Monday, October 25, 2010

Red Hook's Archaic Zoning Regulations Kill Plans for CIty's First Zero Emissions Building

Photo from Redhook Green website

The sad news came this week that "Redhook Green", Jay Amato's proposed live/work building project in Red Hook - the first "zero emissions building" to have been constructed in New York City - has been 'killed' by a ruling in the Department of Buildings.

Jay writes on his blog post, titled "Buyer Beware" (here), that when he was looking at plots of land on which to put his building he was having a hard time finding an appropriate block - one that was zoned either R - residential, or MX - mixed use, that was on a corner which would be most appropriate for a solar powered building. He did, however, find a perfectly located block with an M-manufacturing zoning.

Jay writes,

"I was advised that given my particular use, I could make an “M” zoned plot work. What that means is that given the majority of my structure was to be dedicated to commercial use, the living quarters would be an ‘accessory’ to the true function of the building. Therefore we would request the building department grant us permission to live in what would is called a “caretakers apartment”, which would be incidental to it’s primary use. Jim Garrison ( Jay's architect) assured me on the advice of a former NYC Building Commissioner and “a careful and correct reading of the zoning law”, that this was very common and would “sail through the building department” without incidence."

Well, unfortunately it seems that wasn't to be. After proceeding appropriately and "dotting his I's and crossing his T's" this is how things turned out for Redhook Green. Jay writes,

"That brings us to where I am today (basically screwed)! After a telephone hearing last week, the all knowing, politically charged and narrowly minded men and women of the NYC building department capriciously determined “that the proposed living or sleeping accommodations for caretakers in this case is not incidental to the principal use”. To quote James P. Colgate; Assistant Commissioner of Technical Affairs and Code Development “ The request to have a living or sleeping accommodation for caretakers as per ZR 12-10 as an accessory use to this new office building is DENIED.”

Just to give you an idea of how inappropriate partial residential use would have been on this site, let me show you a screen shot of the Google maps Street view of the location -

That's the lot on the left - NEXT TO THE TWO HOUSES!

... and Jay's structure would have had a street front and whole first floor that looked more industrial than residential - take a look at more of his renderings (here).

This is a problem not only for Jay Amato and Redhook Green, but for Red Hook as a whole. How can this archaic zoning and the Dept. of Building's strict adherence to it serve our community's need for more housing and residential regeneration. Our own 197a Plan has laid out the need for supporting residential uses in Red Hook, as have Community Board 6 recommendations - such as the ones that were laid out when the plans for Pier 7-12 were being discussed. Despite the fact that these recommendations have been often ignored by City planners, the NYC Economic Development Corporation and others (as was the case with the uses of Piers 7-12), it's not an excuse for these anti-residential attitudes to continue.

The recently released draft recommendations for the City's "Vision 2020 - NYC Comprehensive Waterfront Plan" (my post here) - omit any significant mention of the potential for the regeneration of residential use in the City's waterfront neighborhoods. The Wall Street Journal has an article titled "A Sea Change in Waterfront Plans", in which the writer, Eliot Brown, states, in regard to the City's draft recommendations,

"there is a notable omission: new housing and commercial redevelopment. While it was a top goal of prior strategy documents, it's barely mentioned in the new strategy. The emphasis instead lands on areas such as expanding the maritime industry, ferry service and public access."

Maybe the Dept of Planning didn't see residential planning as being 'within their scope' this time, and I get that the city doesn't want a rerun of the high rise development on the Williamsburg waterfront taking place in Red Hook, or Sunset Park, for instance - the residents of those neighborhoods hardly want that either - but I hope the Department of Planning isn't relegating our mixed use waterfront neighborhoods, like Red Hook, to a more industrial and more polluted future, with disregard for the quality of life and health of our residents.

Isn't it all about balance? Residential use. Industrial use. Commercial use. Upland connections. Waterfront access. Public transportation. All working together to everyone's benefit.

That's why this decision seems so wrong-headed. Red Hook has a history of these battles, where reasonable residential development is thwarted by pro-industrial advocates who - falsely, in my opinion - complain that residential uses can't co-exist with industrial uses (despite the evidence to the contrary in my old home town of Sydney and elsewhere in the world). This was seen in the fight for the rezoning of the 160 Imlay Street building, where the battle was so drawn out that, despite the ultimate court ruling allowing for at least partial residential use of that magnificent building, it has been left empty, shrouded in black netting and generating no activity, no economic prosperity for the neighborhood and it's small businesses, nor revenues for the City. It's a waste and an awful shame.

I remember another example of wrong-headed zoning decisions when, in 2006, the Community Board voted against recommending a variance for 146 Conover Street, a vacant lot which was zoned, like Jay Amato's block, M-Manufacturing. The owners had wanted to build a residential building on the site, but because of the CB6's denial of the zoning variance, they couldn't.

Here is the lot in question -

... right in-between the TWO HOUSES. How inappropriate!

So, Jay, you're not alone in being on the wrong side of one of these wrong-headed decisions.

Unfortunately, these decisions don't bode well for the regeneration of Red Hook's residential population and innovative solutions such as Redhook Green's. Without residential regeneration how can Red Hook's burgeoning small businesses hope for more activity, how can our residents hope for better transportation or services, or a greater say in what goes on in and around our neighborhood - more advocacy for cleaner air and better quality of life? If Jay Amato can't get this one done, what is the hope for anything else?

Redhook Green has laid out their possible options going forward (from Jay's post)-

  1. Build a green office building - It’s too small and off the beaten path to make a sound business case for such a structure in the next few years.
  2. Apply for a zoning variance - 60 to 100K in professional services expenses, one year and no guaranty that it will be successful.
  3. Walk
None of these seem particularly appealing. Any thoughts, ideas, recommendations, contacts or kind words of encouragement would be appreciated. I will think about this a bit and keep you posted on my progress.

Contact details HERE

If Mr. Amato can't find a way to get around this decision, it will be a great loss, not only to him, but to Red Hook, Brooklyn, the City as a whole, and the advocates of healthy cities around the world - ones in which, in Jay's words, we can all "live and work responsibly".



  1. Easy to get around. Build as commercial and then install the kitchen and full bath later without seeking a permit. There is no enforcement of whether you live there or not, it only becomes a question on a resale, where you can remove the fixtures. Treat it as an old-school industrial loft project...

  2. The red tape is unfortunate. It really is ass-backward in Red Hook. True, we don't want Schaffer Landing or the Domino Sugar Development, but if that's the concern then limit heights of buildings instead of taking the No is No attitude. I do think Anonymous 1 is right... Ya just gotta build and put in the fixtures later. That's what I'd do if I were Jay.

  3. seriously...Jay should move forward with the commercial building and retrofit it for a living space afterwards. Screw the DOB and zoning for making such a mess of things.
    He could even build it as commercial, try to rent it, and then file for the residential variance to get a C of O after he proves he tried to rent it for a year but can't get tenants...maybe then the stupid DOB and ULURP will pull their heads out of their asses and come to their senses.

  4. "reasonable residential development is thwarted by pro-industrial advocates who - falsely, in my opinion - complain that residential uses can't co-exist with industrial uses"

    actually, it's the other way around. it's residential development that consistently thwarts industrial use, no matter how established. to claim otherwise is narcissistic and false.

    there is nothing "archaic" about the M zoning in red hook; it is still a strongly industrial waterfront. the problem is that people priced out of other neighborhoods move into industrial areas and assail manufacturing with nuisance complaints. that is why industrial business owners fear residential development.

  5. It seems to me that there Red Hook has plenty of unused industrial spaces. The best use of land is either to work in it, live on it play on it or to farm it. Somebody needs to document the fallow land in Red Hook and prepare a long range plan to accommodate both business and residential interests.

  6. The goal of building a zero energy building is a good one, but why does the building have to be so un-neighborly? I think they could have designed a modern and energy efficient building and still had it relate better to the residences on the Dikeman side and the storefronts on Van Brundt St. side. If they moved the building to the lot line they would eliminate heat loss for that side of their building and also for the neighbor. I find the blank brick wall 9 feet tall along the sidewalk pretty offensive- is that how they want to relate to the neighborhood?

    That wall is a metaphor for this project because the owner seems to want to live here without respecting the people or rules of the community. When a property is zoned M that means manufacturing, whether you think that makes sense or not. The idea that the residence is some kind of accessory caretaker's apartment is complete B.S. and they knew they were trying to skirt the law.

    From Jay Amato's own blog:
    October 13 – Executed agreement for home design with Garrison Architect.
    November 13 – Modular homebuilder selected.

    My advice is to be honest about the intention of building a residence and go for a variance. The people at the buildings department will treat you a lot better if you respect their intelligence and the rules they enforce and don't try to "scam" them.