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Our intention is to preserve the character and the buildings, not the people in them.
That’s what Bushwick residents heard a Department of City Planning official say last Thursday at a meeting held to discuss the future of their neighborhood, according to several people who were there.
At the meeting, organized so the city could respond to the Bushwick Community Plan — a community-led rezoning proposal centered around preserving neighborhood character and avoiding displacement that has been more than four years in the making — officials presented one of their own. The plan, which city officials emphasized is not final, proposed converting multiple manufacturing lots to residential space, thereby steamrolling one of the plan’s most significant principles.
Residents were already on edge after the city laid out this proposal, and the nearly hour-long community rebuttal session that followed the city’s presentation was contentious, with residents standing up and confronting the city about its plan to convert the manufacturing land.
But then Winston Von Engel, director of DCP’s Brooklyn office, took the stage and stunned the audience into silence. The city was interested in preserving the architectural character in the neighborhood, he implied, but was not concerned about preventing the displacement of longtime residents.
Bruno Daniel, a steering committee member who was present at the meeting, says things only went downhill after that.
“People were shocked — it was like a gut punch,” he tells the Voice. “There was a moment of everyone just sitting there in disbelief.” He and other residents say they left feeling embittered and scared about the future of the community-proposed plan.
“It just called into question the whole validity of the process for me,” he says. “I mean, this plan came about in the first place because of people’s desire to prevent mass displacement. And the most dangerous part is that [Von Engel’]s not some low-level staffer, he’s the director of the Brooklyn office. It really made me doubt what their intentions are here in Bushwick.”
The Bushwick Community Plan started coming together around 2014, as large residential developments continued to crop up around Bushwick. The conversion of the area’s defunct Rheingold Brewery, for example, had spawned plans for a gigantic residential complex that is still under construction, along with a fight over the number of affordable units the complex would hold. In response, the neighborhood’s community board asked its two councilmembers, Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Espinal, to explore the possibility of a neighborhood-led rezoning plan, and the councilmembers started to facilitate conversations between residents, community stakeholders, and city agencies.
After years of soliciting resident input, holding subcommittee meetings, and conducting workshops with the Department of City Planning, the community steering committee agreed upon a few major principles: Bushwick Avenue would be designated a historic corridor; large housing development would be restricted to commercial corridors like Wyckoff and Myrtle Avenues; tall buildings would be prohibited on side streets and small blocks; and all the neighborhood’s existing manufacturing space would be preserved. Many Bushwick residents see the neighborhood’s industrial space as vital to their jobs and to the identity of the neighborhood; in other Brooklyn neighborhoods, like East New York, the conversion of manufacturing space has been seen as a prelude to large-scale development and accelerated displacement.
At last Thursday’s meeting, the city seemed to ignore the point about the manufacturing space altogether: It proposed to rezone multiple manufacturing lots, including one large tract at Evergreen Avenue and Jefferson Street that sits kitty-corner to the Rheingold development.
An official from the Department of City Planning told the Voice on Tuesday that the city has tried to find a balance between bringing new affordable housing to the neighborhood and preserving manufacturing space, and that the misunderstanding at the meeting may have come as Von Engel tried to explain the insufficiency of a preservation-only approach. The official said the city’s plan preserves about half of the neighborhood’s existing manufacturing space while also adding affordable housing and increasing buildable manufacturing space by 40 percent overall. She emphasized that conversations with residents thus far have been largely respectful and constructive.
The most prominent recent example of a community-led rezoning effort was in Chinatown, and it did not end well: After the Chinatown Working Group, also made up of organizers and community stakeholders, spent five years drafting a plan to ward off the “supertall” developments that have sprung up in recent years around the Lower East Side, the de Blasio administration dismissed the plan in 2016 as extreme and impractical. Organizers have worked since then to pass pieces of it one by one.
In Bushwick, in the absence of a formal plan such as the one proposed by the community coalition, many new residential developments have been approved without the kind of deep affordability guarantees that residents say are crucial to protecting them from displacement. Both the neighborhood’s councilmen are closely aligned with the de Blasio administration on housing, and favor new developments as long as they come with affordable units. (Neither responded to requests for comment by press time.) But the neighborhood leaders behind the Bushwick Community Plan want to go even further, protecting residential streets from large towers and thereby insulating them from the kind of “out-of-context” development that is typically seen as representative of gentrification.
DCP will present its responses to the community’s other priorities at future meetings. But Edwin Delgado, a business owner and former steering committee member who attended last week’s meeting, says he and other residents feel “disheartened” by what the city brought to the table.
“It’s just blatant disregard for what our community has been saying,” he tells the Voice. He says the neighborhood has struggled for four years and “we have nothing to show for it.”
“This isn’t a good deal and this isn’t going in a good direction,” he says. “And the more time they take, the more families are being displaced.”