A meeting of Community Board 9 Tuesday evening was rife with acrimony and disorder, interrupted by frequent shouting and protests by the general public concerning the fate of Empire Boulevard, a wide thoroughfare on the border of Crown Heights from Prospect-Lefferts Gardens that remains in a restrictive commercial zoning designation, but has been eyed by developers.
The Board had previously adopted a resolution that would allow the City Planning Department to heed community comments (gathered in March, supposedly from a variety of residents) and recommend possible zoning changes that would transition the roadway to allow some residential development. The result would create a mix of affordable and market-rate units, along with new retail space, proponents said.
But opponents, skeptical of the source of the “community” input that led to the resolution, were deeply distrustful of the Board (many of whom were recently replaced) as well as elected officials and their connection to real estate developers. Fearful over the fate of their neighborhood, they suspected the sought-after “study” was merely a pretext to set the framework for high-rise luxury development and their eventual displacement.
Indeed, an anonymous source told Brooklyn Brief that some Board members voted against the resolution at first, because it did not incorporate sufficient input from the community, but that a later “amendments” period left them satisfied as to community involvement, and they subsequently voted in favor.
After much back and forth–overloaded with name-calling, hyperbolic rhetoric, and shouting down of anyone who dared to advocate even a modicum of nuance or civility–a vote late in the evening purported to rescind the Board’s resolution. But in a fitting tribute to the lack of clarity or direction forward, a tally of the vote by reporters (with 19 in favor of rescinding) did not match the official count (16 in favor, 9 against, 8 abstentions). As the crowds left, the Board even hinted that it might count the abstentions along with “nay” votes to keep the resolution intact.
The Board did not help itself with some its antics. Long before its efforts to tamper with the final vote, the original room reserved at Medgar Evers College to hold the meeting proved too small, demonstrating poor planning and necessitating a move to an auditorium across the street. Explanations as to the original “comments” that lead to the resolution at times only further promoted the notion that they were of spurious authorship. When questioned as to the nature of the Empire Boulevard resolution, and whether it could be altered and rescinded, the Board consistently stumbled with its response, huddling near the podium before offering an answer.
“This is why we absolutely need to see the Board’s bylaws,” said Adrian Untermyer, who sat in the audience. “They have no idea what they’re doing, but we have nothing in writing to prove it.” Legal action to access such documents was being pursued, Untermyer said.
Over boos and hollering, District Manager Pearl Miles claimed that the impetus for the March 17th “meeting” that prodded the “comments” was the result of “many organizations” calling for zoning changes (“everything from rezoning to up-zoning to down-zoning”). The Board decided to collect comments from the community about changes they would like to see throughout the neighborhood. Two scribes recorded the comments and a summary was compiled, she claimed.
“We adopted the resolution for a study based on what people said,” Miles said. She made it a point to emphasize that the Board never explicitly asked for a study of Empire Boulevard per se, but a study of the entire district based on the community comments. The Department of City Planning, however, advised the Board that budget constraints meant a study of the entire district could not be conducted, and so the Board therefore “identified a specific portion of the district for the Department to look at” (presumably, this “selected portion,” conveniently enough, was Empire Boulevard).
Opponents were quick to lambast Ms. Miles’ supposedly roundabout narrative for how the Board came only to look into a study of the Boulevard. But they also did themselves little favors, with filibuster-style theatrics that only served to delay proceedings and defiant proclamations of a reactionary or racial tinge that were sure to thwart any compromise or consensus, all while the roadway remains in an unhelpful zoning designation.
“Power to the people!” screamed District Leader Geoffrey Davis, refusing to return the microphone after his designated time to speak had long since elapsed. “Somehow we have been taken out of the process. Our elected representatives are in a corner hiding. Is that right? Tonight we come back to put the power back in the people’s hands!”
Davis marched back and forth with a fist in the air. Some members of the crowd roared.
“The 71st Precinct is here tonight,” Mr. Nicholson admonished him. “Keep it up, and they’ll escort you out. You need to respect the right of other people to also speak.”
Officers moved forward and assembled near the podium. Davis eventually relented, but only to later refuse to sit down, significantly delaying proceedings on multiple occasions.
“You have been served!” Alicia Boyd of the Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP) announced proudly, slamming an amended petition for answers to outstanding FOIL requests at the Board members’ feet (others from the organization dropped off piles of petitions and letters requesting a meeting with the Mayor to discuss affordability in the community). “We have five foil requests pending. This whole notion of a ‘study’ is bullshit. This black community is not for sale!”
After rapturous applause, others attempted thoughtful explanation or bridge-building, but were quickly eclipsed by emotionally-satisfying quips.
“I understand this is a heated issue,” said Diana Richardson, District Leader for the 43rd Assembly.
“Y’all sold out!” an audience member retorted.
“Paid off!” from another.
“But given the information,” Richardson continued, “we need to discuss this as a community.”
“You got no information!” the audience wasted no time in replying.
“This is a dedicated time to have a productive discussion,” Richardson pleaded.
“Some of us are already displaced!” the crowd yelled back.
“We can argue all day but we need to leave here with solutions,” said Jesse Hamilton, District Leader for the 43rd Assembly District and State Senator Elect. “While we argue, the rents are only going up.”
“How much money you getting from developers?!” the crowd taunted him.
“If you shout in school, you go to the corner, right?” Hamilton replied. “Let’s get together and come up with a game plan.”
The air was thick with suspicion, mistrust, and paranoia. Some attendees, bitter over the rising 23-story tower at 626 Flatbush Avenue and the thin or even non-existent legal protections that failed to curtail it, vowed to dig in and fight what would be even the beginning steps towards possible development.
Kelvin Alexander, on behalf of Borough President Eric Adams, was literally “pooh-poohed” by the audience, but tried to reassure them.
“The Borough President agrees with you,” Alexander tried to explain. “The resolution adopted previously was improper.”
For this reason, Borough President Adams removed Board Members “who did not use the proper process with the resolution.” The Borough President would be holding his own meetings between now and the end of October to come to his decision on the issue, Alexander said. “He’ll make a decision based upon what the people have to say.”
The evening was also filled with many in the audience sitting stoically, or ever-so-slightly shaking their heads. But it also featured some well-reasoned, thoughtful deliberations that were too often drowned out or forgotten.
“If you look at a place like the Upper West Side, before anything goes towards a study, they have specific requests down to the measurement,” said Elizabeth Mackin, an MTOPP member. “We can do that here. We should eventually have a study by City Planning for possible rezoning, but one that incorporates the real comments and wishes from the community, with specific proposals and demands. Otherwise, you’re essentially giving away the land to the developers.”
“We’re being asked to give up fundamental rights to the developers of these new buildings and it’s frankly insulting to be told that we should be happy to trade these rights for ‘better retail’ or new restaurants,” said Suki Cheong, a member of the Prospect Park East Network (PPEN). “What kind of girl do you think our neighborhood is? The kind that dates rich jerks for the price of dinner at a fancy restaurant?”
Cheung added that PPEN was suing the Hudson Companies over the State Environmental Quality Law at issue in the development of 626 Flatbush Avenue, because “big developers aren’t playing by the same rules as everyone else.”
“Transparency and accountability in the way that government funds are given out is one piece of the puzzle,” Cheung added. “Changing state law regarding the 421-a tax exemption and rent regulations to protect our affordable apartments is another piece. And zoning is an important piece too. Because if we can set the rules, as other districts have done, to make sure that each time someone wants to build they have to come to us for permission, then we have the bargaining power we need to ask for what our neighborhood wants and needs at that time, and we retain the right to say when enough is enough.”
Resident Brenda Edwards agreed.
“Our neighborhood is 89 percent rent stabilized,” Edwards said. “Any new development must be responsible and fit in.”
Tim Thomas, who runs the Q at Parkside, a local neighborhood blog, admonished the more boisterous elements in attendance.
“If you say no to this study, you’re saying no to the only form of affordable housing embraced by this administration,” Thomas said. “We need to work with the Mayor and the City Council. Otherwise, it will just be more storage marts and fast food restaurants, the only thing the current zoning allows.”
Another speaker thoughtfully disagreed, advising that she did not want an increase in residential construction or building density, but rather would like to downzone the neighborhood “like other areas surrounding prospect park.” She had commenced legal action and requested an investigation into the Board’s resolution.
Celeste Lacy Davis warned of the peril of the current “as of right” status for most of the greater neighborhood.
“In 2007, my neighbor sold the house to a developer, who put up a condo building,” Davis said. “Starting the landmarking process is not enough to protect us. Our efforts languished and never went through, leaving us exposed. Reckless canyons of high rises are coming and can displace us all.”
— adrian untermyer (@untermyer) September 24, 2014
James Betts questioned the affordability of any “affordable” housing that would come with new construction, and whether developers would really invest in the neighborhood beyond extracting their profits.
“In this desire to erect boxy, glamorous neo-penile style buildings, they claim a certain number of affordable units will be created,” Betts said. “For whom? Not for working class people. Corporate interests will not put money back in our community.”
Sherly Seely urged the attendees to “sit down and talk with each other” while a “Dr. Tolbert” agreed that any resolution should be developed as a result of community collaboration, “not out of thin air.”
Sarah Putnam cautioned against some of the commenters’ seeping racial overtones.
“Our community has every race on the block; it’s a legacy of gentility and neighborliness,” Putnam said. But she otherwise agreed with the concerns many expressed. “This study is cover for tall building and expensive apartments. It’s a rubber stamp for our Borough President and our Mayor to turn Empire Boulevard into Fourth Avenue or Downtown. Money will radically change Brooklyn while leaving out most Brooklynites.”
Over continued boos and taunts, District Manager Pearl Miles read the “comments” that lead to the resolution to those in attendance:
- “Empire Boulevard is dark at night and discourages foot traffic.”
- “No more fast food stores.”
- “Kids should feel safe walking back home from Prospect Park late at night.”
- “Landmarking can help protect against eminent domain but also raises rents.”
- “Save the low rise character of our neighborhood.”
- “Incremental zoning changes might be okay.”
- “R7-1 zoning is not appropriate.”
A study by the City Planning Department, Miles said, was requested to address issues raised in foregoing summary. But a motion was quickly made to rescind the resolution, with a few speakers for and against.
“I don’t want us to rescind the motion because it would violate the Public Meetings Act,” Stuart Balberg said in opposition.
After a brief debate, the vote was set. While many audience members left triumphant that the a city planning study had been curtailed, Board member Demetrius Lawrence quietly indicated (as the crowds drained the auditorium) that the “abstention” votes, counted with the “no” votes, would overcome attempts to stop the study.
First Vice Chair Laura Imperiale, having left the meeting believing the rescind vote was successful, advised that she was “extremely disappointed” by the community’s actions.
“I still think there’s a lot misinformation about the process and the way the community board operates,” Imperiale said. “We’re here to represent the community. Everything the community asked for in the meeting tonight is the whole reason we asked for this study.”
Imperiale said she was puzzled as to why those in attendance thought the Board was not like-minded about representing best interests of community. She explained that the contentious “comments” from the March 17th meeting the Board hosted were a “community listening period,” similar to a Board meeting, that asked residents for a vision of how they wanted to see the neighborhood develop and progress.
“Those ‘comments’ were direct quotes from community members,” Imperiali said. “And all of those comments were mailed with a packet and maps to members of the community.”
Imperiale warned that, throughout the neighborhood, the current zoning allows for greater construction where low-lying building currently sit, and that those who spoke against any plan that would allow for affordable housing conveniently ignored the fact that one in five people in the neighborhood lived below the poverty line.
“This is very disconcerting because now we have nothing,” Imperiale said. “We essentially just told City Planning, ‘forget the study.’ Maybe people didn’t want a ten-story building, but now we’ll be getting an eight-story storage facility.”
Such a structure, Imperiale explained, would employ very few people and be “a completely unproductive piece of real estate for our community” that would “do nothing to give back to residents.”
“The MTOPP people have been here for all our meetings. But they scream and shout and don’t let anyone else have an opinion,” Imperiale said. “While we backtrack like this, we ultimately won’t get what we want because they’ve hijacked the process. We’ll be lucky if we can engage city planning again.”