Approval of a controversial 64-story development in Downtown Brooklyn came with high emotions and many tradeoffs.
By Jordan Julian
The intersection of Flatbush Avenue and State Street feels almost like a portal between two different eras of Brooklyn. As you round the corner, the chaos of four-lane Flatbush Avenue, with its growing number of sleek glass high-rises, flows into the calm of a brownstone-lined block. Many of State Street’s picturesque brownstones date back to the early 20th century, while the newer skyscrapers, featuring Whole Foods and Apple Stores on their ground floors, range from two to three years old.
This tension is what’s at stake in the fight over 80 Flatbush, the triangular block between the two streets. Last month, a small development company, Alloy LLC., received approval from City Council to build a 64-story tower at the site. It’s a classic David and Goliath tale — neighborhood residents in their four-story houses dwarfed by a real estate firm and its skyscraper. Except, in this version of the story, Goliath is also promising $230 million in necessary public benefits at no cost to the city. So who do we root for?
In fact, with its 12-person staff and roster of low- to mid-rise projects, Alloy is barely big enough to constitute a real estate Goliath. The 80 Flatbush project, however, is a giant when it comes to scale and ambition. In the words of Boerum Hill resident Cynthia Salett, “this is Alloy’s break-through-the-ceiling project.”
The final City Council approval for 80 Flatbush came on September 26, after two years of extensive, impassioned negotiations between members of the community, Alloy, and Stephen Levin, the District 33 city council representative. The affirmative decision was almost unanimous — only two council members voted against 80 Flatbush. But this crucial victory was only possible when Alloy agreed to modifications to the project’s scale following outcry from the residents of Fort Greene and Boerum Hill.
As initially proposed in 2016, the mixed-use development would include two new public schools, cultural and commercial space, and two towers, with the taller one reaching the height of 74 stories, unprecedented for the area. The residential towers would be comprised of both market-rate housing units and permanently affordable units, according to the now-deleted 80 Flatbush website.
To meet these demands, the block would need to undergo a dramatic rezoning. This gets complicated: Communities are zoned based on density, using the measurement of Floor Area Ratio (FAR). FAR is calculated by dividing the total square feet of all floors of a building by the total square feet of the lot. The proposed scale of 80 Flatbush would require tripling the permitted bulk of the site, from 6 FAR to 18 FAR. Long story short, they want to squeeze lots of height onto a comparably small lot. Such a dramatic change in FAR translates to a visible change in the neighborhood’s skyscape, and in the end translates to more income for the developers.
After negotiating, Alloy and City Council agreed on a reduced FAR of 15.75. This means the heights of the towers have been downgraded to 510 and 840 feet respectively, (meaning 64 stories for the taller tower), while maintaining the number of affordable housing units at 200.
Even with these modifications, the main structure will still be over 50 percent taller than the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, historically the tallest building in Brooklyn. The iconic clock tower stands just across the street from 80 Flatbush. One of the slogans of the anti-tower community members was “Don’t Block the Clock.”
What is the city giving away?
Alloy counts affordable housing, cultural space, and the preservation of historic structures among the free community benefits of the project. The company is also providing 700 much-needed public school seats, 350 of which will come from a brand new elementary school. The other 350 will come from revamped and expanded facilities for the existing Khalil Gibran International Academy. The dual-language Arabic high school has suffered from a lack of adequate space and resources since its founding in 2007.
Yet despite the benefits, many community members are left unsatisfied by the results of the vote.
Some neighborhood residents believe that the significant upzoning from an FAR of 6 to 15.75 was a gain for Alloy at the expense of the city. Ron Janoff, coordinator of nearby Rockwell Place community garden, is one of these people. In an interview prior to the vote, he suggested that the amount Alloy paid only made sense for the existing zoning, which permitted a much smaller structure. A November 2017 presentation by the Fort Greene Association emphasized this concern, saying that the community would be giving Alloy “approximately 1 million square feet of free real estate via upzoning” if the city agreed to the company’s requests.
It’s true that Alloy’s initial ask was extreme. Dr. Laura Wolf-Powers, an expert on neighborhood revitalization and urban development at Hunter College, says she doesn’t know of any other spot rezoning that resulted in such a dramatic increase in FAR. However, she clarifies that Alloy “didn’t circumvent the process; they worked the process very well.”
What exactly Alloy is getting, besides valuable air space, is not so clear. The financials are murky, says Ben Richardson, a board member of the Fort Greene Association. The 80 Flatbush website offered only a brief blurb about how the project will be financed on its FAQ page. Basically, the “school and some of the residential square footage” will be city-owned through a partnership with the Educational Construction Fund. The Fund, a public benefit corporation affiliated with the NYC Department of Education, bankrolls bonds to cover construction costs. However, no specific numbers are available to clarify the actual material value of what Alloy gets out of this partnership. (Alloy did not answer questions and after the vote did not respond to emails.)
What is Alloy giving away?
On the other hand, Alloy was unsurprisingly upfront on the project website about what they are giving to the community, boasting “4,100 direct beneficiaries,” “$230 million in public benefits,” and “$0 in public capital funding.” Affordable housing was one of the foundational components of the proposal, central to the transactions involved in approving the project. In March, Alloy announced its partnership with Fifth Avenue Committee, a well respected Brooklyn-based nonprofit that develops affordable housing and works with more than 5,000 low- and moderate-income people every year. The Fifth Avenue Committee will manage the affordable units, including marketing and leasing, and provide counseling services to residents, as detailed in an Alloy press release.
Before deciding to partner with Alloy, “We wanted to make sure we believed in the project itself,” says Jay Marcus, the Committee’s Director of Housing Development. “The concept of higher density, transit-oriented corridors” and “putting affordable housing in higher income neighborhoods are goals that [Alloy and the Committee] share.”
Marcus notes that there is usually less opportunity for affordable housing in higher income neighborhoods because “the numbers just don’t work.” In other words, the Committee also gets something out of this relationship — access to a typically unattainable neighborhood. Of course, in this case, a win for the Fifth Avenue Committee is also a win for the low-income New Yorkers they serve.
The level of affordability of the units has raised eyebrows among some 80 Flatbush opponents. In the press release, Alloy said it will set the costs of its affordable units to be accessible to residents making 60 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) or lower. While 6) percent is considered fairly reasonable by development experts, the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development sets AMI for New York City at $93,900 for a three-person household. This staggering number aligns with ongoing debates over changing the way AMI is calculated, according to Shelterforce Magazine. Sometimes, “the AMI that New York City uses is 20 percent higher than actual median incomes in the city.”
Still, Marcus says that the cost of the units will be based on community need and a desire to serve the lower-income end of affordability. The Committee, he says, will “have a lot of say over the affordability of the units within the inclusionary framework.”
What are the neighborhood residents giving away?
Like some other Fort Greene and Boerum Hill residents, Ben Richardson is careful not to write off the need for the kinds of benefits Alloy says it will provide. Instead, he is concerned by the ineffectuality of zoning laws at protecting what he calls the “humanistic” aspects of the neighborhood. By this he means access to light and air, and above all, a sense of community. Community is a nebulous idea, but one that inevitably comes up in discussions of urban development. For Richardson, it is about the feeling you get as you walk down the street. He feels that “walking next to a thousand-foot tower” is inherently different from walking in a “community.”
Lots of his neighbors agree. On August 30, protesters gathered at the Rockwell Place Brooklyn Bear’s Community Garden, across the street from the future site of 80 Flatbush, to defend their interpretations of community. Some carried plastic flowers, gardening tools, and signs bearing the phrase “No Towers in Brownstone Brooklyn.” Others held black umbrellas with “Shady Deal” emblazoned on them in tape as they marched around the block. Protesters ranged from community gardeners, who fear the destructive environmental impact of the project’s shadows, to longtime Brooklynites who worry that the huge structure will block the clock tower. At one point, Salett’s eight-year-old son emphatically told her “Mommy, I do not support 80 Flatbush.”
Throughout the fight against 80 Flatbush, the community garden became a visible symbol of the potential damage caused by skyscraper-sized shadows. Janoff believes that this is because green space is viewed as a public amenity. This is not just another example of people trying to protect the value of their brownstones, he says.
On the late-summer afternoon of the protest march, the corner of Rockwell Place was bathed in dappled sunlight. However, the shadows cast by the garden’s future behemoth of a neighbor could indeed potentially threaten the ability for plant life to thrive there. The Educational Construction Fund’s environmental impact study found that, on the days analyzed, the garden would receive less than six hours of direct sunlight.
Perhaps the fixation on defining and preserving community comes from the anxiety of becoming more like Manhattan. At least that’s what Wolf-Powers suspects, considering the drastic rezoning of 80 Flatbush and the rising density of Brooklyn. “I think in general that’s one of the things that the Fort Greene Association and Boerum Hill Association object to the most, this idea that they’re being kind of Manhattanized.”
When Salett first moved to Brooklyn in the early 90s, she says she viewed the borough as a way to ease herself into big city life. She admired the historic brownstones and loved to ride her bike. Marching against 80 Flatbush almost 30 years later, she proudly exclaimed, “We want trees growing in Brooklyn, not giant towers.” Similarly, Richardson believes that there is a reason people come to Brooklyn, and it is not to be in “midtown Manhattan.” The 2017 Fort Greene Association presentation even featured a graphic comparing 80 Flatbush to the Chrysler Building.
Who really wins?
The need for affordable housing and public school seats is clear in Downtown Brooklyn, and no one is denying it. Opponents of the project point to zoning policies protecting the location of 80 Flatbush as a transitional development area between higher- and lower- scale neighborhoods. But in many ways, these same policies actually necessitate the benefits promised by Alloy.
Since 2001, 80 Flatbush has been officially located within the “Special Downtown Brooklyn District,” which the City Planning Commission Zoning Resolution defines as meant to “provide a transition between the Downtown commercial core and the lower-scale residential communities of Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and Brooklyn Heights.” When the 2004 Downtown Brooklyn rezoning resulted in unexpected residential development, there was (and continues to be) a lack of necessary infrastructure, including schools and affordable housing, reports the office of the Brooklyn Borough President, Eric L. Adams.
The 2012 Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park project in this part of Brooklyn left some people feeling as though affordable housing promises were not delivered on by the development company. The 2018 80 Flatbush project, on the other hand, feels to some like a chance for the city to do it right. Essentially, the narrative of negotiation between the city, desperately in need of public benefits, and the private corporations who have the means to provide them, is ongoing.
“I think that in our society there is a kind of paradigm which has become increasingly common, known as market fundamentalism,” Wolf-Powers describes. “It’s the idea that anything you can think of is actually done better and more efficiently by the private sector than the public sector, that markets are really the solution to any social problem.”
So yes, Goliath always wins, but in today’s political and economic climate, that doesn’t necessarily mean that David is losing. Everyone needs to give something to get something. It is just a matter of who is getting the most.
Jordan Julian can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jordan_julian_.