Broadway Triangle Deal Could Squeeze Out Families, Says Levin

Councilmember charges Williamsburg affordable housing agreement is unfair to Hasidic residents


After an eight-year-long legal battle, the city announced a deal with community groups on Monday that should finally free up vacant city-owned land at Broadway Triangle for the construction of around 375 affordable apartments.

But while community advocates have trumpeted the long-awaited settlement as a boon for racial justice and integration, critics — including the local City Council representative, Stephen Levin — argue it’s just the latest in a decades-long turf war over the contentious intersection of Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant, and fear it won’t aid some of the low-income New Yorkers who desperately need affordable housing most.

The new agreement reverses a controversial deal with two powerful local nonprofits that some neighborhood groups had complained discriminated against some residents of color. But by requiring that the city evaluate development proposals based on maximizing the number of units to provide the most apartments possible, opponents say it will ultimately force developers to cram as many apartments as they can into the project.

“It would totally exclude larger families and largely exclude most families,” says Levin. The new deal, he says, “doesn’t pass the smell test.”

This week’s settlement is the latest skirmish in a battle over the Broadway Triangle — a wedge of land bound by Broadway, Flushing Avenue, and Union Avenue that has long been splintered along political and ethnic lines. The triangle of trash-strewn vacant lots and parking lots was once home to light manufacturing and the headquarters of the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, but as manufacturing uses moved away, it became a no man’s land that power brokers from both the Latino and Jewish communities wanted a slice of.

When pieces of the land were rezoned for residential use in 2009 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the development rights to certain parcels were handed off with no competitive bidding process to two politically connected nonprofits — Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, a Bushwick-based nonprofit founded by disgraced assemblyman Vito Lopez, and United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, an umbrella group for the area’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

A coalition of other Williamsburg- and Greenpoint-based community groups that said they’d been excluded from the process promptly sued the city in state court. The Broadway Triangle Community Coalition — which included nonprofits like St. Nicks Alliance, Los Sures, Churches United for Fair Housing, and Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A — argued that the deal violated fair housing laws by giving an unfair advantage to Hasidic residents, both by providing a disproportionate number of multi-bedroom apartments they said would favor that community’s larger families, as well as requiring low-rise buildings, seen to cater to observant Jews who can’t take elevators on the Sabbath.

State Supreme Court Judge Emily Goodman agreed, and issued a preliminary injunction halting the rezoning on city-owned parcels.

Years of settlement conferences later, the city finally agreed this week to cut a deal that it says will make it possible to move forward with long-stalled construction of affordable housing and that community groups argue will counteract decades of segregation on two main fronts.

First, residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s predominantly African American Community Board 3, just to the south of the development site across Flushing Avenue, will be granted community preference on half of the units. Under the original plan, only residents of the mostly white and Latino neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint would have gotten preference.

In addition, the city agreed to pay $2.4 million over three years to Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A to pay for tenant services that the organization said are needed to fight racially motivated displacement of black and Latino residents in privately owned residences in north Brooklyn.

The plan will also be punted back to the request for proposal process, voiding the earlier deal with Ridgewood Bushwick and UJO.Local nonprofit developers with projects in Community Board 1 and Community Board 3 will get a slight advantage in the request for proposal process over other developers, according to the settlement.

And in an effort to correct the contentious breakdown of apartment sizes, which plaintiffs argued would favor the Hasidic community, the requirement to maximize the number of units may actually dissuade developers from building any three- or four-bedroom apartments at all.

The revised plan will use tax-exempt bonds and federal low-income housing tax credits under the Extremely Low and Low-Income Affordability (ELLA) plan, which limits the number of studios and requires a minimum number of apartments with two or more bedrooms. But even with those guidelines, a developer would only get the maximum number of apartments by including around 70 percent studios and one-bedrooms and 30 percent two-bedrooms.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a community to say you need more studios and one-bedrooms,” says Levin, who as a staffer to Lopez supported the original 2009 deal. “That’s usually what developers want. You get more money by building studios and one-bedrooms particularly in gentrifying neighborhoods.”

Factions of Williamsburg’s Satmar Hasidic community swiftly divided along political lines over the settlement as news of it broke this week. Gary Schlesinger, a Satmar activist and political opponent of UJO, came out in support of the revised project, saying the Hasidic community needed smaller apartments for newlyweds and that larger families were already leaving the city for suburban areas upstate and in New Jersey.

Rabbi David Neiderman, the head of UJO, countered that the new plan was a “backroom deal” and a “travesty of justice” that discriminates against Jewish families.

“The litigation is used as a pretense for a political giveaway and a discriminatory agreement against large families, because some of them are Jewish,” he says, taking issue with the unit size as well as the inclusion of Community Board 3, which would intentionally “dilute the chance for Jewish families” to get apartments.

“There’s no desire here to make this a development that excludes families,” insists Adam Meyers, an attorney for plaintiffs at Brooklyn Legal Services Corp. A.

Alexandra Fennell, of Churches United for Fair Housing, says that the city would look at requests for proposals based on many different criteria, and there was still some “wiggle room” for developers to submit proposals with three- and four-bedroom apartments, even if they’re now disincentivized from doing so. But she stressed that the disproportionately high number of large apartments in the original proposal would have mostly served Hasidic families at the expense of their neighbors. “There is a need for some larger [apartments] but the majority of the families in this immediate geographic area are families of between two and three people,” she says.

Citywide, demand for smaller affordable apartments outweighs demand for larger ones, according to the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. An analysis of census data from 2010, the most recent numbers available, showed that around 24 percent of families in the three Williamsburg and Greenpoint zip codes had five or more members. Of households with five or more family members, white households outnumbered black and Latino ones by about 1,197.

Fennell says that, instead of the original deal, her coalition is looking forward to a transparent bidding process and hopes the city will find “a plan that will serve diverse groups and will be available and equitable for everyone.”

The same ethnic and political fissures flared this year during the contentious rezoning of an adjacent swath of land formerly owned by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer after it was bought by Orthodox Jewish–owned Williamsburg developer the Rabsky Group. That project was approved by the City Council, though the plaintiffs in the Broadway Triangle lawsuit argued that the rezoning would likewise favor Orthodox residents along similar lines, after the developer wouldn’t commit to a breakdown of apartment sizes until the eleventh hour.

“I don’t want to see a plan that intentionally excludes anybody,” says Levin of the new agreement. “If the plan were to move forward and intentionally exclude larger families because they happen to be Jewish or Orthodox, then I think that is problematic in and of itself.“

Rabbi Niederman said that UJO was considering legal recourse, insisting that “there’s no question this is a calculated effort to discriminate against poor Jewish families.” The fight for the Broadway Triangle is far from over.

Note: This article has been updated to indicate that while nonprofit developers with projects in Community Board 1 and Community Board 3 will get preference under the new settlement, other developers such as Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (now RiseBoro) will not be barred from applying, as was initially reported.