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A new stage of the housing development efforts that some say has remade East New York got underway this month with groundbreaking on a 227-acre project that will eventually include retail space, parks, a school and more than 2,000 affordable homes.

The Aug. 3 groundbreaking ceremony, attended by Mayor Bloomberg, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) Commissioner Shaun Donovan, was for the first phase of affordable housing that will include a mixture of one-, two- and three-family homes totaling 184 units. This phase will be completed by late 2007, HPD spokesman Neill Coleman said.

The entire development, known as Gateway Estates, will include 2,100 houses, condos and apartments, 164 units of senior housing, 625,000 square feet of retail space, four parks, a school campus and an emergency medical facility. East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC), through its Nehemiah project, will develop 1,500 homes including the first phase of housing. The Related Companies will develop the remaining homes and the retail space.

The site, Spring Creek, is a former municipal landfill unused since the 1950s. It was identified as a potential retail and residential development area 20 years ago, but HPD is only now in the process of selling the land, Coleman said. The Related Companies will purchase its portion of the land at market value. Revenue from the sale will help the city pay for infrastructure and allow EBC to purchase the land at $1 per unit. That way the city is “helping subsidize the affordability of housing,” he said.

“This is targeted at persons who never had the opportunity at the American dream and home ownership,” said Rev. David K. Brawley, co-chair of EBC. More than 18,000 people applied for the affordable housing. Out of them, 3,000 applicants were chosen by lottery and are currently being screened to see if they meet income and credit requirements. The single-family homes will cost approximately $160,000, and residents will be eligible for a below-market mortgage rate.

The Spring Creek development is not EBC’s first affordable housing project. EBC is an organization of 35 neighborhood churches, along with schools and homeowners’ associations. For almost 25 years, it has been working to rebuild East Brooklyn after years of neglect by the city and state left the area desolate, dangerous and deteriorating. In the early 1980s, EBC joined forces with the Industrial Areas Foundation to begin the Nehemiah project, named after the biblical prophet who helped rebuild Jerusalem. The idea behind Nehemiah was to construct a “critical mass” of affordable homes in one area in order to reverse a neighborhood, rather than build scattered units among older homes.

“Nehemiah has always depended on vast acres of land. If you want to make an impact, you have to build in mass,” said Lucille Clark, a representative from EBC. To date, EBC has constructed 2,900 homes in East New York and neighboring Brownsville.

“Before, East New York was considered the murder capital of the state. I believe that because of Nehemiah we’ve moved from murder capital to model community,” said Reverend Brawley. Since Nehemiah, he said, there has been a major reduction in crime and crack houses.

The new homes in Spring Creek are EBC’s most expensive project yet, said Clark. But, said Reverend Brawley, “we want to make New York a viable option for all New Yorkers and Brooklyn a viable option for all Brooklynites.” [08/14/06]

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