“We’re here to make sure we give the people the opportunity to make a decision on what their neighborhood’s going to look like in the future,” City Council member Antonio Reynoso told the crowd at a Monday meeting at Ridgewood Bushwick Youth Center. Among the areas of concern: population growth, demographic shifts, the loss of affordable housing, an influx of luxury housing, private interests, and businesses that cater toward the moneyed. In other words, gentrification.
When developers first started showing an intense interest in Bushwick, community leaders decided it was time to kick their elected officials into gear. Back in 2013, Community Board 4 appealed to the two City Council members representing Bushwick, Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Espinal, to team up and formulate some sort of plan for the impending changes, one that would involve community feedback before policy proposals were finalized. The result is what’s being called the Bushwick Community Plan, an evolving policy initiative that the council members say will prioritize the existing community’s needs over the interests of the “prospectors,” as Reynoso described them, that are closing in on the neighborhood.
Their decision was a prescient one. True, signs of change were emerging in the early aughts, and given what happened in Williamsburg and the Lower East Side (and now Two Bridges), you didn’t need a deck of tarot cards to predict what was coming to Bushwick next. But the area has seen an enormous amount of development just in the last few years, and the general consensus is that the speed of gentrification here is much more rapid than what we’ve seen in the past. Meanwhile, the neighborhood is suffering from a high density of tone-deaf newcomers who are just making things worse.
According to a report on gentrification released by the Furman Center, NYU’s center for housing and urban policy, last month, average rent from 1990 to 2010-2014 increased by 44 percent, and median rent between 2010 and 2014 went up by 20.2 percent, compared to an increase of 9.1 for the city as a whole in the same time period. We learned that in 2014 luxury condos were on the horizon, but now that’s become more of a reality. Recently, renderings were released that detail plans for the 900-unit luxury monstrosity that will occupy the former Rheingold Brewery property, which the founder of ODA, the architecture firm hired for the project, said was modeled after a “European village.” Let’s just say plans like this one don’t exactly bode well for the existing community.
Beyond residential development, the neighborhood has gained its first boutique hotel, BKLYN House. And the arrival of the Bushwick Generator in nearby Williamsburg, set to bring tech offices and another hotel to the area, is yet another omen hinting toward a tonier future.
But in Bushwick’s case, the elected officials and community board members believe that the cycle of gentrification isn’t necessarily inevitable, and that policy-driven solutions can be enacted to not only alleviate the burden of change on regular people, but empower current residents to determine the fate of their own community. The idea is that instead of waiting for the city to impose an affordable housing plan on the Bushwick, the community will be ready with a comprehensive policy run-down that legitimately represents the concerns of residents and people who work in the neighborhood as well. The plan will be put together by a steering committee made up of community members, neighborhood organizations, and elected officials who will collect and analyze the input amassed at meetings like this one.
“The way [the community plan] is moving forward is with the idea that something needs to happen in Bushwick to help protect its current character, its current residents, and help to build better community spaces,” Rafael Espinal told B+B at the open house.
The council member said that his “biggest concerns” are bringing more affordable housing to the neighborhood and “the zoning of side streets,” which he hopes will help maintain not just the physical character of Bushwick, but its existing community as well. “What we’ve been seeing is that, because there’s no limitation on how high you can build, developers are tearing down two- to three-family homes and building towers next to other two- to three-family homes,” he added. “So we want to be able to preserve the character of the side streets and push forward with talking about affordable housing, and the way we can do that is by tapping into the mayor’s affordable housing plan and rezoning Bushwick.”
In light of the Mayor’s controversial rezoning plan for East New York, it seems that more elected officials and community leaders all over the city have been driven to take action. “What happened in East New York was that the administration approached myself and the neighborhood and said, ‘This is what we plan on doing, tell us what you think,'” Espinal recalled. “What we’re doing here is telling the administration, ‘This is what we’d like for you to do at some point, and this is what we think, and we’re not gonna go with what you think. We’re going to be putting forward what’s best for our community.'”
The Bushwick Community Plan isn’t the first community-led effort to address a changing neighborhood. From 2013 to 2014, Bridging Gowanus tapped that neighborhood’s community for policy recommendations, and the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan did the same. Lacey Tauber, the director of communications at Reynoso’s office, said that the latter was a “really comprehensive plan” that “did a particularly good job with community involvement” and one that the council members are looking at as a potential model. “We have a steering committee that’s made up of representatives from a number of organizations in the neighborhood, interested residents, and interested homeowners,” she explained. “We wanted to make sure that it’s really diverse and that lots of different kinds of opinions are at the table.”
The plan has been stewing for quite some time, however Tauber said that this week’s meeting was a “relaunch” of sorts, a way to reinvigorate the planning process. The first outreach meetings were held back in 2014 and, back then, Reynoso and Espinal characterized the plan as a pitch for rezoning and developed a steering committee made up of community leaders and local non-profits. Now, the involvement of regular residents has broadened to include a more comprehensive plan where zoning certainly plays a large role, but is simply one of many moving parts.
As such, the open house on Monday wasn’t simply about collecting information, but sharing facts and proposals, generating dialogue, and encouraging people to interact with reps from each City agency involved in the process as well as their neighbors. “A lot of work has been done so far,” Tauber explained. “We’re not just asking for a broad vision anymore, we’re really getting into specific recommendations, specific geographies, and asking people to really dive in a little deeper.” At the meeting, Reynoso himself implored the crowd to open up about what they want to see happen in Bushwick: “We need everybody to do more work.”
Each table inside the large gym space at the rec center was staffed by a separate subcommittee from the larger steering committee and tasked with a specific area of concern, including transportation, open space, zoning & land use, neighborhood resources (including public health), economic development and, of course, housing. Reps from agencies like the DOT, HPD, and the Parks Department were all on hand, backed by poster boards with maps, facts, and figures on them, as well as policy proposals. Residents were asked to leave sticky notes attached to these displays, with a description of their opinions or suggestions, and sometimes people were instructed to attach either a red (disagree) or green (agree) sticker, depending on their position.
At the transportation station, for instance, a poster bore several recommendations including one to bring more Citi bikes to the neighborhood. “Fuck Citi Bike” one note read. Under the housing recommendations one sticky note suggested “actual affordability,” which was a refrain heard throughout the open house. One policy suggestion to “create housing for local artists” had no stickers next to it at all. As for business, one resident implored, by way of a sticky note, that officials “preserve industrial, rent is expensive.” Another pointed out that “Residentes de Bushwick need training & support,” and still another complained that “all small businesses are leaving.”
There was a lot to see and do, and the feedback effort– and enormous task in and of itself– will only continue. Reynoso’s office predicted that subcommittee meetings geared toward specific policy areas, including geographically-oriented zoning meetings, will start popping by late summer and early fall. Though it’s too early to determine exactly when the plan will be completed and what presenting it to the mayor’s office might look like, the council members are aiming for some point in 2017.
Until then, it’s all about discussion. “You yourself can make decisions for Bushwick,” Reynoso reminded the crowd at the open house. “For too long developers have chosen what communities have looked like or what they’re going to look like, this is where the buck is going to stop.”
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