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Carroll Gardens Rezoning and Historic District

In October 2009, the New York City Council approved the rezoning of 89 blocks of Carroll Gardens, which limits most building heights in the historic residential neighborhood to 50 feet, or about five stories. The neighborhood largely consists of three- to four-story brownstones. During the building boom of the early to mid-2000s, developers began submitting plans to build high-rise structures in Carroll Gardens. In response, residents asked the City to rezone the neighborhood in order to preserve its character.

The rezoning imposes of height limit of 50 feet on buildings along most of the residential blocks. Along Columbia, Henry, and Clinton streets, buildings are subject to a limit of 70 feet. Although many residents wanted all buildings restricted to 50 feet, the Department of City Planning maintained that 70-foot limit was necessary along certain streets in order to bring existing buildings into compliance. More recently, the City started examining a proposed (and more controversial) expansion of the Carroll Gardens Historic District.

Threat of High-Rise Development
The most controversial high-rise proposed in Carroll Gardens was 360 Smith Street, a 70-foot, 46-unit residential structure first submitted by developer Robert Scarano in May 2007. In response to the proposal, a group of residents in Carroll Gardens formed the Citizens for Respectful Development. The group quickly pushed for a downzoning of the entire neighborhood, wanting to curb building heights and address the impending threat of “out-of-character” development.

Fearing that the neighborhood was not a top priority for city planning officials, advocates also pushed for an interim moratorium on tall buildings, which would remain in effect until the City could devise a rezoning plan for the neighborhood. The City Planning Commissioner, Amanda Burden, informed advocates that a moratorium required approval through the ULURP process and was not necessarily quicker than a rezoning.

Zoning Text Amendment
In July 2008, neighborhood advocates scored a marginal victory when the City Council approved a zoning text amendment that redefined several streets in Carroll Gardens from “wide” to “narrow.” Carroll Gardens had been subject to an obscure 1846 law requiring that front yards along certain streets be approximately 33-and-a-half feet deep. The front gardens, which now define the neighborhood, were included as part of the street measurements. This caused the impacted streets to be defined as “wide.” In July 2008, in response to pleas for action from some neighborhood residents, the City Planning Department presented an option to reclassify 15 blocks in Carroll Gardens from “wide’ to ‘narrow.” Buildings along narrow streets are limited to 55 feet; buildings on wide streets can be built as high as 70 feet.

Shortly after the City Council approved the text amendment, builders at 360 Smith Street – along with other buildings affected by the ordinance – were handed a stop work order by the City. At the time, 360 Smith Street developer Bill Stein (who replaced Scarano) did not have enough of the building foundation in place for his structure to be grandfathered into the old zoning regulation. Stein appealed the order. Opponents turned out en masse to oppose his appeal at an August 2008 community board meeting. Community board members voted unanimously to reject the appeal. However, the citywide Board of Standards and Appeals – the final word on the matter – granted Stein the ability to proceed in November 2008. Stein’s lawyer had argued the project should be allowed to continue, given that more than $3 million worth of work had already been performed as the site. Construction on the building resumed in the summer of 2009. Stein has maintained there is a need for residential development in Carroll Gardens, alongside the traditional brownstones.

Gowanus and Carroll Gardens
City planning officials acknowledged that the text amendment was not a comprehensive solution to addressing out-of-character development in Carroll Gardens, and neighborhood advocates continued to push for a full rezoning. In order to expedite the process, then-City Councilmember Bill de Blasio suggested the City’s proposed upzoning of Gowanus be linked with the downzoning of Carroll Gardens. At the time, the City was pushing for a controversial upzoning of the area surrounding the Gowanus Canal. De Blasio argued that a linkage between the adjacent neighborhood rezonings would be a sensible compromise. He pledged only to support the Gowanus plan if accompanied by a Carroll Gardens plan. The linking plan appeared to work, as the Carroll Gardens rezoning was placed on City Planning’s agenda earlier than expected.

In November 2008, the Department of City Planning met with the Gowanus community to discuss its rezoning proposal for the Canal corridor, which encompasses 25 blocks of Gowanus and allows for buildings up to 12 stories tall; at the same meeting, the City announced it would start the rezoning process in Carroll Gardens. The Carroll Gardens plan was presented for public review in June 2009. The final rezoning was largely uncontroversial. With the City Council’s approval in October 2009, the Carroll Gardens plan marked the 100th rezoning of the Bloomberg Administration. The Gowanus rezoning, meanwhile, has not yet received approval, but remained on hold as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the City of New York disputed whether the Gowanus Canal should be designated a Superfund site. In March 2010, the EPA designated the canal a Superfund site, which the City has acknowledged will complicate rezoning plans.

Carroll Gardens Historic District Expansion
In November 2009, the City began weighing an expansion of the Carroll Gardens Historic District, a move far more controversial than the rezoning. Some residents support the effort as a way to protect Carroll Gardens’ brownstone aesthetic. Others adamantly oppose the measure because it would require stricter regulation over home improvements. Those opposed to the measure say the landmarking effort is an attempt to further gentrify the neighborhood. The City’s Landmark Preservation Commission has just begun to study the proposed expansion to the existing district.

Last Updated: April 5, 2010

This development is closely interlinked with:
Gowanus Development