Tales of the Upzoned City

What did I tell you about there being more developments around Brooklyn development than I have time for right now? I wrote that update yesterday, and now today news broke that:

I have book work to do, but I need to stop for a minute to comment on these items, because in both cases the media coverage is leaving out some key facts:

The Flatbush tower, which would be by far the tallest in Brooklyn, is raising eyebrows for both its height and its design, which according to initial renderings would match the rust-brown color of the unloved Barclays Center design by the same architects, SHoP. It would dramatically change the face of Brooklyn for anyone within a couple of miles — and, remarkably, it would apparently require no city council hearings, because the site is currently zoned to allow buildings of unlimited height.

That’s a big “currently,” however. Downtown Brooklyn was first rezoned in 2001, Rudy Giuliani’s last year as mayor, at which point buildings on that stretch of Flatbush Avenue were limited to 495 feet in height. Michael Bloomberg’s subsequent 2004 rezoning, however, upped that number to “the sky’s the limit” — meaning that whether a building twice the size of Brooklyn’s previous tallest is a good idea has, in one fell swoop of city policy, been removed from the category of things that Brooklynites and their elected representatives have a say in, and placed in the magical realm of “as-of-right” where whoever has title to the land can do whatever they want.

In East New York, meanwhile, the stakes are even higher than the risk of inflicting a poop-brown eyesore on delicate Brooklyn eyeballs. The City Planning Commission report made headlines today for noting the risks of overcrowded schools and parks, yes. But it also largely punts on the actual issue that has neighborhood residents up in arms: Whether allowing taller construction would displace current residents by driving up rents on surrounding blocks. Here is what the commission says about risks of so-called “secondary displacement”:

“This amount of new residential development would represent an approximately ten percent increase in the housing stock and about ten percent increase in the residential population within the overall study area, as compared to the No-Action condition. … At-risk households are already experiencing rent pressures and the current average asking rents are not affordable to many of existing residents in the primary and secondary study areas. Given current market trends, it is very likely that demand for housing in the study area would continue to escalate in the future without the Proposed Actions, and that rents within the study area would significantly increase in the future without the Proposed Actions. Irrespective of the Proposed Actions, unprotected low- and moderate-income rental households would likely continue to experience indirect residential displacement pressures and could potentially move out of the area and therefore decrease in proportion to other households. The Proposed Actions’ increase in supply of affordable housing may lessen the effects by relieving demand pressures and slowing down the pace of rental increase.”

Translated from bureacratese, that comes out to: “It’s not all that much construction, and rents are going to go up anyway, so why worry? Hey, maybe adding more apartments will actually keep rents from rising as much as they would otherwise!”

Which, sure, maybe? But for a major planning document — the commission report is a key element in the city ULURP process that is supposed to give the populace a say in land-use decisions — to tackle a hugely important issue like displacement solely with a shrug and an “it’s kinda crazy, but it just might work” is pretty remarkable. And for the press to write about the report without ever noting this omission is tantamount to journalistic malpractice.

As I get near the finish line on The Brooklyn Wars, it’s becoming increasingly clear that one of the big unanswered questions around the redevelopment of our borough is: What exactly happens when you build more housing? Proponents of the “build your way out of the housing crisis” model would say that more supply of any kind — both the downtown Brooklyn tower and the East New York plans would include rent-regulated units, but most apartments would be allowed to charge whatever the market could bear — increases supply, and so at least makes rents lower than they would be otherwise. Critics of that plan note that there’s no evidence it’s ever worked this way anywhere in Brooklyn in recent years — rather, putting up new luxury towers, even if accompanied by some affordable housing, has only helped rebrand neighborhoods as cool enough for outsiders with money, breaking down the walls of fear (of crime, of the unknown, of people who don’t look like them) that once kept upscale newcomers from moving to Bushwick and Sunset Park, and still does so in East New York. For the moment.

There’s no easy solution to this — well, beyond dispensing with private market-rate development and having the government pay for tons of affordable housing itself, something that has been done in the past but is no longer discussed in polite New York company — but you really should start by examining what has and hasn’t worked in the past, and adjust your expectations accordingly. These latest reports indicate the ways in which city development policy remains stuck on “cross your fingers and hope for the best,” which isn’t exactly encouraging.