Atlantic Cities Blames Zoning for Brooklyn’s Costly Digs


A story yesterday in Atlantic Cities, the city-focused offshoot of The Atlantic magazine, pins the high cost of Brooklyn real estate on zoning restrictions. As the argument goes, zoning restricts housing supply, causing demand to exceed availability. While it’s certainly true that demand is high in the parts of Brooklyn closest to Manhattan, the author unfortunately chooses Williamsburg as his leading example. Apparently he is unaware of the new-construction building boom in Williamsburg and the rezoning that led to it. What do you think is pushing prices up in Brooklyn?
Brooklyn’s Affordability Crisis Is No Accident [Atlantic Cities]

16 Comment

  • no-permits

    the writer of this story is in over his head.

  • wow this guy really doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

  • no-permits

    “Aesthetically, the vinyl-covered two- to four-story houses that dominate are some of the ugliest in the city.”

    i’m sure there’s plenty of housing for this guy back in wisconsin.

  • The comments on that article amply point out that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but one thing irked me in particular that is of particular relevance to the Brownstoner crowd.

    “In some neighborhoods, this sort of conservative zoning makes sense. The tree-lined blocks of Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope, for example, thick with brownstones and pre-war apartment houses, are urban treasures worth preserving.

    But northern Brooklyn is not brownstone Brooklyn.

    Aesthetically, the vinyl-covered two- to four-story houses that dominate are some of the ugliest in the city. They lack the ornate cornices of their peers in south Brooklyn, and the brick patterns hidden behind the vinyl and stucco are plain compared to other pre-war styles.”

    Um, hello?? “Brick patterns hidden behind the vinyl and stucco”? These are all frame houses. In fact the ones in Williamsburg, because built in late 19th century, are usually MORE ornate than their neighbors in South Brooklyn – much more of the painted lady variety. And tons of delicate wood cornices also entombed under aluminum covers. There might not be “brownstones” but the situation today in North Brooklyn regarding the renovated state of housing stock is not a lot different than most of the Brownstone neighborhoods 30 years ago. It’s just a matter of timing, partly because there has been greater acceleration of gentrifiers into the North Brooklyn nabes than compared to the timing of what happened in South Brooklyn. Same thing with the “tree-lined” blocks. If you look at pictures of many Brownstone nabes from 50-75 years ago, very few trees…they were all planted as beautification efforts. No reason that can be increased in North Brooklyn. (Though Greenpoint and Bushwick are more tree-lined already.)

    Whether or not you agree with low-density zoning and landmarking, it’s not very intelligent to make some inherent aesthetic distinction between the regions.

    • Sure it is. There’s nothing to recover beneath the vinyl in most cases. On many houses, the wood decorative elements were removed when vinyl was installed. On others, being covered by vinyl for so long has rotted the wood to the point of being unrecoverable. It’s true that you could completely reconstruct an attractive wood frame facade on a house in Williamsburg… but you could also do that on any building, anywhere, ever. It’s very expensive to do so, which is why it never happens. We can complain about how short-sighted people were in the 70s and 80s when vinyl took over, but that’s missing the point.

  • ianmac47

    Time out critics! Williamsburg has been downzoned. While there is plenty of new development in the much less desirable waterfront area, the author is entirely correct about downzoning and underused land closer to subway stations.

    Also, the recently reported 174% rise in real estate in Williamsburg since 2004 is not because of an over abundance of housing, but because of too little new housing.

    The gentrification is moving east to Bushwick and Ridgewood precisely because of heavy handed downzoning in Williamsburg — and arguably, all of his can be traced back to severe restrictions on zoning in the Village, East Village, and Lower East Side. All of these places have the dreaded “finger buildings,” the handful of high rise towers that had foundations laid before restriction low density zoning. Finger buildings weren’t being built because there wasn’t demand, but because there was, and the height restrictions only served to preserve in perpetuity the views and sunlight for these buildings, essentially artificially bolstering their value.

    • yes, it was downzoned from it’s initial rezone which allowed crazy sh*t like the N7th finger building to be built. still a net upzone allowing increase in density on side streets

      • ianmac47

        @Dirty_hipster

        Yeah, but pushed the upzone to the periphery, away from the subway, away from the central business district.

        The effect has been to push over priced rents to Lorimer, then Graham and now out further towards Grand and Montrose.

        If there were more units on Bedford, the stress on rents along the L wouldn’t be so bad. And don’t talk about ruining the neighborhood character. Bedford is all douchey rich people now anyway and probably even more so because there were fewer new units available.

  • You guys are completely missing the author’s point. The new construction, including that in the waterfront upzoned areas is on average less dense than existing NYC housing stock. Even the waterfront towers are barely denser than the average tenement from the prior century and are still well below high density similar Manhattan areas (the perimeter of Central Park, BPC, any classic prewar apartment building, even other areas of Brooklyn like Prospect Park West and Eastern Parkway).

    Northside and The Edge are both zoned R8 (in the tower portions) which has a maximum FAR of 6. i.e. the building can be 6x the lot area. Prewar apartment buildings on the Upper East or Upper West Sides, PPW and Eastern Parkway are generally R10 (10x to 12x) or even greater, since they were built before the zoning code. An FAR of 6 is just a bit over the density of a standard NYC tenement (6 stories, over 80% lot coverage). When you factor in that new construction has wider corridors, more stairways, elevators, a vast mechanical infrastructure that didn’t exist even 50 years ago, and amenity spaces, the actual livable portion of that floor area in new construction is a good deal less. So the densest new construction is comparable to what was being built in the 19th century.

    The 90% of North Brooklyn that isn’t the waterfront is R6 or R6B which has a maximum FAR of between 2 and 3. This is the same density of Brownstone Brooklyn, the density of areas that were traditionally mostly 1 and 2 family housing. Brownstones were the McMansions of their day, built for a rising upper middle class (merchants and professionals) with live-in servants.

    Whether divided up into half million dollar 1BRs or multi-million dollar lofts or townhouses, building at such low density restricts supply and drives up demand.

  • Cate

    Tons and tons of new construction all over Williamsburg, not just on the waterfront. We report on it every day. Re frame houses, it costs about the same to re-do those as a brownstone exterior. Plenty of restorations in Clinton Hill and South Slope.

  • Simple economics. Supply and Demand. Brooklyn is cool so more people want to live here. Supply is limited even though there is a lot of building going on. Landlords can charge what they want but they still need someone willing to pay what they charge. As long as demand is high, prices will continue to climb.

  • the only way to build denser is to do what was done in the tenements…5 story walk ups-anyone want to live in those?. You know NYC is more dense than is allowed by most local zoning. You know one acre or more zoning…. this is a hit piece with someone with an agenda.