A few weeks ago, Winston Von Engel, director of the Department of City Planning’s Brooklyn office, shocked attendees at a community meeting when he said that New York City intends to preserve the character and the buildings in Bushwick, but not the people in them.
City officials and local residents had convened to discuss the Bushwick Community Plan, an initiative to balance “the desire to create and preserve affordable housing with the need to preserve Bushwick’s character.” Von Engel was presenting the city’s proposed response to the community’s plan when he made the comments. According to a story in the Village Voice, the crowd was stunned, questioning the city’s commitment to Bushwick residents.
Von Engel later said that his comments were misinterpreted.
“The report did not reflect either the policy or the longstanding work we’ve been engaged in with the Bushwick community,” Von Engel told Bushwick Daily in a statement.
It’s not shocking that a conversation about development in Bushwick got heated: The face of the neighborhood has been changing for many years. In many cases, it would seem that longtime residents often get the short end of the stick.
“It’s no secret that displacement has been happening for the past five years. If we sit back and do nothing, we’ll see displacement at even greater levels,” said Council Member Rafael Espinal, who reps the 37th district including parts of Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and East New York.
The Bushwick Community Plan was launched in 2014 to ensure that the neighborhood has a part in the shaping its future. The plan is a collaboration between Bushwick’s community board, councilmembers, and residents. The Executive Committee that oversees the initiative says its main goal is to preserve the character of the neighborhood and to keep longtime residents in their homes.
“A big reason that we started this process is because, on a lot of the mid-blocks in Bushwick, developers have been coming and building substantially taller buildings on side streets,” said a spokesperson for the committee. “They’re an eyesore and disrupt the neighborhood’s character.”
Under the current R6 zoning in Bushwick, there are no height limits placed on new buildings. The committee wants to change that by having restrictions on the size of buildings on residential side streets and permitting commercial structures only on larger avenues, like Wyckoff and Myrtle.
On the other hand, while the city wants to work with the neighborhood to preserve the character of residential blocks, it also has some serious goals around affordable housing. The De Blasio administration plans to build and preserve 300,000 affordable housing units by 2024. Von Engel says that there has to be a balance between preservation and expansion.
“A zoning strategy that promotes both stability and growth, in tandem with other city programs to help keep residents in their homes, is the best means to protect residents against displacement,” Von Engel said. “Trying to freeze a neighborhood’s buildings in time without also providing new and affordable housing opportunities won’t solve the challenge of housing this growing community.”
There is absolutely a need for more affordable housing in the city — particularly in Bushwick. Currently, developers that come into the neighborhood are only required to include affordable housing units if they’re seeking to change the zoning of a particular lot. For example, if a developer buys a manufacturing lot with plans to build a residential structure on it, they have to include affordable housing units. But, if they’re tearing down a residence and building a new, four-story residential building, they’re not required to include affordable housing.
Despite the good intentions of the mayor’s mission to build more affordable housing, the construction it brings can still disrupt longtime residents. Plus, much of the affordable housing in Bushwick is priced out of reach for many locals.
“Historically, the best tool and the best way to make sure that people have homes is to keep them in the homes they already have,” said the committee spokesperson from the Bushwick Community Plan.
Both the Executive Committee and Espinal agree that there’s a clear way that the city can show it is prioritizing the needs of Bushwick residents in the quest to scale up affordable housing.
“One of the major things is looking at underutilized city property that the city currently controls and rezoning those lots to maximize affordable housing,” Espinal said.
The planning process for Bushwick is still very much ongoing, and there’s no timeline set for a final resolution. Espinal says that having the community involved makes him hopeful that the end result will be positive for its residents.
“Best case scenario, we will begin seeing less buildings being built out of character with the current community: fewer skyscrapers in the middle of blocks,” said Espinal. “And any new development will be required to have affordable housing.”
Cover image from the Bushwick Daily archives