A coalition of 40 North Brooklyn community groups sued the city on Wednesday, contending that the proposed Broadway Triangle rezoning plan violated federal law because of “the racially and religiously discriminatory impacts of the proposed rezoning.”
The suit, filed in Supreme Court, argues that a politically corrupt process cut out dozens of community groups from participating in plans to convert 31 acres of former industrial land in East Williamsburg into a mixed-income community with large portions reserved for below-market-rate housing.
United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizen Council — two non-profit groups tied to Assemblyman Vito Lopez (D–Bushwick) — were given no-bid contracts by the city to develop housing in the Triangle.
City officials have defended that arrangement because both groups submitted proper applications for site control. But the suit argues that the city intentionally excluded other groups.
The suit is the culmination of years of hostility between the largely Hispanic community and the expanding Hasidic neighborhood nearby. Many of the court papers are peppered with references to how the “Williamsburg Hasidic community” has been “the beneficiary of racial quotas” and “other forms of heavy illegal discrimination.”
The suit also contends that “almost 50 percent” of the 2,000 units of public housing in the area are occupied by Hasidic Jews, “despite federal court orders requiring the end of discriminatory practices and despite the fact that the waiting list for such housing has remained at over 90 percent Latino and African American for more than 30 years.”
But after years of aligning himself with those groups, Lopez “switched his political allegiances and became closely allied with UJO,” the suit contends.
After that point, all other groups besides UJO and Ridgewood Bushwick were “disinvited” from participating in the Broadway Triangle rezoning process, the suit added.
The suit represents one of the rare times in city history that a community group is seeking to stop a rezoning so that larger, housing-project-style towers could be built.
But that, too, is part of the racial fabric of the ongoing controversy.
“The city has tried to justify the low-rise limitation of the proposed rezoning to a commitment to contextual housing, citing the six- to seven-story housing built by the Hasidic community” which favors low-rise housing because religious Jews cannot use elevators on the Sabbath.
“The net result … has led to another city-sponsored racially discriminatory plan for housing development in the South Williamsburg area,” the suit alleges.
Calls to the mayor’s office were not returned by press time. A spokesperson for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development said that the agency would not comment on ongoing litigation.
Hours before the suit was filed, opponents and foes gathered at the City Planning Commission’s Manhattan office for the latest hearing on the rezoning, which has already been approved by Community Board 1 and Borough President Markowitz as part of the land-use review process.
More than two dozen speakers testified on the plan — and many of the same themes from the lawsuit were on display.
Ron Shiffman, a former city planning commissioner who opposes the city rezoning plan, hinted at the racism of the proposal because the adjacent Community Board 3, which represents a large African-American community, did not get a chance to weigh in.
“The area has been surgically removed from the plan,” said Shiffman. “There has been an attempt to not include CB3.”
But supporters, who include Catholic and Hasidic leaders, housing organizers, and city planners, as well as representatives Lopez and Councilman David Yassky (D–Brooklyn Heights), emphasized the community’s pressing need for affordable housing.
“Through an intensive process, we’ve been able to achieve overwhelming involvement from community groups,” Lopez said in a statement. “Community Board 1 has continually voted for contextual rezoning and overwhelmingly supported this plan, as has Borough President Markowitz and an overwhelming number of elected officials.”
— with Aaron Short
©2009 Community News Group
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