The former Rheingold brewery site in northwest Bushwick was set to be a perfect flash point between the families who’d rebuilt the neighborhood after the fires of the 1970s and the newcomers who’d begun settling there in the Great Williamsburg Spillover of the Aughts: Sited on the Flushing Avenue border between the hipster-clogged industrial loft district and the mostly Mexican and Puerto Rican row houses to the southeast (and targeted for redevelopment by Brooklyn real estate bigwigs Read Property), it could have driven a wedge between new and old residents of a neighborhood so hip that you can now buy an $81 hand-poured “Bushwick-scented” candle.
Instead, the Rheingold development was the launching pad for a new kind of collaboration among the neighborhood’s disparate residents. Established groups like Southside Williamsburg’s Los Sures and the Bushwick Housing Independence Project and Churches United for Fair Housing joined with the newcomer-launched North West Bushwick Community Group to form the Rheingold Construction Committee, which worked with then-councilmember Diana Reyna to draw up a community benefits agreement for the site: In exchange for the city rezoning the site to permit residential development, Read committed to keeping 177 of the 712 apartments on the site below $1,100 a month, while donating land to Los Sures and CUFFH for another 88 apartments for low-income seniors.
Unfortunately, the agreement as ultimately passed by the City Council in December 2013 contained a loophole: Read was bound by its terms, but anyone buying the land from Read was not. And so when the owners of the site quickly flipped much of it to another developer, the Rabsky Group, four months later, residents were left with nothing to show for their deal.
In response, the community coalition has turned to public protests to try to shame Rabsky principal Simon Dushinsky into living up to his predecessor’s agreement. On July 30, Bushwick and South Williamsburg residents, along with a few out-of-neighborhood allies, packed the Cathedral of Joy on George Street for a town hall meeting and rally to press for Rabsky to live up to the original housing agreement. Staffers for Antonio Reynoso, Reyna’s 32-year-old former aide and now council replacement, presented the 200-person crowd with a timeline of the now abrogated affordable-housing plan; Yolanda Coca, the longtime tenant advocate with the Bushwick Housing Independence Project, led call-and-response chants by pounding out a rhythm on a drum amid the sky-blue T-shirts of Los Sures members and plenty of young, paler faces as well. And if all the newcomers didn’t always seem entirely comfortable — there was more than a little staring at phones as chants flew by in Spanish — they joined in exuberantly for the march and overnight “campout” that followed at the proposed construction site.
The fate of the Rheingold project remains up in the air: During the July 30 meeting, a Rabsky representative presented Reynoso with a letter purportedly expressing a willingness to discuss adding affordable housing units, though neighborhood activists say it made no formal commitment. (At press time, neither Rabsky nor Reynoso had responded to the the Voice’s request for a copy of the letter.) And there remain concerns as to whether a luxury housing complex at a key intersection will spark so-called secondary displacement by boosting demand for apartments on the surrounding blocks, which according to Reynoso’s figures have already seen the greatest influx of new high-income residents over the past decade.
Still, Debra Medina, director of community organizing for Los Sures, says she can’t recall such a broad coalition of neighborhood groups coming together for a local cause — “and I’ve been here 29 years.” The Rheingold agreement may not have worked out the way its crafters hoped, she says, “but it’s good when it comes to the communities coming together — this just brought us to be closer.”
Here are more renderings of the development from ODA New York: