Williamsburg Brewhaha

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Spectacular east river views, 1 to 7 BR, roof gardens, parking, some apts affordable. Available 2003.

This ad may soon appear in papers across the city as a developer prepares to break ground this spring on Williamsburg’s first waterfront housing development.

Slated for the former home of the Schaefer Brewery–which operated along the river from 1918 to 1976–the development is a welcome answer to the area’s growing housing crunch. For years, as East Village hipsters priced out of Manhattan have streamed into Brooklyn to find more affordable places to live, Williamsburg’s longtime, lower-income residents have clamored for cheaper apartments.

But the city’s choice of one local developer over others has revived some old tensions between the Hasidic and Hispanic communities which observers fear could reverse years of mending.

“Our families are practically dying for housing,” says state Assemblyman Vito Lopez, whose district includes parts of Williamsburg and nearby Bushwick and is about two-thirds Latino. “Our people must have input into this project.”

The city took input on this development from only one group, however: the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg. The respected Hasidic developer took some initiative four years ago and approached the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development to ask for control of the site. The group spent the next few years lobbying the city, with strong support from former City Councilmember Ken Fisher, and in late 2000, the city named UJO the community sponsor for the project.

Today, the details are nearly final: UJO, with the help of BFC Partners–a Staten Island-based contractor owned by Donald Capoccia, one of former Mayor Giuliani’s leading campaign contributors–has planned a $120 million, 350-apartment mixed-income complex split into two buildings, one 15 stories tall and the other 25 stories. The development will include 140 low-income units, rooftop gardens, rental space along Kent Street for small businesses, 162 parking spots in an enclosed garage and a publicly accessible pathway lined with benches along the river.

And the city is pitching in to help make it happen. According to HPD, the city so far has spent $6.7 million-$19,000 for each apartment–on demolition and cleanup at the brewery. UJO expects to open up the apartments for tenants in early 2004. In South Williamsburg, where the Census Bureau says about 50 percent of families spend more than half their income on rent, residents can’t wait.

“This project will fulfill the dreams of hundreds of poor families who live in overcrowded conditions,” says UJO’s executive director Rabbi David Niederman.

No one doubts that UJO and BFC Partners are qualified for the job. “Both have a good reputation,” says Cathy Herman, director of planning for Los Sures, a 30-year-old local nonprofit affordable housing developer that manages about 2,000 units. But Los Sures, joined by the neighborhood’s Latino politicians and activists, is angry about a planning process they claim was done behind their backs. “It’s a city-owned site receiving city subsidies,” says Herman. “Public projects can’t be used exclusively-or even mostly-by one group.” She and others worry that the new development will cater primarily to Hasidic families and leave the needs of the rest of the neighborhood’s poorer residents out in the cold.

Their concerns are in part grounded in history: Tensions between the Hasidim and other groups in Williamsburg, particularly Latinos, are nothing new, and often revolve around housing. In 1993, for example, about 250 Hispanics took control of a new city housing project for two days, protesting that Hasidic families were being unfairly awarded apartments. In the end, a judge ruled in favor of the city’s plan for distributing the apartments, prompting additional protests.

The way the Schaefer project came about again leaves many neighborhood residents skeptical. Until last summer, the proposal was shrouded in mystery. When HPD introduced its plan to Community Board 1 last April–as the first step in the land use approval process–to change the zoning on the property from manufacturing to residential use and to get permission to build a high-rise on the site, the agency’s presentation had one gaping hole: it did not include the community sponsor and the developer, say board members and others present. The community board did unanimously approve the plan, but with two conditions: that HPD tell the board who would manage the project and guarantee that all members of the community will be eligible to live in the new apartments. At press time, the board was still waiting for HPD to fill in those details.

In October, the proposal moved to the City Planning Commission. There, too, it passed, with only one dissenting vote. In her objections, Commissioner Marilyn Gelber of Brooklyn, the former state environmental chief and current head of the Independence Community Foundation, raised a number of concerns, from environmental impact to affordability. Before the city gives final approval, Gelber pleaded, HPD should be required to provide “the final design of the full development,” including the name of the developer.

In response, HPD denies it was hiding anything and says it’s not uncommon for the agency to seek approval for projects before their development team is final.

Still, critics of the Schaefer plan argue, even the very design of the project indicates the Hispanic community may be left out of the development. Many of the apartments cater to large families, which are more common in the Hasidic community. Among the low-income units, about half will have three bedrooms, the other half split between one-, two- and four-bedroom units. But as for how the 210 market-rate apartments will be divided, UJO would not say.

HPD promises that the low-income apartments will be rented fairly–the agency plans to oversee that process, including running newspaper ads and holding a lottery to ensure that 30 percent of the units go to local residents. But Assemblymember Lopez argues that the large number of big apartments “totally distorts the applicant pool. When it comes time for the lottery, [the Hasidim] will have hundreds more applicants.”

Niederman brushes these criticisms aside: “Hasidic and non-Hasidic families alike have large families.” Insulted by the charges of discrimination, he points to UJO’s historic and hard-fought collaborations with organizations like Los Sures, with whom his group built a housing development on Driggs Avenue, now home to 11 Hasidic, eight Hispanic and two black families.

“I believe that anyone who tries to threaten [the Schaefer] project commits a crime to humanity,” says Niederman. “No one in his right mind would try to kill such a benefit for poor families.”

The plan’s main critics-Los Sures, City Councilmember Diana Reyna, Assemblyman Lopez and several neighborhood Latino groups–are not planning to kill it. They just demand that HPD name another community organization as a co-developer and manager of the project. While they organize “mini town hall meetings” and a prayer vigil, Lopez says he plans to push the issue during upcoming meetings with both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki.

Had the city offered the public a full accounting of the Schaefer project, the plan’s critics say they’d be less suspicious. “The city’s giving away this huge public benefit,” says Herman, “and at no time were [the developers] required to do even the most basic presentation.”