Times, home ownership leads to opposition to new housing, regardless of political affiliation. When the LICH property was sold and Fortis’s plans announced, I thought no differently than many of my Cobble Hill neighbors: I wanted a proper hospital, not just an emergency room, and I was shocked by the prospect of a 40-story tower.

But over the past two years I have become increasingly uncomfortable with my position.

Building taller housing on wider roads in transit-rich neighborhoods was what housing and transportation advocates I admired were advocating for. My neighborhood should have been no exception. The posters in the windows of many homes read “No Towers in Cobble Hill,” but Atlantic Avenue is a major artery ending in one of the city’s great new parks. It shouldn’t only be walking distance for brownstone owners.

Open New York, the city’s first self-styled YIMBY group, was formed on the heels of the LICH fight, and has been vocal in its support of 80 Flatbush. Ben Carlos Thypin, one of the group’s co-founders, describes their strategy as “exclusively focusing on rich neighborhoods,” of which brownstone Brooklyn—Boerum Hill’s median income is much higher than that of New York as a whole—would qualify.

“Poor neighborhoods are bearing a disproportionate share of housing supply growth, because they have less political power than in-demand rich neighborhoods,” Thypin explains. To wit, the city-backed large-scale rezonings have focused on building housing in areas like Inwood, East New York, and Far Rockaway.

By contrast, Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill are historic districts, which means no towers can be built in the section with continuous 19th-century houses. But having established that boundary, we can’t keep pushing out the edges. Avenues deserve density—and maybe those new residents will push for the dedicated bus lane Atlantic Avenue deserves.

Brooklyn needs new housing on major arteries near transit. Brooklyn needs new schools. Subsidized apartments cannot all be located in remote locations. And New York is in the midst of a major economic boom, the likes of which haven’t been seen in 70 years. Those who can should share the wealth.