NEW YORK—With plans for 80,000 new affordable housing units on the table, every neighborhood will have to take its fair share, experts say. This means nearly every community is aware they will have to accept more density, putting some on the immediate defensive.
The administration has stressed that the impending wave of development will be accompanied by sufficient community input; that development will have to suit the communities’ needs. But those familiar with the 150-day review process know time flies by all too quickly, sometimes before community members understand what is going on.
What is ULURP? How much affordable housing should a project bring if an M-1 site is being rezoned to R-8? Waiting for developers or the Planning Department to come in with plans for rezoning isn’t a fair enough approach, some Council members say.
Throughout the summer, Council members of the western half of Brooklyn have been delivering a message at the street level, giving residents the tools to hold them accountable for responsible development.
“We want to knock on doors … and allow every part of the district to have a say in what they want to see in development,” said Council member Antonio Reynoso, who represents Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Ridgewood. In the past four months, Reynoso’s office has had dozens of meetings with community groups in Bushwick with the intent of getting everyone up to speed with the jargon, so the community can aim to present its own plans for rezoning Bushwick around this time next year.
As Brooklyn real estate prices rise to Manhattan levels, similar undertakings have begun throughout the borough.
On a humid summer evening in Gowanus, a mixed-use neighborhood with a dark industrial past, close to 150 community members gathered in a community center for the final of three meetings after which their ideas would be taken by planning experts to create a framework for rezoning and development in the neighborhood.
“This is very important to me,” said Frieda Lim, micro-farm business owner in Gowanus and a homeowner near the lowline. “When I heard about the Superfund cleanup, I was really interested.”
The other, wide-ranging groups of community members shared Lim’s sentiment of how important the discussion is to them. However, as talk got underway, it seemed they shared little else aside from a distaste for tall buildings. Even before the meeting could officially begin, the dialogue became testy.
Years of heavy industrial activity on the banks of the Gowanus Canal polluted the waterway, eventually gaining it a Superfund clean-up site designation by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Last fall, plans for the cleanup were finalized, and months later local officials created the Bridging Gowanus project with the goal of getting everyone in the same room and creating a set of shared values.
Now, with plans for a clean waterway and upcoming plans to rezone 15-20 neighborhoods citywide for higher density, development is an impending reality.
Just as one person would raise suggestions for adding affordable housing on one block, another would counter with reasons why that shouldn’t happen. Some expressed that they felt they hadn’t been heard in past meetings at all.
“This is an experiment,” said Council member Brad Lander. Lander, who represents a series of neighborhoods on the western Brooklyn waterfront, directed the Pratt Center for Community Development, and worked on inclusionary zoning and affordable housing campaigns prior to being elected to City Council. “If there is going to be a plan … and government agencies will eventually make proposals—what this process does it make sure the community’s voice goes first.”
Then, as facilitators from the Pratt Center handed out worksheets, charts, and maps explaining the neighborhood’s zoning, community members started to realize that without action, much of the neighborhood could very well be turned into self-storage buildings, hotels, or big box stores—none of which they were too keen about.
As they continued exploring the material, it became clear that a few higher-than-existing buildings could bring other benefits to the neighborhood like open space, school seats, infrastructure improvements.
“I would add a six-story building here,” said one man, as he completed his zoning worksheet. Half an hour before he wanted nothing built in the neighborhood.
Development is not an easy subject to bring among residents of communities accustomed to the charm of their low-rise blocks, and the series of meetings Council members are arranging is no easy process. Just the idea of talking about zoning can bring skepticism. What agenda are they trying to force on us now, the residents ask. The facilitators then take the brunt of residents’ emotional outbursts.
But it’s unwise to think that not changing anything will keep the status quo, says Joan Byron, policy director at the Pratt Center. “Neighborhoods are dynamic,” Byron said. “You can’t assume that by not changing the rules you don’t change the neighborhood.”
During the Uniformed Land Use Review Process (ULURP), community boards and borough presidents get a chance to weigh in on development projects, but their notes are all advisory and non-binding.
It’s practically customary for community benefit agreements to be negotiated during this process, like building a new school, making transportation improvements, or even renovating an existing playground.
“But what we don’t have in New York is a way to tie approvals of rezonings to things that make the rezoning work,” like the infrastructure improvements, Byron said.
“Communities can ask for anything … but it relies on the good faith of everyone, including City Council, to make that stick,” Byron said. An infamous example is Willets Point in Queens, where the city promised affordable housing years ago, only to have the recession hit. Now the plans instead entail a mall.
In affluent neighborhoods and areas where architects, planners, and lawyers sit on community boards and have access to their elected officials, they tend to be more successful in these negotiations, Byron said. “In neighborhoods with less money and access to political power, it’s easier for developers to come in and not [have them] ask the hard questions.”
Byron likens the negotiations to playing poker, except with an educated community the developers sit with their backs to a mirror.
But by giving community members tools to better understand the economics of zoning and affordable housing, the Council members are telling their constituents to hold them accountable for responsible development.
“I think it’s amazingly savvy,” Byron said. “City Hall is really where the rubber meets the road. If you can hold elected officials accountable, you can have some hold over what happens.”
In Brooklyn right now, some neighborhoods are preparing for possible future rezonings, but others were rezoned years ago and have yet to see the neighborhood built out. In parts of Downtown Brooklyn in Levin’s district, for example, the economic benefits largely went to developers who bought land before the rezonings.
Giving the community these tools here can make a big difference in creating value for the city as well, Byron adds, as these residents know best what infrastructure they are lacking.
“So without adding a lot of density City Council can ask a little more,” Byron said.
Simplifying Planning Jargon
The tools elected officials are giving their constituents come in the form of colorful kits, building blocks, guidebooks, and simple diagrams.
As a starting point, many Council members, including Reynoso, Levin, and Carlos Menchaca, are using kits that explain zoning and affordable housing created by the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP).
CUP, a nonprofit organization that collaborates with designers to make complex policy and planning issues easy to understand, is currently working on a kit to explain ULURP. These Envisioning Development kits take over a year to create, said Frampton Tolbert, director of development and communications for CUP.
With affordable housing for example, it’s important for communities to understand who really qualifies. The Affordable Housing guidebook breaks down the different bands of Area Median Income (or AMI, an abbreviation many communities are now accustomed to), so people can easily check what housing their annual salaries qualify for. It also explains the different tax breaks for developers and types of affordable housing in simple diagrams.
The zoning kit includes megablocks so people can build a mock-up of their neighborhood streets and visualize what 200 units of housing would look like in a variety of scenarios. The handbook explains the different types of buildings that can be built in different zones, simplifies air rights, and explains how to easily calculate costs per square foot.
“The goal is really to make it accessible and fun, not just for planners and officials, but to allow communities to really understand the basis of the issues,” Tolbert said.
*Image of Brooklyn Heights via Shutterstock