Monday, June 13, 2016

‘It was not about money": InterSection discussion on Prospect Heights Wednesday (and what might go unsaid)

This coming Wednesday at the Brooklyn Public Library's Central Library, from 7 to 8:30 pm, will be another public event in the InterSection/Prospect Heights project exploring recent neighborhood history, a discussion titled ‘It was not about money."

Today, of course, neighborhood issues often are about money, and in multiple ways, which is why I'm interested in what will be said and, perhaps, not said by the panelists, including Public Advocate Letitia James.

From the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC):
In Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood, the conversion of a few former industrial buildings to loft apartments that began in 1999 was followed by the announcement of the massive Atlantic Yards project in 2003, which in turn fueled an increase in commercial and residential rents and accelerated displacement of residents and businesses. 
Now, just as the first affordable apartments at Atlantic Yards have begun to be offered through New York City’s lottery system, and residents ponder the future impact of the more than 13,000 residents expected to occupy the market and affordable apartment to be completed by 2025, the Intersection | Prospect Heights project returns with a panel discussion and series of walking tours launching “Our Places,” a new publication presenting stories and concerns of current and former neighbors, tracking development and demographic change, and looking at how it plays out on our streets. What is the future of Prospect Heights and our city?

On June 15th at 7 pm at Brooklyn Public Library's Central Branch, a panel of experts in affordable housing, economic development, public policy, community activism, and urban planning will discuss how Prospect Heights has been reshaped, and what implications the experiences of its residents and businesses hold for other communities facing redevelopment. Their discussion is informed by stories, photographs, and research collected as part of Intersection | Prospect Heights, a public art and dialogue collaboration between the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC), Buscada, and Brooklyn Public Library.
The panelists include James; urban planning professor Thomas Angotti (Hunter College, CUNY); community development leader Deb Howard (IMPACCT); community business leader Regina Cahill (North Flatbush BID); and Catherine MBali Green of ARTs East New York, a neighborhood facing a rezoning. The moderators will be Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani of Buscada, which fosters dialogue on complex urban questions, and Gib Veconi of PHNDC.

Putting Prospect Heights in context

I think this might be interesting on a couple of levels. First, Buscada will present a new guidebook, which Bendiner-Viani described as having five sections, named for phrases people used when talking about the neighborhood (“A bit like home”,“A mixed community”, “I would hate to leave”, "It was not about money", “Everything they loved”).

These sections, she said, bring together older and newer oral histories about the neighborhood, as well as photographs from the early 2000s and from today, and excerpts from the PHNDC survey opinion research from 2004 and 2016.

These are put into context by a timeline of events in Prospect Heights from 1999 to 2016. See excerpts at right and below left.

From “A mixed community”:
This has been a mixed community for a very long time. Prospect Heights has had a lot people of different ethnicities and backgrounds for years and years, and we’re all part of the neighborhood and love it. ...I am an African American woman. A lot of my friends aren’t. Occasionally I will take my friend’s kid to the playground. And people say to me, “Um, do you take care of children around here?” It’s enraging. There are a lot of women of color who are caregivers. Not all of us. I say, “This is my best friend’s child, and we have a day in the park together. Just like you have a day in the park with your kids. This is my godson.” --Denise
From “Everything they loved”:
You see the one that’s going up on Carlton and the one that’s going up on Vanderbilt ...all the places that used to be warehouses or car repair places are now condos... You can’t get a two-bedroom condo in this neighborhood for less than $800,000. Who can afford this? You can just imagine developers walking up and down the street saying, “If I can get my hands on that one, I can build 10 stories. If I can get my hands on that one, I can build 12 stories.” --Christy
Actually, they can't. The zoning prohibits it, unless the developer is savvy enough to work the system. The Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park project--with the 550 Vanderbilt condo building and the 535 Carlton rental building cited by Christy--benefits from a state override of city zoning.

From “It was not about money”:
The neighborhood, in the 23 years I’ve been here, has changed very much... When I was here, it was nothing about money. Everybody does need money in the world, but it was not about money. It’s become cutthroat. It’s very beautiful still, but if you don’t have money, you’re not welcomed, and be gone. There’s no such thing as “I’ll pay you tomorrow.” --Mike
Mike is Mike Halkias, owner of the recently closed restaurant The Usual on Vanderbilt Avenue, who spoke poignantly last October at the library about how the restaurant was his home, more than a business.

Looking at the timeline, and some politics perhaps omitted


As the excerpt below left suggests, there have been major changes in Prospect Heights since 1999, and surely the full booklet will flesh them out some more.

I wonder how many of the more subtle, and complex, political undercurrents will get aired out. (There's more than enough, of course, to talk about beyond the affordability issues below.)

Consider: James was a leading public opponent of Atlantic Yards, and publicly criticized the first tower, the modular 461 Dean Street, for not having the promised allotment of family-sized apartments.

As I wrote in May, James, encouraged by developer Forest City Ratner, called a New York Daily News reporter and say, in the reporter's telling, that "she doesn't really hear a lot of complaints from residents, what she hears is a lot of excitement about the possibility of affordable housing."

That's a curious, politically strategic decision to make nice to a former antagonist.

As I noted last October, the InterSection/Prospect Heights project is sponsored by Buscada, PHNDC, and Brooklyn Public Library, with grants from the New York Council on the Humanities, Citizens Committee for New York City, Council Member Laurie Cumbo, the Park Place/Underhill Avenue Block Association, and the Carlton Avenue Association.

Consider that Cumbo, unmindful of the affordability of the apartments at 461 Dean, said in May at an information session, "I get to step in on the celebration time." She also responded in a curiously reticent way to news about sexual harassment at the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park site.

I have to think the posture of both elected is about money--the past and expected support of the real estate industry, including Forest City.

The role of PHNDC

Or, consider the shifting posture of PHNDC, part of the larger BrooklynSpeaks coalition that aimed to mend, not end Atlantic Yards, and wound up filing suit--as did Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn--that successfully challenged the state's 2009 decision to re-approve of the project while failing to study the impact of delay.

Once, BrooklynSpeaks and allies had "expressed outrage" that apartments in the modular tower were "too expensive for the majority of Brooklynites." In 2014, BrooklynSpeaks achieved significant but decidedly incomplete progress--a new 2025 timeline for affordable housing, while not specifying levels of affordability--and has muted such criticisms.

Today, PHNDC offers neutral language about the affordable housing at 461 Dean:
Eligible tenants may earn between $20,675 for an individual and $144,960 for a family of four. Each apartment features stainless steel kitchen appliances and a washer and dryer....
These units, offered to prospective tenants of a wide range of incomes, represent an opportunity for community members concerned about being priced out of Prospect Heights to receive a stabilized lease at an affordable rent. Residents of Brooklyn community districts 2, 3, 6 and 8 receive lottery preference for 50% of all affordable apartments offered at Atlantic Yards.

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