A de Blasio-backed redevelopment proposal for the Bedford Union Armory in Crown Heights has not only become the focus of citywide activism in the fight against gentrification and displacement. It’s now also the central campaign issue in one of the city’s most hotly contested City Council races—and now, a challenger in the race is taking issue with what she sees as the mismatch between the timelines for the project’s approval and the district’s primary.
Challenger Ede Fox, who is campaigning against incumbent Laurie Cumbo for the City Council’s 35th district seat and who launched her campaign in front of the armory, has in the past repeatedly criticized Cumbo for not taking a definite stance against the project, which would bring some below-market housing, community organization office space and a recreation center to the neighborhood along with market-rate rentals and condos, but which many groups say will exacerbate the gentrification of the neighborhood.
On May 18, Cumbo, along with Borough President Eric Adams and other elected officials, announced her opposition to the project in its current form. But four days later, the de Blasio administration went ahead and certified the project anyway—launching the multi-stage Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) that is required for the project’s approval.
While ULURP creates opportunities for the Community Board, Borough President and City Planning Commission to weigh in on the proposal, the ultimate vote will fall to City Council, which usually gives the local councilmember deference—so the de Blasio administration’s decision to move forward with ULURP suggests the administration is betting on Cumbo to change her position during the course of negotiations. Some local advocates remain afraid that Cumbo may support the project under conditions they reject.
And here’s where the procedures of democracy and those for land use changes become a bit gnarly: Cumbo may not have to vote on the proposal before the September 12 primary. According to the rules of ULURP, which provides each public body a maximum number of days to make a recommendation on the project, it is possible that the project will not be reviewed by the City Council until November.
On Friday, challenger Fox—in what some see as continued advocacy against the armory, and others as a political stunt—pointed out the schedule quirk and in an announcement released to City Limits called on Cumbo to “expedite” the ULURP process.
“It’s easy for Laurie Cumbo to say she’ll vote no on a major issue of this campaign, especially when that vote won’t happen until after the primary. The question is whether she finally chose to listen to the community, or is just pandering for votes to save her own political career,” Fox said in a statement. “The only way we can know for sure is to see the councilmember expedite the ULURP process and show us once and for all that she stands with the community, not major developers.”
By “expedite” the ULURP process, Fox means that Cumbo should urge the community board, borough president, City Planning Commission and City Council Land Use committee to vote quickly to ensure the project comes to a full Council vote before the September 12 primary—in other words, that these civic bodies should not make use of the maximum allowable time for each public body.
Of course, Cumbo could ask, but it’s ultimately up to these civic bodies themselves to determine how much time they’ll take, so her supporters will naturally argue that “expediting” ULURP is beyond Cumbo’s control. Yet it’s also reasonable that critics want a way to hold Cumbo accountable, given her lack of clarity about their demands.
Objections to affordability, lack of community control
The de Blasio administration and BFC Partners have proposed redeveloping the vacant armory with 330 units of rental housing, of which 50 percent will be rent-restricted, and 56 condominium apartments, of which 20 percent will be rented at below-market rates. The development would also include a recreation center, community event space and office space offered at discounted rates for local community organizations; non-profits like the West Indian American Day Carnival Association have already secured space at the site. The developer has also agreed to pay prevailing wages to building-service workers, though not to construction laborers.
While the project has some local supporters who say Crown Heights direly needs a recreation center and community space, other groups have derided the project, saying that 100 percent of the units should be rent-restricted and that the project should remain in “community control” and be developed by a non-profit community land trust.
A report by New York Communities for Change also argues that not only the market rate units but also the so-called “affordable” units would in fact be mostly affordable to whiter, wealthier residents of Crown Heights.
Of the rent-restricted rental units, 30 percent would be affordable to households making less than $42,950 (for a family of three) and 10 percent to households making less than $34,360. The other 60 percent would be affordable to families making up to $94,490.
According to Census data in the report, in Crown Heights, white households have an average median income of $60,766, while Black households make an average of $45,476 and Latino households make $38,168.
And the gap is starker when you look borough-wide at the difference between the number of white and the number of Black and Latino residents who could afford either the market-rate units or the more pricy rent-restricted units.
“BFC is fully committed to revitalizing the Bedford-Union Armory and providing much-needed recreational facilities, affordable housing and affordable office space for the Crown Heights community,” said a BFC Partners spokesperson in an e-mail to City Limits. “The economic realities of cross-subsidizing a new rec center and the lack of housing subsidies mean that 50 percent affordability is the only option currently available at the Armory.”
For her part, Fox has called loudly for 100 percent rent-restricted housing and the creation of a community land trust to develop the site. Another challenger running on the Green Party line, Jabari Brisport, has also made the same demands.
Cumbo’s position evolves
Cumbo’s position on the project has changed over time. In December 2015 she announced support for the project, but later said she agreed with residents that the housing was not affordable enough, and said she would continue negotiating. In May she took a stronger oppositional tone.
“I stand here today with my colleagues in government to demand Mayor de Blasio go back to the drawing board and produce a plan that meets the needs of my Brooklyn neighbors. It’s important that we have a developer that helps enhance our community, meets with the trade unions, commits to hiring locally, and builds this project with the highest safety standards available,” she said at a press conference, denouncing especially the luxury condos in the proposal, but stopping short of saying she would fight for 100 percent affordability on the site.
Asked to respond to Fox’s letter urging Cumbo to expedite ULURP, Jennifer Blatus, a spokesperson for Cumbo, did not speak directly to the idea of expediting, but rather emphasized that Cumbo would not be open to negotiation until the developer met her demands for no luxury condominiums, for appropriate community space, for local hiring and safe working conditions.
“The Council Member has made her position clear to both Mayor de Blasio and BFC Partners: NO LUXURY CONDOMINIUMS ON PUBLIC LAND – PERIOD,” said Blatus in an e-mail. “Negotiations cannot continue as long as luxury condominiums remain at the forefront of the economic plan for the Bedford-Union Armory. Until a plan is presented that is reflective of the true economic realities of the Crown Heights community, there is no need to discuss any other aspects of the project. Right now, this process is in the hands of the Administration and it is their responsibility to go back to the drawing board to present a project that addresses the fact that the Crown Heights community is facing a housing crisis of epic proportions.”
Geoffrey Davis, a Crown Heights district leader and the founder of the James E. Davis Stop the Violence Foundation, which also intends to rent space from the project, is encouraged by Cumbo’s position. On the one hand, he is thrilled that the project will bring a recreation center and nonprofit office space to the neighborhood, which he says has lost many of its community spaces in recent years. On the other hand, he wants all stakeholders to continue negotiating to ensure there is no luxury housing. He hopes that the de Blasio administration will invest subsidies in the project so that 100 percent of the housing can be affordable, including many low-income units.
“Under no circumstances can you kill the deal, because then it’s over, it’s off the table, and we wait another 30 to 40 years, and we don’t have that kind of time,” he says.
But Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, wants ULURP “expedited” because he’d rather see Cumbo kill the project and the de Blasio administration start over completely.
“It’s quite clear where the community stands, so let’s bring it to a vote,” he says. “If Councilmember Cumbo is actually serious about killing the Bedford-Union armory and starting from scratch with 100 percent affordable housing she would kill the project and have it voted on before the primary election.”
The feasibility of expediting ULURP
From a technical perspective, expediting ULURP to send the project to the Council before September 12 would not be legally impossible, but would require each civic body to agree to act rapidly. Community boards and borough boards must give ten days notification for the public hearings that are required before casting a recommendation on the project, but other than that there is no “minimum” amount of days required to deliberate a project. Once the Borough Board has submitted their recommendations for a project, the City Planning Commission’s policy is to schedule the discussion for their next public hearing, which occurs every other Wednesday.
Before Fox’s call for expediting ULURP, Crown Heights’ Community Board 9 had already scheduled a hearing (for June 21st) and a full board meeting (June 27th) to discuss the project. If the board can come to a vote on the project by June 27, the board will have used about half the time it is allotted to come to a decision.
Expediting ULURP is not an unprecedented idea. Jonathan Gaska, the longtime district manager of the Rockaways community board, says that when the city was pursuing zoning changes to help facilitate the redevelopment of areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy, the community board, at the urging of the local councilmember and community residents, moved quickly to ensure the zoning changes went into place as soon as possible and reconstruction could begin.
But Gaska said this usually happens when there is unanimous agreement on the project and that, in his 30-years serving the board, it had never been asked to speed ULURP so that a councilmember could vote on a project before a primary.
“The City Charter mandates that zoning changes be made according to the prescribed timetable of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure specifically to keep the electoral calendar out of land use policy-making,” wrote Councilmember David Greenfield in an e-mail to City Limits. Greenfield chairs the City Council’s Land Use Committee, which would also need to move quickly for the project to come to a vote before the primary.
“The notion that one decision-maker in the process should lean on another to render a quicker decision to meet an electoral deadline would be highly improper,” he continued. “The substantive independence of each decision in the process relies on the procedural independence afforded each participant to decide on an application within the Charter-mandated number of days allotted and not on any other timetable, especially not the political calendar. The bottom line is that it is both impossible and inappropriate to shorten the time-frame for a charter mandated review. Regardless, Council Member Cumbo has made it clear to me that she opposes this project. So whenever it arrives to the Council it will be rejected.”
As stated earlier, however, civic bodies are not required to use the full time allotted for review. It’s also unclear that the Council will definitely reject the proposal, given that in the course of negotiations, its possible the developer and Cumbo could reach an agreement for a revised proposal.
Both the borough president’s office and the community board declined to comment for this article.
It won’t be the last time, of course, that we’ll see the timelines of ULURP and campaign races work out in interesting—and, to some advocates—frustrating ways.
In the council districts where the Jerome Avenue and Bay Street rezonings are under deliberation, thanks to those rezonings’ postponements, councilmembers Vanessa Gibson, Fernando Cabrera and Debi Rose will likely not have to make any crucial decisions before the primary. Meanwhile, in East Harlem, local Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, the speaker, will cast the decisive vote on that rezoning before she leaves office at year’s end because of term limits. She will not face voters at all this year. But her position on the rezoning could affect the prospects of the person Mark-Viverito is backing to replace her, aide Diana Ayala.
Community Board 9 will hold a hearing to discuss the Bedford-Union armory project on June 21st at a location to be announced. The full board will convene to discuss the project on June 27th at MS. 67, 400 Empire Boulevard.