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At CB 8 Land Use Committee meeting, tensions over petition requesting neighborhood plan, shared goals, and transparency/trust

See collected coverage of M-CROWN rezonings: click here.

If you go by the signatures on the letter sent March 11 by 35th District Council Member Crystal Hudson and 36th District colleague Chi Ossé to the Department of City Planning (DCP), both Community Board 8 leaders as well as a dissenting group on CB 8’s Land Use Committee all agree that the city should pursue a comprehensive plan for the underutilized blocks along and near Atlantic Avenue, in what’s known as the M-CROWN district.

That would finally get official backing for a holistic revamp of the area--one pursued by CB 8 since 2014 but resisted by the city, which has continued to encourage spot rezonings for large buildings, but without new infrastructure and services.

But the launch of a petition a few weeks after Hudson’s then-unpublicized letter (which I didn't write about until last week)  exposed tensions among the letter's signatories. The petition called for the City Council to “reject two private applications… [for] 17-story luxury buildings on Atlantic Avenue” and support “a broad-based collaborative planning effort for the Atlantic Avenue area.”

Those tensions—over policy, collaboration, and transparency—emerged in a meeting April 7 of CB 8’s Land Use Committee, where Hudson, as I wrote, said she hoped for a response from DCP before voting April 12 on the two pending rezonings, 870-888 Atlantic Ave. and 1034-1042 Atlantic Ave.

Even if Hudson gets a commitment to a neighborhood plan, some CB 8 leaders think--contra the petition--that the two projects should not be rejected, given a commitment to deeply affordable units.

While the meeting was dominated by petition supporters, it’s hardly clear that represents the majority of CB 8 members. Either way, Hudson hopes to canvass a larger cross-section of the much Community District. through new outreach efforts, to better understand community sentiment.

Petition poses tensions

Urban planner Kaja Kühl, an organizer of the petition (which now has more than 840 signatures), said at the meeting that signers wanted a neighborhood plan “in lieu of approving the two developments.” (One would be behind her residence.) 

From the petition
She noted that some goals—such as open space, improved transportation, anti-displacement plans—were similar to those raised at a meeting (video) the previous week of CB 8’s M-CROWN Subcommittee, led by Gib Veconi.

Veconi asked Kühl to clarify who was behind the petition. (It states it was started by Jack Robinson, a Land Use Committee member, but no other organizers are listed.)

Several people at the meeting, some associated with the North Prospect Heights Association and the Crown Heights Tenant Union, then raised their hands. “Most of us have been attending way too many public hearings on the issue of the two developments,” Kühl said, “and as a reaction to that I think we got together and wanted to prepare this petition.”

“But why launch your own campaign outside,” Veconi asked, rather than bring it into the Land Use Committee, given similar goals.

Kühl said it didn’t particularly mean they were disagreeing, but “we didn't see the chance to do it earlier.” That sidestepped the policy difference: petition organizers oppose the new buildings, while Veconi, having negotiated concessions from the developers (in exchange for valuable bulk beyond the M-CROWN guidelines), supports them.

What would the petitioners do next, Veconi asked.

In the short term, Kühl responded, “to get as much support behind the Council Member's request as possible.”

Veconi noted that much in Kühl’s presentation reflected work already “initiated by people who've been working on the M-CROWN project over the last seven years”—i.e., him—or “would be completed by the Department of City Planning. I'm just curious as to what other pieces you're planning to add.”

(The acronym refers to "Manufacturing, Commercial, Residential Opportunity for a Working Neighborhood.")

Kühl said she’d think about the answer and let others speak.

Robert Callahan noted that the CB 8 votes on the projects had been very close and that they should spend less time “focusing on how long the tenure that someone has had in working on this issue, because we need to grow a coalition of people significantly.” 

(Later, he said, exasperatedly, “Why is Gib 90% of this committee? I'm so tired of it.” Veconi, by virtue of his work since 2014 on plans for M-CROWN, has gained support from CB 8 leaders and became the key contact for the developers, architects, and lawyers pursuing valuable spot rezonings.)

Map by Kaja Kühl; rezonings in light blue are pending; apartment counts are from
 Environmental Assessment Statements and include areas beyond the parcels owned by applicants;
 the 1050 Pacific project would now have 234 units and 1010 Pacific would have 175 units

The 840 Atlantic example

Sarah Lazur of the Crown Heights Tenant Union said she thought CB 8 had “turned a pretty important corner” last year with the 840 Atlantic Ave. project, at the corner of Vanderbilt Avenue and favored by Council Member Laurie Cumbo in part because it promised a low-cost dance studio to an ally, Jamel Gaines Creative Outlet.

CB 8’s Land Use Committee, apparently at Cumbo’s direction, reversed its opposition to 840 Atlantic in a last-minute compromise, but the full board, either confused by or resistant to the compromise, refused to endorse it. The project is slated for a site mostly occupied by a drive-through McDonald's.

That leaves in question the developer’s stated commitment, for example, to deeply affordable housing, since CB 8, lacking board endorsement, was unable to sign a separate agreement with the developer, deemed a Community Benefits Agreement. Indeed, the developer, perplexingly, has filed to build two buildings and has not answered questions.

Who’s representative?

Petition signer Elaine Weinstein suggested the activists should “go out to organizations that represent far more Black and brown people” in the area, given that they were most at risk of displacement and may not be comfortable at CB 8 meetings

That sparked another layer of tension. Fior Ortiz-Joiner cited the issue of displacement, adding “no offense, but I realized that when hands were raised [for the petition], Black and brown people weren't represented in that group. And we don't always need people to talk for us.”

That drew a response from CHTU’s Esteban Girón, who said, “But there is a Black person in this group, and I'm brown.” (Not everyone was on camera.)

After some more criticism of polarization, Kühl said that, had the meeting featured a chat function—chat for Land Use meetings was removed by the CB 8 Chair—they’d be chatting together “to become all one group.”

Later, CHTU’s Mimi Mitchell, not on camera, said, “I'm Black, by the way. And I'm one of the people who created this petition. I am definitely not a token.”

Disputed language

Veconi offered a caution: “When advocates within a community fight with each other, developers win, every single time. I don't think there's anything that was presented here this evening and Ms. Kühl’s presentation that hasn't been envisioned from the beginning in the M-CROWN process.”

Had CB 8 been part of drafting the petition, Veconi said, the language would’ve been different, so that those asked to sign would know that CB 8 had long pursued a neighborhood plan. (Unmentioned: it would not have called for the two projects to be voted down.)

Veconi asked if the disagreement went beyond “just lose—being on the other end, the minority on that vote on these two applications back in November?” (That vote was contested, and murky.)

Mitchell, who said she’d witnessed hostility and condescending comments at meetings, criticized Land Use Chair Sharon Wedderburn for asserting at a public hearing that CB 8 supported the projects.

Wedderburn said she’d said “it's a tiered resolution,” offering the board's preferences. As I wrote, one of her two statements to City Council was more careful than the other, which expressed clear support.

From 11/4/21 CB 8 presentation on pending projects

M-CROWN progress?

Kühl said to Veconi she'd heard him "say at every meeting that you been working on M-CROWN for more than seven years. And it hasn't worked. And so that so we are simply proposing to not give up. But to create a bigger tent of people that are interested in working with you in getting city planning to do--or the entire administration to do a neighborhood plan for this area."

Veconi disagreed. Though they haven’t gotten the neighborhood plan, “what this community board has accomplished through M-CROWN is pretty significant,” he said citing a framework for requiring affordable housing and for preserving job-creating uses in spot rezonings.

“This community board is now able to in the within the scope of the ULURP process [the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] extract significant concessions from developers,” he said. “And that's not typical.”

Indeed, they’ve gotten increasing concessions from developers, especially after the first two rezonings were cautionary tales, though the evidence suggests, even with those concessions, the rezonings remain lucrative. And those concessions--deeper affordable housing, job-creating space--come with a density bonus beyond the M-CROWN guidelines Veconi helped establish.

“If your goal is to get more people in support of a neighborhood plan, I'm with you,” Veconi said, “but I don't think you can do the communications part on your own and not involve the community board.”

“If you really want to get the word out, then we can do it together and it will probably be effective,” he said, but if they’re competing, “we'll both lose to developers like we did on 840 Atlantic.”

“On 870 [Atlantic],” Kühl interjected, citing one of the two pending projects.

“No, I mean 840,” Veconi said.

“Yeah, but we're losing on these two right now as well,” Kühl said, expressing a view counter to Veconi and Wedderburn.

“I don't know more than what we've heard from the Council Member this evening,” Veconi said. “Is there something you wanted to share?”

“I think a lot of other people have their hands up,” Kühl said, deflecting the issue.

Another sense of exclusion

Cathy Iselin noted Veconi’s comment that, had the petitioners worked within CB 8, the petition would have read differently. “That's exactly the point," she said. "This petition says what a lot of people felt and wanted to say and felt we couldn't organize within this committee.”

“If we're talking about being excluded from processes in this committee,” Iselin added, she wanted to highlight the process behind the so-called Community Benefits Agreements.

“I've been on this committee for the last 20 months,” she said, “asking for that process to be more transparent, and to include people who live within range of… the radius of the project.”

Indeed, one fault line in CB 8 is that those in the northern part of Prospect Heights, closest to the developments, have expressed more resistance to the new projects, which come without the additional infrastructure and services that a neighborhood rezoning would bring.

Lazur said she thought only four people had negotiated the 840 Atlantic agreement.

That wasn't confirmed, but at an 11/10/21 meeting of CB 8, developer Elie Pariente cited three CB 8 members as negotiators: Veconi; then-Land Use Committee Chair Ethel Tyus; and Robert Witherwax, an attorney and a Veconi ally in the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council. Pariente also cited unspecified “attorneys.”

It wasn’t clear whether Pariente, who signed the board’s first CBA in 2020, regarding the Grand Pacific spot rezoning, was referring to just that negotiation and/or his pending 1034-1042 Atlantic project. (He's not involved in 840 Atlantic.)

Working with developers

Lazur said she felt that M-CROWN “was being modified at that time to sort of mean whatever can be gotten with the Community Benefits Agreement out of individual developers, and to me that really felt kind of antithetical to the idea of a neighborhood plan.”

Veconi responded that the agreements came in response to rezonings (1010 Pacific, 1050 Pacific) which lacked an enforcement mechanism and that the August 2018 letter from CB 8, Cumbo, and Borough President Adams endorsing M-CROWN also said that the board would work with private applicants to conform their proposals to the M-CROWN vision to the greatest extent possible.

He said all commitments had passed the community board, and it wasn’t possible to have a large group participate in a negotiation. (That’s indisputable, but CB 8 has not promulgated any guidelines, as far as I know, regarding who participates in such negotiations.)

For CB 8 to ensure height limits and space for jobs, Veconi cited the negotiation of a restrictive declaration, which is public and filed with the city, and an enforcement agreement, non-public, that explains how the declaration enforced.

Mutual trust?

Citing acknowledged tensions, and one attendee’s speculation that some might be on the take, Veconi pointed to a recent panel discussion at Brooklyn Public Library, where veteran community planner Ron Shiffman said, in Veconi’s telling, “you have to have some trust in people who have committed years” to putting plans in place.

“There has to be a feeling,” Veconi said, “if we all agree we're going to participate in a process where we've listened to a set of facts and… we take a vote, we're going to go ahead with that vote, not try to find a way to reopen it in some way.”

Later Kühl said it was important to support Hudson, “because the Council Member being able to vote these two applications down on the basis that the administration commits to a neighborhood plan would be a fabulous success I think everyone on this call can agree on.”

“I think,” Veconi said skeptically, “that might merit a discussion.”

(Complicating the Shiffman observation, regarding Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park at least, is that, after observing the series of planning sessions known as Crossroads, which was organized by the BrooklynSpeaks coalition led by Veconi, Shiffman told me he thought its outreach should be broadened.)

Mandatory Inclusionary Housing options.
From HPD, using 2016 income levels
Short-term vs. longer-term

Veconi later added that, even if the Department of City Planning commits to a neighborhood plan, which would bring uniform rules and public improvements throughout the M-CROWN district, a rejection of the pending applications would delay affordable units and contribute to displacement.

Under current programs, he said, deep affordability--Option 3, in the chart at right--could not be required under a city rezoning. 

So he cited a division between those who prioritized a comprehensive plan and those who prioritized getting deeply affordable housing sooner, saying there were “legitimate differences in perspective.”

Kühl said that, given that CB 8 had already voted, “I think there's no need for discussion about whether private developments are better than waiting for a comprehensive plan at this moment” and they should focus on prodding the administration on the latter.

Lazur noted that CHTU voted to opposed both pending applications “because we don't believe that the affordable housing that is created by these individual applications is sufficient to counteract the affect that these rezonings have on the price of all of the other apartments.”

Veconi challenged her, saying that, if the applications are rejected, and the neighborhood plan passes, most likely there would be 14-story buildings (were the M-CROWN guidelines adopted) and likely Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) Option 1, with affordability geared to low-income households at a higher income than the Option 3 that the community board could negotiate.

“Is that something that Crown Heights Tenant Union would support?” he asked.

Lazur demurred, noting that nothing would be built at the moment, and that several Council Members have indicated the need to go beyond MIH.

Veconi challenged those behind the petition, asking if the neighborhood plan they supported required “an unspecified change to MIH.” If so, he said, “it's not a neighborhood plan. You're not advocating a neighborhood plan that's based on the current landscape of affordable housing programs.”

Lazur responded that “the petition was asking for a neighborhood planning process,” with “far more input from far more people than are on this call.”

From CB 8 presentation
“But is it safe to say that the current landscape of affordable housing programs is not acceptable to the sponsors of the petition?” Veconi pressed on.

No one brought it up, but I'd note that the M-CROWN plan seems changeable, too.

The “current landscape” of M-CROWN bulk guidelines, which was intended to offer a density bonus in exchange for affordable housing and job-creating space, was not acceptable to the two applicants for the pending rezonings, who sought the Deparment of City Planning's recommended Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of 8.5 on Atlantic Avenue, rather than M-CROWN's FAR of 7. 

So CB 8 negotiators like Veconi agreed to additional bulk, 21% as shown in the screenshot above, justifying it, in part, because it would bring deeper affordability than originally contemplated.

Responding to Veconi at the meeting, Peter Krashes echoed Lazur, saying, “we don't have an end sketched out. We have a process that we're proposing.” 

Some sniping continued, however, without consensus.