City Council Subcommittee Chided EDC over Downtown Brooklyn Development [UPDATE: Committee Approves Application With Conditions]

Downtown Brooklyn

Proposed Development for 141 Willoughby. Image Credit: Savanna

Subcommittee raised concerns about the aggregate effect the mass development of Downtown Brooklyn will have on school resources. On October 5, 2016, the City Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises heard testimony on an application to construct a new 49-story mixed-use building at 141 Willoughby Street in Downtown Brooklyn. The site is a triangular-shaped zoning lot bounded by Flatbush Avenue Extension, Willoughby Street and Gold Street. Currently the space is occupied by a three-story private school, the Institute of Design and Construction, an accessory surface parking lot for 16 vehicles, and a public open space with planting and seating areas.

Savanna, the developer, proposed a zoning map amendment to change a C6-1 and a C6-4 zoned area to a C6-6 zone. Additionally and concurrently, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Economic Development Corporation proposed changing the designation of the public space which is currently mapped as a street and controlled by HPD in order to facilitate the sale of the space. The developer would acquire from the City the small triangular public open space and its development rights for $4.8 million.

The floor area ratio (FAR) is the principal bulk regulation controlling the size of buildings that can be constructed. The FAR when multiplied by the lot area produces the maximum amount of floor area allowable on the lot. A C6-1 zoned lot allows a developer to construct a FAR up to 6.5 for commercial use with a community facility. A C6-4 zoned lot allows for a development up to 12 FAR including a public plaza bonus. The proposed zoning change to a C6-6 lot would allow for a floor area ratio (FAR) of 15. With a FAR bonus of 20 percent for a plaza, which the site will maintain, the developer would have a FAR of 18 for the site.

In exchange for the disposition of the public space’s development rights and the up-zoning, the developer agreed to include some affordable housing in its proposal. As part of its application, the developer requested that the development be designated as a Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Area. The proposed project would be Downtown Brooklyn’s first Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Area, requiring the developer to set aside between 25 to 30 percent of the residential floor area for affordable housing.

The 141 Willoughby Street development is estimated to generate approximately 58 additional elementary school students. The development would fall within the school zone of PS 287 Bailey K. Ashford. Currently PS 287 is at approximately 60 percent capacity, and the 58 seats added by the proposed development would not exceed that capacity. In his recommendation, Brooklyn Borough President Adams noted, however, that the 141 Willoughby Street development was one of many new developments in progress for the downtown area, and the developments in total are estimated to produce more than 1,500 public elementary school students which would adversely impact PS 287 and the school district overall. The School Construction Authority, which is tasked with building new schools, received City funding for 1,800 new seats for the school district.

Brooklyn Community Board 2 voted 30-2 to disapprove the up-zoning. The Board, however, voted 24-8 to approve HPD’s mapping change of the public space.

On July 20, 2016, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams issued his recommendations. The Borough President requested that the up-zoning to C6-6 be reduced to C6-4.5 and extended to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene building located diagonally across the street from the proposed development site. He suggested that by doing so the City could transfer the excess development rights of the DOHMH site to the development and prevent setting a precedent of massive up-zoning. The Borough President further recommended that the land disposition agreement for the public space should mandate that the developer provide a greater percentage of two- and three-bedroom units for affordable housing to accommodate more families, and that the studio and one-bedroom units have lowered rent to accommodate senior citizen households. He also recommended that the $4.8 million in proceeds from the sale of the public space be reallocated to enable a school within the building, provide more cultural space, and accommodate more family-sized units and more affordable senior citizen units.

On September 7, 2016, the City Planning Commission issued its report approving the proposed development. The Commission stated that the development “would meet several of the City’s policy objectives—mandating affordable housing, new office space and active ground floor uses.” The Commission found the Borough President’s recommendation for the alternative zoning to be outside the scope of the proposed action. Recognizing Downtown Brooklyn’s ongoing school seat shortage, the Commission noted that the development site is not an ideal location for a new school due to the site’s relatively small and irregular size.

At the October 5th hearing, Jay Siegel, of Greenburg Traurig, spoke on behalf of the developer. Jeff Nelson, Executive Vice-President for the Real Estate Transaction Services Group for the EDC, also spoke in support of the proposal.

Council Member Stephen Levin, representative for the Downtown Brooklyn area, began the hearing by expressing his concern about the effect the proposal would have on the existing infrastructure of Downtown Brooklyn—especially with regard to adequate school seats and public health facilities. Further, Council Member Levin felt concern over the impact a 49-story, 18 FAR building would have on the “character and quality of the downtown Brooklyn area.”

In response to Chair Donovan Richards’ inquiry regarding unforeseen consequences and setting a precedent, Nelson stated that it was fully within both the City Planning Commission’s and the City Council’s purview to consider the merits of future applications.

Chair Richards questioned why 18 FAR and not 12 FAR which would be similar to properties adjacent to the proposed site. The developer responded that with only 12 FAR the development would likely not include any office space, only retail and residential. Siegel added that at 15 FAR, the development would likely contain 30,000 square feet of dedicated office space which would still be inadequate in addressing Brooklyn’s need for office space.

In response to Council Member Levin’s question about putting a school in the development, Siegel responded that the developer had looked into the possibility. Siegel stated that Savanna was open to including the school, but that the SCA had found that the site was not suitable for a school.

Council Member Levin recognized that Downtown Brooklyn is in a precarious position regarding its schools. He noted that the SCA had funded the seats but that there was no place to put them. The up-zoning done in Downtown Brooklyn in 2004 which allowed for 12 FAR left the City with an as-of-right development scenario where there is no incentive for a developer to add school space. Combined with the land being too expensive for SCA to buy, Council Member Levin was concerned that every future developer was going to look at City Planning’s actions in this case and say, “We want that,” meanwhile “there’s still no elementary school in Downtown Brooklyn and no other opportunity.”

Nelson agreed with Council Member Levin about the challenges that Downtown Brooklyn faces in siting schools. He expressed EDC’s commitment to pursue adding a school in Downtown Brooklyn, but stated that through his conversations with SCA and Savanna EDC had determined that the proposed development would not work for a school. Nelson added that the City has budgeted over $300 million dollars to find space for school seats in Downtown Brooklyn.

Chair Richards admonished EDC, stating that the development “is sort of being forced down the council’s throat in one sense, to say we need to make exceptions here and nowhere else.” Chair Richards recommended to EDC for the future to include the relevant Council member in discussions for similar joint applications before they reach the City Council in the ULURP process.

Eileen Doherty, from Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon’s office, expressed the Assemblymember’s concern that the City had failed to consider the cumulative impacts of the 2004 up-zoning of Downtown Brooklyn and the multiple large buildings being constructed. The Assemblymember recommended that the City Council reject the proposal.

Oscar Jonas, from State Senator Velmanette Montgomery’s office, relayed the Senator’s fear that the proposal would create the City’s first C6-6 zone outside of Manhattan and set an unwelcome precedent for taller and denser construction in Downtown Brooklyn than ever seen before. The Senator supported Brooklyn Community Board 2’s recommendation to disapprove the proposal.

Several local Brooklyn organizations also testified. Peter Bray, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, argued that the current proposal must be evaluated in a broader context. Bray noted that the 2004 up-zoning was intended to make Downtown Brooklyn a commercial district, and at the time only 1,000 residential units were expected to be built. According to a recent study done by the Borough President’s office, however, over 11,000 residential units have been built or are being developed in the area. The Brooklyn Heights Association recommended rejection of the proposal.

Varun Sanyal, Director of Economic Development Policy at the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, spoke in full support of the proposal. Sanyal called the development a “much welcomed addition to Downtown Brooklyn,” adding that it will “bring 98,000 square feet of much needed office space.”

Alan Washington, Managing Director of Real Estate and Economic Development at the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, voiced the Partnership’s strong support for the proposal. The Partnership was pleased with the 30 percent affordable housing included in the project which was the largest percentage of affordable housing in the area. Additionally, the Partnership calculated that four million square feet of office space was needed for the area today and the proposed development would begin to address that issue. Washington argued additionally that the scale and design of the proposal was appropriate for the Downtown area.

Public Advocate Letitia James, who had previously represented Downtown Brooklyn on the Council, spoke at the end of the hearing. As a participant of the 2004 rezoning, she recognized that in 2004 the argument for the rezoning was to create commercial space, however, “in reality it was all converted to residential.”

The proposal was laid over until the next Subcommittee hearing on October 19, 2016.

UPDATE: On November 1, 2016, the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises voted 5-0 to approve the 141 Willoughby application with a condition. The Subcommittee lowered the maximum allowed floor area from 18 FAR to 15 FAR with a maximum of nine FAR to be permitted as residential. Chair Donovan Richards explained that the limit would make the building more consistent with the zoning in Downtown Brooklyn while still allowing for the development of significant affordable housing and office space in the building. Council Member Stephen Levin, representative for the district, stated that the “modification accomplishes multiple policy goals: decreasing the impact of new residential units on existing infrastructure, adding new affordable units through Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, and increasing the amount of much-needed office space.”

On November 3, 2016, the Committee on Land Use voted 18-1 to approve the project with the added conditions. Council Member Jumaane Williams abstained from the vote. Williams expressed his appreciation for Council Member Levin’s hard work, but explained that he would continue not to support projects that do not supply, in his opinion, sufficient and truly affordable housing. Council Member Inez Barron echoed Council Member Williams concerns and voted no on the project for that reason.

CC: Downtown Brooklyn Plan (C 160030 ZMK; N 160029 ZRK; C 160054 MMK).

By: Jonathon Sizemore (Jonathon is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2016).

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