Controversial Pfizer site rezoning passes City Council
by Benjamin Fang
Nov 08, 2017 | 3759 views | 0 0 comments | 191 191 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A proposed rezoning in the Broadway Triangle area of Brooklyn that has stirred accusations of segregation and anti-Semitism has been approved by the City Council.

Last Tuesday, the Council voted 37 to 7 in favor of the project, which would create an eight-building residential complex with 1,146 apartments, 287 of which would be permanently affordable.

The proposal by developer Rabsky Group includes public open space and retail at the former site of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

Councilman Stephen Levin, who represents the area, voted in favor of the project, citing the pressing need for affordable housing in the community.

“This project will produce hundreds of desperately needed affordable units ranging from 40 percent AMI [area median income] to 60 percent AMI,” Levin said in a statement, “and shows that mandatory inclusionary housing can help to address the issue of unaffordability in communities that are most at-risk of gentrification.”

Since the project’s inception, local activists from the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition have opposed the plan. They shut down several hearings about the proposal.

The coalition, made up of 40 community organizations, argue that the zoning would further segregation in the area bordering Williamsburg, Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant. They said it would disproportionately impact longtime black and Latino residents from the neighborhood.

Alexandra Fennell, network organizer with the group Churches United for Fair Housing (CUFFH), a member of the coalition, said the project will exclude the majority of people living in the area.

“Today’s vote shows that the lives of black and Latino families are not important to the city of New York,” she said in a statement. “They have been completely ignored and once again find themselves marginalized by a plan that should have benefitted all New Yorkers at risk of displacement.

“The opposition to Rabsky’s plan at the Pfizer sites has always been about inclusion, especially after the 2009 rezoning discriminated against black and Latino [residents] attempting to access the affordable housing units proposed in the Broadway Triangle,” Fennell added. “Those concerns fell on deaf ears.”

Critics of the rezoning repeatedly point back to 2009, when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg rezoned both private and city-owned sites from manufacturing to residential. Opponents said the move was made with participation from the United Jewish Organization (UJO) and Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizen Council (RBSCC), but not anyone else in the community.

In 2012, opponents sued the administration and won after a judge ruled that the rezoning would “not only not foster integration, but would perpetuate segregation” in violation of federal fair housing laws. The court issued an injunction on further development on city-owned land in the Broadway Triangle, but the lawsuit has not been settled.

Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who represents the neighboring district, has stood with the coalition against the rezoning. He was among the seven council members who voted against it, including Inez Barron and Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn and I. Daneek Miller of Queens.

Reynoso released a long statement after the vote detailing why he opposed the project.

“The community and I feel that because of the fraught history of the Broadway Triangle, the city should be obligated to give extra attention to fair housing in and around this area,” he said. “Instead, the city has allowed this development to move forward with only the limited public input allowed within the ULURP process, before which most of the substantive decision about the rezoning had been made.”

The councilman and advocates took issue with the project’s proposed mix of unit sizes for the 287 affordable units. The plan calls for 40 percent of the units to consist of three or four-bedrooms.

The average household size for renters in Williamsburg, which is 23 percent Latino, and Bed-Stuy, which is 55 percent black, is 2.5 people per household, according to Reynoso. In South Williamsburg, home to a substantial Hasidic community, the average household size is 3.7 people per household.

“The unit sizes outlined in the restrictive declaration are not representative of the real needs of our community,” Reynoso said. “The owners will still be able to deliberately direct a substantial amount of the affordable housing away from people of color.”

He also argued that the proposal would further the displacement of locals as a result of development. Too few affordable apartments would be built, he said.

Even the units labeled as affordable could be out of reach for the community. According to Reynoso, the apartments are available to families making an average of $51,540 for a family of three. Meanwhile, about 60 percent of households in Williamsburg’s southside, Bushwick and Bed-Stuy earn, on average, $50,000 per year.

“The net impact of the project will be to force low-income black and Latino residents out of the community,” Reynoso said.

Since the 2005 rezoning of Greenpoint and Williamsburg that facilitated the residential boom of the last decade, the Hispanic population of Williamsburg has decreased by 25 percent, he said.

Reynoso also blasted the developer for its history as “an untrustworthy developer” in the community. Another north Brooklyn site, the former Rheingold brewery in Bushwick, was bought by the Read Group to redevelop into housing.

Community organizations negotiated the deal to include benefits like regular communication with the community board and local groups, a local hiring program, union jobs and mitigation of construction and traffic.

But in August 2014, the Rabsky Group purchased part of the rezone site, and according to the councilman, they refused to follow through on the community commitments.

“Only after the community held a march and a 'sleep-out' protest at the site did Rabsky Group commit in writing to developing any affordable housing,” Reynoso said, “88 units fewer than the original agreement called for.

“Rabsky Group argues that they are under no obligation to honor commitments to the community and has categorically refused to engage with the coalition,” he added.
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