Bizarro Zoning Fight in Williamsburg: Housing Advocates Want City to Build Taller and Bigger

reidcb11 Bizarro Zoning Fight in Williamsburg: Housing Advocates Want City to Build Taller and BiggerOpponents of a Brooklyn redevelopment project packed a Community Board One meeting last night in Williamsburg, drowning out a presentation by the city’s Housing Preservation and Development office, in a battle that could influence City Council primaries in the 33rd and 34th districts this September.

Roughly 50 protesters, armed with signs and a bullhorn, chanted “Open Process” and “Shut It Down” inside a community room at the Swingin’ 60s Senior Center.

After calling for order several times, board chairman Vincent Abate—presiding over what would be his last meeting after nearly 30 years on the board–allowed the protest and presentation to continue simultaneously.

The crowd seemed to feed on the disorder, growing even louder as a series of HPD representatives tried to outline the proposed plan, which would rezone approximately 20 acres of land near the border of Broadway and Flushing Avenues at the borders of Williamsburg, Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The protesters think that the city plan doesn’t maximize the amount of affordable housing on one of the last, large open parcels in the area. The city—whose plan enjoys the strong backing of Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez, as well as local councilman and city comptroller candidate David Yassky–is proposing to build eight-story buildings. The protesters want 25-story buildings spread over 40 acres.

The protesters’ vision is very different from the city’s plan in other ways, too, calling for—among other things—pneumatic tubes to whisk away garbage, a community-owned power utility, and a neighborhood land trust. A Pratt professor who helped design the plan said last week that "the general gist of the plan is doable."

The organizers of the protest claim that influential community groups were left out of the planning process for the site, and that the process was dictated by Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the head of the Brooklyn Democratic organization.

The dispute has become a lightning rod in the contested race for the 34th Council district. When CB1 district manager and Council candidate Gerry Esposito briefly stepped out of the raucous meeting to consult with a Community Affairs officer from NYPD, some in the crowd jeered.

“Where you going, Gerry?” hollered Rob Solano, one of the group’s organizers, who later said he had left messages for Esposito trying to relocate the meeting in anticipation of the large crowd. Esposito is running against incumbent Councilwoman Diana Reyna, who arrived later and denounced the city’s plan.

Board members shifted uncomfortably in their seats during the uproar, and at least one decamped for the hallway. The chants kept going–“We Won’t Listen” and “Transparency”–but HPD soldiered through the presentation, whether board members could hear them or not.

After the last HPD representative spoke, community board member Esteban Duran, who co-founded the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition, which organized the protest, tried to ask a question, but Chairman Abate told him he was out of order. Duran yelled questions at the HPD officials, as the crowd chanted to “let him speak,” but because of the contentiousness, HPD representatives said they were asked to leave before the public testimony.

HPD’s presentation included a comparison to the density of the alternative plan, which HPD determined could have additional negative environmental effects. Supporters of the city’s plan also say the taller buildings would be out of context with the neighborhood.

After the presentation, the group gathered outside the community center for an impromptu rally. BTCC supporters handed out copies of a New York Times article from last week, which suggested that Assemblyman Lopez and Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio may have tried to suppress opposition to the plan. Duran and Solano had previously belonged to a group called Churches United, a Catholic housing organization that criticized the Broadway Triangle plan. The two men were effectively fired from the group at the same time that Lopez was trying to prevent passage of an Assembly bill that would lift the statute of limitations on sex-abuse cases–a bill that could cost the Catholic church millions of dollars, according to the Times report. Both Lopez and the Catholic Church denied the allegations in the article.

Later in the meeting, after most of the protesters had dispersed, the community board voted to approve the transfer of 640 Broadway to the United Jewish Organization, one of two groups that was closely involved in the city’s plan for Broadway Triangle. The board approved the transfer over the objection of Duran, who said the Broadway address is within the BTCC’s expanded plan.

Councilwoman Reyna arrived just after 10 p.m., to considerable enthusiasm from the protesters who had remained behind to make public comments. “I want to say for the record, I’m not in favor of the city’s plan,” Reyna said to rousing cheers. Reyna equated the Broadway Triangle proposal with several undesirable city projects in the area, like a wastewater treatment plant and a power plant. “We will have no more uninvited guests to tell us what we need,” she said. “I’m supporting my community over politics.”

However, the Broadway Triangle rezoning–as proposed by HPD– lies just within the border of the 33rd Council District, where it has already become an election issue. At a candidate forum last month, the only candidate to support the city’s plan was Stephen Levin, who until recently served as chief of staff to Assemblyman Lopez.

But the ULURP process is on track for a vote before any new councilmember would take office, meaning the crucial opinion is that of the 33rd District’s current councilman, David Yassky, who supports the city's plan.