New York Can Do Better Than the “New Fourth Avenue”

crest_wall.jpg
New developments on Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue like the Crest have turned their back on the public realm.

When the City Planning Commission upzoned Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue in 2003, it was hailed by some as a breakthrough. Borough President Marty Markowitz trumpeted Fourth Avenue as "a grand boulevard of the 21st Century." Residential development would reshape this urban speedway, the thinking went, from a pit-stop for cabs to a stately corridor of mid-rise residences — Brooklyn’s answer to Park Avenue.

In the past two years, as the dust cleared from disputes over building heights and provisions for affordable housing, Fourth Avenue’s transformation has sped along. The first wave of new residential construction has hit the market, and dozens more properties from Flatbush Avenue to 15th Street are in various stages of development. But the early returns are discouraging for anyone who hoped to see a walkable, mixed-use district take shape here.


The arrival of the Novo, a sidewalk disaster, made claims of a Fourth Avenue renaissance seem premature.

One new apartment building, the Novo, looms fortress-like over the playground next door, while another, the Crest, greets passersby with man-sized industrial vents. A new hotel, Le Bleu ("a haven of style, elegance and fine living"), meets the sidewalk with a parking lot fit for a suburban dentist’s office.

Welcome to the new Fourth Avenue — the future of Brooklyn.

While all of the new developments boast of their proximity to "neighborhood gathering places," and the "cozy" restaurants, shops, parks and public amenities of "vibrant Park Slope," developers have made no apparent effort to create a cozy, vibrant street life around their own projects.

Instead of transforming Fourth Avenue into Brooklyn’s next great neighborhood, these new developments turn their back on the public realm, burdening the street wall with industrial vents, garage doors and curb cuts. That projects like these get built begs the question: What can be done to safeguard streets from bad buildings at the outset of development cycles?

le_bleu.jpg
Front and center at Le Bleu: Le parking lot.

The easy way out is to say Fourth Avenue was already a lost cause. Look at the six lanes of traffic rushing to and from Flatbush Avenue (plus two parking lanes and left turn bays). What sort of ped-friendly boulevard could flourish here without taming traffic first? But long stretches of nearby Atlantic Avenue manage to provide a decent walking environment and a dense variety of retail activity despite similarly heavy traffic volumes. New bars, restaurants, and stores have even popped up on Fourth Avenue’s smaller lots and street corners, adding to a patchwork of veteran retail establishments. If small entrepreneurs believe Fourth Avenue can attract people on foot, why have big developers capitulated to the cars, trucks, and gas stations that overwhelm the avenue’s pedestrian environment?

sheep_station.jpg
The Sheep Station is one of the new establishments setting up shop on Fourth Avenue street corners.

"At the time, they were making rational decisions," says Ken Freeman, a broker at Massey Knakal who has sold several properties along the corridor. "Whether residential was going to work was still a question mark, so why take the risk on retail?"

The effectiveness of government incentives may be limited. In the 2003 rezoning, the City Planning Commission included a generous allotment for retail uses, setting a maximum floor-area-ratio of 2.0 for commercial space. "I don’t believe City Planning could have done much more to encourage mixed-use development," says Freeman, but that wasn’t enough to overcome developers’ initial hesitation.

In districts undergoing rapid transition, Freeman explains, developers generally avoid taking the mixed-use plunge without first dipping their toes in the water and building pure residential projects. Though he also notes that Two Trees, the developer behind most of DUMBO, turned that wisdom on its head by practically giving away retail space and using the resulting amenities to lure residents.

Freeman was a self-described skeptic about retail on Fourth Avenue until last spring, when he solicited offers for a property at the corner of Third Street occupied by Parkside Auto Service. "I imagined it as an office building," he says, "but we went to market and immediately we had offers well above asking from people who wanted to build retail."

Now that the perception of risk attached to mixed-use development has diminished, the next round of construction on Fourth Avenue should be a step up from what we’ve seen so far. "With the amount of new residents coming to the Fourth Avenue corridor, it is only natural that commercial would follow," says Joyce Kafati-Batarse, a broker at Prudential Douglas Elliman who specializes in new building development.

500_4th.jpg
500 Fourth Avenue will have a commercial tenant on the ground floor, and it won’t be an Olive Garden.

Those smaller restaurants and stores appearing on the avenue are harbingers of a burgeoning market for retail. "Now that we’ve established that there’s a need, you’re going to see a lot more of the cafés, bars, and shops," says Katafi-Batarse. Commercial rents have jumped from $25-$35 per square foot to $35-$50 along the Fourth Avenue corridor, and she expects them to grow further.

As a result, bigger players are now committing to mixed-use projects. Developer Isaac Katan will put a commercial tenant on the first floor of 500 Fourth Avenue, a 12-story building between 12th Street and 13th Street designed by ubiquitous Brooklyn architect Robert Scarano. (Real estate bloggers speculated that an Olive Garden had claimed the space, but the rumor proved false.)

It remains to be seen whether developers and architects will make mixed-use projects that actually enhance the pedestrian environment. But if there’s a lesson to be learned from Fourth Avenue’s recent history, it may be that gaining the ear of a well-connected, civic-minded broker like Freeman can sometimes yield better, quicker results than appealing for government action. Since he saw the offers for Parkside Auto, Freeman has served as an evangelist of sorts, urging many of the developers he works with to include retail in their Fourth Avenue projects. He believes the corridor can fill a need that the boutique-y Fifth Avenue cannot.

"Fourth Avenue is not constrained by the 20-foot-wide brownstone building footprint," he told me. "A different type of retail could end up there." He gave as an example Party City, a party supply store with a few Brooklyn locations. It’s no Home Depot, but Party City is too big to fit anywhere on Fifth. Using Fourth Avenue’s wide lots to accommodate such tenants could cut down on car trips made by Park Slope residents, enticing more of them to walk down the hill.

uhaul_lot.jpg
Vacant and under-utilized lots still provide opportunities for human-scale infill.  

Over the long haul, plenty of other factors will determine Fourth Avenue’s future as a walkable, mixed-use corridor. The fate of Atlantic Yards and congestion pricing, still fairly clouded by uncertainty, could either exacerbate the current traffic problem or lead to a more ped-friendly and transit-oriented allocation of street space. But for the immediate future, at least, we can expect developers (some less villainous than Bruce Ratner) to dictate events.

Even as momentum builds for retail use, however, the current cycle of development shows signs of petering out. With the real estate market generally on the downswing, the window of opportunity for investment in Fourth Avenue is closing. Developers are driving stakes in the ground now to beat the clock and take advantage of the 421-a tax incentive that "expires" in June. (Actually, they will still be able to capture the credit if they build 20 percent affordable housing on-site, but in the current market that may be enough disincentive to prevent new construction.)

"The next development cycle may be ten years away," says Freeman. Once the current round of construction is complete, Fourth Avenue will still be a work in progress, but several gaps — especially the ones closest to subway stations on Ninth Street and Union Street — may be plugged with mixed-use infill. And, Freeman suggests, there’s still a chance for the developers of the Novo and the Crest to redeem themselves: "I do think there’s an opportunity to retrofit."

Photos: Ben Fried

  • Larry Littlefield

    The developers were idiots not to put retail on the ground floor. Who wants to live on the ground floor on a street like that?

    As for the hotels, blame zoning driven by fear of outsiders. For 30 years, transient hotels in the outer boroughs were generally used for hot sheets and prostitution, and were associated with crime. So they were limited to industrial areas. Since 4th Avenue is zoned commercial/residential (except the U-Haul), hotels are not permitted there. The industrial zoning starts 100 feet back from the street.

  • In most of those pictures, it looks like the entire ground floor is used for parking, which is why it has to turn a blank face to the sidewalk. The cozy restaurants and shops are in old buildings built before there was an on-site parking requirement.

    There are ways around this. In Berkeley, one developer uses two-level or three-level lifts for cars in the parking area in the ground level of his buildings, which is much cheaper than underground parking and which leaves half of the ground level for shopping.

    In Berkeley, there are requirements that development on some streets include shopping on the ground floor, forcing developers to come up with this sort of creative solution. The developers make their money on the housing, and they include the ground-floor shopping only because the zoning requires them to.

  • Ace

    prohibit elevators

  • udc

    looks like 4th avenue could use a project scorecard to evaluate projects before they get the green light (better yet, to fast track projects that exceed the standards).

  • That Crest project would never be allowed in Portland where the city mandaded plate glass and retail must address the street.

    This project should be redone to fix that affront to humanity.

    Certainly a worthy nominee for Eyesore of the Month. http://www.kunstler.com/eyesore.html

  • A huge part of the problem is the strict parking requirements in the zoning laws. Until those are overturned, we will see a lot more garage doors, curb cuts, and louvers on what should be attractive streetwalls.

  • godsavebklyn

    go ahead.. blame the planners..

  • Gizler

    The buildings are terrible for the most part, just as described. Some streetscaping would go a long way – take out a lane of traffic in each direction to beef up the median, and plant a lot more trees.

  • Hilary

    Hmm. Giz raises interesting point. Should the private property owner be responsible for creating public space, or the public itself – e.g, DOT, as owner of the sidewalk and street?

  • Charlie D.

    Even better than beefing up the median, get rid of a lane of traffic on the outside to create wider sidewalks with trees, benches, sidewalk cafes, etc. Better to have useful space for people than a pretty median that no one can really use.

  • Clarence Eckerson

    When I interviewed Tom Radulovich for my streetfilm on the Collapse (and removal) of the Embarcadero Freeway in SF, this is one of those items they are still dealing with now.

    There is a building with the exact street level design in the 4th Avenue photo – very unfriendly to street life…

    http://www.streetfilms.org/archives/lessons-from-san-francisco/

  • andrew

    4th avenue for most drivers is treated as a highway. Geographicaly that makes sense, intstead of dealing with the Gowanus Expressway and doing a long loop around the BQE, 4th Ave is a straight shot from the Bay Ridge to Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue. The Morning commute is ugly the gridlock stretches all the way down and is angry. I would bet money it has some of the most agressive drivers in Brooklyn.

  • Rhin

    Le Bleu looks like a sucky motel.

  • Gizler

    The sidewalks are fairly wide already. They certainly need to get streetscaped. But a solid median can really beautify a street – think Eastern Parkway (http://brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/Eastern%20Parkway.jpg)
    or even La Rambla if we’re really shooting the moon (http://www.jorgetutor.com/spain/catalunya/Barcelona_provincia/barcelona/La_Rambla/La_Rambla29.jpg)

  • Mark

    That first picture is such a smoking gun. Nothing says “we couldn’t care less about pedestrians” like a giant vent that blows dirty air on us. Incredible. What are the names of the architect and developer responsible for this obscenity? Their URLs? Their contact information? What would be the best way to ensure that they are never granted a building permit again?

  • JK

    Despite a handful of green planners, the Department of City Planning is failing to create a pedestrian and transit friendly city. The off-street parking requirements are, pick your word, a joke, or a disaster. The two pre-eminent land use and parking experts in the U.S., Alexander Garvin and Donald Shoup, have completely repudiated the voodoo formula used to determine the parking requirement which DCP holds out as an article of religious faith. DCP is asleep at the switch when it comes to mandating retail store fronts to enhance the pedestrian environment,and stopping curb-cuts and drive through stores, which destroy the pedestrian environment. The city’s brown field reclamation projects are completely car oriented, Big Box in parking field, anti-urban disasters.

  • So true, Mark. And get a load of the molded concrete cornice and waist-height frieze framing the ventsas if they were works of art. They knew they had to add some architecural details in order to market this as a “classy” building, but they just end up emphasizing the vents. Do they keep the recycling bins in the lobby? (Mahogany-panelled recyling bins, of course!)

  • JJK

    The novo is going to have commercial space facing 4th. I dont know what is going to be in it but it is there.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Curbed has been following the development of the “Novo Park Slope” and assorted other pedestrian-unfriendly Fourth Avenue crap:

    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=+site:curbed.com+novo-park

  • Did I miss the photographer credit for these stellar shots? Or was it not in the post? Come to think of it, have photog credits gone missing a lot on S’blog lately?

  • Jiggy

    Hey, you should have added this new rental building to this article —

    http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/2008/01/rental_of_the_d_6.php

    At least the Crest vents can be taken down and replaced with glass in case they decide to make it retail 🙂

  • Parkside

    Marty Markowitz is a cheerleader not a leader

  • Rags

    “Begging the question” means using circular reasoning. You meant “raises the question”, or “begs for the question to be asked”.

  • Eric

    As this story makes clear, the city completely blew the 4th Avenue rezoning. Park Slopers got their downzoning in the trade off, but were too shortsighted to push for a better future for 4th Ave. There’s not a lick of affordable housing in any of these buildings, so lower-income folks will be displaced at an even greater pace. And the design of most of these buildings is just as butt-ugly as the gas stations and auto-repair and parts stores they’re replacing. Bloomberg and Doctoroff and DCP and Markowitz and the Council all failed the city.

    Speaking of which, if NYC can ban smoking in bars and trans-fats in restaurants, it can damned well legislate some design standards and change the off-street parking requirements in the boroughs. I’d move to a nice walkable, bikeable European city if the dollar wasn’t sucking wind.

  • This is rediculous, they’re not taking advantage of the opportunity to really show off the potential this avenue has. I love New York City but the City is slow to do everything . I guess Bloomberg doesn’t care anymore since his term’s almost up. Where are the urban planners when you need them?

  • anonymous

    I don’t know that the city should be doing too much more to mandate specific kinds of design. The biggest problem is probably parking requirements: those horrible vents onto the sidewalk are the exhaust from a garage. If that weren’t there, the building would look more reasonable, and over time, the developers would probably settle on a relatively person-friendly design, since it’s in their own best interests. What the city does need to do is improve the streetscape.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (The biggest problem is probably parking requirements)

    One again, this is an endlessly repeated urban legend. The developers are building parking because they want to, not because they have to.

    Under section 25-242 of the zoning resolution, parking requirements are waived for buildings of 10,000 square feet or less in R8 districts, including R8X. So two developers, each putting up a building on half a block, are not required to provide parking.

    Under section 25-261, if your are required to provide 15 spaces or fewer in R8X, you aren’t required to provide any.

    Under section 25-241, there is reduce parking requirement of 20% of the units for R8X on lots of 15,000 square feet or less.

    That means up to 75 units can be built in R8X with no parking.

    The permitted floor area in R8X is 6.02, so a 15,000 square foot lot could accomodate 75 1,200 square-foot units with no parking. Smaller lots could accomodate smaller units with no parking, until you get down to 10,000 square feet with no parking.

    The full 20,000 square foot lot, with 800 square feet per unit, would face a 40 percent parking requirement, and requires 60 parking spaces. That 200 parking spaces would probably take up the equivalent of almost the whole lot, but that could located below grade no problem.

    The bottom line is the developers could have avoided providing parking, or could have provided less, or could have put it underground. And these are not fraudulent loopholes. These cutoffs and waivers are specifically thought out to the square foot.

  • One again, this is an endlessly repeated urban legend. The developers are building parking because they want to, not because they have to.

    Well then there should be a limit on how much parking they can build, whether they want to or not.

    The pedestrian-unfriendliness of these buildings is a direct consequence of the developer’s decision to include a large parking garage. According to some of the Curbed comments, it is geologically impractical to put the garage underground, so the developer put it at street level.

    Of course, as Charles said, they could have pedestrian-friendly facades with stores near the street and a garage behind them or on the second floor, but that’s a limited solution. If you have any doubts, go visit downtown Stamford (with an M); it’s full of buildings with these kinds of “parking pedestals.” The old buildings without the pedestals are pedestrian-friendly; the new ones still have big ramps that send cars out onto the streets. If you ask anyone in Stamford for directions, you’ll find that for anything more than two blocks away they’ll start giving driving directions.

  • Hilary

    The developers often succumb to pressure from the community boards, who succumb to pressure from neighbors who don’t want to have to compete for parking with the new facility..

    The problem arises with all of the “grandfathered” parking privileges in a neighborhood. The existing apt. building has parking for its residents – the ones who have been there forever, that is. As a neighborhood grows, there should be a way of distributing the “pain” in shifting away from car-dependency.
    Good luck.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (The problem arises with all of the “grandfathered” parking privileges in a neighborhood.)

    Funny, but when I was at DCP, what I heard from community boards was the problem is the grandfathered no parking privileges. That is, if you have an existing building, it may be renovated and reoccupied by a higher trip intensity use without providing parking. (Otherwise, all those restaurants would not have been able to locate on 5th Avenue).

    The idea that the staff of the Department of City Planning is pro-parking, and ramming parking down the throats of developers and communities, ain’t so. Those who want city planners to rule the world are anti-auto. And those who are more pro-auto are also more pro-free choice, hence the waivers.

  • Larry:

    It’s R8A, not R8X, according to my reading of the zoning map.

    Yes, the developers could have avoided parking by chopping the lots up into smaller lots with separate buildings. But then they would have faced much larger construction costs and would have had to duplicate building systems, amenities, staffing (doormen don’t come cheap), etc. It’s probably cheaper overall to build a big building, suck it up, and provide parking as required by zoning. The parking requirements in the zoning law should still be overturned.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Yes, the developers could have avoided parking by chopping the lots up into smaller lots with separate buildings.)

    10,000 square feet is half the block, given the typical 100 foot depths and 200 foot blocks. You are talking about two buildings per block. And 15,000 square feet is three quarters of the block. Aside from Novo, does anyone have more than a 10,000-square-foot lot? More than 15,000? I can’t think of any.

  • sara

    hey whoever the idiot is who wrote the last picture caption, that lot is not vacant, it is a uhaul center. if you are going to blog at least use a dictionary

  • Josh

    The caption says “Vacant and under-utilized lots”. I’m guessing the point the author was trying to make was that the U-Haul center isn’t an efficient use of that space.

  • #33: “Vacant and under-utilized”. This one is just under-utilized.

    Larry: I agree that half-block-or-less developments generally don’t require parking. But I still think they’re likely to be less economical than larger ones, and therefore less attractive to build. Lots of people have put together large lots on 4th recently.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Larry: I agree that half-block-or-less developments generally don’t require parking. But I still think they’re likely to be less economical than larger ones, and therefore less attractive to build. Lots of people have put together large lots on 4th recently.)

    Even if you get 3/4 of a block, or 15,000 square feet, the parking requirement is just 20%.

    At a full block you’ll need no more than 18,000 square feet of parking for the 20,000 square feet lot. Meaning it would fit on a full cellar level, with a cement rear yard (plus planters). You would require transfer beams on the underground parking level to support the building, but that is true on the ground floor level too. And the building on the 20,000-square-foot lot — Novo — has storefronts.

  • Steve

    This critique could have been strengthened by a photo of the new monstrosity on 4th Ave between Douglas and Baltic Streets. This bland, brick eyesore is horrendous; what is with the Paladian “arch” that did’nt quite make it to the top? The Architect should have his licensed revoked! Shame on you. This building is simply not acceptable. Again, another blank streetwall.

  • CBL

    Be patient. Yes, many of fourth avenues new buildings are horrendous, but they aren’t any worse than the parking lots and gas stations that some of them are replacing. Fourth Avenue isn’t going to change in the course of one development cycle. It will take time, and, as mentioned in the critique, the next round will probably see more ground floor retail uses, and the next after that will probably see even more.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

City Planning Can Set the Bar Higher on Fourth Avenue

|
Well over a hundred people filled the auditorium of the Saint Thomas Aquinas Church last week for a forum on the future of Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue put on by the Park Slope Civic Council. The stretch of Fourth Avenue on the western edge of Park Slope saw a wave of residential construction after a 2003 […]

Donald Shoup: Planners Are Versed in Parking Politics, Not Policy

|
Un-Shoupian parking policy on display on Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue The Toronto Star gave parking policy maven Donald Shoup some major play earlier this week, running a profile of the UCLA professor excerpted from journalist Tim Falconer’s new book, "Drive." In the piece, we learn why Shoup believes planners are apt to make bad judgments when […]

Rezoning to Encourage Street Life on Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue

|
When the Department of City Planning put forward its rezoning of Park Slope in 2003, one of the earliest of the now 111 rezonings under Mayor Bloomberg and City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, it was intended to help turn Fourth Avenue into “a grand boulevard of the 21st Century.” The sought-after residential development has started […]

Carlos Menchaca Wants to Make Fourth Avenue Protected Bike Lane a Reality

|
With DOT preparing a major capital project for Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue next year, it’s now or never for a protected bike lane on this important route linking Bay Ridge, Sunset Park, Park Slope, and Downtown Brooklyn. Fortunately, local Council Member Carlos Menchaca has been on the case for months, talking with local residents, community groups, and DOT about how the Fourth Avenue […]