Neighborhoods

Bushwick Residents March to Block New DeKalb Monolith

‘This is a bad deal,’ said Councilmember Rafael Espinal, vowing to prevent a rezoning that could destroy local businesses

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Few intersections are more focal for Bushwick residents than the corner of Wyckoff and DeKalb avenues: There’s a post office that always has lines out the door; a beloved Latin American diner, Sazón Nunez; a laundromat; and down the block is a longtime boxing gym, Brotherhood Boxing, that doubles as a community center.

It’s also the focus of new attention from the developer Camber Property Group, which has proposed upzoning the entire area around the intersection to allow for a pair of nine-story apartment buildings, to be built on what is now a parking lot used by employees of a nearby hospital. On Thursday, nearly 150 people marched through Bushwick to protest the planned rezoning, gathering before the site of the planned development and chanting, “Bushwick no se vende” — Bushwick is not for sale .

The march, supported by Make the Road New York and a number of other local community groups, declared that Bushwick has had “¡Basta Ya!” — “Enough already!” — of the displacement that results from new development. The organizations involved, including Tenants & Neighbors, Brooklyn Legal Services, and New York Communities for Change, called on elected officials to oppose the proposal.

Brooklyn Community Board 4 voted against the proposal in April, though its vote is merely advisory. At a rally following the march, though, opponents of the new building at 1601 Dekalb Avenue received a boost when City Councilmember Rafael Espinal announced that he would not support Camber’s proposal and asked the developer to withdraw it.

 “This is a bad deal,” he told the marchers. “There is no way I could move forward with this plan, until they come back to the table with a plan that makes sense for everyone standing here today and all those who live around this community.”

Espinal explained to the Voice that Camber will need to “make a 180” for the council to consider the project, including providing more than “the bare minimum” of affordable units — the current plan is for fewer than thirty units to be for lower-income tenants — and engaging more with the community. Though new Council Speaker Corey Johnson has said he will no longer give local councilmembers an automatic veto over land use proposals, Espinal said he was confident Johnson would support his opposition to the proposal.

Renderings of the proposed development show a pair of sleek buildings with a series of green rooftop terraces and copper-accented balconies. If constructed they would be two of the tallest buildings in the neighborhood at nine stories. One-quarter of the floor space in the development’s planned 122 units is slated to be affordable, but just how affordable is unclear. An apartment rented to a family making 60 percent of area median income — the common qualifying level for such apartments — would still exclude the median resident of Bushwick, where 30 percent of residents are below the federal poverty level.

“This community is falling apart slowly as development comes in,” Angel Vera, a tenant organizer with Make the Road New York, told the Voice. “It’s gotten out of control in the last couple years — and we’re going to stop it, unless they [Camber] change the conditions.”

The proposal doesn’t end there, though: Not only the parking lot but the entire block between DeKalb and Hart would be upzoned; residents say that in addition to the laundromat, the community center, and the diner, this would endanger two loft buildings that are home to artists and longtime neighborhood residents.

“The development proposed at this site will take away my home and the homes of many others who live in our building,” Chika Kobari, a resident of one of the lofts, told the rally. “But it’s become apparent to us that it’s not just about one building or one block — it’s about a tidal wave coming to Bushwick.”

One of the lofts is currently protected under the city’s Loft Law, which allows the gradual conversion of illegal lofts into legal residences, but the other was identified in Camber’s Environmental Assessment Study for the proposal as a potential site for future development. In Camber’s initial proposal, the building would have blocked the loft buildings’ existing windows, making them illegal to live in and put the residents of the unprotected loft, 1609 DeKalb, at immediate risk of displacement — something Espinal said made the proposal an immediate “no-go.” (Camber has committed to fixing it in an updated proposal.) The building that houses the laundromat and Brotherhood Boxing, which Espinal called an “essential neighborhood service,” is also identified as a candidate for new construction.

It’s developments like these that the Bushwick Community Plan, a neighborhood-led rezoning proposal first conceived in 2014, was supposed to help protect against. But as the Voice reported in February, progress on that plan has slowed this year, as residents tussle with the Department of City Planning over affordability requirements, height restrictions, and the rezoning of manufacturing space.

Espinal spearheaded the Bushwick Community Plan in response to a rising tide of development in the neighborhood, most notably the massive Rheingold brewery project. As with the ill-fated Chinatown rezoning, the community plan’s grassroots genesis distinguished it from top-down rezoning plans pursued by the de Blasio administration in neighborhoods like East New York and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. Despite persistent opposition from many residents, these rezonings have for the most part sailed through the City Council.

But Bushwick residents have as yet been unable to come to an agreement with the city about the terms of the proposal. In the meantime, the community board is trying to uphold the principles of the would-be plan: District Manager Celeste Leon told the crowd that the board voted against the proposal because it directly conflicted with the planning principles the community has agreed upon.

“It’s more important than ever right now for us to stand together as a community in the face of more frequent rezoning proposals,” she said. “We need to make sure developers know that the community gets to decide.”

It remains to be seen whether Camber will withdraw and refile the proposal, or whether the organizations involved will be able to bring the same energy in opposing other developments.

“Whenever there’s a developer with $70 million up against a bunch of people opposing them, the outlook is pretty grim,” Leo Labriola, a resident of the 1609 DeKalb loft, told the Voice. “But this building is a poster child for so much more that’s going on, so I think there’s reason to be optimistic.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Camber has said it will work to ensure that the new building does not block the windows of the loft buildings in a way that would make them illegal to live in.

A Camber spokesperson adds: “From the start of the public review process we’ve made clear that we’re eager to hear feedback from the community about our proposal. We’re looking forward to sitting down with Council Member Espinal and other local stakeholders to figure out a way forward on a project that will deliver affordable housing for the neighborhood along with local and MWBE hiring opportunities and good-paying union jobs.”

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