The hearing room at the City Council was filled to capacity, and several hundred would-be attendees were stuck outside on the City Hall steps. Residents of Greenpoint and Williamsburg turned out in force last Monday to weigh in on the rezoning that is poised to remake their neighborhood, bringing parks and new residential development to a now industrial waterfront.
Impassioned testimony—more than 200 speakers signed up—addressed the need for green space, the impact of new high-rises on low-rise neighborhoods with limited mass transit, and the threat a new “mixed use” designation for a swath of the neighborhood will have on the estimated 4,000 industrial and creative-sector jobs there.
But in their own remarks, some members of the City Council Land Use committee were focused on just one thing: City Planning’s provisions for the development of affordable housing.
Under the rezoning, developers building residential towers near the waterfront will be able to increase the size of their buildings if they agree to construct or permanently preserve affordable housing somewhere in the area. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development has declared that the incentives will result in 2,300 units of housing affordable to low-, moderate- and middle-income tenants. Half would be reserved for current residents of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
Councilmember David Yassky, who represents the waterfront, told housing commissioner Shaun Donovan and city planning director Amanda Burden that those measures are inadequate. “I oppose the plan that is before us today, and I would oppose anything close to this plan,” said Yassky. “I will ask my colleagues to join me in rejecting this and starting this over.” Specifically, Yassky said, the plan creates too little affordable housing and park space and doesn’t attempt to preserve manufacturing jobs. He called on the council and city to adopt a plan “that works for the community, and not just to maximize profitability.”
Representing the eastern Williamsburg, Councilmember Diana Reyna said that she, too, would reject the rezoning. “I can’t stand and say that 2,300 units is the best we can do for affordable housing,” said Reyna, asking that Planning make 40 percent of new apartments affordable to low-income residents. She noted that her office fields hundreds of calls from families earning too little even to secure an apartment in “low-income” housing, available to households making up to $31,400 a year.
Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz also spoke out strongly against the plan. (Community Board 1, representing the area, has rejected it as well.) Markowitz called on the council to require a minimum of 30 percent affordable housing in new developments and to adopt rules prohibiting harassment of tenants in the area, similar to those adopted in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards rezoning.
The City Council now has a month before it must adopt or reject the rezoning proposal. It’s expected that the council and city will negotiate a compromise that could increase incentives to build affordable housing. One widely discussed option: Extending to Brooklyn some version of Manhattan’s successful “80-20” program, which sets aside one in five new units for low-income tenants. Mid-Manhattan developers who participate receive a tax break, known as 421-A. In Brooklyn, they get the tax break no matter what. Affordable housing advocates have pressed to create an “exclusion zone” in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, where that tax break would be available only to developers who include affordable housing.
The prediction of 2,300 units is an estimate. Only 800 units are assured—they will be built on 13 sites currently owned by the city. For the rest, it’s assumed that five major property owners along the waterfront—Ron Moelis, Jeff Levine, B&H Photo, Josh Gutman, and Park Terrace Realty—all will take advantage of the incentives and build affordable housing. Nonprofit organizations will screen applicants for the affordable units.
Area residents were hardly united in their own comments on the plan. In the pro camp were parents looking for park space for their children—like Andrea Otazinskah, who spoke about wheeling her kids “to a tiny little playground, filled with broken glass and hypodermic needles.” Speaking out against the upscaling of an organic, diverse and bohemian community, Eve Sibley exhorted: “New York is nothing without its magic! Do something about it before it’s too late!”
Breaking Zoning subcommittee chair Tony Avella’s stern prohibition on reactions, the balcony burst into cheers.