Federal-Funded Effort May Reshape East New York

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The planning initiative is part of the New York-Connecticut Sustainable Communities project, a bi-state effort to promote sustainable development around transit hubs funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Photo by: NYC Department of City Planning

The planning initiative is part of the New York-Connecticut Sustainable Communities project, a bi-state effort to promote sustainable development around transit hubs funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Home to boarded buildings, sprawling autoshops, warehouses, light industry and gas stations, Atlantic Avenue in East New York is infamously bleak. Some intersections are dangerous for pedestrians to cross, and there are few trees or bus shelters.

But change may be in store for the eastern segment of Atlantic Avenue and several other major boulevards including Fulton Avenue and Pitkin Avenue in East New York and the streets around the Broadway Junction subway station.

After more than a year of community meetings, the Department of City Planning (DCP) released a presentation this March that outlines zoning changes to encourage high-density residential and commercial development in northern East New York and Cypress Hills. If pursued, the proposed changes would be publicly reviewed through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

DCP also proposes to work with city agencies to improve the neighborhood’s streetscape, through the addition of new bus shelters, sidewalk trees, crosswalks, bike lanes and pedestrian plazas. The agency is also exploring the possibility of a second entrance to the Broadway Junction subway station.

The planning initiative is part of the New York-Connecticut Sustainable Communities project, a bi-state effort to promote sustainable development around transit hubs. In April 2011, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) allocated a total of $3.5 million to planning projects in sixteen communities in Connecticut and New York, including the Bronx Metro-North corridor and East New York, which was seen as a prime target due to its access to five subway lines, buses, and the Long Island Railroad.

The goal of the East New York project is to develop more mixed-income housing, improve access to jobs, fresh food and retail, and enhance the area’s streetscaping and environmental sustainability. The agency, which has not yet proposed block-by-block zoning changes, plans to hold another community meeting in September and complete a report on its plans by the end of this year.

Many community members are excited by the planning effort but also remain cautious. They want to ensure East New York does not become the next Bedford Stuyvesant or Bushwick—affected by market changes that are pricing out residents who have lived there for decades.

Long road to recovery

East New York remains one of the city’s most undeveloped corners, chockfull of vacant and underutilized land.

Hundreds of buildings were vacated or demolished in the 1960s as a result of shady real-estate practices like blockbusting, in which real estate brokers urged white homeowners to sell so they could charge high rents to minority tenants, and redlining, which left homeowners unable to access financial credit. Ensuing impoverishment, decline in city services and soaring crime inhibited business growth. City efforts to rebuild the area did not keep up with the pace of destruction.

In the last two decades, progress has been made on many fronts. Private—often non-profit—developers are multiplying the area’s supply of affordable housing by investing about $350 million in new projects in the area, says Bill Wilkins of the Local Development Corporation of East New York.

Business is thriving in the East Brooklyn Business Improvement District (EBBID), with vacancy rates ranging between 5 percent and 15 percent, says Wilkins. A few vacancies—and many underutilized spaces—remain on manufacturing land outside the EBBID. The Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation (CHLDC) is hoping to use vacant and damaged plots to promote community development and sustainable living in Cypress Hills, and received a grant from the state’s Brownfield Opportunity Areas program in 2011 to craft a plan to do so.

With the help of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Livonia Avenue is also on its way up, soon to be the home of a Boys and Girls Club, affordable apartments and over 25,000 square feet of ground-floor retail. East New York has also become home to an urban farm, a farmers’ market and 43 community gardens.

But residents say affordable housing remains in short supply and there is still a dearth of local retail and healthy food options.

“We were a destination neighborhood for shopping and now? Other than the Gateway Mall we have nothing,” says Manuel Burgos, a member of community board 5. “We support all the neighboring communities with our dollars.”

DCP promotes zoning changes

DCP’s Sustainable East New York planners recorded the community’s visions at 45 outreach sessions with residents of East New York, Broadway Junction, and Brownsville over the course of 2011 and 2012.

“Atlantic Avenue currently does not meet the needs of the community in use and employment and divides the communities of Cypress Hills and East New York,” says Ralph Blessing, the Sustainable East New York project manager, adding that those needs can be met by rezoning Atlantic Avenue and other corridors to accommodate manufacturing, residential and commercial uses and to increase allowable density. As suggested by residents, homes on side streets would be left intact.

“There’s a desire to preserve the residential character of the small-scale homes but there’s also a desire for more affordable housing,” says Shai Lauros, director of Community Development at CHLDC.

Blessing says zoning changes will help local businesses, spur retail development that will create jobs, and make way for affordable housing using programs such as inclusionary zoning. In that voluntary program, a developer agrees that a certain percentage of the new units will be rented at a price targeted to specific income levels. In exchange, the developer can build at a higher density and qualify for city subsidies.

Lauros says that increasing allowable densities will make affordable housing easier to finance. Although developers sometimes go through the lengthy and expensive process of pursuing land-use variances for individual parcels, large-scale rezoning will significantly incentivize development, she says.

A 2008 report by the Pratt Institute for Community Development reported that since 2005, the Bloomberg Administration has lost over 2,000 acres of manufacturing land through zoning changes, with another 1,800 acres more if additional proposed zonings were approved.

Wilkins says that the light manufacturing industries that exist today on Atlantic Avenue could coexist with new commercial and residential buildings. In the planning process to come, he wants to make sure DCP lives up to its promises to let the manufacturing businesses already in the area continue to thrive.

“Let’s make sure if [manufacturing businesses] chose to, they can stay, in harmony with what’s taking place, but they have the first right of refusal. And if that’s not the case, then the tale is wagging the dog,” he says. “They were there first when no one wanted to be there.”

Plan draws praise, some concerns

Manuel Burgos, a community board 5 member, is supportive of the zoning changes. “I like what it’s doing,” he says. “The rezoning is along commercial corridors that I have always thought are severely underdeveloped.” He adds that the project would finally address pollution in the area, such as runoff from auto lots.

Nathan Bradley, chair of community board 5, says that he is looking forward to additional affordable housing, improvements to transportation, energy efficient buildings, healthier food options, and better streetscape design, but he has some concerns: that additional bike lanes in industrial areas will not be safe, and that DCP is not yet considering the additional services the neighborhood will need when there are new people there.

Joyce Simmons, chief of staff for Councilman Charles Barron, says the project is promising but that she wishes it extended farther south, where, she says, there are other blighted streets and vacant lots in need of attention. “If you divide East New York and say this is the sustainable area and this is not, you are going to have some issues,” she says.

Blessing says DCP chose the northern portion of East New York and Cypress Hills so that the study correlated with CHLDC’s Brownfield Opportunity Areas study, because the two efforts could benefit from mutual planning. DCP and CHLDC are jointly applying for a state grant to fund the application process for zoning changes.

But community board member James Tillman says the focus on the district’s north makes him suspicious. He points out that Cypress Hills is the next stop off the J and L line after gentrifying Bushwick. “It just reeks of gentrification,” he says.

Seeking a balance

It is no secret that the proposed mixed-income housing would attract more professionals to the area. Community residents express varying degrees of worry about how an influx of more affluent New Yorkers could affect those native to East New York. Bradley and Wilkins say that while they understand attracting a mixed-income community is important to neighborhood revitalization, they will be on the lookout to ensure the area remains affordable to current residents.

In neighborhoods across the city, community leaders are asking whether the type of affordable housing programs planned for a rezoned East New York have succeeded elsewhere. Since 2005, the inclusionary housing program has created almost 2,400 affordable units in Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and the West Side, but only 400 throughout the rest of the city, according to a report released this August by Councilman Brad Lander. And what counts as “affordable” housing may not actually be affordably priced for local people.

Lauros says that since homeowners are less vulnerable to gentrification than tenants, increasing homeownership is another way to prevent displacement, but continuing foreclosures, a lack of appropriate funding options, and the low incomes and employment instability of potential homeowners in the area make that a challenge in Cypress Hills.

Ultimately, she says, creating a sustainable mixed-income community without displacement will be a test for the incoming mayor. “I think that the city needs to think radically different and with much more innovation in order to address this as an issue across the city,” she says.