In the 1990s, after decades of disinvestment, redlining, and botched urban renewal schemes had ravaged Brownsville’s housing stock, residents surveyed the vacant land around them and planted the seeds for today’s community gardens. They started farmers markets and painted murals. A coalition of East Brooklyn churches built the Nehemiah homes, giving working class families a means to accrue wealth.
Today, Brownsville still has the highest poverty rate in Brooklyn, a whopping 15 percent unemployment rate, and, according to city statistics, $94.4 million of “unmet demand”: due to a dearth of local businesses, residents do much of their spending outside of the neighborhood. Relative to other city neighborhoods, there is still an abundance of publicly owned vacant land.
But change also appears on the horizon, with the beginnings of both private and public investment. New hotels are popping up, and, according to New York YIMBY, market-rate housing developers are starting to buy up land. There’s also a new café on Belmont Avenue that some deride as a sign of gentrification, according to James Brodick of the Brownsville Community Justice Center, though it’s actually owned by a native Brownsville family that received foundation funding.
On the public side, Brownsville’s Van Dyke Houses is one of the first developments to be targeted by NYCHA’s controversial NextGeneration Neighborhoods program, commonly referred to as “infill,” under which the city has contracted with a developer to build 188 income-restricted apartments on the public housing complex’s parking lot. The de Blasio administration also committed nearly $22 million to reconstruct the Brownsville Recreation Center in this year’s budget, and $30 million to revitalize Betsy Head Park this April.
These signs of change are cause for gratitude by some, and anxiety by others who fear they might be the next Brooklynites priced out of their neighborhood. Brownsville’s median rent is still second-to-lowest among all Brooklyn’s community districts, but only three Brooklyn neighborhoods—Williamsburg, Bushwick and Fort Greene—have seen their rent rise faster over the past decade.
Then, this summer, the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) announced it would be lead a community planning initiative to activate Brownsville’s remaining vacant parcels.
The initiative bears some resemblance to de Blasio’s neighborhood rezoning initiatives, with multiple city agencies convening in one place to solicit the feedback of community residents and develop a comprehensive plan, addressing issues across the spectrum, from street lighting to small business development.
But there is also a significant difference: HPD is not entering Brownsville with the intention of rezoning large swaths of the neighborhood to trigger private investment. Instead, it is focusing on soliciting community input to inform the Request for Proposals (RFPs) issued for each vacant site. Developers, once selected, may initiate zoning changes for their specific parcels. In total, HPD estimates that there’s the potential to develop nearly 2,000 new units of affordable housing in the neighborhood on vacant public sites and on private sites where HPD is already engaging with owners—and HPD is committed to ensuring that all housing on public vacant parcels would be income-restricted.
HPD’s priorities for the plan include building affordable housing, creating more retail spaces on Livonia Avenue, enhancing public safety by revitalizing vacant land and desolate streets, improving job access and health outcomes, and supporting small businesses and local arts. The project builds off “100 Days to Progress,” an initiative launched in the de Blasio administration’s first year that brought together about 20 agencies and a dozen community organizations to create short- and long-term projects to revitalize Brownsville.
“For a long time, the Brownsville community had been desiring the city to step in and work with the community on some revitalization efforts on economic development and vacant land, so I think that it’s great that the city is finally involved in conversations with the community. It’s sort of been a long time coming,” says Genese Morgan, chair of Community Board 16.
Many participants in the planning process told City Limits said they were impressed by the city’s engagement efforts. The city is partnering with almost 30 organizations to get information to residents. Approximately 75 people attended the first public meeting in July and about 90 attended the second in September, at which community stakeholders served as discussion facilitators. HPD has also attended community events and is using coUrbanize, an interactive online mapping tool, to solicit input into the future use of public vacant sites. The agency has posted signs on neighborhood streets encouraging residents to text their comments to the site.
“HPD has been very transparent and really inclusive,” says La’Shawn Allen-Muhammad, executive director of the Central Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation. “[What] we’re all working toward, including HPD, is [creating] a better Brownsville, but that it’s for the people who live here.”
Duane Kinnon, board chair of Friends of Brownsville Parks and a member of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Coalition of Young Professionals, was pleased that the city was not “starting from scratch,” but rather had acknowledged earlier planning efforts initiated by his groups and other organizations. And Bill Wilkins of the Local Development Corporation of East New York, an active participant in the East New York rezoning process and one of HPD’s partners for the Brownsville planning initiative (Board 16, Friends of Brownsville Parks and Ocean-Hill Brownsville Coalition of Young Professionals are among the other partners), said that while the success of the initiative must be measured by its outcome, he sees it as an improvement over the process in East New York.
“As we move forward, and the administration develops their playbook, they’re starting to understand and show sensitivity to the stakeholders in the community,” Wilkins says.
Yet some are not so optimistic. C. Aaron Hinton, founder of the local nonprofit Do You Enlightenment & Cultural Empowerment Services Inc., reflects back on past fruitless planning initiatives and is skeptical that the city will make use of residents’ feedback. He is also concerned that the city’s new housing might not be affordable to existing residents.
Councilmember Inez Barron, whose district encompasses parts of both Brownville and East New York and who voted against the East New York plan, has similar worries. She is disappointed that despite her and others’ advocacy, the administration did not substantially increase the number of apartments for extremely low-income families in its East New York plan, and is worried of a repeat in Brownsville.
In Barron’s view, even if the city doesn’t consider Brownsville one of its rezoning neighborhoods, Brownsville residents and their representatives need to be just as vigilant and work to ensure the initiative creates local jobs, housing affordable to existing residents and investments in local schools.
Youth facilities, restaurants…and housing?
According to HPD’s documentation, City Limits interviews and the feedback collected by the online mapping tool, Brownsville residents want to see vacant land revitalized with youth recreation centers, healthy supermarkets or food co-ops, parks, community gardens, non-profit organization space, cultural centers, and mom-and-pop businesses including restaurants, cafes, and bookstores, among other entities. Some expressed the desire for chain businesses like Red Lobster, Chic fil A or 7-Eleven.
Participants also asked the city for a free transfer between the 3 and the L train for two nearby stations that are not currently linked (in June, the MTA said it couldn’t pay for the free transfer until 2019), new bike lanes, renovations to make the train stations accessible for disabled residents, and funding to support youth programs, job training programs and small businesses, among other requests.
Although nearly 60 percent of Brownsville residents are rent-burdened, few people who sent feedback to coUrbanize recommended the creation of housing, HPD’s primary goal for the plan. Those who spoke with City Limits expressed differing attitudes on the necessity of more housing.
Kinnon said that neighborhood residents don’t sense that there is a housing deficit, but rather than there is a dearth of amenities, youth programs and work training opportunities. He says he would like to see some stand-alone youth centers. Others do want housing, as long as it’s affordable, along with amenities, and some add that the housing should include homeownership opportunities. Wilkins says that the city as a whole needs more housing, and since the administration can’t pay for all the commercial and community facilities Brownsville wants, it will need to rely on affordable housing developers, who are typically required to provide community and retail spaces on their ground floors.
The city has not yet begun to discuss what exactly “affordable” will mean in Brownsville. Some stakeholders are adamant that the plan include housing that targets lower incomes than the city’s past projects.
“We need low income housing and extremely low income housing for our community, not ‘affordable’ because ‘affordable’ is not ‘affordable’ for us,” says Hinton.
Barron says she wants the housing plans to reflect the needs of Brownsville’s current families, who she says in general make around $30,000. (The median income in Brownsville is $27,231, and 45 percent of residents make less than 30 percent Area Median Income [AMI], or $24,480 for a family of three).
“I’m very concerned and going to be watching it as it goes through… There have been too many things that have happened in the past that haven’t been in the best interests of local residents,” says Barron. “The mayor and the city are not building housing to accommodate people who are homeless and that’s unacceptable. We’re just moving people who are wealthy and can’t find housing in Manhattan into Brooklyn.”
Others, however, say that the housing should target a mix of incomes, including smaller-sized units affordable to middle-income young professionals, to retain some of the neighborhood’s college-educated offspring.
“Everyone should be able to find a place to live in the community,” says community board chair Morgan. “We don’t want to see just the really low income people benefit and the high income people benefit. That’s how you really diversify.”
For Mawuli Hormeku, another concern is making sure that housing development in Brownsville results in jobs and contracting opportunities for residents. Hormeku’s father, a Brownsville homeowner who is a beneficiary of the Nehemiah program and who also started his own non-profit called Nehemiah Economic Development, has been trying to acquire lots on Livonia Avenue for years. He and his father hope HPD’s new planning effort will be their opportunity to finally develop Livonia Avenue with affordable housing and a community event space, and they are committed to dedicating a percentage of their revenue back to the non-profit’s scholarship fund.
Kinnon could not comment on the merits of Hormeku’s proposal, but he agreed with Hormeku that in the past, Brownsville companies have had difficulty obtaining city contracts.
“The most important thing is if there are local people who are able and qualified to do the work, they need to be invited to the table to participate,” he says.
Demolishing community garden for housing
For the past few months, Brenda Duchene, the lead farmer of the Green Valley Community Garden on New Lots Avenue, has not been thinking about the potential for new local restaurants or improved street lighting. She’s been mourning that most of the farm, which is about twenty-years-old, could be demolished for housing.
Last December, thanks to the advocacy of organizations like 596 Acres, the farm was included among 34 gardens transferred from a list of developable properties to the Parks Department for permanent protection. In April, however, Duchene learned that only one of the five lots that constitute the garden had been transferred to Parks—leaving most of it still on HPD’s list of developable sites. Duchene went to the July planning initiative meeting to voice her complaint, but HPD did not offer to transfer the rest of the parcels. The agency, which says it must make tough decisions to strike a balance between preserving gardens and finding space for affordable housing, still expects the gardeners to move plants from the unlicensed area into the single lot.
Duchene says that will require the farmers to demolish a greenhouse, no longer invite schools to visit in the winter, remove their beans, plum and cherry trees, and ditch their aspirations for a year-long farmers market.
“You have vacant lots and you’re saying you want to do gardens on some of these lots, but why would you destroy a garden that’s already in existence? It makes no sense,” says Duchene.
Creating further alarm for the staff at 596 Acres, the entire garden, along with eight other community gardens that have been officially transferred to the Parks Department, were marked as “vacant” on the map issued by HPD as part of the Brownsville planning process, according to the organization’s director Paula Segal. Following inquiries by Segal and City Limits, HPD corrected the map and apologized for the error.
City Limits’ coverage of housing and development is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation and the New York Community Trust.