Bigger, but not better - Community Board 14 wrangles over new zoning

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A follow-up discussion on the proposed rezoning of Flatbush focused intently on a small portion of the neighborhood, specifically the area where Victorian homes predominate.

In particular, during the May meeting of Community Board 14’s executive committee, residents of the neighborhood and board members expressed concern about the Department of City Planning’s intention to increase the allowable size of homes in two Victorian Flatbush neighborhoods, Ditmas Park West and South Midwood, which are threatened with over-development.

While the current zoning permits multi-family construction, which would not be allowed by the zoning proposed by DCP, the new zones that the agency is suggesting for those neighborhoods would allow homeowners to expand their homes substantially, something which raises concerns among residents.

In addition, homes on wider than usual lots could be torn down and replaced by two or even three narrow but dense homes, should the zoning proposed by DCP be put in place – another sore spot for those who live in Victorian Flatbush.

The crux of the issue rests in technicalities, those who gathered at the board office, 810 East 16th Street, made clear. Yet those technicalities, they stressed, could have a major impact on the future of the communities as they fight to preserve their existing streetscape.

Both South Midwood and Ditmas Park West are now zoned R3-2, which restricts the bulk of buildings but allows small apartment buildings and rowhouses, as well as one and two family detached and semi-detached homes. But, this has meant that some Victorian homes have been torn down, to be replaced by condominium developments.

The new zoning suggested by DCP, R4A, would restrict new development to one and two family detached homes, but would allow those homes to be approximately 50 percent larger than currently.

That worries the residents who are pressing the agency to substitute a third zoning category, R3X, that also permits only one and two family freestanding homes, but limits their bulk to the same bulk that is currently permitted.

The R3X zoning district also has a greater minimum lot width (35 feet as opposed to 30 feet for R4A), that could prevent the replacement of one home on a wide lot by two or three.

The problem with R3X, from DCP’s perspective, is that many of the homes that currently exist are larger than what would be permitted under that zoning category. “It’s a citywide policy to try to bring existing buildings into conformance with the zoning,” said David Parish, of DCP’s Brooklyn office.

While, in Ditmas Park West, only 30 percent of the buildings are in conformance with the requirements of the R3X zone, 85 percent of them are in compliance with the requirements of R4A.

In South Midwood, a similar situation exists with 48.7 percent of the homes in compliance with the R3X zone, and 88.2 percent in compliance with the R4A.

“We strive for a level of compliance of 75 to 80 percent,” said Parish.

“One of the reason we go for maximum compliance within reason,” explained Winston von Engel, deputy director of DCP’s Brooklyn office, “is that when we go through the public review process, we often hear from people saying, you’re restricting us. We are taken to task for being too restrictive.”

Nonetheless, residents and board members advocated for less permissive zoning. One possibility, suggested by CB 14 Chairperson Alvin Berk and others, would be to redraw the lines for South Midwood a bit, to “tilt the balance a little bit,” as Berk remarked.

This is because the proposed rezoning, while it creates a cohesive community district, also includes buildings that are more greatly out of compliance with the requirements of the R3X zone.

Board members and residents said that they believed that there would be broad support for more restrictive zoning.

“My lot is 65 feet,” said Tom Valentino, a South Midwood resident. “I can tear it down and build two. We are just coming out of getting a lot of these properties straightened out. We don’t want to go back to what was.”

His wife, Florence Valentino, a CB 14 member and South Midwood resident, agreed. She said, “That neighborhood doesn’t want lots to be divided and townhouse put up. We don’t want to be Sheepshead Bay.”

The issue has been brought up at the neighborhood’s on-line chat room,” added Richard Silverman, the president of the South Midwood Residents Association. “We haven’t gotten a single negative response. We are not concerned about expanding existing homes. We are concerned about tearing down existing houses and putting up two or three.”

One issue is that DCP is limited in what it can do by the existing zones in their repertoire. Creating a new zone that would more precisely mirror the built environment in South Midwood and Ditmas Park West would be time-consuming. “Delay is not only onerous to DCP,” warned Berk. “It also could lead to additional speculative development.”

As it is, said von Engel, much remains to be done before the rezoning process can be completed. “We hope to be able to certify the application before the end of this year,” he concluded.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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