High Rises In Bushwick? City’s Rezoning Scheme Ignores Previous Community Plans

Issue 253

Chelsey Sanchez Dec 19, 2019

Time stops at Pati Rodriguez’s childhood home in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. Three generations of her family — her parents, her and her sister, her daughter and her nephew — drift through four floors of the house, where the crown molding is carved with floral motifs and the stairs squeak heartily when stepped upon. Their residence is a rare case of New Yorker homeownership, and a remnant of the Bushwick that is becoming extinct.

Outside, time tumbles into the sort of future where cartoonish murals unfurl onto brick walls like grunge harbingers of inescapable change. Blocks away, on Jefferson Avenue, or what Rodriguez calls the “ground zero for gentrification in Bushwick,” warehouses melt into noodle shops or yoga studios or vintage stores. Her childhood friends, some of whom have long moved to more affordable pastures in places like Pennsylvania or Florida, have been replaced by young professionals, the kind who wear Carhartt to the office rather than a construction site.

“Obviously, if I didn’t have this house, I would’ve been displaced,” Rodriguez says.

The kind of home that Rodriguez and her family have staked out for themselves in the heart of a changing Bushwick is what she and other organizers from Mi Casa No Es Su Casa are fighting for. The political art collective formed in 2015, creating Christmas light signs that illuminated messages like “GENTRIFICATION IN PROCESS” and “NOT 4 SALE.” One of these signs is fastened to the wall near Rodriguez’s front door.

“A lot of the acceleration of gentrification happened when a lot of those murals went up, which was kind of also why Mi Casa used art in the first place, to fight back, because art was being weaponized against the communities here,” says Rodriguez. She has lived in the area since she was 8 years old. Her parents immigrated to Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood from Ecuador when she was an infant.

In many ways, Bushwick is the perfect poster child for gentrification in New York City. Data from the real-estate site Trulia found that the price of living there increased more than any other neighborhood in the city from 2008 to 2018. Data compiled by the city supports that finding: From 2000 to 2016, rent in Bushwick increased by 60 percent, nearly twice as much as in the rest of Brooklyn (38 percent) and the city overall (32 percent).

The city’s supposed salve for this crisis is a proposal dubbed the Bushwick Neighborhood Plan, which dangles promises of affordable housing and economic development. It builds off the Bushwick Community Plan, a 2014 initiative that involved local City Councilmembers Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Espinal, as well as a steering committee made up of community board members, Bushwick residents, and representatives from various local organizations.

The Bushwick Neighborhood Plan, as presented by the Department of City Planning in “draft scope” form in June, would rezone 300 blocks to allow buildings as high as 16 stories along busy thoroughfares like Broadway and Myrtle Avenue, where the original plan called for lower density. Reynoso and Espinal have endorsed it.

If the rezoning is approved, the DCP projects an increase of nearly 18,000 new residents and 6,000 jobs in Bushwick over the next decade. DCP also estimates the creation of about 6,000 new residential units, with about 2,000 of those slated as “affordable.”

Mi Casa responded to the rezoning proposal by disrupting DCP meetings, holding rallies and town halls, projecting guerilla art onto city buildings, and collecting over 800 signatures on an online petition that calls for the proposal to be scrapped in favor of “a people-led plan.”

“We already knew the rezoning process in and of itself—it takes away power from the community,” Rodriguez says. “These politicians come in saying a plan with DCP will give more affordable housing, but affordable to who? It’s not affordable to those who already live here. So, who do they want to build all these buildings for?”

“The definitions of ‘affordability’ allow those new units that are called affordable to go up to two times the average rent in New York City,” says Tom Angotti, professor emeritus of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College and the Graduate Center. “The way it’s calculated, I call it a Trojan horse. It’s a way to sell the rezoning to people who are concerned about gentrification and displacement.”

Upzoning that increases the potential for development very often “puts gentrification on steroids,” he adds. “It can multiply the effects of this more gradual process of gentrification and displacement that occurs all the time, always has occurred. And the rezoning can make it much more dramatic.”

It is customary for the City Council to defer to local members on issues of land use in their districts. While Reynoso and Espinal seem to be on track to vote “yes” on the plan, Reynoso has recently indicated a willingness to reconsider. In November, when members from Mi Casa interrupted a public forum that the two attended, according to City Limits, Reynoso said, “Right now, I want to do exactly what the community wants, the city will not do it. They are going to just shut [the rezoning] down. And I am OK with that too, but I am going to do what the community wants, and if you don’t play ball with them — they are just going to walk away.”

For Cynthia Tobar, founder of the oral-history project “Cities for People, Not for Profit,” the new plan and the way it was developed are too flawed for any compromises to help.

“I have a very hard time wrapping my mind around negotiating and compromising on a plan that didn’t even take the community’s intentions to heart from the very beginning, anyway,” Tobar says. “It’s a community plan made by people who aren’t representative of the community.”

Recommendations made in the original Bushwick Community Plan were largely ignored or adjusted.

Tobar owns her house in Bushwick, but the creeping gentrification has encroached on her too. “The moment I was in my home for about a year or two, I started getting all these mailings,” she says, from real-estate developers and speculators attempting to purchase her house. Over the past three years, they’ve begun calling her cell phone.

“They call you at all sorts of times throughout the day, asking you whether you want to sell your home,” she says. “And, you’re like, ‘No! Stop calling me!’”

The Bushwick Neighborhood Plan will next go through the lengthy Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), in which local community boards make recommendations and the City Council has final approval. Mi Casa and other Bushwick residents are revving up for a fight.

“People who are on the frontlines of this fight are usually people who are not getting paid, who are working class, too. And they’re fighting just out of necessity,” Rodriguez says. “Because that’s it. We’ve got nothing else to lose.”

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