New York Can Do Better Than the “New Fourth Avenue”

New developments on Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue like the Crest have turned their back on the public realm.

When the City Planning Commission upzoned Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue in 2003, it was hailed by some as a breakthrough. Borough President Marty Markowitz trumpeted Fourth Avenue as "a grand boulevard of the 21st Century." Residential development would reshape this urban speedway, the thinking went, from a pit-stop for cabs to a stately corridor of mid-rise residences — Brooklyn’s answer to Park Avenue.

In the past two years, as the dust cleared from disputes over building heights and provisions for affordable housing, Fourth Avenue’s transformation has sped along. The first wave of new residential construction has hit the market, and dozens more properties from Flatbush Avenue to 15th Street are in various stages of development. But the early returns are discouraging for anyone who hoped to see a walkable, mixed-use district take shape here.

The arrival of the Novo, a sidewalk disaster, made claims of a Fourth Avenue renaissance seem premature.

One new apartment building, the Novo, looms fortress-like over the playground next door, while another, the Crest, greets passersby with man-sized industrial vents. A new hotel, Le Bleu ("a haven of style, elegance and fine living"), meets the sidewalk with a parking lot fit for a suburban dentist’s office.

Welcome to the new Fourth Avenue — the future of Brooklyn.

While all of the new developments boast of their proximity to "neighborhood gathering places," and the "cozy" restaurants, shops, parks and public amenities of "vibrant Park Slope," developers have made no apparent effort to create a cozy, vibrant street life around their own projects.

Instead of transforming Fourth Avenue into Brooklyn’s next great neighborhood, these new developments turn their back on the public realm, burdening the street wall with industrial vents, garage doors and curb cuts. That projects like these get built begs the question: What can be done to safeguard streets from bad buildings at the outset of development cycles?

Front and center at Le Bleu: Le parking lot.

The easy way out is to say Fourth Avenue was already a lost cause. Look at the six lanes of traffic rushing to and from Flatbush Avenue (plus two parking lanes and left turn bays). What sort of ped-friendly boulevard could flourish here without taming traffic first? But long stretches of nearby Atlantic Avenue manage to provide a decent walking environment and a dense variety of retail activity despite similarly heavy traffic volumes. New bars, restaurants, and stores have even popped up on Fourth Avenue’s smaller lots and street corners, adding to a patchwork of veteran retail establishments. If small entrepreneurs believe Fourth Avenue can attract people on foot, why have big developers capitulated to the cars, trucks, and gas stations that overwhelm the avenue’s pedestrian environment?

The Sheep Station is one of the new establishments setting up shop on Fourth Avenue street corners.

"At the time, they were making rational decisions," says Ken Freeman, a broker at Massey Knakal who has sold several properties along the corridor. "Whether residential was going to work was still a question mark, so why take the risk on retail?"

The effectiveness of government incentives may be limited. In the 2003 rezoning, the City Planning Commission included a generous allotment for retail uses, setting a maximum floor-area-ratio of 2.0 for commercial space. "I don’t believe City Planning could have done much more to encourage mixed-use development," says Freeman, but that wasn’t enough to overcome developers’ initial hesitation.

In districts undergoing rapid transition, Freeman explains, developers generally avoid taking the mixed-use plunge without first dipping their toes in the water and building pure residential projects. Though he also notes that Two Trees, the developer behind most of DUMBO, turned that wisdom on its head by practically giving away retail space and using the resulting amenities to lure residents.

Freeman was a self-described skeptic about retail on Fourth Avenue until last spring, when he solicited offers for a property at the corner of Third Street occupied by Parkside Auto Service. "I imagined it as an office building," he says, "but we went to market and immediately we had offers well above asking from people who wanted to build retail."

Now that the perception of risk attached to mixed-use development has diminished, the next round of construction on Fourth Avenue should be a step up from what we’ve seen so far. "With the amount of new residents coming to the Fourth Avenue corridor, it is only natural that commercial would follow," says Joyce Kafati-Batarse, a broker at Prudential Douglas Elliman who specializes in new building development.

500 Fourth Avenue will have a commercial tenant on the ground floor, and it won’t be an Olive Garden.

Those smaller restaurants and stores appearing on the avenue are harbingers of a burgeoning market for retail. "Now that we’ve established that there’s a need, you’re going to see a lot more of the cafés, bars, and shops," says Katafi-Batarse. Commercial rents have jumped from $25-$35 per square foot to $35-$50 along the Fourth Avenue corridor, and she expects them to grow further.

As a result, bigger players are now committing to mixed-use projects. Developer Isaac Katan will put a commercial tenant on the first floor of 500 Fourth Avenue, a 12-story building between 12th Street and 13th Street designed by ubiquitous Brooklyn architect Robert Scarano. (Real estate bloggers speculated that an Olive Garden had claimed the space, but the rumor proved false.)

It remains to be seen whether developers and architects will make mixed-use projects that actually enhance the pedestrian environment. But if there’s a lesson to be learned from Fourth Avenue’s recent history, it may be that gaining the ear of a well-connected, civic-minded broker like Freeman can sometimes yield better, quicker results than appealing for government action. Since he saw the offers for Parkside Auto, Freeman has served as an evangelist of sorts, urging many of the developers he works with to include retail in their Fourth Avenue projects. He believes the corridor can fill a need that the boutique-y Fifth Avenue cannot.

"Fourth Avenue is not constrained by the 20-foot-wide brownstone building footprint," he told me. "A different type of retail could end up there." He gave as an example Party City, a party supply store with a few Brooklyn locations. It’s no Home Depot, but Party City is too big to fit anywhere on Fifth. Using Fourth Avenue’s wide lots to accommodate such tenants could cut down on car trips made by Park Slope residents, enticing more of them to walk down the hill.

Vacant and under-utilized lots still provide opportunities for human-scale infill.  

Over the long haul, plenty of other factors will determine Fourth Avenue’s future as a walkable, mixed-use corridor. The fate of Atlantic Yards and congestion pricing, still fairly clouded by uncertainty, could either exacerbate the current traffic problem or lead to a more ped-friendly and transit-oriented allocation of street space. But for the immediate future, at least, we can expect developers (some less villainous than Bruce Ratner) to dictate events.

Even as momentum builds for retail use, however, the current cycle of development shows signs of petering out. With the real estate market generally on the downswing, the window of opportunity for investment in Fourth Avenue is closing. Developers are driving stakes in the ground now to beat the clock and take advantage of the 421-a tax incentive that "expires" in June. (Actually, they will still be able to capture the credit if they build 20 percent affordable housing on-site, but in the current market that may be enough disincentive to prevent new construction.)

"The next development cycle may be ten years away," says Freeman. Once the current round of construction is complete, Fourth Avenue will still be a work in progress, but several gaps — especially the ones closest to subway stations on Ninth Street and Union Street — may be plugged with mixed-use infill. And, Freeman suggests, there’s still a chance for the developers of the Novo and the Crest to redeem themselves: "I do think there’s an opportunity to retrofit."

Photos: Ben Fried