street fights

Prospect Heights Residents (and a local McDonald’s) Push Back Against a New Tower

Illustration: Department of City Planning/Environmental Assessment Statement

Less than a mile down Atlantic Avenue from Barclays Center, past the area’s gleaming new high-rises, an 18-story building may soon replace the drive-through McDonald’s at the corner of Vanderbilt. It’s a part of Prospect Heights that has been called a “development desert,” filled mostly with car-repair and tire shops and low-rise brownstones. But with the Pacific Park megaproject bringing 17 buildings to the area just east of Barclays, a far taller skyline is inching its way down the avenue. This wave of new construction hasn’t made things any easier for the proposed high-rise building, which has just started its public review process and already sparked a familiar NIMBY backlash from neighbors (even the McDonald’s franchise is in the mix, fighting the developers over a fivefold rent hike). Here, what we know:

Who’s fighting? 

Area neighbors — including a local preservation and neighborhood-improvement group called North Prospect Heights Association — versus Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings LLC, the developer of the 18-story building. The McDonald’s franchise is in a separate battle against the developer over its rent hike.

What do we know about the development?

Vanderbilt is proposing a gray, very blocky mixed-use building with 316 residences (including 95 affordable units) and 50,650 square feet of retail space across its 18 stories, including a home for the local dance nonprofit Creative Outlet on its first two floors. The developers want to rezone the lot from manufacturing- and rowhouse-district zoning — which allows for buildings of up to five stories, or up to 50 feet tall — to a commercial district with inclusionary housing.

What’s everyone mad about? 

Neighbors say the proposed building is too tall and too dense. They argue that the developers should adhere to the parameters set out in a long-pending rezoning plan for a swath of Prospect Heights and Crown Heights developed by the local community board and the city. Under that proposal, called M-Crown, only a 14-story residential building would be allowed on that lot, with a lower floor-area ratio (FAR) than the one proposed in the project (seven to the project’s 8.83).

The North Prospect Heights Association told Curbed it’s concerned that if the building is approved, it could set a precedent for other developers to disregard the M-Crown framework. Neighbors also worry that because Vanderbilt Atlantic is a private developer, the city won’t be required to “invest in the public-infrastructure improvements needed to support buildings of the scale beginning to emerge on Atlantic Avenue,” such as bringing more public-transit options to the area. Meanwhile, the developers noted that several historic districts in the area, including the nearby Prospect Height Historic District, will limit more dense development in the neighborhood, making the McDonald’s lot one of the few sites were a larger building could go.

Separately, the McDonald’s (which opened in 1998) is fighting a 545 percent rent hike (its rent rose from around $14,000 per month to $90,000 per month), which the franchise owner alleges is an effort to kick the company off the site

The backstory: 

The M-Crown plan has been percolating since 2015, two years before Vanderbilt Atlantic Holdings LLC signed a 99-year land lease for the McDonald’s lot. In a 2018 letter sent to City Planning, local City Council member Laurie Cumbo and Borough President Eric Adams (who is now running for mayor) promised to uphold the principles of the M-Crown plan even before it passes. And while the community is largely onboard with the plan, the board is still at odds with City Planning over certain parameters in it.

Vanderbilt Atlantic floated its large mixed-use development proposal to the community board in August 2019 and was immediately met with pushback. Then, in November 2019, the McDonald’s franchise filed its lawsuit against the developers over the rent hike. But the developers have continued to move forward, and they began their public review process earlier this month.

The first round: At the community-board meeting on March 4, in which the developers first formally presented their plan, neighbors and board members raised concerns about the scale of the building. The developers argued that a location on a major thoroughfare just two blocks from Barclays was an ideal spot for a high-density building. But Ethel Tyus, the community-board chair, said, “Just because you can build higher and denser, because you have these two wide streets converging, doesn’t mean you should,” according to the Brooklyn Paper. Though some neighbors said the area is already too dense, Prospect Heights is only home to 83.6 people per acre, compared to 108.1 in neighboring Crown Heights and 94.4 in a nearby section of Bed-Stuy.

Fight highlights: “There is no reason to add density to a neighborhood like Prospect Heights that is absolutely swimming in density,” said Elaine Weinstein, founder of North Prospect Heights Association, during the March 4 meeting. “We cannot walk on our streets anymore. The amount of traffic, garbage, is uncontrollable, and therefore it seems unrealistic to build this building as large, as high, as dense as you are proposing.”

Who’s favored to win?: Even if the community board rejects the application, the project may move forward since the CB’s vote and the borough president’s decision in the ULURP are purely advisory. It will largely depend on City Planning, and ultimately on the City Council and mayor. Based on the fact that the community board has its own rezoning plan in the works, it is possible that local politicians will favor M-Crown, or at least ask the developer to modify its plans to align with what the neighbors are asking.

Prospect Heights Residents Push Back Against New Tower