Protesters rallied against the development of Broadway Triangle in Williamsburg, saying the proposed housing heavily favors the Hasidic Jewish population over blacks and Latinos. But the property’s developer says it’s all the opposite: opponents of the affordable units are being anti-Semitic.
Thursday, Deputy Brooklyn Borough President Diana Reyna told a group of about 65 people on the steps of City Hall that “our zoning actions cannot perpetuate what is an egregious act of zoning out people of color. We’ve seen one property after another purchased, segregated for an exclusive community and then built with city owned land.”
The debate surrounding Broadway Triangle, located at the corners of Broadway, Flushing Avenue and Union Avenue, has been going on since 2009, when the City of New York chose the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council to develop the formerly commercial area. The projects’ critics say the seven-story buildings, which house mostly large apartments, do not fulfill the community’s need for affordable housing. They say the developers are catering to the desires of the Hasidic community by building short buildings instead of high rises (Jewish law limits the use of elevators) and giving the Hasidic community preferential treatment in the application process.
“Go to the site and you’ll see what it is,” said Marty Needelman, an attorney representing the coalition. “It is entirely private housing built for Hasidic Jews only. You could build 60 stories [at that site]. You could build enough affordable housing to accommodate everybody.”
Opponents of the new residential buildings cite statistics that point to an already existing racial divide in Brooklyn, such as the fact that only 5 percent of the population living within the Williamsburg/Greenpoint community district is black, while in the neighboring Bedford-Stuyvesant district black people comprise 75 percent of population. They say the Broadway Triangle apartments will only serve to further segregate the community; one point they bring up is that the lottery process for the housing will give priority to people who already reside within the mostly white Williamsburg/Greenpoint district, edging out any minorities from neighboring districts who might apply.
Roughly 25 percent of Broadway Triangle is city-owned land. In 2009 the city rezoned the entire triangle for affordable housing development, and the coalition sued the City of New York, arguing that the proposed housing, with its large three and four bedroom apartments, violated the federal Fair Housing Act. The plans didn’t accommodate minorities, who are mostly in need of smaller apartments, they said. In 2012 the State Supreme Court granted the group’s request for a preliminary injunction. The actual wording of the official court document states that the city is prohibited from “taking any further steps to implement the current rezoning plan and associate transfers of cit owned land in the Broadway Triangle Urban Renewal Area.”
The City of New York then asked the judge to clarify whether or not her ruling applied to the rezoning and development of all of Broadway Triangle or just the 25 percent that is city owned. The language can be twisted both ways, depending on how you want to see it. The whole chunk of land was rezoned all at once, so one could argue that the “current zoning plan” refers to the entire lot.
The judge, Emily Jane Goodman, was not required to issue a clarification and retired without doing so, leaving the issue somewhat unresolved. Currently about one third of the land, all of it privately owned, has been developed into housing units. Needelman says the City is basically issuing permits to build apartments on land that, based on the judge’s ruling, should not be used for residential purposes at all; he argues that technically it should still be zoned commercial and industrial. Needelman said he believes the new buildings to be 100 percent occupied by Hasidic Jews.
But Rabbi David Niederman, Executive Director and President of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, Inc., has a different view; on Monday he told Bedford + Bowery that the judge’s ruling clearly states that the injunction applies only to the city-owned portion of the land. Moreover, he said the lawsuit brought by the Coalition was anti-Semitic and said it does more harm than good to the neighborhood by stalling affordable housing that all people in the community could enjoy, including large black and Hispanic families.
“It’s outrageous, because basically nobody questions the fact that you have families living, overcrowded, six and eight and 10 people in a two-bedroom or even a three-bedroom apartment,” Niederman said. He dismissed the allegations of bias as ridiculous, saying that the application process would be race blind and conducted by the city government. He also claims that putting up a new high-rise in the neighborhood would overcrowd the area, especially given that there are already two high-rises in the immediate area (the Mitchell-Lama building and the affordable New York Housing Authority buildings).
Niederman also pointed out that UJO is a sponsor of Williamsburg’s Schaefer Landing housing project. He said he’s proud to say his organization fought to make the building 40 percent affordable housing, rather than the standard required minimum of 20 percent, and that there is a very diverse “mosaic” of people residing there.
For now, the Coalition has managed to stall development on the city-owned property, though the court order has not stopped private developers from proceeding with their plans. At the rally, hopes were high that the De Blasio administration would put a stop to all the development. “We took it to court, and we won,” Antonio Reynoso, District 34 council member. “All this development that is happening is not happening for the people who need it. We have an opportunity to redo it and allow for everybody to have affordable housing.”
Coalition Chairman Juan Ramos agreed, entreating Mayor De Blasio to stop issuing permits for the site. “This is your chance to break from the past and make the Broadway Triangle your legacy of housing for all, including our Latino and African American communities,” he said.