Robbie Whelan’s got a column in today’s Wall Street Journal on Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue, which is something I’ve been thinking a lot about since I moved to Brooklyn earlier this year. If you don’t recall, last year the City Council passed a zoning amendment to require new residential developments on the transit-rich, pedestrian-unfriendly avenue in South Brooklyn to include a certain amount of ground-level retail, to appease the ghost of Jane Jacobs and to stop burning the souls of all who walk the avenue.
Robbie’s column is outwardly critical of the city (he blames “bad decisions by Amanda Burden’s City Planning Department”), but on another level, he’s just cheering on what DCP already did (“the city finally got wise and passed another zoning change last year”).
But walking down Fourth Avenue, and seeing all the vacant retail storefronts in apartment buildings sprinkled around the neighborhood from the last development cycle, it seems obvious that the real problem is a lack of demand, which Robbie derides as “the profit-above-all-else motive of some developers” (“some”…ha!).
Namely: the neighborhoods around Fourth Avenue are too auto-bound and not dense enough to support the retail and pedestrian traffic that would make Fourth Avenue a vibrant place. (The lots bordering Fourth Avenue may one day grow dense enough to support retail without the help of their side streets. But for now, only mid-rise development is allowed, so I don’t see Fourth Avenue being self-sustaining any time soon.)
Perhaps the biggest problem is the industrial zoning around the Gowanus Canal and Bay, a few avenues over from Fourth Avenue. Capital has replaced labor in U.S. non-service-sector jobs over the last century, and the only business that can take advantage of the zoning around Third Avenue are auto-oriented (manufacturers these days ship their goods by highways, not canals!). The “pedestrian shed” of Fourth Avenue retail is therefore limited on its west side to basically one avenue’s worth of housing.
And on both the east and west sides of Fourth Avenue, not only are the two- an three-story rowhomes relatively small, but they’re actually getting smaller! (…in terms of retail demand.) Two-story homes that used to hold six or eight people now only hold half that, and as gentrification gives way to aristocratization, the average number of people per house is only going to get smaller. There are a ton of streets that border on Fourth Avenue whose two-story, vinyl-covered homes would be ripe for redevelopment, but won’t be touched because of a planning mentality that refuses to look more than 100 feet past Fourth Avenue for solutions.
Furthermore, because the neighborhoods around Fourth Avenue are so sparsely populated and there’s less competition for street parking, it’s easier to keep a car, which many people in the neighborhood do. And rather than walk to Fourth Avenue and buy something in a store, they’re going to drive their Volvos to the new Whole Foods in Gowanus.
Essentially what the residents of South Brooklyn want – and what Robbie and the Department of City Planning think they can get – is all the amenities of density without the actual density. A handful of seven-story buildings on one street are simply not going to support the kind of vibrant retail that they want, and that Brooklyn deserves. Forcing developers to build retail that won’t rent in a neighborhood that continues to be auto-dominated isn’t going to change that.