Gathering Storm

Gathering Storm

The Broadway Triangle looks like countless other stretches of North Brooklyn, a mix of machine shops, walk-ups, and vacant lots seeded among the bistros and luxury condos that have moved in over the last decade. The area, surrounded by communities of Latinos, African Americans, and Chasidic Jews has seen its fair share of conflict, but a new battle has broken out, some say more rancorous than all those that have preceded it, and it is a battle over a rezoning.

“It’s like the last open piece of Oklahoma Territory,” a local developer told AN during a contentious community board hearing in July.

Bounded by Broadway, Union Avenue, and Flushing Avenue, the Broadway Triangle was 22 blocks of failing industrial uses that in 1983 was made an urban renewal area in an effort to revive it. That plan never took off, and now the Bloomberg administration wants to rezone a nine-block slice at its heart for housing.

The city’s plan, which is being developed by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, paves the way for 1,850 new apartments, 905 of which will be designated for affordable housing. Two city-owned sites will be wholly dedicated to affordable housing, while the rest of the rezoning is open for developers to build higher in exchange for additional affordable housing in accordance with the inclusionary housing program. Low-rise, contextual zoning has been promised.

The plan has won begrudging support from the local community board and the borough president, as well as a thorough examination from the City Planning Commission at a September 9 hearing on the plan. A final vote had been expected for this Wednesday, but it is now scheduled for October 19.

The main criticism of the plan has had less to do with the plan itself than with the way it was conceived unilaterally by the department. Who will develop the two city-owned sites is of particular concern. And a coalition of more than 40 local groups from across the neighborhood has formed to look into these matters.

“There has never been this kind of support from so many peoples—Latino, Jewish, and black all coming together to fight for a single cause,” said Juan Ramos, director of the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition.

The group’s chief complaint is that they have had no involvement in helping craft the city rezoning, a break from precedence whereby community involvement in planning has been extensive. There are also concerns about access to the affordable housing, since two politically connected organizations have already been tapped to develop the city-owned sites.

The coalition reached out to the Pratt Institute to devise its own plan, where students under the direction of former planning commissioner Ron Schiffman created a proposal whose scope reaches well beyond the bounds of the city’s work, and even the nine-block site. The coalition’s plan encompasses the entire urban renewal area, including the defunct Pfizer pharmaceutical plant that the group wants to turn into a manufacturing incubator. It also calls for housing across a range of densities—including buildings as tall as nearby public housing towers. With height, the plan can provide three times as much housing and five times the affordable housing units.

“We can’t reach our sustainability goals or our affordability goals without density,” Shiffman said.

While the coalition’s plan is unlikely to succeed, it has highlighted deficiencies in the city’s plan that the community board now wants addressed, such as increased open space and the inclusion of residents from Bed-Stuy and some extant industrial businesses. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development also drew a lashing from the board for its handling of the planning process.

“HPD is always doing this, and it has to stop,” said Ward Dennis, chair of Community Board 1’s land-use committee. “It’s a good plan, a good contextual plan, the kind we’ve been advocating for. The problem is, the process stinks.”

There is still a remote possibility the plan could be overhauled or even fail, as a neighboring City Council representative opposes the project altogether. But for Rabbi David Needleman, head of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and the likely developer of the larger of the two city-owned sites, defeat would be untenable: “What it means if this project is derailed? How long will it take to recreate itself? Maybe never. 30 years ago we started this. Let’s not have to start over.”

A version of this article appeared in AN 10.07.2009.