For years, planners and politicos have talked about transforming Brooklyn’s dingy Fourth Avenue into the borough’s own version of Park Avenue. That transformation is still in the works, but thanks to a handful of rezonings along the thoroughfare, the strip has gotten its fair share of mid-sized apartment buildings. Leaning more Robert Scarano than Rosario Candela, it is not exactly the sexiest strip. But one issue that has caused some real complaints within the community is the utter lack of street life.
Some people blame the Department of City Planning and its chair, that tall, blonde dame of design Amanda Burden, for not forcing developers to follow the tenets of Jane Jacobs and include a few storefronts in their buildings. Of the 10 new towers on Fourth, with 859 apartments scattered among them, only half bothered to include commercial spaces, that catalyst of city life—we’re a town of shoppers and latte sippers. Along with a handful of new hotels, a cinderblock wall or the exhaust of a parking garage is more likely to greet passersby than a new pet spa or tschotske shop.
City Planning argues that requiring retail from the start could have stymied the area’s growth, though the opposite seems to be true, as it has created an oppressive character on Fourth as uninviting as the auto body shops that predated the apartments. Park Slope Councilman Brad Lander, who represents part of the strip and worked on its rezoning while at the Fifth Avenue Committee, said no one is really to blame for this oversight, though.
“Almost nobody really thought—I don’t remember a single advocate talking about the need for ground floor retail,” Mr. Lander said today. “The consequences of not doing it are plain for everyone to see, but the Park Slope rezoning was really the first rezoning of any significance in the Bloomberg administration. It was missing a lot of things, like affordable housing and streetscape design.”
Now, the department is trying to rectify this problem with yet another rezoning on Fourth Avenue, running from Atlantic Avenue to 24th Street, down near the Greenwood Cemetery. “This new proposal will help ensure the continued transformation of the avenue into a dynamic commercial corridor and provide much needed services to its surrounding communities,” Ms. Burden said in a release.
Three fairly simple proposals are in the works. One would require all new developments to dedicate at least 50 percent of their ground floor to retail uses, with a minimum of blank spaces—columns and walls no wider than 12 feet—and a maximum of transparency, e.g. glass, “to maximize interaction, visibility and pedestrian-oriented environment,” as the department puts it in a brochure. The third provision encourages driveways and curb cuts be located on side streets.
“A couple of buildings certainly speak to the reality that some developers don’t care about their community,” Mr. Lander, the council member, said. “Whether it is their neighbors or even their residents, design doesn’t much matter. It’s building to the lowest common denominator.”
Then again, there are almost no shops lining Manhattan’s Park Avenue, either. Maybe it is just the stench of the Gowanus and the 18-wheelers barreling by that keeps Fourth Avenue from becoming the latest BroBo haven.