Sunday, October 28, 2007

How to Tell Good Zoning from a Hole in the Ground

A guest post by cartographer extraordinaire Marc Korpus, and it can be seen as a commentary on Rob's recent post on Jane Jacobs, concerning the fate of neighborhood activism in an era when houses in Sheepshead Bay run $600,000 and up. If Marc permits me a prefatory comment: one thing that has always been true of affordable housing in New York City is that because of its inherent expense, it has always been built by Goliaths (whether public or private) for Davids.
--Peter Eisenstadt

An "About New York" column in the Times grants local hero status to a doctor who defeated a plan to put up a six-story condominium building at the corner of East 16th Street and Avenue S, Brooklyn, a few doors away from his home. The builder got as far as excavating, but didn’t manage to complete the foundation before more restrictive zoning kicked in. A large hole in the ground is already there but no condo building will now rise upon it. This is scored as a victory for neighborhood activism against an evil developer, probably allied with dark forces of the city Buildings Department. David, we are to understand, has picked up a stone from the rubble of the excavation and felled Goliath.

That’s all well and good, but: if a six-story apartment building can’t be built at East 16th Street and Avenue S, where can it be built? This part of Sheepshead Bay is where I grew up. I went to the schools across the street. It’s not a uniform neighborhood of private homes. Because of the nearby subway stations seven-story apartment buildings line many of the streets, some dating from the 1920s, some from a later building boom in the early 1960s. With good public transportation, half-empty schools and probably a population density lower than when I was growing up there (owing to smaller families), this is a prime place to add to the city’s housing stock.

That would come with a few negatives for some current homeowners. The presence of a six-story condo at the corner would add a little traffic, block some sunlight, maybe put some pressure on parking and worst of all (I suspect) lower the tone. You see, properties on the block are now probably in the $600,000 - 800,000 range (see these local real estate listings). Moreover, construction that dilutes the scarcity of existing homes could actually cause those inflated values to fall a little – terrible thought. It goes without saying that the builder’s property interests, unlike the homeowners’, count for nothing.

But this is not about motives, it’s about policy, it’s about balancing legitimate interests, which is what a responsible government should do. There are people in say the $100,000 household income range who can’t afford a house near a subway line but might be able to manage $300,000 or so for a condo. Their interests might be better aligned with Goliath’s than with the neighborhood activists who defeated him. The issue goes beyond this particular case. To zone multistory residential construction out of that block and others like it is to freeze the housing pattern just as it was in about 1970, no allowance made for the need of the city to grow upwards and relieve the scarcity of housing. No need to belabor the obvious point: instead the city is digging itself a hole.

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