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.

21 thoughts on “Downzoning Differences: Clash Over Housing Projections Led to Bushwick Stalemate

  1. Bravo, City Limits, as usual. City gov’t is owned by developers. It should be almost automatic that community plans become policy—that’s democracy. Profit mongers hate democracy. There should be no City v. Community; the city is its communities.

  2. The days of people walking their pit bull and selling dime bags are over. If you don’t want to move to Reading, PA, you are going to have to get smart and work very hard. The area isn’t changing in your favor. It’s so sad, the dead enders who scream that this is “MY neighborhood” but after 4 generations the family doesn’t own a two-family. Please don’t hate the free market and turn to Marxism. That’s just poring gasoline on the fire that’s pushing you out.

    • So, what you’re saying, Jose, is that the only reasons why a family might not own a two-bedroom house in a gentrifying neighborhood or be concerned about displacement is if they:

      a) sell drugs
      b) are stupid, or
      c) are lazy.

      and if they don’t embrace the current version of a “free market” (complete with mortgage interest tax deductions, property tax breaks, etc.), they are Marxists?

      It must be nice to live in so simple a world. What does one need to ingest to get there?

      • Nah man, I said two-family. That way one apartment pays the mortgage. Can you read? You’re also putting words in my mouth because you’re hysterical someone disagrees with your righteous high horse.

        If you don’t believe that the freedom going to live in some other part of the country will benefit you, then you are lazy, stupid, and possibly on drugs.

        You’d probably agree generations of white people who live in Washington and Oregon states who traditionally clear cut timber need to find a new job.

        And if finding a new job means those white people can’t live in Portland or Eugene anymore then I imagine, in your world, that’s just too bad. Am-I-right????

        You probably also believe the generations of coal miners in West Virginia and Kentucky need to figure out a new line of work. And if that means they can’t live in their blue mountain paradise, that they can’t AFFORD the live where they have traditionally lived for GENERATIONS… then they should pick up and move to wherever there’s opportunity.

        You probably think, hey that’s just what needs to happen. You probably believe that. Unless you think we should just build them housing and give them resources to keep living there because that’s the right thing to do.

        Times change, people move around America freely because of jobs. Boom towns came, setup, and left when the copper ran out.

        No one group of people owns an entire neighborhood. Maybe a Native American reservation, okay. But anyone can move anywhere. I moved all over America and I don’t feel like I was kicked around even when I was legitimately “displaced”. It’s not a “fair” world. No where does it say “life, liberty and the pursuit of fairness”. You all need to grow up. Gentrification is a giant whatever. People are free to move around.

        Your version of free market is like Cuba. Google what’s going on there now. All my friends in Havana are living without toothpaste. You want to live without toilet paper? And if it’s so great, let them decide to leave! The island would be empty. You can’t even relocate within that nation. Imagine that! Imagine not being able to legally relocate to Miami, LA, Seattle, wherever! You’re blind to how good we have it.

        • Wow. The guy who dismisses thousands of people as felonious, stupid or lazy says I’m on a high horse. At least irony isn’t dead. Of course we should invest public money to keep timber-cutting and coal-mining communities intact. Wherever the market has led working-class people into a dead end, society has an obligation to help. And whatever the merits or demerits of the Brooklyn Community Plan, comparing a contextual rezoning proposal to Cuban communism is flatly absurd.

          I am well aware of how good some of us have it. I just don’t think that justifies screwing everybody else.

          • So we should listen to the Bushwick Community Plan because that’s local residents participating democratically, but when the same local residents don’t want any more homeless shelters let’s throw the local democratic process out the window, right? That’s basically Reynoso. What a bunch of children. We need housing. Not a rezoning that adds a zero sum gain to what is currently legal to build. Why even rezone if that’s the conclusion?

          • Screwing everyone else is using ethnicity and “gentrification” to defend a FYIGM agenda. Which is what the Bushwick community plan was.

          • Yes. 1500 new affordable apartments in the BCP. That means 3000 or more folks on the subways platforms and in the parks, in line at the supermarket, looking for parking. Very exclusionary of Reynoso and company to demand that, while permitting only thousands of market-rate apartments as per current zoning. How dare they!

          • To rely on your version of democracy would be insane. The “people” of Bushwick don’t get wholesale decision making on land use. We may as well let each land owner vote for what they can do with their own parcel. You have a limited and close mind to different opinions.

          • Jose, ask yourself a question: If my mind were closed to other opinions, why would I keep posting yours on the website I run?

            If Bushwick doesn’t get to decide its future, who does? And if that decision-making entity treats Bushwick unfairly compared with other areas, what recourse is there for those who would prefer to see a city that grows equitably?

            It’s fair to argue that the BCP didn’t do enough to embrace the citywide goal of more density. You can make the argument that the Plan’s merely permitting the amount of market-rate housing that’s now as-of-right is not enough, even with the 1500 or so affordable apartments tacked on. You can also make the argument that, whatever the merits of the BCP’s unit number, it overestimates how many of those market-rate units would actually get built under their proposed zoning.

            But even if one accepts those criticisms, at least the BCP accepts new units. Some neighborhoods during the Bloomberg administration, which rezoned 40 percent of the city, got to lock in zoning that effectively permitted no new growth, or far, far less than would have been as-of-right. And some of those areas where not transit deserts or otherwise poorly suited to more density.

            Note that the Bushwick process stalled when the city refused to even add the BCP to the environmental review. That would have, in theory at least, allowed the plans to be sized up side by side. Its curious that they city did’t want that comparison to occur.

          • A second point I continue to comment on is the failure of Mr. Reynoso to champion the collective Bushwick opinion that we are fully saturated with homeless shelters. He seems to believe in the “democracy” of his local meetings which produce the BCP, but ignores the local sentiment against additional homeless shelters in our district, which is housing MORE than its fair share. This failure is on Mr. Reynoso’s part is as academic as 1+1=2.

    • My entire point is that Bushwick is NOT making it’s decision. The BCP was not Bushwick. As a pro-development voice, I would have wasted my time going to endless meetings. Same with my entire constituents who also believe strongly that we need housing, not idiots pretending to be democratic while steamrolling over all other voices. Perhaps the city understood the same issue as they were privy to ALL voices, by welcoming all input, something the BCP did NOT. A point you continue to ignore.

      Also, I will put this right here:

      Because, hey, you’re open minded!!!

      • Actually, yes — I wrote five years ago about the fact that some research doesn’t ratify the simplest version of the displacement story. Fact is, the research is pretty bad at validating any version of what’s going on. That Crain’s article was weird — a lot of that research came out months ago, but Crain’s treated it as breaking news. The Furman Study raised some interesting points, but the City Planning certainly didn’t prove that displacement didn’t occur.

        As fas ignoring you point, I’m not. I’m just not going to credit A) your decision not to participate in the BCP as proof that they would have ignored you or B) your contention that the city judiciously took all opinions into account as proof that either is true. Again, ask yourself: Why did the city not add the BCP to the environmental review? What would have been so damaging about a side by side comparison? Isn’t it odd that th BCP welcomed that, but the city didn’t?

        • The city was very wise. Instead of wasting additional resources, in order to develop a plan which very likely would have been shut down by the insidious politicians who ultimately need to okay the rezoning, the city punted.

          If councilmen Espinal and Reynoso who share Bushwick had said no after much additional work and compromise, the city council would have followed their lead and not okay’ed the rezoning. It would have simply been a waste of the city’s time and a bad positioning for whenever this does happen.

          The city choosing to wait for new councilmen and a new mayor is incredibly wise. Espinal has since resigned from a public office he was elected to, which is extremely unethical in my opinion. The plan they developed can be re-activated once Reynoso is termed out and moves on to the public sector, or the role of a powerless borough president who has no role in ULURP (he would basically be a cheerleader).

          A second point I continue to comment on is the failure of Mr. Reynoso to champion the collective Bushwick opinion that we are fully saturated with homeless shelters. He seems to believe in the “democracy” of his local meetings which produce the BCP, but ignores the local sentiment against additional homeless shelters in our district, which is housing MORE than its fair share.

          This failure is on Mr. Reynoso’s part is as academic as 1+1=2. I guess your position as an opinionated journalist is not to comment, as it could hurt your relationship with his office. I can respect that.

          • Right, because — by your logic — I’ve got to preserve my relationship with a lame-duck Councilman who might become a toothless borough president. Golly, I hope so! Can you imagine the wealth and fame that await if I keep that potent soup simmering?

            I don’t know what Reynoso’s stance on shelters has been or whether it is at odds with the larger neighborhood’s, but I’d note that many local organizations–including the community board–are allied with him on the BCP. It is possible that, even as a group, they don’t reflect the bulk of opinion in the area. It is also possible, and please don’t take this as hurtful, that you don’t either.

          • I’m glad the city punted. Next time maybe they can go from M to R. Reynoso couldn’t care. He is a career politician. He just wants to come out looking like he protected the majority of the population. The whole thing is yawn.

  3. By shutting down all talks, both sides lose. I recognize the need for affordable housing, but asking for 100% affordable and no other M to R is just not reasonable. Developers cannot make money on privately owned sites by building fully affordable housing. The numbers just don’t work – its very simple, if revenue is less than expenses, then it’s a loss. The city can give away sites and pay developers fees to build fully affordable housing, but that math doesn’t work on privately owned land. There has to be a balance.

    Those in favor of nothing happening talks about displacement – how is displacement even possible now that stabilized/controlled units are forever regulated. As long as people pay their rent, they can never be displaced. Reynoso talks about preserving jobs – the only real major employer in Bushwick is boars head. How long do you think until they leave because traffic is so onerous to navigate around the density. Manufacturing does not work next to residential. If Reynoso was so concerned about jobs, he would allow higher density office, or hotel – which would employ a number of people. Doing nothing is NOT the solution nor will it ever hold up in the long run.

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