The Real Deal New York

Zoning battle heats up in South Park Slope

November 27, 2007
By Jeremy Smerd

Arturo Gonzalez was trying to position a steel beam with the help of his brother at 187 20th Street on Aug. 29 when the chain holding it slipped off. The 800-pound girder crushed him to death.

His fatality was a flashpoint for residents concerned with the fast pace of new developments sprouting up in South Park Slope in Brooklyn. Now, however, it’s the developers who might sue the city, according to Isaac Katan, a major builder in the area.

A week before the accident, the area’s community board voted to approve a rezoning plan that will restrict large developments on side streets full of two- and three-story townhouses. The City Planning Commission was scheduled to hold a hearing on the proposal on Sept. 28, following which the City Council will have 50 days to hold a public hearing and vote on the rezoning.

That has put the developers of 27 sites, representing 400 units currently under construction in the neighborhood, in a race against the clock. If they get their foundations in place before the new zoning takes effect, their plans are grandfathered in and will not have to obey the new zoning laws.

Adding to the pressure is another bill – whose passage is not imminent – that would put a freeze on building permits between the time the City Planning Commission approves a rezoning and the City Council passes the proposal into law. (See “Councilman to slow developers’ rush to build” in September’s The Real Deal.)

“In the rush to get that done, maybe someone is cutting corners,” said Jeremy Laufer, the district manager of Community Board 7.

Though the city’s Department of Buildings has not found that to be the case at 187 20th Street, Gonzales’ death prompted Laufer to send out a missive the next day when construction on the four-story building was temporarily halted.

Taking it one giant step further, Laufer called for the “immediate suspension of all construction activities” in South Park Slope, generally acknowledged to stretch from 9th Street to Greenwood Cemetery and Fourth Avenue to Prospect Park.

The response from the Department of Buildings was unambiguous.

“The department cannot prohibit any construction that is lawful, even if downzoning is going into effect,” a spokeswoman, Ilyse Fink, said.

Nonetheless, the move further polarized the community against the developers, who saw the call for a moratorium as a thinly veiled political scare tactic meant to sabotage their building plans just long enough to allow for downzoning regulations to pass into law.

“They’re rushing the zoning change,” said Katan, who has built 10 projects in Park Slope. “This zoning has been in place since 1961, then all of sudden people wake up and they want to change the zoning in the last three months.”

The process, which has taken a year, has indeed been, as Laufer put it, “one of the quickest rezoning plans to move forward.”

Developers say residents bent on delaying construction are making complaints to the building department that would have not been taken seriously in the past, but now are being taken up and only slowly resolved, Katan said.

One example Katan offered was a floor plan that did not show peepholes on apartment doors, despite being written in documents submitted to the department.

“Usually the buildings department is OK with this,” said Katan. “Now they are making a big deal out of them to stop you.”

So, while the clock ticks, a small group of developers is talking to law firms and considering a lawsuit against the city if they are unable to get their foundations laid before the new zoning goes into effect, Katan said. Katan declined to name the developers involved in the potential suit.

As a caveat to developers and to accommodate the growing needs of the community, the new zoning will allow for eight-story buildings to be built along the more industrial thoroughfare of Fourth Avenue. Those buildings can be increased up to 12 stories if the developer builds 20 percent of the total number of units into affordable housing. The affordable units would not have to be in the same building, but they would have to be within the community board or a half-mile from the site.

“Right now, we’re caught between two communities that have recently undergone rezoning,” Laufer said, referring to Bay Ridge and central Park Slope. The result has been a push by developers into Community Board 7 because it is attractive to people “who want to maximize” the size of their developments.

Laufer said the board has already put in a request to downzone the southern part of the community board near Bay Ridge as well.

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