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At Housing/Land Use workshop for Atlantic Avenue rezoning plan, general agreement on preferences, but no push to assess trade-offs posed in private upzonings

As the March 12 Community Planning Update approaches for the Atlantic Avenue Mixed-Use Plan, which aims to rezone blocks near that artery from Vanderbilt to Nostrand avenues--following a surge of private rezonings that transformed an area long zoned for low-rise manufacturing space--it's worth a look at not just the online-only kickoff session (my coverage), but also the three in-person workshops last month:
  • Feb. 13: housing and income-restricted housing
  • Feb. 15: job creation and support services
  • Feb. 16: the public realm and infrastructure needs, including open space and improvements to Atlantic Avenue and surrounding streets
However, we can't, not fully. Those sessions weren't recorded, so there's no online documentation, nor have any of the digital presentations been posted. (They'd be here.) My request to the Department of City Planning for digital materials did not get a response.
Focusing on the blocks to be rezoned, with neighborhood context. From DCP.
The study area starts just east of the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park site.

Housing and land use: the summary

I was able to attend only the Feb. 13 workshop on housing and land use, filming (with my unsteady phone) the public presentations and reports back from roundtables, but not sitting in on the latter discussions. My distance from the presentation screen kept me from capturing the slideshows.

So my coverage below is limited. But the same flaws I identified have persisted:
  • the history of the project's genesis was too neat
  • the history of past and pending spot rezonings--crucial to questions about potential bulk and potential affordability in future buildings-- was barely touched on 
  • the key tradeoffs between height/bulk and affordability--such as allowing 17 stories for 35% affordability on two spot rezonings--were neither specified nor debated
That meant the public recommendations were relatively vague--preferences rather than specifics. The map below, unofficially produced by urban planner Kaja Kühl, a member of the Steering Committee, hasn't been shared, though it should be.

That leaves it up to the Steering Committee, appointed by Council Member Crystal Hudson, with some general guidelines to implement the rezoning and likely the ability to work in concert with the "City of Yes" preferences expressed by Mayor Eric Adams' Department of City Planning.

Map by Kaja Kühl. Rezoning in light blue pending. Potential apartment counts are from
Environmental Assessment Statements and include areas beyond the parcels owned by applicants.

Who was there--and wasn't

Absent, as far as I could tell, were the three people closest to the debates about scale, density, and community commitments: Gib Veconi, chair of CB 8's M-CROWN subcommittee; Sharon Wedderburn, chair of CB's Land Use Committee; and Ethel Tyus, former chair of Land Use. 

They're all on the Steering Committee, but Veconi and Tyus were assigned to the Economic Development, Human Capital, and Services working group, while Wedderburn was assigned to the Streetscape, Physical Infrastructure, and Open Space working group. Presumably they attended other sessions.

That said, Steering Committee Michelle de la Uz, executive director of Fifth Avenue Committee and a key negotiator and counterparty in the last spot rezonings, was assigned to Economic Development but also present at this housing/land use workshop.

The study area, plus quarter-mile and half-mile buffers. From DCP

It's unclear how many of the participants live in Community Board 8 or Community Board 3. They're not the only stakeholders. Future residents, by definition, can't be represented directly, though arguably the clear presence of YIMBY (Yes in My Back Yard) activists partly advocate for them, as do tenant activists.

Also note: while one significant impetus for the rezoning is to ensure housing and jobs for those most vulnerable to displacement, especially the declining Black population, most attendees were white. 

That, I suspect, reflects to the fact that advocacy, as one activist put it in another context, is a "luxury product," given the pressures on people's time, as well as the workshop's location in the western end of the proposed area, far more affluent than the eastern end.

Introduction from elected officials

The below video shows the introduction from Hudson and fellow Council Member Chi Ossé, who applauds Hudson, her staff, and city agencies for setting up a process in which "community is going to make a decision about land use." (As noted, I'm skeptical.)


Introduction from facilitator

In the video below, Bahij Chancey from WXY described the process behind the AAMUP, citing work by Community Board 8's M-CROWN subcommitee since 2013 to look at the low-density areas along Atlantic Avenue limited by manufacturing zoning, seeing an oppoturnity for new affordable housing as well as jobs for those without college degrees.

What he left out was that surge in private rezonings and what seemed like a deal last April--an agreement by the Adams administration to pursue the AAMUP while Council Member Hudson green-lighted two 17-story buildings, allowing a significant increase in valuable bulk, in exchange for a commitment to provide 35% affordable housing, more that required under the city's Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH).

He said that, after that week's working group meetings, organizers expect to produced focus areas, key themes, and opportunity statements to share at the upcoming workshop, from which draft recommendations will be developed.

Those recommendations would be refined at three future working group meetings. Another public workshop will present the draft recommendations for feedback. Then a final set of working group meetings will further refine the recommendations, and the Steering Committee will develop the final document.

"We're still pretty early in the process," Chancey said, "but we're starting to talk about specifics through these three working groups."

Facilitator summarizes kickoff meeting

In the video below, Chancey summarized the kickoff meeting, noting that many "many folks were calling for additional housing, feeling that abundant housing is the best protection against displacement." That, for some, is only part of the equation, as noted below.

He also noted there was much concern about displacement, especially given the loss of the Black population in the area.

Note: at about 1:48 of the video there was some heckling from the back--a Black guy who was walking out, calling the effort "bullshit" and referring to some "house n****s." Chancey was unruffled. 

Presentation from DCP and HPD

The next presentations were from representatives of the city's Department of City Planning (DCP) and Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

Jonah Rogoff of DCP cited the need for permanent affordable housing as well as jobs. The HPD representative, Joy [not sure of her last name], cited the low vacancy rates in less expensive apartments and the need for housing to keep up with the population increase.

Rogoff showed a slide--wish I had it--that depicted a dramatic decline in local population from 1970 to 1980, a period of disinvestment, and then a rebuilding of the population thanks to immigration and, more recently, a broader population. (Call it gentrification.)

"We do want to openly acknowledge there has been a dramatic change the Black population," Rogoff said, a loss of half since 1990. Meanwhile, rent has increased dramatically.

Rogoff also said they wanted "to acknowledges the seven private [rezoning] applications that have been approved since 2019." The reason, he said, is to clarify that they're planning both for the existing population and the expected new residents.

What he left out was reocognition that the private rezonings might be a template for bulk and affordability.

He said DCP was also looking at other sites and opportunities for deeply affordable housing--perhaps a reference to the buffer zones outside the study area.

Rogoff noted the mix of buildings in the area, including loft style buildings adaptively reused or converted for offices or industrial spaces. Examples: 1000 Dean and the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center.

They also seek to spur "active ground floors" to create a "welcoming and safe and inviting streetscape." 

Atlantic Avenue has the greatest opportunity for density, given the wide street, while other streets would have more contextual buildings.

The report back

After the roundtable sessions, representatives of each roundtable reported back on the topics discussed, which also touched on issues slated for the other two workshops.

There was an unsurprising general sentiment that that bigger buildings could help bring affordability, and that the city should push for more deeply affordable housing, geared to those most vulnerable to displacement.

The first table to report back was represented by de la Uz, who said the group wanted to see affordable housing in multiple lolcations, widened sidewalks, and a mix of ground floor uses.

She said participants wanted to go beyond the city's Mandatory Inclusionary Housing requirements whenever possible. Indeed, that was achieved in the private rezonings announced last April.

The second table was represented by Irsa Weatherspoon, CB 8 Chair (and Steering Committee member), who said the affordable housing calculation should be adjusted to leave out the wealthier subsurbs and that affordable housing should be permanent. She said that, while tablemates weren't all in agreement, deeply affordable housing may require residents "to give a little in terms of height."

Some at other tables were concerned that new density could fuel displacement, that parking mandates should be dropped, that streets should become more pedestrian friendly, the buildings should be more sustainable, and that mixed-use buildings could sustain jobs.

Sarah Lazur, a CB 8 member in the Crown Heights Tenant Union, stressed the impact of rising rents on tenant stability, saying that oversight agencies don't do their job, and that "you can't just push the density button" to solve affordability. 

Her table didn't want any potential redevelopment of the Bedford-Atlantic Armory, a key city asset, turned over to a private developer, which reflects a fierce debate over the Bedford-Union Armory during the tenure of previous Council Member Laurie Cumbo.

In his wrap-up, facilitator Chancey said, "I'll just reiterate we are at the beginning of what is a several months-long process before a set of recommendations is finalized."

So he encouraged attendees to remain engaged.