Just steps from the L-Train DeKalb stop sits an unassuming parking lot that’s currently at the center of one of the most heated rezoning battles in Bushwick.
In February, news began to circulate that a developer, Camber Property Group (CPG), had plans to build a massive, nine-story, 122-unit, mixed income building on top of the lot at 1601 Dekalb.
But there was, and still is, one potential hurdle to that plan. The lot is currently zoned as manufacturing land, which means that a residential building can’t go up there. Before Camber can break ground, the developer has to go through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process and get rezoning approval from the City Council.
A group of residents hopes to block that approval, saying that the proposal strikes at the heart of Bushwick’s development crisis.
“It’s not just one story of one building. It’s a community issue,” says Chika Kobari, a photographer living in one of the buildings that borders 1601 DeKalb.
Chika and her neighbors, the tenants of the loft buildings at 950 Hart and 1609 DeKalb, are at risk of being displaced if the proposal goes through. The building would block an entire side of windows in both buildings, which would render those apartments illegal, and put them at risk of eviction. So, naturally, they have become some of the most vocal opponents against the development.
Loft buildings play an interesting role in the housing space. Priced similarly to affordable housing, these are commercial or factory buildings that are now being lived in, and they’re eligible for rent stabilization and quality control under New York State’s Loft Law. The law protects loft tenants from eviction and seeks to ensure that these buildings comply with residential safety and fire codes. This past Saturday, the 1609 DeKalb Tenants Association held a walk to discuss Bushwick’s future and educate others on the significance of the Loft Law.
Marcel Negret, an urban planning professional and a tenant in the same building as Kobari, says the loft buildings aren’t the only thing at stake.
“The negative and dangerous precedent that it would set for future land use actions that would continue to undermine the intention of the loft law and a commitment to a community-based planning process. Allowing this to continue is a slap in the face to this process,” says Negret.
The Department of City Planning doesn’t allow for selective rezoning of specific lots, so if the vote goes through, the rezoning would apply to an entire area surrounding 1601 DeKalb, which includes the loft buildings, neighborhood staple Sazon Nunez, the post office, Clean City Laundromat, and Brotherhood Boxing. Once the residential zoning is already in place, these spots would become ripe for redevelopment, making them easy targets in the eyes of developers.
There are also complaints that Camber Property Group hasn’t done enough to engage with the community. In fact, the tenants of the loft buildings didn’t learn about the 1601 DeKalb plan in any formal communication or through a community meeting, but, rather from an article they happened to come across online earlier this year.
“If [the residents] of 950 Hart hadn’t learned about this from one small Bklynr article, I’m certain we wouldn’t have known about it until tractors were on the lot ripping up asphalt,” says Leonardo Labriola, a student living in the building.
But Rick Gropper, principal at Camber Property Group, claims that they presented the proposal to the community board in 2016 and met with community groups and stakeholders throughout 2017. He also says they’re making every effort to respond to the fears that residents have expressed.
“We have a track record of taking concerns that we hear from the community and incorporating them, to the extent we can, into the development plan,” explains Gropper.
Camber has committed to setting back their development so as not to block the loft buildings, which would ease the displacement concerns of Chika, Marcel, Leo, and their neighbors. They’ve also committed to including more affordable housing units at 1601 DeKalb and making these units even more affordable than they’re required to by law. Gropper also says that since they started the ULURP process earlier this year, they’ve been actively engaging with the community, including hosting events and hiring a liason.
While Negret admits that these propositions sound good, until they are formalized in a legally binding document, they are just empty promises.
The proposal is still in the middle of the ULURP process, so the fate of 1601 DeKalb won’t be confirmed for a while. A few weeks ago, the community board voted against it, but the vote is symbolic, not binding. Next, it will go to through reviews with the Brooklyn Borough president, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council. The City Council vote will decide the outcome, before the proposal goes to the mayor to get signed into law.
Though the future is uncertain, activists say that the recent community board vote and the widespread opposition to the proposal from residents gives them hope that the proposal won’t go through.
“It’s a sign that we’re giving to developers that they can’t just come to the community and hope that everyone would ignore what’s going on. I’m highly encouraged,” says Labriola.
Cover image courtesy of Chika Kobari