Assemblymember Simon’s Testimony to CB2 on the 80 Flatbush Proposal

Testimony from Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon
on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for
ECF 80 Flatbush Avenue
ULURP Nos. I 180216 ZMK, N 180217 ZRK, I 180218 ZSK
March 31, 2018
I write to comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the development proposed for 80 Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. I represent the 52nd Assembly district which includes Boerum Hill, the neighborhood in which the proposed project is sited, and the surrounding areas including Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Downtown Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights, Gowanus, Park Slope, and others. I am also a neighbor of the proposed project. I have lived in Boerum Hill for 35 years. I was the Boerum Hill Association President in the 1990’s and have practiced law in Downtown Brooklyn for over 20 years. Over the years, I have observed many changes in our neighborhoods and commercial district, including small businesses being pushed out, drastic demographic changes, and skyrocketing rents. This community has organized against projects that would have been detrimental to its character and its people, but we have also successfully worked with developers to enhance the landscape of the community. After careful review of the project and consideration of community feedback, I strongly oppose the proposal given that the negative impacts on the community vastly outweigh the benefits. I have several concerns, including:
  1. the project’s gratuitous demand for an unprecedented Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of 18;
  2. the pressure on traffic, transit, and congestion;
  3. the project’s exacerbation of the woefully inadequate open space available to residents of Boerum Hill and Downtown Brooklyn and resulting shadows;
  4. the deliberate mischaracterization of the location of this project, which is in the neighborhood of Boerum Hill and not Downtown Brooklyn;
  5. the pressure this proposal will have on the physical and social infrastructure, including, but not limited to, the shortage of school seats and overburdened transit;
  6. the missed opportunity to create more affordable housing;
  7. the ability to handle the massive amount of waste and environmental materials;
  8. urban design;
  9. water and infrastructure; and
  10. noise associated with the project.
Further, I am disappointed that the community has expressed numerous concerns that have not been adequately addressed in the final Scope of Work or in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The 80 Flatbush project would significantly change the character and quality of life of Boerum Hill and Downtown Brooklyn. Therefore, I urge the New York City Educational Construction Fund (ECF) and Alloy Development and to work with the community to create a project that better serves its needs. 1. The proposed development is overwhelmingly commercial in nature and historically large, including an unprecedented FAR of 18. Located in an already densely built and highly congested area adjacent to the “crossroads of Brooklyn,” the project’s impacts will be vast and adverse. The proposal allows one of the towers to be over 960 feet tall - as tall as the Chrysler Building in Midtown Manhattan. It is also far too dense for the site. The design includes two residential towers anchored by commercial space, two schools, and a cultural center amounting to 1,285,000 gross square feet, all slated for a small plot of land in one of New York City’s busiest intersections. An FAR of 18 is far too great for the area. In my many years of experience with development in and around Downtown Brooklyn, two things are clear: each project wants to outdo the other; and if one developer gets a variance in height, the next developer thinks they are entitled to the same variance. That is no way to run an airline. That is not acceptable urban planning. The current zoning would permit a profitable building of 330 feet including bulkheads. Even that is a huge intrusion on the Boerum Hill community which worked collaboratively with City Planning to secure zoning that would “step down” in height from the commercial core. We expect the City to keep its promises. If the variance is granted, 960 feet will become the new normal, and as my neighbors have made abundantly clear to the developer, that is not in the best interest of the communities I represent. Nor do I see any effort to justify this height as necessary to the project. These schools and affordable housing can be built without the City’s giving carte blanche to the developer to run the table. During the rezoning of the area in 2004, the FAR allowance was doubled. The community has already experienced significant increases in building height since then, and does not need the current FAR tripled. In addition, the study area for the final scope of work is far too small. It does not allow for a legitimate and contextual understanding of the effects of such a massive project on the residential neighborhoods. The study area must be expanded in order to have a legitimate and contextual understanding of the effects on Downtown Brooklyn and the residential neighborhood of Boerum Hill. Expanding the study area would allow the developers to assess, account for and mitigate other factors that may well impact the development. This includes housing, traffic, transit overcrowding, public safety, population demographics and other jurisdictional issues, such as the proximity of the site to school District 13, which is also over-capacity in the vicinity and which has many additional units of housing under construction and on deck. I am disappointed that the request Senator Velmanette Montgomery and I made last summer to increase the study area was not honored. 2. Pressure on Traffic, Transportation, and Congestion The density of this project is enormous for an already heavily congested area, and will cause more traffic, additional pressure on transit, and possible displacement during the lengthy construction period and once the project is completed. The DEIS studied numerous intersections, identifying 16 intersections that warrant “further review” that I strongly suspect will not be mitigated. While they were evaluated during peak times on weekdays, the DEIS did not take weekends into consideration. However, traffic at the crossroads of Brooklyn is such that the traditional peak/off-peak analysis fails. Traffic is congested throughout the day including weekends. Flatbush Avenue is not a safe place to make deliveries, nor is it a good place for school buses to pull up, but neither is State Street. The draft EIS acknowledges that significant safety measures must be included in this project, and that three of the pedestrian crossings analyzed in the school safety assessment had a high number of pedestrian crashes. The DEIS is silent as to how, with the addition of the proposed project, these crossings can be made acceptably safe. I strongly suspect they can’t. That is unacceptable. We are experiencing an overburdened public transit system in New York City, including significant delays. Adding thousands more commuters every day to the nearest transportation hub at Atlantic Avenue-Barclays will certainly not mitigate this issue. In addition, other large construction projects are in the pipeline for this area. It is likely that massive reconstruction to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE) and reconstruction to the Brooklyn House of Detention will be occurring at the same time. Congestion from these projects will undoubtedly be significant and difficult, if not impossible, to control, causing additional school safety concerns, change in traffic patterns, increase in noise, and an influx of vehicles and people to the area. I remind the Community Board that vehicle emissions are the single largest cause of air pollution in our State, and of asthma and pulmonary disorders in this area. 3. Lack of Open Space and Shadows Boerum Hill in particular has no parks and is already in desperate need of additional green space (according to the City’s own guidelines), even before an influx of new residents. In the DEIS, it is mentioned that shadows could “reduce the utility of the open spaces,” and that “other open spaces with similar uses would continue to be available to residents and workers.” With such limited open space (whether active or passive) and green space, this is distressing and unacceptable to community members who wish to enjoy the few precious gardens and open spaces they have. The towers that have been proposed are much taller than any other tower in Downtown Brooklyn and would significantly change the landscape and shading of the area. Moreover, these towers would be next to 4-story residential buildings and entirely shift their surrounding views. The sheer height of the proposed towers separates it from the rest of the Brooklyn skyline. The Rockwell Place Bear’s Community Garden across the street from the development will experience limited sunlight and devastation to their vegetation. With the shadows from the new buildings, the garden will experience less than four hours of sunlight every day, which is concerning as this is one of the only green spaces in the area. In addition to the community garden, the BAM South Plaza at 300 Ashland Place and Temple Square would experience significant adverse impacts as a result of the project including less than four hours of sunlight per day. 4. The location of this project is in the neighborhood of Boerum Hill and not Downtown Brooklyn. There simply is no context of Boerum Hill or its character in the DEIS. There is a way to conduct transitional zoning that results in intelligent development, as we have seen with Hoyt Schermerhorn. While Boerum Hill is on the edge of Downtown Brooklyn, Downtown has always been north of Schermerhorn and State Street has been part of Boerum Hill, not Downtown Brooklyn as the DEIS claims. The developer should not be permitted to bootstrap its vastly commercial proposal to the failure of the Downtown Brooklyn Plan to meet its proponents’ erroneous predictions of the market at that time. The neighborhood character to be assessed and conformed to must be historic Boerum Hill. CEQR does this for a reason: what makes New York City’s neighborhoods worth investing in and fighting for are their people. 5. This proposal will place significant pressure on infrastructure, including but not limited to school seats. The project emphasizes the creation of two schools, a new public elementary school and the needed replacement and expansion of Khalil Gibran International Academy high school. The DEIS and the proposal accentuate the schools in a manner to distract decision-makers from the true nature of the project: a massive mixed-use commercial and residential project that is wildly out of context and wildly overbuilt, exacerbating the rapid pace of development around Downtown Brooklyn. No one doubts that the Khalil Gibran International Academy is in desperate need of renovation. The school is located in a 150 year-old building lacking basic necessities. However, the construction of a new school should not be used as leverage for irresponsible and unintelligent development. Adding 350 elementary school seats is hardly a solution to District 15’s crisis of overcrowding, especially given that a majority of those seats will be needed for the new residents. According to the DEIS, in the No Action condition, there would be a deficit of 3,616 seats for elementary schools in the area. The new school would hardly make a dent in the problem. In fact, it is indisputable that the rapid pace of residential development in and around Downtown Brooklyn has only exacerbated this problem with no relief in sight. Each attempt to build school space into a massive residential development furthers the area’s shortage of school seats. The instant proposal is no different. It proposes to add 922 new residential units, which will add an estimated 507 new public school students using the Department of Education’s own formula. The 350 new elementary school seats and 38 high school seats that 80 Flatbush is offering leaves a net negative of 119 school seats in an area where residents are facing overcrowding in their public schools already. Even if there were a net increase of seats, it should not take a new building equivalent in size to the Chrysler Building to produce a handful of new school seats! If the developer is at all serious about providing public benefits to the community, then the focus should be on creating more school seats and more affordable housing and not adding to the traffic and congestion that make our streets less safe for our residents and schoolchildren. District 15 parents have also expressed concerns over safety issues with locating an elementary school on this plot. The intersections at State Street at 3rd and Flatbush Avenues are dangerous and extremely busy. This area is prone to massive traffic congestion, and with new commercial and residential space, it is only going to get worse. 6. Affordable Housing This project should have taken better advantage of the opportunity to substantially increase opportunities for affordable housing, though I am pleased that 20% of the units will be permanently affordable, as required of the project. However, since household incomes and market rate rents have been increasing in the area, 60% of area median income is simply not affordable for many people in my district or New York City. A better way to ensure affordable housing would be to lower the percentage of area median income used for the affordable units and to increase the overall number of units that are affordable. Further, no affordable housing units will be included in phase 1, unacceptably delaying that asserted benefit. There is also cause for concern that the proposed market-rate housing units in the luxury towers are expected to attract a new population with a higher income than the surrounding neighborhoods. This will continue to exacerbate the problem of skyrocketing market-rate rents. While the DEIS notes that the average income and rents have been increasing and asserts that the community will be able to afford any rental increases, it seems lost on the developer that this project will further exacerbate the problem of increasing rents by infusing a large number of market-rate apartments with no rental protections. I am also concerned that the proposed building will further displace the African American community in the area, which has already suffered significant displacement. The EIS should thoroughly analyze this as well as the effect on the market value of the housing on the 400 and 500 blocks of State Street, whose homes would be directly impacted by the construction of such tall towers. The DEIS mentions that “of the 68 - 84 percent of households living in unprotected-market rate DUs, based on almost two decades of raising household incomes and market-rate rents in the study area, a vast majority of those households are not defined as vulnerable to displacement because their income could support substantial rent increases” (p. 43-44). This is a logical leap for which there is no evidence. Every day, families who moved to the area 10 – 20 years ago are being priced out of the neighborhoods they once could afford. The proposed development at 80 Flatbush would further that dynamic, and the developer cannot credibly ignore it. 7. Environmental Materials The students at Khalil Gibran High School will remain in their current building as construction on the two new schools takes place. The noise level is already a concern, but the use of hazardous materials would also negatively affect the students. I believe that the proponent understands and will be exceedingly careful in the analysis of hazardous materials at the site. It is also worth noting that this site will generate 19.7 tons of solid waste per week. Storage of this waste must be thoroughly analyzed. 8. Urban Design Moreover, as is indicated in the proposal, the residential towers will be the tallest buildings thus far in the Downtown Brooklyn area (the buildings are not in Downtown Brooklyn, but in Boerum Hill), and would obliterate the views of some of the already existing icons of the Brooklyn skyline. The Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, or One Hanson Place, is a focal point of Downtown Brooklyn. It is a beautiful and historic piece of architecture that has become personally significant not only with its inhabitants, but with many visitors to Brooklyn. Current residents at One Hanson Place are concerned that their beautiful tower that they fastidiously maintain will be blocked completely from sight. The view of this building should be considered when finalizing the height and design of the new towers so as not to detract from the Brooklyn skyline as it exists now, but rather enhance it and create a sense of cohesion within the context of the area. 9. Water and Infrastructure Water and infrastructure must be considered in the context of an additional 4,000 to 6,000 new residential units. The area is uphill from the infamous Gowanus Canal superfund site. Water run-off and storm water retention issues must be thoroughly analyzed. 8. Noise I reiterate the need for construction noise to be at a minimum during school hours and for construction to be limited to weekdays. Lastly, while I applaud the developer for holding many meetings with stakeholders and community members, the proposal has not been modified to reflect the community input. In fact, the developer publicly stated at the Community Board 2 hearing their refusal to consider any changes to height or an FAR of 18. That is unacceptable. The changes in design have allowed for more flexibility within the zoning envelope, but the concessions made have been aesthetic, with no mitigations to height or density. As this project continues, I urge the developer to work together with the community to create a design that will be beneficial, useful, and safe. Failing that, the Community Board should vote “no” on this ULURP. Sincerely,
Jo Anne Simon
Member of Assembly