Affordable housing protesters chanting and marching through a public meeting last night forced the Department of City Planning to call off what would have been the first stage of a public approval process to rezone part of the Broadway Triangle in South Williamsburg, which would pave the way for an eight-building residential development.
Just as a City Planning official stood up to open the meeting, an organizer stepped up to the podium and announced, “This plan isn’t for us! Shut it down!” Dozens of activists had packed into a middle school auditorium on Walton Street in the Broadway Triangle to protest the project, which the Rabsky Group is developing.
Their plans, which were released last month, call for 1,147 apartments, 287 of which would rent for below-market rates. The complex would also include 64,800 square feet of retail, 407 parking spaces, and a 26,000-square-foot public open space. The eight buildings would rise on a few acres of vacant, industrial lots once owned by drug giant Pfizer.
If this development becomes a reality, it would be one of the first major private rezoning applications with market-rate housing—rather than a city one, like East New York—to be subject to the mayor’s new Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy. MIH requires developers to rent 25 to 30 percent of apartments in a new building at affordable rates, in exchange for a rezoning from the city.
Protesters from various groups connected with the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition circled the room, waving hand-drawn signs and chanting, “El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!” (“The people united will never be defeated!”) and “Si se puede!” along with “Shut it down!” and “Ahora!” (“Now!”). Organizations that have fought similar North Brooklyn housing battles made an appearance, including Los Sures and Churches United for Fair Housing.
Council Member Antonio Reynoso and Evelyn Cruz, a representative from U.S. Rep. Nydia Velasquez’s office, paused the protests a few times to shout speeches through a bullhorn. Reynoso passionately declared that the activists would stay there till 10 p.m. and “pitch tents if we have to.” He said, “No decisions get made here without consulting us first. The only legitimate way to develop in this community is if it goes through this community.”
Cruz touched upon the Bloomberg administration’s contentious 2009 rezoning of eight blocks in the Broadway Triangle. A collection of community groups sued the city, alleging that the new zoning favored the neighborhood’s Hasidic community over its Latino and black one. Three years later, a state Supreme Court judge ruled that the zoning violated fair housing rules and perpetuated long-standing discrimination. She issued an injunction that halted all construction on the blocks bound by Broadway, Flushing Avenue, and Union Avenue (the boundaries of the Broadway Triangle). Then the city decided that ban only applied to city-owned properties within the area that had been rezoned. However, Rabsky’s properties don’t fall within the 2009 rezoning area, and they are not affected by the lawsuit.
“The Bloomberg administration created a surgically segregated neighborhood plan, something that we did not support,” said Cruz. “It’s un-American in 2016 to have communities that are divided by race, creed and color…We agree with the [Broadway Triangle Community] coalition that 300 plus units is not enough.”
After 20 or 25 minutes of peaceful protest, planning official Olga Anbinder announced that the meeting was “closed.” DCP employees packed up their posters and table, and activists began filing out, cheering as they left the auditorium.
Once the protest had subsided, Reynoso told reporters that this development demanded a more thorough level of community participation, because the issues with the Bloomberg-era zoning hadn’t been completely resolved. He demanded a series of public meetings similar to the community visioning sessions organized by the city while rezoning areas like East New York in Brooklyn and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. Attendees usually break into small groups and draw on maps to explain how they want their neighborhoods to look, or where they want more retail or community services.
“Last time we had member deference in regards to rezoning of the Broadway Triangle, and it took a judge to let us know there was discrimination happening,” he continued. “[The city argued that] the rezoning was justified because they were promising thousands of units of voluntary inclusionary zoning. You know how many units of housing have been built because of voluntary inclusionary? None. Zero. It was a lie…We didn’t get that, and we are supposed to let you go through a process where we were discriminated against, we were marginalized, and we ended up getting the short end of the stick. We need affordable housing in this community, but we’re doing it on our terms.”
The Bushwick and East Williamsburg councilman also pointed to the redevelopment of Rheingold Brewery in southern Bushwick. Rabsky took over the rezoned site from another developer and failed to honor the promises its predecessor had made about including affordable housing, hiring local workers for construction, and holding monthly meetings with the community. “How do we hold them accountable for not following through with community-based commitments if we allow them to build somewhere else?”
Council Member Stephen Levin—who has the final say in this rezoning because it sits in his district—arrived just as the meeting was shut down. When YIMBY caught up with him outside the auditorium, he said he hadn’t seen the developer’s plans for the former Pfizer sites, but he had expected to learn about them last night.
Levin emphasized that this was a private rezoning application, rather than a city-driven one where the public had more extensive input. Rabsky, he noted, deserved the same legal process as any other property owner.
“That’s what the purpose of this meeting was, to solicit public input,” he said. “It deprived anyone who wanted to give public input from doing so.” When asked about Reynoso’s plan for community meetings with more specific commitments, he responded, “I’m not interested in having informal, non-legally binding side agreements with developers. It’s a bad way of doing affordable housing and a bad way of doing policy.”
Lee Silberstein, a spokesman for Rabsky Group, released this statement on last night’s chaotic meeting: “It’s unfortunate that some people’s view of democracy in action is stopping all voices from being heard. The process, which is designed to gather input and build consensus, will continue. As it does, we’ll make the case that the long-dormant, privately-owned site is well-suited for mixed-income housing.”
The Department of City Planning says they plan to schedule another public scoping meeting. A spokesperson e-mailed YIMBY: “Tonight’s meeting was intended to listen to all sides to help shape the required environmental review of a private land use application. It’s never acceptable to prevent the public from being heard and we intend to reschedule the meeting to ensure that the public has that opportunity.”