Bermuda ‘Triangle’! Huge controversy over city’s East Williamsburg housing project

The redevelopment of the Broadway Triangle by Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council is stalled, thanks in part to several ongoing investigations of the nonprofit.
The Brooklyn Paper / Bess Adler

The city’s controversial plan to convert a large swath of manufacturing-zoned land in Williamburg’s “Broadway Triangle” into a residential community won its first approval from a community board panel on Tuesday.

Community Board 1’s land-use committee narrowly approved — though with significant stipulations — the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s contentious proposal to rezone the 31-acre portion of the triangle to create 1,851 units of housing, 905 of which would charge below-market rents.

The city’s plan has been a divisive issue in Williamsburg, where the mostly industrial and commercial area would give way to new residential buildings. Supporters tout the benefits of much-needed affordable housing while opponents allege corruption between the city and two politically connected neighborhood groups that have been awarded first dibs at affordable housing contracts.

At the heart of the conflict is the city’s decision to award the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and the Bushwick Ridgewood Senior Citizens Council — two non-profits tied to influential Assemblyman Vito Lopez (D–Bushwick) — without putting the sites up for bid.

“This isn’t about the community,” said Esteban Duran, a CB1 member and an adversary of the plan. “The community’s voice was never heard.”

The fight over the triangle turned volatile at a June 9 Community Board 1 meeting, where dozens of protestors literally muffled a city presentation with chants of “Open the process, shut them down,” transforming the meeting into a cacophonic eardrum buster the likes of which hasn’t been heard in Williamsburg since last summer’s Sonic Youth concert in the McCarren Park pool.

Seth Donlin, a spokesman for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, dismissed allegations of wrongdoing, noting that the city can issue the so-called “sole-source dispositions” granting temporary site control to groups that “approach the city with a plan that seems feasible and involves seeking outside monies.”

Lopez, who is also the all-powerful chairman of the county Democratic party organization and chairman of the state Assembly’s housing committee, also refuted the claims and accused project adversaries — many of whom belong to a coalition of North Brooklyn community organizations that say they have been snubbed the chance to control the site — of attempting to halt the proposal so they can develop the affordable units.

“This area is pretty poor and needs housing,” said Lopez. “I am in support of an expeditious process so that we can move to build thousands of units of affordable housing. The people who need affordable housing should not have to wait for it because of self-interest.”

Other issues

Though the role of the non-profits is at the center of the controversy, disagreements about the Broadway Triangle are so broad that they actually include the size of the site itself.

The city’s proposal calls for a residential rezoning an eight-block site bordered by Throop Street, Flushing Avenue, Harrison Street, and Middleton Street, while opponents of the proposal want to see development in a larger area bounded by Broadway, Flushing Avenue, and Union Avenue — including a five-block plot at the southwestern corner of the site that is owned the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

The city claims it decided to exclude the Pfizer plot — which is currently zoned for manufacturing — in the residential rezoning to avoid a spike in the property’s value that could affect future land-use negotiations with the drug-maker.

“If we were to include it, it would kind of give a blank check to them,” said Shampa Chanda, an HPD assistant commissioner. “The community loses its opportunity to engage Pfizer in a larger discussion and get community benefits out of it.”

It’s not just the size of the site that’s in question — it’s also the size of the buildings.

Opponents of the city’s plan to rezone a wide swath of the so-called “Broadway Triangle” in South Williamsburg stormed a Community Board 1 meeting on Tuesday and loudly demanded more affordable housing than the city proposes.
The Brooklyn Paper / Ben Muessig

Reversing the paradigm in many Brooklyn rezonings, opponents of the plan are demanding the city allow taller, bulkier buildings that could result in as many as 3,731 new residential units, 1,800 of them affordable.

But the city stands behind its eight-story cap as a means of contextual design — as and a way to avoid severe impacts on neighborhood schools, open space and infrastructure.

Also controversial is the city’s right to use eminent domain on residences and businesses in the Broadway Triangle, as well as the fact that only the 448-units of the touted affordable housing that would be built on city-owned land must be developed on-site.

The remaining affordable units must be constructed or maintained somewhere within CB1.

The board’s recommendation

Taking some of these concerns into account, the Community Board 1 committee approved the project with suggested amendments including:

• a cap on the amount of affordable housing built off-site.

• a “transparent” process to eliminate the no-bid contracts.

• a city fund to help relocate affected businesses.

• a guarantee that open space is created in the area.

The plan will face the CB1 full board next month before heading to the borough president, the City Planning Commission, and finally the City Council.

Political fallout

The Broadway Triangle has become a key issue in the race for the 33rd Council District, where al l six candidates — except for Steve Levin, who is Lopez’s chief of staff — recently stated their opposition to the city’s plan.

If Levin doesn’t win the seat in November, it probably won’t matter, given that the rezoning will likely face a vote before the election. Current Councilman David Yassky (D–Brooklyn Heights) supports the city’s plan, but Councilwoman Diana Reyna (D–Williamsburg) — whose district abuts the property — is against it.

Typically, councilmembers defer to the local representative, but Yassky was recently snubbed by his Council colleagues, who ignored his opposition to the controversial Dock Street project in his DUMBO district and approved it anyway.

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