Wary Optimism Greets De Blasio’s Brooklyn Redevelopment Plans

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A rendering from a City Planning study depicts a new and improved Pitkin Avenue.

NYC Planning

A rendering from a City Planning study depicts a new and improved Pitkin Avenue.

When the subject of Brooklyn's hottest neighborhoods comes up, Broadway Junction seldom enters the conversation. Named for the tangle of J and L train tracks that pass overhead, Broadway Junction is less a neighborhood than the absence of one: a smattering of warehouses and auto repair shops, some NYPD parking lots, and little else, all crammed into the no man's land at the intersection of Bushwick, Ocean Hill, Crown Heights, Brownsville, and East New York. Walk more than a block in any direction from the disgorged subway passengers waiting to transfer to the B83 bus to Spring Creek Towers, and foot traffic is all but nonexistent.

This unlikely location, however, is firmly in the crosshairs of the Department of City Planning to become the hub of Mayor Bill de Blasio's vision for remaking New York City. As laid out in a 150-page report issued by the Department of City Planning in June, the junction could ultimately become the site of a college campus, or possibly a mall. Immediately to the east, meanwhile, the three main East New York shopping streets of Fulton, Atlantic, and Pitkin Avenues would be transformed by new, higher zoning allowances that would allow for more residential buildings; city renderings of Atlantic Avenue show the wide avenue, currently home mostly to auto supply stores, sprouting 12-story apartment towers reminiscent of Park Slope's recently rezoned 4th Avenue.

The city's nascent plan for Broadway Junction and East New York is one of two rezoning proposals — the other would target the commercial strip along Broadway in Bushwick — that could determine what the next stage in Brooklyn's transformation looks like. As part of his announced plan to build or maintain 200,000 units of affordable housing, the mayor has said he wants to encourage new construction wherever possible, while using the carrot of building higher than zoning normally allows — so-called "inclusionary zoning" — to incentivize developers to add more affordable units.

It's a move that's faced resistance, with lingering distrust for city agencies like DCP that, under Mayor Bloomberg, seemed more interested in greasing the skids for developers than in how redevelopment affects current residents. (New city planning chief Carl Weisbrod's pedigree as the architect of the redeveloped Times Square and deputy mayor Alicia Glen's history as a Goldman Sachs housing investor haven't helped.) De Blasio has so far steered a middle ground, resisting calls to increase the percentage of affordable units per building, while indicating that he'll redirect city money away from tax breaks and toward other affordable projects.

"The city has said a lot of the right things: 'We're not the Bloomberg organization, this is going to be done with the people in the neighborhood, with the local organizations,'" says Michelle Neugebauer, director of the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, which has taken the lead in both planning for the future redevelopment of East New York and warning of its potential pitfalls. "This is where we're going to see if it's for real."

A template in East New York

East New York, first settled in the mid-19th century, sunk into poverty and disrepair following an early subprime mortgage scandal in the late 1960s. Today, though still beset by high crime rates, it's home to a diverse group of residents. To the north, up against the glacial bluffs of Highland Park, is the sub-neighborhood of Cypress Hills, mostly tidy two-family homes occupied by Dominicans and more recent arrivals from Honduras, Mexico and other Latin American nations. South of Atlantic Avenue, East New York proper is more of a home to African- and Caribbean-Americans, and more downscale: On Pitkin Avenue, where the A train runs, only a handful of small stores enliven a streetscape of largely dilapidated buildings.

It's this combination of low (or at least low-income) usage and high transit access that has gotten the attention of city officials eager to find places to squeeze in more affordable housing development. In July, Weisbrod singled out his agency's East New York plan — initially funded under Bloomberg via the federal Sustainable Communities initiative — as "a template" for achieving the mayor's housing goals; the Urban Land Institute (which counts Weisbrod and Glen as members) followed up with a study that lauded the "untapped potential" of the neighborhoods adjacent to Broadway Junction, and suggesting it be targeted for rezoning and redevelopment.

In fact, says Neugebauer, her organization had already begun surveying local residents back in 2011 under a grant from New York state's Brownfield Opportunity Areas program, well before the DCP launched its own "visioning" process. By asking people who live or work in East New York and Cypress Hills about their priorities in such varied areas as manufacturing, food and urban agriculture, and public health, she says, the Cypress Hills LDC was able to draw a picture of what residents themselves would like to see from any city-led overhaul.

"The biggest needs in the neighborhood are affordable housing and a safe place for young people and their families to go for education, recreation, entertainment, and green and open space," Neugebauer says.

It's something that the de Blasio administration is prepared to address, according to Winston Von Engel, the city planning department's newly appointed Brooklyn director. "This administration recognizes that zoning doesn't build new schools or build new parks or improve the streetscape," he says. "The idea is by the time the zoning proposal comes into the official public review process, we'll have a comprehensive plan to address the needs of both existing and future residents."

As for the community's housing needs, says Neugebauer, rents are already on the rise, if still low by Brooklyn standards, with many families resorting to doubling up. "People are open to increased density — as long as the housing that is built is affordable to them."

That's the catch. When talk turns to rezoning in Brooklyn, the image is invariably of the city's 2005 plan for the Williamsburg waterfront, where developers received both tax breaks and inclusionary zoning bonuses for designating 20 percent of the new apartments as subsidized units. The result was relatively few affordable apartments, and acceleration of a once-diverse community's conversion into a monoculture of wealth. Already, there are reports that speculators have responded to the city's interest in East New York by grabbing up property at inflated prices, raising fears that the mere mention of rezoning could precipitate a land rush.

Today's East New York, admittedly, is a far cry from the Williamsburg of a decade ago. "But the fear is there," says Neugebauer, noting that rapidly gentrifying Bushwick lies just to the northwest, across the fire break of Broadway Junction. "Everybody is really, really concerned about gentrification."

Those concerns were on full display at a DCP "visioning session" on September 20, where city officials had to repeatedly reassure local residents that they would have a say in the future shape of their neighborhood. As residents perused city renderings of their familiar streets lined with new buildings and pedestrian-friendly sidewalk "neckdowns," several wondered aloud: It all looks nice, but who does the city intend to have living there? There were calls for the city to require any private development to provide far more than the typical 80/20 split of market vs. subsidized apartments — an innovation that the citywide Real Affordability for All Campaign wants imposed on all subsidized developments — and for more units to be set aside for current neighborhood residents.

"I'm against the high-rises, because once you start building, you're taking away from the integrity of the neighborhood," said Joyce Scott-Brayboy, a member of Community Board 5, after peppering DCP officials with tough questions about who would have access to any affordable housing. Already, she said, it's difficult for young people with entry-level jobs to remain in the neighborhood. "The likelihood of them finding a job and being able to live in this community — it's not going to happen."

Build, baby. Build?

Fears of new development are even more heated in Bushwick, the other neighborhood that could soon be targeted for a separate city upzoning push. On the Broadway commercial strip, the remaining empty storefronts left over from the 1977 blackout looting and fires have been mostly filled in by new businesses over the past few years: Town of Bargains furniture ("financing and layaway available") now coexists with the Living Gallery art space and Manhattan's relocated East Village Shoe Repair, and most of the remaining vacant lots are already sprouting construction cranes.

If Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has his way, Broadway will soon be transformed again, with mid-rise apartment buildings rising high above the J train. Adams has been a staunch advocate of new housing construction — standing by the mayor at his May 1 announcement of the housing plan, he exclaimed, "Build, baby, build," and declared that "the jackhammer should be heard throughout this entire city." And in particular, Adams wanted those jackhammers along Broadway, accompanied by a city rezoning to ensure that any new housing includes an affordable component.

Adams calls the Broadway corridor "an excellent location" for upzoning, thanks to its proximity to transit, with the J and M lines running down its length and Broadway Junction at its eastern end. "We don't want to see what has taken place downtown, where people are trying to do thousand-foot towers," he says, but estimates that Broadway could handle construction up to ten stories. Adams says he endorses a 50/30/20 model — where 20 percent of units are designated "low-income" and 30 percent "moderate-income" — so that "we can have the teacher, the accountant, the middle-income Brooklynites able to say in the community."

Adams insists that this plan shouldn't be seen as akin to Bloomberg-era rezonings. "The last 12 years it was about just building, not about protection of tenants," says Adams. With the new administration, he says, "The beauty of this is everyone is on the same page, talking about keeping these communities affordable."

Though perhaps not entirely on the same page. "I don't think the community has ever seen it as a ‘Build, baby, build' mantra," says Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, who last winter took over the council seat of his old boss, Diana Reyna. (Reyna, ironically, is now deputy borough president under Adams.) "You can build, but you've got to respect the history."

Bushwick has already been the site of one recent bitter dispute over rezoning: When developers Read Property proposed last year to convert the vacant Rheingold brewery site at the neighborhood's west end to market-rate apartment towers, old and new residents banded together to form the Northwest Bushwick Community Group to demand that locals be included in the planning process. Group organizer Brigette Blood says she worries that for the city to now upzone Broadway would lead to "a lot of market forces coming. That whole corridor is a low-income neighborhood." She worries that even with an affordable housing component, new construction could end up only accelerating the rising rents that are already driving even the area's first wave of artist arrivals to relocate to neighboring Ridgewood.

Reynoso is currently trying to pursue an alternate, more bottom-up plan for the future of Broadway, based on community town halls akin to what DCP is in the process of conducting in East New York. (The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for October 28.) He says he'd like to see a process more along the lines of what took place in Bedford-Stuyvesant in a pair of rezonings in 2007 and 2012, but with even more protections for current residents.

"So far in the community meetings, no one's scared of building," says Reynoso. "But everyone wants to make sure there's an effort being made to preserve the character of he neighborhood physically, and in regards to its long-term residents."

Doubts about zoning scheme

Building new housing and amenities without displacing the people who already live in a neighborhood is the holy grail of urban redevelopment, but it's far easier said than done. So far de Blasio has placed his chips firmly on inclusionary zoning — though he'd make it mandatory, requiring developers to build higher and include affordable units if they want to build at all.

Yet inclusionary zoning, says the Pratt Institute's Ronald Shiffman, who first proposed the policy back in 1983 along with the late planning advocate Paul Davidoff, "is not a low-income housing program." It's proven effective, he says, at ensuring that New Yorkers of different levels can live side-by-side — albeit some with poor doors. But the impact of the small percentage of low-income apartments created ends up being swamped by the larger effects of new market-rate units. "We used it primarily as an integration tool. Inclusionary zoning works for that. It doesn't really work as a way of meeting the affordability crisis that New York has."

Shiffman, who is part of a group of city planning experts currently leading a group of graduate students in investigating how rezoning could change Bushwick, is blunt about his criticisms of the current administration's affordable-housing push. "Quite frankly, I'm very concerned about the de Blasio strategy," he says. While adding some rent-restricted units may be a plus for locals seeking affordable housing, he says, the massive influx of market-rate units can lead to the cascade effect known as "secondary displacement": luxury apartments drawing in new residents, then new amenities to serve the new residents — think Thai restaurants — which in turn attract new people to the surrounding blocks, where they quickly price out existing renters.

Von Engel acknowledges the displacement problem, but notes that it's hardly unique to rezoned neighborhoods. "In East New York, as the neighborhood has rebounded, there's been a large number of market-rate small homes with one or two rental units," he notes. While they're affordable today, there's no limits on how much these private landlords could charge in the future — one reason why the city wants to lock in affordable units on the avenues currently zoned commercial-only.

Difficult math

There are some areas of broad agreement between the de Blasio administration and its affordable-housing skeptics. All sides, for example, stress the need for more effective anti-harassment laws to stop landlords from pushing out existing tenants in hopes of raising rents. (The City Council recently doubled the top fine for tenant harassment, though there's some skepticism whether this will deter landlords who smell the chance for huge rent increases if current tenants can be booted out.)

Broader examples of more neighborhood-friendly redevelopment, though, are hard to come by. Blood suggests turning over vacant land to community land trusts, as was done on a small scale with the Rheingold project after agitation from local residents. Pratt Center policy director Joan Byron points to Melrose Commons, the Bronx project that rebuilt an entire neighborhood under a plan created by community members, as the rare example of redevelopment that didn't displace existing residents.

But Shiffman, who as a city planning commissioner in 1993 helped advocate for the community-led Melrose Commons plan, says that times — and the housing market — have changed too much for those methods to work anymore. In particular, he notes, the Bronx development was made possible in part by homeless housing funds that have since been eliminated.

"Unless you increase the pot of money, you're not going to get a dramatic increase in the amount of affordable housing," agrees Grant Lindsay of East Brooklyn Congregations, the community group that built the well-regarded Nehemiah Houses in East New York and Brownsville, which used city subsidies to bring homeownership within the reach of existing local residents.

"You can tinker around the edges with zoning requirements and tax credits, which may in isolated cases make a big impact. But unless the pool of money dramatically increases — I'm talking hundreds of millions of dollars, not $5 million — then there's no way you can do the math that dramatically increases the amount of affordable housing being built. A lot of people seem to know that, and we're waiting for the mayor to show where he's going to come up with a substantial new source of money."

Where to get that money is the quandary on which many housing plans have foundered. A pied-à-terre tax on high-end apartments owned by nonresident foreigners — first proposed by the progressive Fiscal Policy Institute last month, and currently the subject of legislation being introduced by state senator Brad Hoylman — would be "terrific," suggests, if the resulting money were then funneled into affordable housing. FPI estimates that a tax on apartments worth more than $5 million could generate $665 million in annual revenue — more than double the Department of Housing Preservation and Development's entire 2014 capital budget for new housing.

Neugebauer says her agency's position is that whatever the city ultimately does to rezone eastern Brooklyn, it needs to "implement new and innovative anti-discplacement policies, whether that's tax policies or new programs to try to lock in affordability on small homes and the rentals in those small homes." Philadelphia, she notes, offers a Longtime Owner Occupants Program that cuts property taxes for residents who've been in place at least ten years, in an attempt to increase neighborhood stability and reduce quick flipping of property; the city could also increase set-asides for current residents, and move to legalize currently off-the-books basement apartments.

"Whatever they can try, this is the time to try it," says Neugebauer. "Before the wave comes."

Neil deMause's book The Brooklyn Wars will be published in 2015.