Budding community groups seek alternatives to mass development

July 16, 2014 By Matthew Taub Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle from Brooklyn Brief
Not your kid's Legos. The group "North West Bushwick Community Group," formed late last year, gets a brimer on zoning from the staff of City Council member Antonio Reynoso
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“Now under this scenario, what’s the floor area ratio (FAR)?” asked Lacey Tauber, Legislative Director for City Council Member Antonio Reynoso. She was addressing “North West Bushwick Community Group,” an organization concerned about responsible development meeting at a local coffee shop on Central Avenue Monday evening (the group meets weekly). “Remember, a FAR increase of 50% or more makes it financially desirable to tear down what’s there and build something new. That’s when the financial costs of construction becomes viable, vis-à-vis the profit.”

Members of the group, initially less than enthusiastic about the mathematical and legal hybrid world of real estate zoning, showed increasing confidence as they slowly grasped the subjects.

“Hotels are allowed ‘as-of-right’ in M1 districts, meaning developers have leverage when looking for a residential rezoning–they can threaten to build a hotel on the lot if the rezoning isn’t approved, because they wouldn’t need any extra approvals for it,” Tauber explained. “And a 197(a) vision plan is well meaning, but because it’s unenforceable, it doesn’t always have the success residents hope for.”

The group wasn’t alone in its desire to conquer such arcane subjects: across the borough, it’s an alphabet soup of activism for responsible development.

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NWBFTCCHTUANHDEBCGPSNAGGASAPCUFFHSPTUNYCLT. Armed with 21st century tools for organization, self-starter enthusiasm, and motivated by a wave of encroaching construction and an increasing lack of affordability, a myriad patchwork of community groups and neighborhood activists are educating themselves on land use and the law. They are ultimately interested in coordinating their efforts, but before they can muster a clear list of demands or proposed solutions, a learning curve must be embraced–and overcome.

The Bushwick community group, for example, formed late last year, in response to sweeping zoning changes approved by Community Board 4 (though certain concessions were eventually obtained). The goal was to take a visceral rallying cry for community protection and transform it into advocacy for responsible policy that prevents exploitation and displacement. Members understood that would mean allowing development and density in some areas in order to preserve others.

“We need to be part of positive change in the community and not passive to negative change–change that doesn’t meet community needs,” said Brigette Blood, a founding member. “Community land trusts, composting, neighborhood gardens, keeping the area affordable while protecting the character of low-rise areas against the secondary impact of high-rise construction. These are are concerns that we have to make sure are addressed.”

Call it activism 2.0. The stereotypical notion of irate chanting and boisterous antics have been replaced by a calm, agenda-oriented meeting, replete with modest benchmarks and an embrace of data and tech as a mechanism that can help level the playing field. Members made repeated mention of a “Bushwick Community Map,” currently in development, which will comb several real estate databases and pool information for local residents.

“There’s tons of data out there–open data that we can synthesize to determine places and people that are at risk of displacement, and also just have a visual way of seeing all the information available,” said Loren Halman, a community activist who lives in Bushwick. “The city has done a lot in the last few years to publicize a lot of this data, but it’s not always presented in a way that’s easy to view, or it doesn’t have a housing justice focus. This is how to view the data in a more accessible way. For people fighting for housing justice, and also for people who want to simply assess their own situation.”

Understanding the need for more affordable housing (and that the de Blasio administration will be looking to add density to transit-rich main corridors like Broadway), the group is exploring the idea of replicating the efforts of nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant, which allowed certain thoroughfares to undergo more construction in exchange for the preservation of others. Kevin Worthington, a Community Organizer with Council Member Reynoso’s office, explained how a large swath of Bushwick remains in the more ambiguous R6 zoning classification, where development of the entire neighborhood can go in several directions. Permitting some major hubs to be changed to an R6A designation, allowing more development, might counterintuitively grant the impetus to shift other blocks into the more protected R6B category, especially if part of a comprehensive agreement.

“There’s some beautiful homes here,” said Heather Troy of NYC Loft Tenants, who joined the meeting Monday night to coordinate the two groups’ efforts. “The character of Bushwick is really special. We should start from a place of trying to preserve that character, and then figure out what solutions let us do so.”

Other groups across the borough are coordinating similar efforts.

“We too face steep learning curves about the development process in NYC,” said Aga Trojniak, Coordinator and Organizer for the Flatbush Tenant Coalition, which fights luxury development and the accompanying displacement of tenants in Prospect Lefferts Gardens and Flatbush. “Zoning is very complicated, very math-heavy, [and] very inaccessible to the average person. Our tenant leaders are now untangling the web of NYC zoning, and what it means for our community.  Our leaders want to know what the developers know, so they can influence what our neighborhoods will look like in the next 5 years.”

Trojniak mentioned the proposed luxury tower at 626 Flatbush Ave as a perfect example–the zoning allows a 23 story tower, but very few people in the community knew that until the concrete recently started to be poured. The Flatbush Tenant coalition objects to State funding for such a large, out-of-scale structure that will offer apartments with exorbitant rents.

“Zoning, combined with New York State’s affordable housing policies, are what makes these injustices possible,” Trojniak said. “Both need to be changed, and our tenant leaders are working to change them.”

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