The City Council approved a controversial Williamsburg development project in a landslide on Wednesday — refusing to be pressured by a hostile, behind-the-scenes campaign by a powerful Hasidic rabbi who is a political patron of the neighborhood’s rookie councilman.
Earlier during the public review process for the development, Rabbi David Niederman, an influential Community Board 1 member and supporter of Councilman Steve Levin, urged his fellow Hasidic colleagues to reject the proposal, known as Rose Plaza, because its developer is a key supporter of a rival social services organization.
“I would like to ask you to come early to the crucal (sic) CB1 vote,” Niederman’s wrote in an e-mail the we obtained from a supporter of Rose Plaza developer Isack Rosenberg. “We have to stop the Rose Plaza proposal as this is major boost for Rosenberg’s CJC org. Hope to see you there.”
The board followed Niederman’s advice and voted down the project, 31-8, though community board votes are only advisory.
The e-mail has incensed Rosenberg’s allies, who charge that Niederman is “playing politics” in order to financially damage two organizations, Central Jewish Council and the United Jewish Community Advocacy Relations and Enrichment, which compete with Niederman’s powerful and politically connected United Jewish Organizations for social services funding from the government.
“This is a scandal!” said Hasidic leader and former Council candidate Isaac Abraham. “It reveals that Neiderman’s opposition to the project was never, as he said, about affordable housing, but an internal, personal vendetta and a feud. Niederman has shown his colors. He should be thoroughly investigated.”
Complicating matters, Niederman’s allies charged that Rosenberg’s friends created the e-mail because they were bitter about Neiderman’s legitimate demands that the project set aside more than the originally promised 20 percent affordable housing units.
“The e-mail was fabricated,” said Community Board 1 member Simon Weiser, who said that he did not receive the e-mail. “They’re running a smear campaign. I am willing to give you a million dollars that there was never such an e-mail. Any e-mail you get from Niederman doesn’t look like this.”
Rose Plaza, which now calls for 754 units, 30 percent of which are set aside at below-market rents, has been a lightening rod among the Satmar community, Williamsburg’s largest Hasidic Jewish sect, since Rosenberg began the process last year to rezone the Kent Avenue site, which currently houses his Certified Lumber factory.
For four years, the sect has been bitterly divided following a power struggle between the late Satmar Grand Rebbe’s two surviving brothers, Aron and Zalman Teitelbaum.
The schism has largely played out in private until prominent Aronite Rosenberg sought to rezone his waterfront property, drawing the ire of the Zalmanite faction.
The Zalmanites then lobbied Levin, Borough President Markowitz, and Community Board 1 members to oppose their rival Rosenberg — an effort that did force Rosenberg to provide more affordable units and some much-sought-after family sized units.
He also removed a restaurant and a private beach, which were in earlier versions of the plan, but angered some Hasidic activists who fear that future residents would wear bathing suits while relaxing on the Williamsburg waterfront.
Levin was a key part of those negotiations, leading to his support for the project after more large units were added — a position that left him in the clear with many observers, despite his ties to Niederman and his toxic e-mail.
“The truth prevailed,” said Gary Schlesinger, executive director of the Rosenberg-allied UJCare, a three-year-old social services operation. “The councilman’s voted on the Rose Plaza project on the merits and did not get mired in politics. Now that the e-mail has been made public, Rabbi Niederman’s affordable housing agenda was just a smokescreen and Niederman’s use of public funding is a smear campaign against someone from the other side from the communtiy is criminal conduct and should be investigated by the authorities.”
Levin’s office said that it had no knowledge of the e-mail, though is leaning towards the belief that it was fabricated.
Abe Deutch, an advisor to Niederman’s United Jewish Organizations, said that Niederman assured him that he did not send the e-mail, noting that people have fabricated e-mail from Niederman’s office in the past.
“How stupid could a person be to send an e-mail to someone on the other side who would vote against it anyway?” said Deutch.
But a spokesman for Councilwoman Diana Reyna (D-Bushwick) confirmed that she has seen the e-mail and forwarded it to Borough President Markowitz’s office asking for investigation.