Megatowers, shady developers, community resistance — it’s a story so commonplace these days it is almost a bad joke. But this time the developers might be aiming a bit too high, pushing the community a little too far.
Bruce Eichner of Continuum Company, LLC wants to build a series of towers at the million-square-foot site of spice importer Morris J. Golombeck Inc at the southernmost section of Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn. The development — up to six buildings, with at least two in the 30-story range — could block out the sun that shines on the prized foliage growing a block away at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. So far, the Botanic Garden has been silent about this project and did not return requests for comment.
Beyond the garden’s walls, Eichner’s plans have stoked fears of more gentrification and displacement in Crown Heights and nearby Flatbush.
The developer claims half the planned apartments would be below market rate, though it remains unclear what percent of the development would actually be affordable for neighborhood residents. Market-rate metrics include New York City’s wealthier outlying enclaves, tilting the scales toward higher incomes. Eichner also appears to be attempting to head off community opposition by securing construction financing from the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, in exchange for a commitment to use union construction labor.
Continuum Company referred The Indypendent’s inquiries to Lupe Todd-Medina, a public-relations operative with a history of working with politicians of color. The move signals that Eichner is looking to pursue a strategy similar to that taken by the backers of the Bedford Union Armory project, green-lit by the City Council last year. BFC Partners presented the Armory development as beneficial to the surrounding Caribbean neighborhood and pledged to include a recreation center, space for local nonprofits and “affordable housing,” in addition to luxury condos. Todd-Medina insisted to The Indy that “there’s nothing to report” about the spice factory development. The project is “fluid,” she said.
Still, community members have no shortage of concerns about Eichner, who has made headlines in recent weeks for suing his partners over the funding of a condo tower in the Flatiron District. Eichner has the Trumpian distinction of having failed in the casino business and of being forced to settle for fraud with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. He paid out $7.5 million in 2014 and was barred from the timeshare industry as part of the deal with Schneiderman, who accused the real estate tycoon of deploying “bait and switch” tactics to lure buyers to his Manhattan Club in Midtown.
Brooklyn’s Community Board 9 Land Use Committee announced at an April meeting that the development was not something it could support in its current form. Michael Liburd, the committee’s chair, was unable to say what an acceptable proposal from Eichner would look like.
“Unanimously, the committee said. ‘It makes no sense,’” Liburd told The Indy. “It’s too dense, it’s too tall.” But Liburd stresses that even if the community board as a whole decides against the project, it is only an advisory body. The board also opposed the Bedford Union Armory project, yet the plan was ultimately pushed by City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo.
Proponents of development claim that neighborhoods reap the benefits, a rising tide lifts all boats. The facts on the ground don’t bear this out.
Samuel Stein, who teaches urban studies at Hunter College, points to the difficulties of organizing community opposition to this type of development. In the end, all New York City’s community boards have are Robert’s Rules of Order. Its votes constitute recommendations. The real decision-making power rests in the hands of individual councilmembers, since the City Council tends to follow the lead of those who represent the districts where any given development is proposed.
“However the local councilmember votes, almost everybody, if not everybody, will vote along with it,” Stein told The Indy. “For people on the ground who are looking to influence things, they’re the one to focus on. Councilmembers in rich neighborhoods are fiercely protective, and don’t necessarily need stuff from the city, whereas the ones in poor neighborhoods need stuff, and the only way they’re going to get it is by allowing a rezoning and getting all these goodies on the side.”
Targeted grassroots campaigns can be effective, though. Stein gives the example of Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez in Washington Heights, who refused to support the Sherman Plaza rezoning project in 2016 when local residents brought their concerns to him. “There was so much community opposition that he backed off.”
“There’s a broader issue that’s not being addressed in all this urban development that’s going on and that’s displacement,” Liburd said. “It’s really virtually impossible to separate new development from displacement. And as you bring these new buildings to the table, lots of folks get displaced and the current landlords are very aggressive about getting people out.”
Crown Heights has been embroiled in a battle over development and zoning for years. Divisions exist between newer and longtime residents, homeowners and tenants, black and Caribbean residents and recent white arrivals.
So far, the most vocal opposition to the spice factory development is Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP) which has also been going by the moniker “Flower Lovers Against Corruption” of late. The group has been active in keeping the spice factory fight in public view but has also alienated many in the community with explosive rhetoric and aggressive tactics that have verged on performance art. Depending on your perspective, MTOPP in action at Community Board meetings is either speaking truth to power or sowing chaos. The group’s leader, Alicia Boyd, and a small cadre of followers, cajole, heckle, interrupt, shout, chant and make sure they are heard above everyone else.
One 40-year resident of the neighborhood told The Indy she worries MTOPP’s slash-and-burn tactics actually keep others from participating in the meetings.
On April 12, when Michael Liburd announced the Land Use Committee’s decision not to support Eichner’s proposal, many took it as a victory — a temporary win, but one that nonetheless added additional fodder to arguments against the development. Yet as soon as Liburd uttered a few words about the need for a wider discussion about zoning in Crown Heights in order to ward off future proposals like Eichner’s, MTOPP activists encircled him. “We don’t want it,” they chanted. The police were called, the meeting adjourned.
“This is the time when pushback can be the most effective,” Boyd told The Indy, explaining her tactics.
Meanwhile, the city has done little to assuage concerns about displacement. At a recent meeting in Bushwick, Winston Von Engel, director of City Planning for Brooklyn, reportedly told residents, “Our intention is to preserve the character and the buildings, not the people in them.” Von Engel wasn’t merely channeling the old Reaganite canard about the neutron bomb killing people while leaving private property intact. He was reinforcing the notion that City Planning is tone deaf, out of touch with the desires of New York communities.
And while the vast majority of New York’s community boards voted against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH), it was pushed through the City Council anyway. The plan allows for site-specific upzonings anywhere a developer agrees to build a certain amount of “affordable” housing within luxury developments. Since Eichner’s complex would ostensibly meet these affordability requirements, he would be granted a “spot upzoning” approval.
While Liburd believes Crown Heights needs to have a serious discussion about what residents want in terms of planning and zoning, he is leery of the power dynamic between community boards and the city. “No one is naive enough to think we won’t be treated the same way as East Harlem or Bushwick,” he says, citing recently upzoned neighborhoods.
To date, all the neighborhoods that have been upzoned have been low-income neighborhoods of color.
Proponents of development claim that neighborhoods reap the benefits, a rising tide lifts all boats. The facts on the ground don’t bear this out. “If you change the conditions of what can be built in any place, through zoning, or if you build up a bunch of luxury highrises, then the land itself becomes more valuable, which then makes it easier for landlords to charge higher rents,” said Samuel Stein, explaining the economics driving displacement in New York.
Alan Berger of Concerned Citizens for Community Based Planning (CCCBP) details the changes he’s seen in Prospect Lefferts, which neighbors Crown Heights to the south, in the last 10 years.
“You start to see a lot more shuttered storefronts,” Berger said. “Businesses open at higher costs to people. You see rent-stabilized buildings change hands.”
Brenda Edwards, president of the Prospect Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association, helped lead community opposition to the Parkline, a 23-story tower at 626 Flatbush Avenue built in 2015. The development “really hurt a lot of tenants in the older buildings whose landlords saw an opportunity to raise their rents and try to bribe them to get them out or to harass them,” she said. Yet Edwards doesn’t see the struggle as a complete failure.
“Some people say you really lost because that large building that you were protesting went up,” Edwards told The Indy. “But it empowered people to learn their rights and get organized” — knowledge and experience that can be carried forward in the upcoming battle over the spice factory development.
Photo: Developer Bruce Eichner’s plan has sparked vociferous protests at Brooklyn Community Board 9 meetings. Credit: Awen Films.