Bushwick Tries to Call the Shots in its Rezoning

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Adi Talwar

A few of the community advocates involved in Bushwick's rezoning discussion: from left to right, Jose Lopez of Make the Road New York, Stephanie Cancel from Churches United for Fair Housing and Jesus Gonzalez, also from Churches United.

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Skyrocketing rents. A nine percent decrease in Latino residents since 2000. A six percent decline in extremely low-income families. Luxury high-rises springing up in the middle of low-rise residential streets. A high-profile development project that didn’t keep its promises to the neighborhood.

Confronted with these changes, many Bushwick residents have two demands: the preservation of neighborhood character, and an end to the displacement of Bushwick’s low-income population. But can Bushwick find a way to use zoning and other strategies to accomplish both goals and actually alleviate, rather than aggravate, displacement? And if they find such a strategy, will the city approve it?

These are the central questions for the residents, businesses and organizers involved in a community planning process underway in the neighborhood. While that process joins the list of neighborhood rezoning discussions taking place under the mayor’s affordable housing plan, the push has older roots and more local support in Bushwick than in some other areas.

Brooklyn Community Board 4 has long called for a contextual zoning that will create height limits on buildings, and has expressed a willingness to see more density on commercial corridors. The Bushwick process underway now was initiated by two Councilmembers: Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Espinal, who voted to approve the city-initiated rezoning of East New York.

One year ago, Reynoso called for an upzoning that would allow the city to apply the new mandatory inclusionary housing policy to Bushwick, requiring that any developer in an upzoned area dedicate 20 to 30 percent of apartments to middle-to-low income families, in addition to other affordable housing preservation strategies. Neighborhood stakeholders are now exploring the potential of pairing a contextual rezoning in residential areas with an upzoning on streets such as Myrtle Avenue, Broadway, Knickerbocker Avenue and Wyckoff Avenue.

An open, if less efficient, process

The Bushwick effort is driven by a steering committee that grew out of a fairly open process. Anyone who had attended initial public meetings and wanted to commit to a formal process were welcome to join the steering committee. A list of members provided to City Limits included 50 people, though not all have been deeply involved in the process. About a quarter are residents unaffiliated with a particular organization, another quarter are community board members, and the remaining represent local housing justice, community service and faith-based organizations, some of whom are also residents.

Activists who fought for community benefits from the controversial Reingold Brewery development projects are involved, though one anti-gentrification group, the North West Bushwick Community Coalition, has chosen not to participate. (They could not be reached for requests for comment. The coalition’s organizer, Brigette Blood, participates as a resident).

A seven-member executive committee, elected by the steering committee, meets weekly to facilitate information gathering. The steering committee has also formed working groups on specific topics that are open to the public, and will ultimately craft a plan that includes recommendations on subjects like land use, housing preservation, transportation, infrastructure, economic development, schools, community resources, and open space. Participants are partnering with the Department of Health to plan a new medical facility, and are working with Transportation Alternatives to survey conditions on the ground.

Isella Ramirez, a project manager at Hester Street Collaborative, which has provided technical assistance to the Bushwick effort, says that having many residents at the table can make for a slower process than in other neighborhoods where insiders have more control.

“When you’re speaking for your own self…your vision is different than if you are coming to the meeting representing a set of values,” she explains, adding that having residents instead of organizational reps “makes it complicated, but I also think it enhances the transparency and the value of these discussions.”

From a media standpoint, the Bushwick planning process has sometimes appeared less than transparent. There has been no outreach to the press or large-scale public meetings since an open house in June, and after the steering committee voted that the executive committee should be in charge of answering media requests, the non-executive members that City Limits contacted all declined interview requests, even though they were permitted to speak as individuals. After several months without any internet presence, the steering committee is finally launching a website, most likely Monday.

Ramirez says that budget and time constraints of steering committee members account for the low visibility and slow timeline of the effort so far, especially compared to a similar process carried out in East Harlem in 2015.

The Bushwick community planning process resembles East Harlem’s planning process in many ways, but the group’s make-up is arguably more grassroots. In East Harlem, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito invited 20 organizations to participate in a steering committee, and some stakeholders criticized the groups selected, which included a developer, Artimus Construction, and several citywide organizations.

Expectations in check

In an interesting move, neither Reynoso nor Espinal decided to take voting roles on the steering committee.

“They don’t want to be driving the ship,” says Scott Short, housing director at the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council. “They were the original conveners and the ones who brought us all together… but we want it to be driven primarily by the steering committee and the executive committee.”

Yet for all the process’s grassroots-credentials, in another way the Bushwick steering committee is very much in touch with the de Blasio administration’s stances. As the council member for East New York, Espinal came in for praise but also criticism after the rezoning, with the skeptics believing he could have held out for more low-income housing. For his part, the Councilman has told City Limits he is aware of the administration’s “ceilings” when it comes to zoning, and that he helps to “curtail expectations” in the Bushwick planning process.

In addition, the council members have ensured that city agencies staff are playing an active role in discussions—something that didn’t always occur in other neighborhoods where community stakeholders took a lead on rezoning discussions.

Participants characterized discussion with city agencies as a give-and-take in which the steering committee obtained feedback from agencies about how to make their recommendations implementable, while steering committee members, with the input of their own technical advisors, also pushed agencies and tried to influence the administration’s priorities.

“There’s not always agreement, obviously, between groups like ours and city agencies in terms in terms of what we can or can’t create, but there’s been some really healthy conversations,” says Jose Lopez, an organizer with Make the Road.

Affordability takes center stage

One of the central debates concerns the degree to which the city can subsidize affordable housing beyond the levels required by mandatory inclusionary housing. The steering committee has discussed the city’s existing Extremely Low Income and Low Income Affordability (ELLA) program, explored whether it’s possible to create a new subsidy program with even more deeply affordable units, and considered whether the area’s limited public land—one HPD site, and some others owned by other agencies—could be used to achieve greater affordability.

The committee is also discussing a variety of housing preservation strategies, including ones that the city has yet to create, like a certification of no harassment program.

As City Limits reported on Tuesday, the relationship between rezonings and displacement is poorly understood. Contextual zonings may preserve neighborhood form, but they don’t necessarily stop displacement; some say they worsen it by limiting the citywide allowing housing supply, creating more competition for existing units. But upzonings also bears risks: Encouraging investment in the neighborhood could drive up prices in housing units nearby. And one study showed that after “hybrid” rezonings—a combination of a contextual rezoning on side streets and an upzoning on commercial corridors—rents also skyrocketed, and demographic change was even starker.

In other words, when it comes to using zoning to curb displacement, it seems you’re damned if you boost density, damned if you reduce density, and damned if you do nothing at all—and, perhaps, damned if you even try to talk about it. Applications in Bushwick for new residential building permits skyrocketed in 2015, placing Bushwick seventh of all fifty-nine community districts in new permits, and few of those units were affordable (Espinal’s office notes that the building boom covered the entire city).

Despite the fear that even if you “participate that you are playing a role in displacing your friends and your family,” as one Bushwick native puts it, stakeholders are trying to come up with an adequate strategy, something including but beyond rezoning, that will help ensure the affordability of the neighborhood to come.

“You don’t want to contribute to the creation of market-rate housing in the neighborhood…but if you’re not involved, then you can’t decrease the negative implications that a zoning will have,” says Bushwick native Jesus Gonzalez of Churches United for Fair Housing. “It’s kind of like this tug of war that we’re constantly facing as community members.”

While the committee has not yet come to any conclusions, Make the Road organizer Jose Lopez says that group’s members feel strongly that they will not support a plan unless it contains a substantial number of very low-income units beyond what is provided by ELLA, and even more importantly, a robust preservation and anti-displacement strategy.

“We are interested in a rezoning if it’s a good one, and if it’s not a good one then we’re not interested,” he says, adding that a hybrid rezoning without these components is “just as bad, if not maybe worse than no rezoning at all.”

Resident and board member Edwin Delgado echoed the call for as much affordable housing in the mix as possible, but said he understands there would be a “give and take” with the city and that the buildings would need to be financially feasible. Reynoso’s office said they would defer to the community’s recommendations on affordability, while Espinal said he would work to “maximize the most amount of affordable housing units, tools, and other resources for Bushwick, just as I did with great success for East New York” and that he would “continue to explore opportunities to deliver for more low income units.”

Plan coming, then a city response

The steering committee still has a long way to go before it finalizes recommendations, and how the city will respond to those recommendations is the greater unknown.

So far, the De Blasio administration has offered varying responses to community-initiated zoning proposals. A community plan drawn up by Chinatown between 2008 and 2014 was rejected as too large and anti-density by the administration, which has agreed to conduct a more limited rezoning study. In response to East Harlem’s plan, the city agreed to zoning recommendations for several areas, suggested higher densities in other areas, but has yet to put forward a plan for housing preservation or other aspects of the plan. Though the city’s plan has yet to be voted on, some Bushwick residents have heard rumors that East Harlem stakeholders were not happy with the city’s plan, or have had to make concessions to the city.

Participants noted that in September, after Reynoso and Bushwick activists shut down a rezoning hearing for a private development project in the Broadway Triangle, city planning officials appeared to take a step back from the Bushwick process. Yet they seemed to step back to the table, a step Bushwick participants celebrated.

“They have come back to the table in good faith,” said Gonzalez. “Both the city and community groups are approaching this process carefully because I think there’s a fear that neither side will be satisfied with the outcome.”

In a request for comment, the Department of City Planning (DCP) said they would soon be updating the agency’s website, adding Bushwick to their map of current rezoning studies.

“DCP is pleased to be moving ahead and working with community residents, stakeholders, City Council Members Reynoso and Espinal, and City agencies on the Bushwick study,” said spokesperson Rachaele Raynoff in an e-mail.

The steering committee will turn to the public for feedback on a potential rezoning strategy and other initial recommendations on Saturday February 11 from 11 am to 3 pm at the Ridgewood Bushwick Youth Center, 1474 Gates Avenue. A light breakfast and lunch, Spanish interpretation and childcare is available. For more information, residents can contact bushwickplanning@gmail.com, Council member Espinal at 718-642-8664 or Council member Reynoso at 718-963-3141.

One thought on “Bushwick Tries to Call the Shots in its Rezoning

  1. This is real political work. Forget tweets and Facebook and get out there and hash out your differences. Take the time to hear everyone’s story then make it work.

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