Abigail Savitch-Lew

Members of the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision are forced to leave City Hall after protesting.

On Thursday, the City Council unanimously approved the Jerome Avenue rezoning, the de Blasio administration’s fourth neighborhood rezoning and first in the Bronx.

While the final tally was 48-0 (with three members absent), the zoning deal was controversial and the moments leading up to the vote were tense—with protesters disrupting the vote and then forced to evacuate City Hall.

The rezoning encourages residential and commercial development in a 92-block area including the Jerome Avenue corridor, most of which is currently zoned for auto-uses, and some neighborhood crossstreets. The rezoning would require a percentage of all new development to be income-targeted under the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy, and due to the current weakness of the market, the Department of City Planning predicts that new construction in the near term would be subsidized and likely 100-percent income-targeted.

The plan, which was negotiated between the administration and local councilmembers Vanessa Gibson and Fernando Cabrera, will also be accompanied by a suite of $189 million in investments and other neighborhood initiatives pertaining to affordable housing, economic development, open space, education, workforce development and more.

In remarks preceding the vote, Cabrera called the rezoning a “prototype for future rezoning projects setting high standards for collaboration and community input.”

He and Gibson heralded the many initiatives that would come with the rezoning, including the creation of two brand new schools, the preservation of 2,500 units of existing affordable housing, resources to help auto-workers get ahead in their careers, efforts to ensure responsible contracting, and investment in subsidized housing, among others.

“This has been one of the most difficult and challenging decisions I have ever made as an elected official, but you know what: At the end of day I’m going to leave the district better than the way I got it,” said Gibson, adding later that, “it is going to stimulate the exact kind of housing that we need in the borough of the Bronx.”

Opposition says displacement in the cards

The Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision, a coalition of tenant organizations, unions, and others, continues to oppose the plan and says that the rezoning has the potential to strengthen market pressures in the area, resulting in increased displacement of local residents and small businesses, including auto-shops. They’ve also skeptical of the initiatives in the plan to help local workers gain jobs.

Prior to the vote, coalition members rallied on the steps of City Hall and recited their specific concerns while chanting, “Housing Is A Human Right: Not Just for the Rich and White!” and calling for affordable housing, 2,000 vouchers to prevent displacement and local hiring. During the Council meeting, when Cabrera and Gibson began describing the merits of the plan, coalition members in the balcony interrupted with chants until Council Speaker Corey Johnson asked them to be removed. They were slowly moved out of the building by security.

Asked by City Limits to explain why the final plan did not include an expansion of the areas that would remain zoned for auto-businesses—a central demand of the coalition, and one that Gibson had said earlier she agreed with—Gibson said that most of the potential auto-areas were in Cabrera’s district, and that furthermore, it became difficult to expand the auto-zones without running into sites where owners had already expressed in interest in producing affordable housing. Cabrera could not be reached in time for comment. [See Update Below]

In a blog post, Emily Goldstein of the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development (ANHD), criticized the logic of the many rezonings targeting low-income neighborhoods of color.

“Rich neighborhoods are able to get things like school improvements, park repairs, and basic infrastructure maintenance without having to ‘trade’ for something City Hall wants that local residents oppose. Poor neighborhoods have decades of backlogged needs, the direct result of explicit government disinvestment,” she wrote, explaining that councilmembers in poor neighborhoods thus feel they can only get investment by accepting a rezoning, which she argues will accelerate displacement. “Rather than declare many neighborhoods off limits and continue to place the burden of citywide policy needs on low-income communities of color, maybe it’s time we had a citywide conversation about how to share the responsibilities of development equitably, add density where it actually makes sense to, and invest resources based on the actual needs of communities.”

Councilmembers offer praise, voice frustration

Most of the councilmembers offered words of support for the Jerome Avenue rezoning plan, including two of the councilmembers whose neighborhoods have gone through rezonings.

“There’s a lot of anxiety, and I get that, but let me tell you about what’s happening in East New York,” said councilmember Rafael Espinal, who said there were an unprecedented number of applications for affordable housing with no market-rate housing in his district. So repeated Councilmember Donovan Richards of the Rockaways, saying there were nine privately owned sites that will be developed in his area with 100 percent subsidized housing. “One of the things I [told] Councilmember Gibson when she called and asked for advice…[is] leadership is not about winning a popularity contest,” he said.

But Councilmember Inez Barron, reminding the body that she voted against the East New York rezoning and other rezoning plans, said she was voting in favor of Jerome Ave but with hesitation. She expressed concern that the Council did not have the tools to prioritize the needs of the poor, and said the body should consider redesigning the mandatory inclusionary housing program, which the Council passed two years ago and which critics say does not require enough affordable housing or that the rent levels aren’t sufficiently low.

She was still voting for the rezoning, however, saying, “There’s still the opportunity, as has been explained to me, for market rate to come to that area even before the regulatory agreements…terminate or reach their expiration date and I’m concerned about that…”

Councilmember Carlos Menchaca echoed the call to reexamine the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing policy and also praised Johnson for following up on one of his campaign promises: to allocate more funds to the Council’s operating budget, including its Land Use team so it could increase its research on rezonings. Councilmember Jumaane Williams also called for revisions to mandatory inclusionary housing and warned of the potential for Jerome Avenue’s market to heat up over time.

Councilmember Antonio Reynoso said that the upcoming charter revision process also provided an opportunity to “look at the way we move through the land-use process, and maybe allow these communities to come in at a front end and let us know what they’re thinking about instead of at the tail end, and we won’t have the same type of discourse where it looks like we’re working against each other when really we’re all on the same page.”

Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez noted that he was next—with the Inwood rezoning to be voted on by the Council this summer. “Gentrification is real in our city and we have to understand the feeling of many great organizers,” he said, adding that it was vital “to learn from previous rezonings to be able to do future rezonings much better.” And poking fun at Cabrera and Gibson, he swore he’d be able to secure double whatever Jerome Avenue had received.

Meanwhile, the mayor issued a statement saying the Jerome Avenue plan will ensure the surrounding neighborhoods will “for the first time ever, get the overarching city investments and protections it richly deserves,” while also helping address the city’s effort to accommodate the city’s growth through “residential development – including permanently affordable housing” while making “key investments in businesses, jobs, job training and retraining.” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, who had approved the rezoning on the condition of several changes, also heralded the final plan.

“The rezoning of the Jerome Avenue corridor must work for everyone. The agreements that have been secured by my office and the City Council will help do just that, and I look forward to working with the administration to begin the implementation of the initiatives and programs they have agreed to provide,” he wrote in a statement.

In other news, Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer of Long Island City (where another rezoning may be in the pipeline) celebrated the securing of two new schools in his district, while South Bronx councilmember Rafael Salamanca (who’s district includes Southern Boulevard, also the subject of a rezoning study) heralded the conversion of a detention center in Hunts Point into 100 percent affordable housing. The council also voted to extend rent regulation for another three years, with Johnson vowing to campaign for the strengthening of the state’s rent protections. In addition, Rodriguez reintroduced the long-stalled Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which would create a new program for commercial lease renewal negotiations and which advocates contend would help protect small businesses from displacement.

Update: After publication, Councilmember Cabrera wrote to City Limits to clarify why he did not expand the auto-retention areas—areas where the auto-zoning would be left in place:

“While the auto industry was definitely one of the important issues, it was necessary to engage this issue in a broader vision of the future of the Jerome Avenue corridor and the type of uses, including density and character, that the community called for. The vision that emerged from the community was one that balanced affordable housing, commercial and retail, and automotive businesses, alongside with major investments in parks, schools, streets, and other critical infrastructure.”

He added that his office looked carefully at the needs of the auto industry, engaged with auto businesses and workers, and carefully studied potential proposals for expanding the retention areas. He further said that “zoning isn’t our only tool,” and he noted that he and Gibson secured other resources to help the auto-industry, including training programs, grant programs to help with relocation and other costs, and compliance assistance.

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