Espinal and Reynoso
Councilmembers Rafael Espinal (left) and Antonio Reynoso helped to create the Bushwick Community Plan and are pushing for it to remain in active consideration as formal review of the administration’s rezoning proposal looms.

Bushwick elected officials, community groups and residents sent a joint letter this week urging the de Blasio administration to include the community zoning framework outlined in the Bushwick Community Plan within the scope of the city’s environmental review process for City Hall’s planned rezoning.

The joint letter was signed on by Councilmembers Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Espinal (both share parts of Bushwick within the rezoning plan), the Bushwick Community Plan steering committee and Community Board 4’s chairperson and district manager. 

According to Reynoso’s office, if the community plan is not included in the scope of the environmental review, the rezoning process will not move any further. 

The city has until Jan 10, 2020 to respond to the request. 

The letter notes that once the city’s environmental impact statement (EIS) — a document analyzing the potential impacts of a land-use change —  has been released and then certified, it jump starts the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) clock. The Bushwick stakeholders are concerned that the process will race forward without addressing important issues raised by the Bushwick community. 

The city’s Bushwick rezoning proposal came after a group of local stakeholders, including Brooklyn Community Board 4, generated their own blueprint, known as the Bushwick Community Plan (BCP), for rezoning the neighborhood. The mayor’s proposal differs in significant ways from the Bushwick Community Plan. 

The letter said that one of the goals of the Bushwick Community Plan was “creating processes that allow residents to determine what their neighborhood will look like in the future.”

“For over five years in the Bushwick planning process, we never wavered from that commitment,” said the letter. “When Community Board 4 (BK) requested that the local Council Members conduct a zoning study for the neighborhood to address out-of-context development in Bushwick, we jointly determined to implement a community planning model that placed the decision-making power in the hands of Bushwick stakeholders.”

Cites deep history

The letter traces the neighborhood’s history back to policies such as “planned shrinkage,” under which neglected communities like Bushwick saw the withdrawal of essential services such as police patrols, garbage removal, street repairs and fire services. 

Despite the lack of capital investments, the letter says, residents fought to rebuild their community and now they are fighting again in the face out-of-context development, rapid displacement and rising rents transform the area. The letter stressed the need for new zoning.

“The entire neighborhood is mapped with a zoning district that is nearly 60 years old, produces buildings that have little relation to the surrounding neighborhood, and, more importantly, do not include any deeply affordable housing. If Bushwick’s zoning is not updated, the neighborhood will continue to receive thousands of market-rate units and no affordable housing, furthering the displacement of our family, friends, and neighbors,” stated the letter. 

According to the NYU Furman Center data, in 2017 the median household income in the neighborhood was $51,622, and the poverty rate in Bushwick was 27 percent in 2017 compared to an estimated 18 percent citywide. The median rent increased from $1,020 in 2006 to $1,460 in 2017 while rent for units being advertised for lease in 2017 was $2,530 in Bushwick, compared to $2,500 across Brooklyn and $2,800 across all five boroughs. 

The letter laid out some important recommendations from the community plan, like preserving one- to three-family homes in the residential mid-blocks, protecting manufacturing districts and limiting the volume of new market-rate building to what would occur if no zoning occurred, with additional units required to be deeply affordable. It insists that no no parcels on Broadway be given the zoning designation R8A, where building heights can reach up to 14 stories, except for 100 percent affordable development on public sites.

Major changes loom for Bushwick

The Department of City Planning projects the city’s proposed rezoning of Bushwick could lead to an increase of 5,613 units of housing, which includes 1,873 permanently affordable housing units–although the income levels for those units have yet to be defined. Altogether, the area could also see an additional 17,849 residents and 6,116 workers in the neighborhood over the next 10 years, according to draft scope, a document describing the details of a land-use action and outlining the methods the city will use to study the project’s potential impacts, which will be further detailed in the EIS.

The rezoning study area is an approximately 300-block area of Bushwick bounded by Wyckoff Avenue and Irving Avenue to the north, Moffat and Vanderveer streets to the east, Broadway to the south, and Flushing Avenue to the west.

The city has agreed to some midblock preservation on side streets with the proposed zoning for R5B and R6B, where the height will be capped between three and four stories in order to preserve existing character of the neighborhood. Those midblocks make up an estimated 70 percent of the rezoning study area. Other more commercial streets such as Central, Wilson and Knickerbocker would add density including affordable housing and room for commercial use. The city proposes those avenues to be zoned for R6A and R7A, which would allow for building heights to reach between seven to eight stories.

Along transit corridors Broadway, Myrtle and Wyckoff avenues, the city aims to promote higher density and mixed-use development (which includes residential, commercial and industrial). The greatest density would be Broadway, where heights could reach from 11 stories to 16 stories maximum; on Myrtle Avenue heights could reach from nine to 13 stories by the elevated trains, according to DCP. But those heights could be a real deal breaker, according to the Bushwick community. 

A focus on process

The letter said that since 2016, when the Department of City Planning and other agencies joined the community planning process, no “parameters” were set “around their engagement with the process or their willingness to implement new zoning, allowing the community to craft a plan that made the most sense for Bushwick.” The letter urged the city to include the community plan rather than walk away from the community’s hard work.

“After engaging in this way for so many years, we simply cannot go back on our commitment and move forward with a plan that does not reflect the goals and priorities of the community,” said the letter.

The de Blasio administration has already rezoned six neighborhoods; East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway, East Harlem, Jerome Avenue, Inwood and Bay Street in Staten Island. Besides Bushwick, there are pending plans for Gowanus and a study underway for Southern Boulevard in the Bronx for a possible rezoning. 

During a city-initiated rezoning or project, the city must do an environmental review to understand and assess the impact a proposed project may have in the neighborhood. While the review is mandated by state law, it is prepared according to guidelines maintained by the  Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination. Impact studies can run hundreds of pages and size-up a project’s impacts on housing, business, traffic, shadows, open-space and more. If the scale of a projected impact crosses a threshold set out in the guidelines, the city is supposed to propose mitigation measures.

The EIS process has been faulted for its failure to adequately assess some risks, like displacement risks to rent-stabilized housing, as well as for a lack of certainty around mitigation steps. All in all, the EIS is meant as an advisory document for the community board and borough president, who make non-binding recommendations under ULURP, and for the Planning Commission and City Council, whose decisions on land-use matters actually count.

The letter argued that the city could establish an important precedent in Bushwick:

“Bushwick represents an incredible opportunity for your administration to center community planning as a valuable tool in strengthening neighborhoods for the future. Implementing the BCP would affirm that the city is a reliable partner in this work and that local government respects and values their experiences and needs. As we face a major housing shortage in the City of New York, it is more critical than ever that we build trust, implement credible processes, and deliver on community driven priorities to accelerate the development of new housing. New York City faces immense challenges in the coming years, and we will be able to meet them only if we work together in a spirit of trust and mutual understanding.”