Date: September 23rd, 2014
Venue: Medgar Evers College, Edison O Jackson Auditorium
Address: 1638 Bedford Avenue, corner of Crown Street
'Twill be quite a show, imagines the Q. After a summer of protests and community meetings the Community Board meets on Tuesday with its first new chairman in a couple decades. There'll be our local firebrand Alicia deadset on destroying the Board's reputation and insisting it's in the pocket of the Borough President. A minion of her followers will be ready to pounce; a whole host of social issues seem to be wrapped up in a simple letter (resolution) sent to City Planning last spring asking to update zoning to reflect community preferences, i.e. lower heights and affordable housing for displaced residents, and increased opportunities for economic development - you know, commerce and jobs and the like. Sound innocent enough? Think again. It's not sitting as pretty with some as you'd have thunk.
For those who were there last March when the decision was made to send a letter to City Planning asking for a rezoning, the Q was one of the voices adamantly opposed to slowing things down, sending it back to committee for further discussion. Why? Because we'd already had multiple meetings on the issue over a year, including district-wide listening sessions, and the concerns had been heard, and developers were already taking advantage of outdated zoning to build against the wishes of many. We had to get going; the process takes awhile. Just look at what's happening all around the borough, people were saying. And after all, it was the letter that needed to be written in order to set in motion the REST of the process, the hard part - determining WHERE to study and HOW best to manage the City's goals of increased housing stock, new affordable units, more jobs, and growth along transit corridors - frankly the only growth that makes sense, given the world's over-reliance on cars to commute. (And, let's face it, in this City cars spend an awful lot of fossil fuel just looking for places to park and idling during alternate side parking. Makes me almost as mad as diesel Fresh Direct trucks...what a middle finger to the environment that is. Clean, tasy, organic, local food sent by a gas guzzling smog spewer? Gag me.)
So de facto, we were going to look at Empire all along...and Nostrand, Flatbush, Ocean, New York Ave and anywhere else that needed a review. A lot of folks mentioned Empire throughout the process, complaining that such a low-grade commercial zoning (C8) ought be left to areas not so close to public transportation and the beautiful Park and Garden. Think about it... how dumb is it to have fast food places with drive-thru, and grocery stores with giant parking lots, on such a perfectly located piece of ground? It wasn't the BP, or the Mayor, or City Planning leading the charge. Any idiot could tell you that Empire was a potential place to build if you're gonna build affordable units, and by extension, market rate units. Not to piss anyone off...but because people deserve a decent place to live, whether market or subsidized. And hey, you live here! Isn't it awesomely situated? Why not share the love? We prefer Big Macs to new neighbors and housing the displaced? (Well, I guess it depends on your level of hunger, but you know what I mean. And don't give me that yarn about how low income folks need McDonalds. It's patronizing to suggest that just because someone's poor they can't cook healthily and on a shoestring. Besides, there's plenty of fast food around to make up for a space hog on the Boulevard. Ever seen the menu at the Chinese joints? Way more food for the buck and the big corporate dollar-suckers.)
As for the process, once approved by CB9 and Planning, the expensive and lengthy environmental review would happen, and Planning would make recommendations. What could one expect, given Planning's and the Mayor's prior successes and mistakes? Calls for MORE affordable housing for each development built, maybe 30%. Or 20-30-50, with the 30 being middle-income. The 20, 30 etc would be stabilized. NEW units stabilized. And we would look for height restrictions - real ones - in exchange for greater density. I know this is possible because it's happened elsewhere, even just north of hear in West Crown Heights last year. (WeCro? Ugh.)
Btw, the term "affordable housing" is now being hissed at. Do people even know what it is? I'm not talking about the "middle income" housing that's being balked at with Ratner Center. We're talking about affordable to people making UP to 50% of Area Median Income (AMI) of about $45,000. That means, if you make more than $22,500 you're TOO RICH to qualify. Even at 626 Flatbush, that's the breakdown. Hiss all you want, unless you're the one lucky enough to win the CB9 preferenced lottery.
Do we all realize what an enormous opportunity that is for someone who doesn't want to be priced out of this nabe now, or even in two or three years? Priceless, I'd say. And remember, the only kind of affordable housing that anyone is building anymore (except for special needs populations thru non-profits) is being built by private developers through incentives like low-cost financing and tax breaks. The City stopped building projects decades ago. This is it folks. These are the cards that have been dealt. Do we play them, or do we fold and go home, screwing everyone who doesn't own their home? Look around the room sometime at these community meetings. It's predominantly homeowners, whom I would argue have way more conflicting concerns than the Borough President.
This is the first all-liberal administration and Council in decades. And, I might add, the first liberal administration since the real estate and Wall Street run-ups of the '90s and '00s. Where once you couldn't beg developers to build, now you can extract affordable units in places like Crown Heights and (gasp) East New York. If you are following the news and the political process, you know all this, and you've probably come to some conclusions on how best to manage the new normal. Maybe you think the Mayor is a sell-out? Well, he's doing EXACTLY what he campaigned on. There are no surprises here. If you voted for him thinking he was going to do something MORE liberal and less about building more and denser, you made a bad bet.
But some came late to the zoning party, and they are on a scorch and burn mission to stop the process dead in its tracks. and are insisting on a no-new-development strategy and/or unachievable visions for low-rise non-residential landscapes on Empire, ones that no one is going to pay for let alone entertain, pretty much disabling any attempt to manage a housing crisis through the use of governmental innovation. And if you imagine Empire as a row of small ma and pa shops and leisurely strolling folk on beautifully landscaped broad sidewalks...well who the hell is going to be the customer base? Commerce along Empire is doing just fine. There is absolutely no incentive for any landlord to do anything other than what they're doing right now. You want McDonald's to sell to a ma and pa green grocer and a local ethnic restauranteur? Be serious. This is Ronald McDonald here, and he's no clown when it comes to profits.
MTOPP has also pissed off every elected official and accused everyone who even breathes the phrase "affordable housing" as an enemy to the people, and to people of color in particular. That claim is an insult to intelligence. You can't house people who have been displaced if you don't offer up any new housing. Right now the current housing stock is becoming less affordable by the day. Is it somehow gonna grow new units because the community says no to rezoning?
If you're looking for conspiracies, a better bet would be the strangely aligned incentive of certain Sterling homeowners and their current quality of life. But as I've said before, people have mixed motives, and some hide them beneath deep layers of denial. I'm not crass enough to point fingers and demonize people. As you can see, I like a good fight as the next civic-minded dude. My hats off to good warriors, but I'm calling bullshit when I see it.
Somewhere down the line, Alicia Boyd and MTOPP decided that a great conspiracy was afoot to build giant high-rises along Empire, specifically Empire. She lives on Sterling. It's natural to think that she might be forced to endure a massive building IN HER BACKYARD, much like folks on Chester Court and Flatbush and Ocean near 626 are enduring right now. Lord knows she's not special in having to put up with construction in this borough. Or, at this point, just imagining it. It can't be fun. And it's always scary to imagine the future, especially when you see the rest of the borough changing so radically so quickly.
But then there's the issue of race and class, which I was told I am not qualified to discuss, because I am a racist who can't see his racism, and therefore irrelevant to the conversation. This, in a scathing personal email from Ms. Boyd. Fine. I'm not qualified. In which case, ignore everything I've said.
The real nemesis here, if I may be so bold, is not Eric Adams, City Planning, Laurie Cumbo, Mathieu Eugene, Tim Thomas, Pearl Miles, Jake Goldstein, Mike Cetera, half of CB9 or any of the others who have been called out by Alicia for sleeping with the enemy. Nor does the blame lie with Alicia herself or anyone else with a bullhorn and a bone to pick. Capitalism and racism have always been bedfellows in this country. And they are wreaking havoc right now on low income black neighborhoods. And none of us who've escaped, not through grit but by birth, the scourge of generational poverty can sandpaper our hands thoroughly enough to exfoliate the dirt. It's all blood money. Your house, Alicia's, mine. The taxman, the tax cheat, the landlord, the cigarette seller, the check-casher, the non-voter, the look-the-other-way-er, the miser, the right-winger, the banker, the drug dealer, the therapist, even the teachers bless-their-heart teaching the system to yet another generation of eager cadets. So before casting stones, one might want to look at one's own glass house. Is the glass house half full or half empty? Well, at least it has a nice garden and good bones and is "dripping" with period details (ew...reminds me of Helter Skelter). And hopefully, it would seem by the drawings of the future Empire w/out people, no new neighbors. A brick Shangri La wrapped in limestone. Blood money, the lot of it. So what you gonna do? More landscaping and a prayer?
I'm expecting that Tuesday will involve much earthy rhetoric, and I hope some sane and reasonable voices will come to offer different perspectives than the one currently carrying the loudest message. It should be possible to have a thoughtful conversation about how to house the hundreds, probably thousands, of residents being priced out. Looking at my Gentrification Steam-punk Timepiece, we have mere hours before the full-blown forces of gentrification come to the avenues. But if we can't figure out a way to be a PART of this great experiment called New York City, if we can't put aside our own (self) satisfaction for at least an honest conversation...we're faring way worse than I imagined.
Here's what the Q believes. We were late rezoning Flatbush - we didn't stay on top of the issue when it became malignant in 2007 then oddly into remission (recession), and now we must move to keep the Flabenue from becoming a canyon along the park. And here's where we should be working WITH the powers that be. Build. Create jobs. Improve schools, amenities and services. Don't fuck over our neighbors in the process. Recognize cultural difference, don't exploit it or condemn it. Use whatever tools are at our disposal to keep people in their homes and work to create better housing laws and curbs on despicable landlords. Recognize that (as I learned Friday) there's been a 20% jump in homelessness in six months. Recognize that right now everyone and their aunt wants to live here, but who's to say it's gonna last? Booms aren't booms unless there are busts before and after. And so, the WAY WE PLAN NOW IS GONNA MATTER. BIG TIME.
If nothing comes of rezoning and the brute force of propaganda rules the day, I won't be surprised. But whatever your thoughts, please come out and share them. I already know what one person's gonna say; I'd like to hear some others.