Cultivate the Grassroots: A New Development Model

Promises of affordable housing are leading to unexpected alliances in Brooklyn.

By: Curtis Stephen

As controversial and lawsuit-ridden as it may be, the proposed Atlantic Yards redevelopment program in downtown Brooklyn has one reliable reply to anyone who criticizes the project on the basis that it creates more rather than less inequality in the world – or at least in Brooklyn. And that is: the solid backing of poor-people’s advocate ACORN. Now, at least two new development proposals in the borough are mirroring that developer-advocacy group relationship, some say, prompting debate over whether other private developers are taking a page from Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards playbook to win helpful grassroots support for their upscale residential ventures – or whether actively seeking that support may lead to genuine discussions that create greater community benefits than would have been generated otherwise.

Ever since 2005 when Bertha Lewis, executive director of New York ACORN, joined Mayor Bloomberg and Forest City Ratner Chief Executive Bruce Ratner at a press conference to announce her organization’s support for the $4 billion development plan that includes an arena for the New Jersey Nets basketball team along with retail and residential space, the longtime housing activist has played a central role in the effort to rally public backing for the large project.

The plan calls for half of its 4,500 rental apartment units (out of 6,430 total units) to be reserved for low- to moderate-income earners with the cost of rent restricted to 30 percent of the household income. "From the start, we planned to have a significant affordable and low-income program because there is a severe housing shortage in Brooklyn and we wanted to address this concern," says Bruce Bender, Forest City Ratner Companies’ executive vice president for community and government affairs, who added that the corporation decided on the number of affordable units to create after having "developed a plan" with ACORN.

And while many observers praised the plan’s emphasis on low-income housing, others remain skeptical about the number of affordable units that will ultimately be retained. But the support of ACORN, which has more than two decades of advocacy work under its belt, gave Forest City Ratner some shield from the public outcry that massive development projects often produce. Lewis, who declined to comment, has thus been criticized by some activists for
supporting
a plan they contend has resulted in displacement and will produce overly concentrated building in a compact area.

"ACORN did not serve its core constituency well with what they’ve negotiated with Ratner, and there are a lot of people unhappy about that," said Daniel Goldstein, a spokesman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, which opposes Atlantic Yards. "There’s been an unusual political alignment when it comes to this project."

Just to the north of the projected site for the Nets arena at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues lies Williamsburg, where a similar conflict is playing out over support for large development projects. A number of developers emerged with residential proposals that included apartments around the time that City Council passed legislation in 2005 permitting the rezoning of the waterfront in Williamsburg, which has since been extended farther inland. The first venture actually preceded the rezoning in 2004 when developer CPC Resources teamed with Isaac Katan to purchase the Domino Sugar refinery plant. The price was $55.8 million for the facility, still in operation, in an area specifically designated as a manufacturing zone. Another plan that raises questions for some locals is called Williamsburg Terrace, a 24-story tower proposed by Quadriad Realty Partners.

Last month, CPC Resources and Katan publicly unveiled plans for the property, including four towers ranging from about 30 to 40 stories tall along the waterfront, plus two other smaller buildings on Kent Avenue. Within the 220,000 square feet of community and retail space, the plan includes 2,200 condominium and apartment units – with about 30 percent designated for middle-income housing. "We plan to add to the community’s strong character," said Susan Pollock, a CPC senior vice president who serves as Domino project manager, calling Williamsburg "fascinating and diverse."

At a public hearing on July 31, the project received support from representatives of Churches United for Fair Housing, which represents about 20 local churches, and El Puente, a Brooklyn social action group. According to Pollock, CPC met with other groups to discuss its proposal, including United Jewish Organizations and Los Sures, a housing community development company. "We’ve made ourselves available and will continue to do so as we move forward. It’s hard to please everyone, but we remain open to as many groups as possible," Pollock says.

Affordability and Approvability

Under the Williamsburg-Greenpoint rezoning’s inclusionary housing program, builders along the waterfront may be able to expand a property’s size and height by up to 70 feet in exchange for making 15 to 20 percent of housing units affordable. Developers can also claim a 25-year tax exemption for creating either 20 percent on-site low-income housing units or 25 percent low-to-moderate units. According to Lloyd Kaplan, a CPC spokesman, the developer decided to propose 30 percent middle-income housing after internal review and consultation with local community groups. "It’s more than what’s mandated," says Kaplan. "Affordable housing has long been a priority to CPC. But we also wanted to work with the community to achieve the maximum amount of affordable units feasible, given the additional need to create open space and access to the waterfront." CPC is also pursuing a zoning alteration to permit the commercial and residential project, since the area was reserved for manufacturing when the Domino property was purchased.

But to some observers, the endorsement by Churches United and El Puente for the Domino plan was not a welcome development. "They’re all for it, and it was shocking for me to witness," said Phil DePaolo, founder of another Williamsburg-based housing group, the New York Community Council. "This plan does nothing to address the problem of density. Our neighborhood isn’t designed for density, and yet the city is allowing all of this concentrated building to happen."

That view is largely shared by Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the north Brooklyn Democrat, who rejected the plan, citing both height and affordable housing concerns in a statement released at the hearing two weeks ago. "Allowing for a drastic increase in height that blatantly ignores the contextual zoning of the neighborhood creates a dangerous precedent for inland Brooklyn neighborhoods," the statement read. Lopez thinks the area’s infrastructure must be improved before it can accommodate large-scale development projects. "There has been no city planning for this area to handle the [Domino] plan as it presently exists," says Lopez aide Elizabeth Hynes. "But there’s still time to explore options."

City Councilwoman Diana Reyna, who attended the hearing and whose district includes parts of Williamsburg and Bushwick, explains that she’s willing "to compromise" on the issue of density if the Domino plan could provide as many as 1,000 affordable units. "For me, 40-story towers is not the issue," she says. “Every day I have dozens of families making less than $30,000 a year visiting my office in desperate need of an apartment. I’m focused on striking a balance in the best interest of the community and meeting the real demand for affordable housing."

And while critics argue the Domino plan will strain Williamsburg’s existing resources – overcrowding the L train, for example – some Brooklynites think it symbolizes growth in a positive way. "Rezoning naturally creates density," notes Martin Dunn, an experienced developer of affordable housing. "Building is going to increase density, which isn’t necessarily bad. People need access to retail shops, parks and other neighborhood amenities."

Rev. Jim O’Shea, who is executive director of Churches United, recognizes that his support is desired by developers. "We’ve been successful in mobilizing people around affordable housing," says O’Shea, who endorsed Domino. "That’s our issue." And he's aware of the criticism the Domino plan has received. A leader of Our Lady of Monserrate-St. Ambrose parish in Bedford-Stuyvesant who has worked on housing issues in Williamsburg for the past decade, he argues the benefits of housing outweigh concerns about density. "What we tried to push for was 30 percent affordable housing, and it’s moving in the right direction," he says. "This is the biggest affordable housing possibility we have, so this is critical."

But to critics like DePaolo, who has lived in Williamsburg since 1979, organizations like Churches United have become "blindsided by crumbs" to the exclusion of displacement and density concerns. "Jim O’Shea is always crying about how people are being priced out, so why team up with these developers? He’s allowing himself to be used just like Bertha Lewis and ACORN with Atlantic Yards," says DePaolo. "These projects aren’t encouraging the creation of stable communities. It’s really a land grab."

O’Shea counters that grassroots organizations should be flexible in negotiating with developers to obtain affordable housing. "Housing for 600 families isn’t crumbs," he says. "Either the housing gets built or it doesn’t. It’s easy to criticize everything. If you say there’s going to be 30 percent affordable units, then someone asks, 'Why not 60 percent?' Well then, why not 100 percent? There’s an activist culture that sees any relationship with developers as something bad. My question is, 'Where’s your organization?' To those who criticize, I say: Bring out 100 people."

Buying In or Selling Out?

A dynamic with similar elements has emerged in recent months as plans for a 24-story residential tower dubbed Williamsburg Terrace, in North Williamsburg, have solidified. In early June, Community Board 1’s land use committee approved, in a close and contentious vote, the concept for Williamsburg Terrace put forward by developer Quadriad Realty Partners.

But in a dramatic turn of events, hours before the full board was set to vote in mid-June on whether to recommend the plan, Quadriad withdrew its proposal. The board went ahead and rejected the plan by a 14-0 vote (with five abstentions) anyway. "We wanted to make a statement. Quadriad asked for a huge subsidy to triple the density bonus of their project. That undermines a planning process that has been going on here for some time," said Peter Gillespie, a community board member who’s also the executive director of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG – formerly Neighbors Against Garbage). "They sought to manipulate the board and community organizations with confusing presentations to get some semblance of support."

Henry Wollman, the founding partner of Quadriad and the former director of the Newman Real Estate Institute at Baruch College, disputes the claim. Wollman says Quadriad withdrew the proposal to make adjustments on everything from affordability to open space, and vows to return with a revamped proposal next month. The People’s Firehouse, a neighborhood advocacy and social service organization, is overseeing Quadriad’s affordable housing plan. The Firehouse is headed by Daniel Rivera, who declined comment. (DePaolo was a leader of the Firehouse until leaving this year to start a new group, which does not support the Quadriad plan.)

"Groups like Churches United and the People’s Firehouse are not easily manipulated. We believe the critics, who are individuals well known in the neighborhood, are a small group on the board,” Wollman said. "If they don’t want to work to help build affordable housing, then they shouldn’t attempt to stop it."

Under the mixed-income development’s revamped proposal, 35 percent of Williamsburg Terrace’s housing units are projected to be affordable. There’s also a park, and Quadriad claims a “new-strategy formula” to use funds from its additional market-rate units to pay for it as opposed to using public funds. "There’s a crisis of affordability and we’re committed to addressing it," says Wollman, who is confident he’ll receive a positive recommendation from the community board to present to the Department of City Planning.

Herman Badillo, the former Congressman and Bronx borough president who is also a Quadriad partner, is equally optimistic. "I’ve dealt with community boards for a long time," he says. "You’re never going to get 100 percent agreement on everything, but we all recognize the need for housing."

Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy doesn't see much unity ahead, however. "It’s to the benefit of the developers to divide communities," he says. "Affordable housing has become the leverage to get out-of-scale rezoning. You can see it with Atlantic Yards and in Williamsburg. Community groups should unite and not just quickly settle for terms that a developer offers."

What all the wrangling over affordable housing really highlights is how badly New York needs more of it, some say. "We can’t build our way out of the affordable housing crisis. So many units have already been lost, and the lack of regulation on the part of the city has contributed to that," says Ben Healey, a spokesman for the Working Families Party, which has taken an active interest in the city’s tight housing market. "Some developers are genuinely interested in affordable housing and others aren’t. That’s why community groups should band together."

Rachaele Raynoff, a spokeswoman for the Department of City Planning, said last week that zoning in Williamsburg is being closely monitored. "We are responsive to community needs and there are ongoing conversations to revisit zoning," she says. "We want to provide a guide for future zoning to ensure that it provides the appropriate framework for everyone to work from."

Ironically, the controversy over large development projects in Williamsburg has produced something that housing advocates concede hasn’t happened among some local grassroots groups for some time – dialogue. "We’ve been talking to folks at Churches United and People’s Firehouse about the long-term interests of the community," says CB1 member Gillespie. "Instead of just reacting to developers, we should have a say on the future of this neighborhood because we live and work here."

- Curtis Stephen