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 rezoning, but walking there still feels akin to navigating the shoulder of a highway. The new buildings and promises of a grand boulevard have raised expectations for the street, however, and the Brooklyn Paper reports that the forum conveyed a clear public desire for traffic calming and additional pedestrian space.

crest_wall.jpgOn Fourth Avenue, "The Crest" meets the sidewalk with vents that mask ground-floor parking.

I was able to attend the second half of the forum, and better urban design also came across as a top priority. The new development on Fourth Avenue meets the sidewalk with blank walls, enormous vents, and curb cuts for ground-floor garages. The tenor of the audience’s questions made it clear that people are not happy about the quality of this walking environment. One exchange, in particular, I’ve been meaning to highlight.

When asked why the Department of City Planning failed to mandate transparency and active uses in the Fourth Avenue rezoning, Purnima Kapur, who heads the agency’s Brooklyn office, said that developers are too hesitant to commit to mixed-use properties in a newly residential area. "We would like to see retail on the ground floors, but in real estate, developers always lag behind demand," she said. Mandating retail, she later added, would cause some developers to not build at all, or ground floors to remain vacant.

But are developers really so risk averse? J. David Sweeny, an experienced Brooklyn developer and president of the PDS Development Corporation, allowed that "it’s hard to compel retail," but that such requirements could probably work on a street like Fourth Avenue, where 12-story buildings are now permitted, because "money is made above the ground floor."

"It’s not an excessive burden necessarily," he added. "The question is can you provide incentives so that they’ll rent the ground floor at a low enough rate" to attract retail tenants.

For the foreseeable future, however — or at least until the real estate cycle swings back around — Fourth Avenue is stuck with the planning decision to accept development with ground floors designed for cars and parking rather than pedestrians.

As for the overall prospect of transforming Fourth Avenue into a great boulevard and public space, that’s still "a twinkle in daddy’s eye," said Nick Peterson, a member of the Park Slope Civic Council who helped put together the forum. Organizers were very encouraged by the turnout, which included freshman City Council Member Brad Lander, and hopeful that the event will create more momentum. Going forward, it will be interesting to see if a sustained advocacy campaign starts to take shape around Fourth Avenue, similar to the broad coalition that has gradually won improvements at Grand Army Plaza.

  • A temporarily vacant storefront is far preferable to a permanent air vent or blank wall. There will be plenty of demand for retail as these buildings fill up, and vibrant retail would actually be an amenity that could spur higher rents or sales prices. City Planning is attempting to lay blame on developers rather than where it clearly belongs — at their own feet, for butchering the rezoning, and the city’s misguided minimum-parking requirements.

  • JK

    I’m curious, why is it “Hard to compel retail” in NYC. Other cities compel retail all the time. Who is running the show here, developers or the Department of City Planning? The Crest on 4th is an anti-pedestrian, urban planning abomination.

    Take a look at the picture of the Boulder, Colorado parking garage wrapped in attractive retail pictured in the 2/23 Streetsblog piece “Want to Foster Walking, Biking and Transit? You Need Good Parking Policy.” How is it a dinky western city gets this and NYC does not?

  • Westchesterite

    Many Westchester residents were families priced out of Park Slope, and miss the walkability. These developers are idiots if they think people want a car-based lifestyle. Most of us suburbanites were sad to have to leave Park Slope.

  • Mr. Bloomberg, tear down this wall.

  • You don’t get mixed-use if you don’t require mixed-use. Thus, retail or not, any developer with an architect worth his license should be able to design attractive, habitable space along the ground floor.

    However, if the city zoning code has no teeth, which apparently it doesn’t, then said developer clearly has little incentive to do so, especially if he is also dealing with parking requirements. Indeed, I am sure the developer rather rent out the ground floor than be forced to subsidize tenant parking space.

  • My question was a more-direct phrasing of the one referred to above, and I wish it was my version to put DCP on the spot. It was along the lines of, “Don’t minimum parking restrictions actually force developers to create the very same dead-street environment that everyone is here to lament? Don’t they functionally prohibit ground-floor retail?”

  • Felix

    Wait, please tell me I read this wrong. We’re not really allowing ground level parking in Park Slope in 2010, are we?

  • JW

    portland requires in the city center all ground floor spaces to be retail or designed for a future conversion to retail. if they can do it in portland, they can do it in nyc.

  • eh?

    Mike Lydon – “You don’t get mixed-use if you don’t require mixed-use”? Are you making Wendell Cox’s arguments for him? 🙂

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