Depending on the size of the gash in the tire, the air leaks fast or slow, and last night, the squeak was audible as the fierce rhetoric of the past few months came down to a simple, maybe even simplistic, presentation. The Empire Study Group, which lists Alicia Boyd as one of its principals, presented its Plan for Empire Boulevard last night. The strip of commercially zoned properties from Flatbush to Bedford is hardly magisterial in its current incarnation, but it has taken on an outsized role in the battle for the future of the neighborhood.
Richard Bearak, the Borough President's head of Land Use, presented first, followed by an update on the exciting plans for the Bedford-Union Armory. Then Professor Tom Angotti, much in need of a lozenge, shared summation of his numerous encounters with the Empire Study Group by suggesting that the current C8-2 zoning already invites creative commercial uses, even if none of them have been hitherto attempted. Suggestions were plentiful and myriad. Museums, pharmacies, bistros, community centers, creative streetscapes, a roller rink (I know, I know) or re-purposing of bulky storage marts…the list goes on. Best part, says Angotti, you don't have to rezone and give up ANYthing. Just take residential development off the table. In fact, the vast majority of attendees and committee members at last night's ULURP committee meeting seem to favor taking Empire Blvd completely off the Planning Study request to the City. Without the presence of Alicia Boyd (did she too have a cold?) I must say the whole proceedings were anxious but civil. As I've noted many times before, the disagreements are really not so severe as to deserve Ms. Boyd's vitriol, vendetta and insistent character assassination. It's a discussion, a disagreement even, but it's not nor should it ever be all out war.
But here's the thing. City Planning officials have already told us, in public and private, that they are not going to invest oodles of resources for a net result of no new housing. Because in the heart of a housing crisis, for homes at ALL income levels, it simply doesn't make sense to create less opportunities for growth, and less opportunities for affordable housing. They maintain that our neighborhood has precious little space available for new apartments that DON'T involve teardowns. Empire Blvd is perfect for new construction, and developers will be keen to build decently and pay for amenities and infrastructure and even 20 or 30 percent affordable set-asides because, well, people will WANT to live near the Park and Garden and plentiful transit. For that, they'd look at "soft spots" throughout the proposed area from NY Ave to the Park and E.P. to Clarkson, to help us fend off unnecessary and out-sized apartment buildings.
And that leaves us at an impasse. Much of the neighborhood would desperately like new protections against teardowns and overdevelopment. But those near Empire are unwilling to cede their commercial frontier to new residents. We have what they might call a humdinger of a conundrum.
But then we always knew this. There were no surprises last night, and thankfully no bloodshed. Just a restatement of the problem. And while visions of a commercially enticing, walkable couple of blocks leading up to the Park might sound alluring, we do not own the land, nor does the City. Private hands will make private decisions based on how best to grow their investments. Richard seems to think a likely scenario would be some sort of mixed-use medical facility, as Obamacare makes the CityMDs more viable economically. Look for 10 to 12 story buildings of SOMEthing, he says, even hotels. But it remains highly unlikely that landowners will poor millions into amenities like the ones of the Empire Study Group plan. Another scenario? Economic downturn. And...nothing. No changes, no residential, no new commercial...but plenty of burgers!
For those just joining the conversation, the Q enjoys restating the obvious:
1) Your Community Board #9, yours truly in cahoots, conducted a series of meetings and forums in 2013-14 to determine how best to respond to aggressive development in the area, particularly in response to the giant tower at 626 Flatbush.
2) The Board voted overwhelmingly in Spring 2014 to send City Planning a letter requesting that a Planning Study be jointly undertaken, to determine how best to plan for growth, affordability and infrastructure while protecting the context, economics and history of the neighborhood.
3) Alicia Boyd formed a resistance group to prevent such a Planning Study to commence, lest the City place ITS priorities over those of surrounding community residents, most notably, herself.
4) In Fall of 2014, Ms. Boyd managed to so disrupt Community Board meetings and change the dynamics to such a degree that the Board reversed itself, rescinded the letter and offer to work with Planning, and began to scheme a better use for Empire Blvd than residential. MTOPP claimed that huge towers were planned that would destroy the neighborhood and lead to unchecked gentrification; elected officials said no, 10-14 stories were more likely in a contextual rezoning, and only that tall if they included substantial set-asides for affordable apartments at (roughly) 60% of Area Media Income, or families of 4 making up to $50,000. (It should be noted that the housing market continued to froth, and gentrification continued unabated even as the standoff wore on.) The City's retorts were ridiculed as lies and MTOPP attacked anyone who dared contradict that conclusion. This led to the resignation of CB9's newly elected board chair, its secretary, and the filing of numerous lawsuits aimed to rid the CB of corruption. The Q took aim and fired at MTOPP frequently and without mercy, citing Ms. Boyd's seeming inability to listen, compromise and play nice. Ms. Boyd devised a counterattack that included not just the Q but all elected officials and district manager Pearl Miles, among many others. Mr. Imani Henry of "Equality for Flatbush" orchestrated a petition for Tim Thomas's ouster based on his supposed racist hatred of the entire black community, of which he, Alicia Boyd, Karen Fleming and Mathieu Eugene are apparently the sole members.
5) Amidst Ms. Boyd's relentless attacks, DM Miles was canned in October of 2015. There was much rejoicing, but there was also a $20 million lawsuit and a lot of paper back up her claims, all of which she took with her on her way out the door. Ms. Miles has pledged to do everything in her power to see that her enemies meet justice, both financial and otherwise. Oh, and she wants her job back. What an odd scene that would be, should it come to pass. Welcome back to hell, Pearl! Especially since she'd probably retire soon after.
6) The Community Board continued to deliberate the arcane details of Zoning Regulations amidst a citywide effort to address, in its eyes, the obstacles preventing the production of better and more affordable housing. CBs, often known for their reactionary NIMBYism, responded in character, overwhelmingly disapproving ANY increases in density at the hands of the City. Economists note that this is not the first city-wide construction boom, nor should we expect it to last indefinitely. Choices, both made and unmade, may bear consequences for decades to come. That is, it's not often that the City is in a position to dictate (mandate) affordable housing be built and manage to keep a seat at REBNY's bountiful table.
7) We wait. And wait. And wait. While the Board rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic. Like so much of what I've seen come before the Board, there is no consensus in the making. Only reiterations of the same tired positions.
Perhaps, as with the Congress of this great nation, this is how democracy is supposed to work. Sometimes it's designed to ensure that we do nothing at all, while we bitterly dig ourselves deeper into our own rigid positions.