Adi Talwar

This site at Evergreen Avenue and Menahan Street in Bushwick has already been redeveloped. Local stakeholders and city officials disagreed on how much housing might be built were no rezoning to occur.

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The possible Bushwick rezoning came to halt earlier this year after a terse exchange of letters between local stakeholders and the de Blasio administration.

Among other disputes, the two sides disagreed on what might seem like a simple, factual question: whether or not the stakeholders’ vision for the neighborhood–the Bushwick Community Plan, which the administration rejected–was a “downzoning.”

After watching out-of-context development, rapid displacement and rising rents transform the area, Bushwick Councilmembers Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Espinal in 2013 convened a steering committee to prepare a “community plan” for how to react to the disruptive growth. That plan was released in 2018. The de Blasio administration, which sat in on the meetings that produced the Bushwick Community Plan, released its own Bushwick rezoning proposal last April. 

As the administration’s proposal moved toward formal consideration late last year, Reynoso and allies demanded the city consider the Community Plan as well as its own plan in preparing the environmental impact statement—a legally-required assessment of the effect a land-use change will have on local conditions.

The city refused.  In a January letter from Deputy Mayor for Housing and Development Vicki Been to Reynoso, the administration insisted the community’s plan would be a “downzoning”–in other words, that it would reduce the amount of housing that could legally be built in the area. 

“This approach is fundamentally a downzoning,” Been wrote. “It would reduce density significantly in many areas while spurring the creation of few new homes, deeply affordable or otherwise, in others. These outcomes run counter to the city’s goals of the rezoning, which would be to encourage new-mixed-income housing to prevent displacement spurred by current market forces while promoting a diverse, healthy and inclusive neighborhood and city.”

For many of the Community Plan steering committee members, the Been letter was dismissive of people who had participated in years of meetings to try to achieve a balanced rezoning. Beyond being offended by her tone, some disagreed with her logic on the Bushwick Community Plan proposal. 

Assessing development potential

The Community Plan has some defining principles: preserving one- to three-family homes in the residential mid-blocks, protecting manufacturing districts and prohibiting parcels on Broadway from being given the zoning designation R8A, where building heights can reach up to 14 stories, except for 100 percent affordable development on public sites.  

“The structure of the zoning for the Bushwick plan was to have a balance of [places] where you’re downzoning–bringing down development potential–and then [places] where you’re upzoning, [where] we are increasing that potential,” said Chris Walters, Rezoning Technical Assistance Coordinator at Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD), who provided technical assistance to the steering committee. “And that generally followed the same framework that the city was using, which was to bring most of the mid-blocks down in development potential and then to increase potential along certain avenues like Broadway, Myrtle, Wyckoff.”

The Community Plan proposal also would limit the volume of new market-rate buildings to what would be likely to occur if no rezoning took place–what is know in planning parlance as the “no-action scenario.” Any net increase in units beyond the no-action scenario would be required to be deeply affordable.

The drafts of the Community Plan estimated that under the existing zoning an additional 6,000 housing units would be created in Bushwick over the next 10 years. The Community Plan rezoning proposal restricted capacity to that number of market-rate units. With additional “affordable housing” tacked on, the Community Plan plan projected 7,500 new housing units might get built. 

Differing methodologies

Because the Community Plan creates the possibility of 25 percent more housing than is possible under current zoning, its backers contend it is not a downzoning.

But that contention rests on their prediction of how many market-rate units could be built under the current zoning, and how many might be created after their proposed zoning changes. And predicting how many units might be built under either scenario is not an exact science.

The de Blasio administration estimated that, if there was no rezoning action taken, Bushwick could expect an increase of 1,678 housing units over the next 10 years–significantly fewer than the Community Plan’s estimate. City Planning projected in the Bushwick draft scope that 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. 

Community Plan supporters believe the city drastically under-estimates how many units might be built in the absence of a rezoning. 

The Community Plan steering committee identified “soft sites” that were likely to see development without a rezoning. According to the  City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) Technical Manual, “soft sites are sites where a specific development is not currently proposed or being planned, but may reasonably be expected to occur ” within a projected timeframe. 

“For example,” said Walters via email, “we project that without a rezoning there are 302 lots just on the mid-blocks that might see development totaling 3,827 units. In the Draft Scope of Work the city projects that without a rezoning there are 19 lots on the mid-blocks that might see development totaling 104 units. We’d contend that their numbers don’t match the reality on the ground.”

But according to City Planning, the Bushwick Community Plan overestimated how many units would be created under the Community Plan’s revised zoning. 

City Planning says the Community Plan proposes lower densities than the de Blasio plan along the transit corridors, resulting in fewer soft sites and lower development potential. For example,  under deBlasio’s proposal, the new zoning allows 12 stories instead of six, offering developers a chance to go higher. That makes it more likely, they say, that a building will be redeveloped in the short-term, meaning that more affordable affordable units would be created under mandatory inclusionary housing.

City Planning says the Community Plan also erred by assuming that community facilities would be redeveloped as housing, that existing large buildings, including sites with up to 60 apartments, would be redeveloped, and that there’d be residential ground-floor uses across the district, regardless of whether or not the building is along a commercial or retail corridor. 

A process breaks down

Lopez and Walters both say the steering committee attended a meeting last year with Department of City Planning officials where the local advocates asked for the city to take a look at their soft site analysis and compare it with city’s. They have not gotten a favorable response from City Planning, they say. 

“We basically run our analysis using the same methodology that the Department of City Planning uses. The only way we can have a conversation about the numbers and who is accurate is if we compare apples to apples. We’ve given [them] our soft-site analysis. We’re asking [the city] to basically give us the same in return,” said Lopez, co-executive director of Make the Road. 

City Planning says it is aware of the community’s requests for further conversations and is working on a path on to accommodate them. Given that Espinal has now left government, and the administration’s recent decision to forego a Southern Boulevard rezoning, it is uncertain whether anyone will take that path.