After years of haphazard building construction that’s played havoc with community development, Brighton Beach may finally see some relief.
Next month, the Department of City Planning (DCP) will begin the final review for a zoning change for Brighton, with an eye toward finalizing it by summer. The rezoning is an attempt to limit destructive overdevelopment by setting clear limits on construction and creating height restrictions for buildings in the area. Most of the neighborhood is now zoned without any height limits.
“The proposal would create zoning regulations that respond to the scale and character of the neighborhood,” says DCP spokeswoman Jennifer Torres. The agency expects the downzoning to bring relief to the community, speckled with unsold and unfinished high-rise condos. But many residents and local officials think it may be insufficient to solve Brighton’s problems.
Under the plan, close to 80 percent of the neighborhood will have a height limit of 40 feet, which roughly equates to four stories. On commercial strips, buildings can go up as high as 80 feet, or about eight 8 stories, and on Brighton Beach Avenue, 100 feet, or 10 stories. Other changes include the creation of off-street parking spaces and incentives to build affordable housing.
“I think it’s too little, too late,” said Marion Cleaver, chairwoman of local Community Board 13. The board’s district manager, Chuck Reichenthal, was similarly glum. Asked whether the proposal will solve the development situation in Brighton, he said: “No, it won’t.”
The roots of the area’s problems stretch back to the 1970s when Brighton’s slow economy prompted the city to loosen zoning regulations. Buildings of any height were allowed, as long as they met guidelines such as providing sufficient sky visibility and parking spaces. Despite the change, one- and two-story residential houses continued as the neighborhood norm.
In the 1980s, immigrants began moving in, and Brighton Beach became home to a thriving migrant community. The influx of youth and money made a market for luxury housing look possible. The Muss Development Company became the first to take advantage of this market, putting up the Oceana condominium complex in 2001.
Oceana’s success broke the floodgates. Other developers raced to buy up properties in the district in order to build lucrative condos and medical offices. Construction sites appeared on every block throughout the district. The booming neighborhood was on the fast track to becoming a “condo paradise,” as one resident put it.
But the market did not evolve as expected, and demand for the expensive condos never materialized in the numbers that developers were counting on. One-family apartments often started above $500,000 in the area, according to the NYC Department of Finance. But “Brooklyn has been downtrending over the past three-four years,” said Jeff Grandis, a real estate agent in the area, who noted that price point was too high. “For that reason, prices have been going down, inventories have been rising.”
Then the mortgage crisis hit. Frightened consumers grew much more cautious about purchasing homes, especially the expensive Brighton Beach condos. Developers, meanwhile, were stuck with the sunk costs of property buyouts and construction.
“It’s transitioning from a seller’s to a buyer’s market,” said Grandis. “The developers have not become as flexible, price-wise … The cost went up, and by necessity, they need to pass along these rising costs to the consumer.” As a result, many condos and several medical plazas stand empty with no buyer to claim them. Some developers ran out of money before they could finish construction or even start it, leaving the district strewn with empty lots and aborted buildings.
“Every block you see a new building, you see an empty building,” said Pat Singer, the president of the Brighton Beach Neighborhood Association.
Residents were clamoring for a zoning restriction long before the mortgage crisis struck. According to CB13 member Judd Fischler, development complaints circulated at board meetings since 2002. The Coney Island community board submitted an official downzoning request to DCP in 2005 with the support of City Councilman Michael Nelson.
The response took about three years to process. Charles Khan, Nelson’s chief of staff, blamed the delay on the unusual and confusing system of lot ownership in a part of the neighborhood known as the Bungalow District. Torres from DCP said, however, that two to three years is the standard length of time to create a zoning proposal.
DCP presented the proposal to the community board this September. Since then, the plan has undergone several revisions. As a last step, the proposal must now pass a land use study, which usually takes about seven months.
In general, the community board and the Brighton Beach neighborhood association expressed support for the proposal, having long fought for it. “It’s moving in the right direction,” said Singer. “It’s saying: You’re not going to have a 14-story skyscraper overshadowing a single-family house. You’re not going to have luxury overshadowing affordable housing.”
However, many community officials, including Singer, are not convinced that the plan will go far enough. For one, few people like the 10-floor limit on Brighton Beach Avenue. A train runs above this busy street and residents feel that taller buildings will make the strip even more dark and cavernous.
“It’s theoretically a downzoning,” said Ida Sarnoff, a former community board member. “But this is a joke.”
The proposal also doesn’t affect existing buildings. Under the plan, any lot with a foundation in the ground will be “grandfathered in,” Torres said. This means that even though new high rises will not go up, the current number of unsold and unfinished buildings will stay the same until their owners manage to complete or sell them. And these days there is construction on almost every block in the neighborhood.
Developers may start converting existing condos into rental apartments or timeshares to offset some of their losses. Some may even turn their properties into affordable housing. But wary community residents aren’t exactly jumping for joy. They feel too much damage already has been done to their neighborhoods.
“It’s a dead body and they want to do autopsy on it,” said Fischler.