Rezoning fight in Sunset Park has residents divided on housing solutions

December 16, 2020 Editorial Staff
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By Sophia Lebowitz

Elizabeth Canela, project manager for Totem, a developer based in Brooklyn, has become a main character in the current rezoning fight in Sunset Park. In 1999 she and her family were priced out of their Sunset Park apartment and pushed into public housing. “That’s a lot of why I wanted to learn development,” she said.

Totem describes their approach to development as holistic. Canela works across all of the company’s special projects as project manager. To some, Totem’s rezoning proposal represents the very hardships Canela faced. After the recent withdrawal of the Industry City rezoning proposal, Sunset Park residents find themselves facing yet another rezoning, this time focused on housing. Totem wants to turn 747 4th Ave., now a Dunkin Doughnuts, into a mixed use apartment building.

Canela said she believes that developers can have a positive impact on communities and that at Totem the founders are working to do good within the systems in place. “There are bad actors and good actors within development,” said Canela.

Totem is trying to show they are the good guys, especially Canela who said it has been difficult, given her experience with housing, to communicate with the community about this project. “Admittedly it’s been hard,” she said, “there are real feelings of anger, angst, and fear around change.”

Antoinette Martinez, a Sunset Park resident and member of Brooklyn’s Community Board 7, said she felt it was inappropriate for Totem to attempt to speak with community board members before they voted on the proposal. “I was personally contacted by Elizabeth Canela before the vote. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person,” she said.

“We cannot allow conversation to become outlawed,” said Canela, who felt there was no conflict of interest in reaching out to Martinez. She said she reached out because “there were misconceptions about the project on social media and we saw community members, including Antoinette, passing them off as facts.”

Martinez also said that it seemed like senior members of the community board had more access to information about the project, and earlier access, than the community at large.

The proposal is currently going through the universal land use review procedure and Borough President Eric Adams has about 60 days to make his recommendation. The community board approved the rezoning in a 24-16 vote. Martinez said “a lot of folks on the board are homeowners. They aren’t challenging current policies.”–>

Cesar Vargas, a staff member for Sunset Park’s Council Member, Carlos Menchaca, said the councilman is awaiting Borough President Adams’ recommendation. “I think at this moment we’re still trying to listen, we’re still trying to engage with both stakeholders, particularly with the community,” said, Vargas.

This is an important decision for Council Member Menchaca. He recently announced his candidacy for mayor.

Council Member Menchaca may go against the community board’s vote. Vargas said the overwhelming negative response from the community during the Borough President’s public hearing did not go unnoticed.

747 Fourth Ave. is the site where Totem is seeking a rezoning to build a mixed-use apartment building. Photo by Sophia Lebowitz

David Estrada, director of the Sunset Park 5th Avenue Business Industrial District and former chief of staff for Councilmember Menchaca, said “ultimately what the community board says doesn’t matter, what Eric Adams says doesn’t matter, the councilmember has the last word.”

Borough President Eric Adams, who also announced his candidacy, was not present at the hearing. His absence, Martinez said, was telling for Sunset Park residents concerned about gentrification.

“There is going to be a new mayor and we are looking for someone to step up and create effective housing policy change especially with the land use process,” said Martinez.

The affordability is determined by the Average Median Income of the entire city, which is currently about $113,000 for a family of four, according to the NYC department of Housing Preservation and Development. This is higher than Sunset Park’s median household income for a four person household, which is at $80,174, according to Census Reporter. Usually when buildings fall into Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, like 747 4th Ave., the affordable units are based on 60% of AMI.

“This developer came with a lot of give. They are doing more than they are required to do. They want to create something useful and profitable,” said Estrada. Estrada is also a member of the community board, he voted in favor of the project.

Elizabeth Canela

Totem is offering more. “We are committing to less than 60% AMI, our affordable units will be offered at between 30 and 60%,” said Canela. This would give residents bargaining power with other developers who claim they cannot do less than 60%. This promise is not binding until the project is approved, after which AMI percentage gets negotiated with the Fifth Avenue Committee, an outside organization partnering with Totem.

“I think it’s not so much about the percentage but is really about the ultimate result of how much affordable housing is created,” said Vargas. Of the about 35 affordable units being offered, 17 can be guaranteed to current Sunset Park residents through a lottery application.

Estrada said that an affordable housing developer he knows personally is now hesitant to start projects in Sunset Park because of the public backlash to this project. Meanwhile, Sunset Park is still desperate for housing. “The firm, hard, ‘hell no’ is infinitely louder and easier than the nuanced maybe,” said Estrada. “Nobody organizes a rally outside of a Dunkin Doughnuts with signs that say, “maybe, if…”

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