Council Passes Contentious Pfizer Sites Rezoning in Williamsburg

City Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises Meeting. October 24, 2017.

A former Pfizer factory site in South Williamsburg will be developed into a mixed-use building and public plaza. On October 31, 2017, the City Council passed the Pfizer Sites Rezoning land use actions by a vote of 38-6. The zoning map and text amendments will convert the former Pfizer factory site, currently used for parking, into a mixed-use building and plaza. The project area, totaling 182,366 square feet, is bounded by Walton Street to the north, Gerry Street to the south, Harrison Avenue to the east, and Union Avenue to the west. The proposed development includes 1,146 housing units, 62,810 square feet of commercial space, and 26,000 square feet of public open space. For CityLand’s prior coverage on the matter, click here.

I. The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises Hearing

The Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises held a public hearing on October 10, 2017. The hearing on this matter was about three hours long and drew intense debate on issues beyond the project specifics. Those who testified in support of the project cited the need for affordable housing and commercial opportunity in the neighborhood. Those who testified in opposition also cited this need, but want the development to occur in a non-discriminatory manner and provide prevailing wage jobs.

Council Member Stephen Levin of District 33, where the development will occur, supports the project. Levin noted that “all communities are feeling the squeeze” and “if we’re not constructive, the situation will get worse.”

Council Member Antonio Reynoso of neighboring District 34 spoke out against this project and was one of the six negative votes on the land use actions. Council Member Reynoso spoke of how his community fought against the 2009 Broadway Triangle Rezoning, which was enjoined by a judge due to segregation effects and an opaque Housing and Preservation Development (“HPD”) planning process. Many community members came to testify about the effects of the 2009 Broadway Triangle Rezoning on South Williamsburg.

Juan Ramos, chair of the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition, expressed concern about segregation, citing the significant decrease in the Latino population of the Broadway Triangle. Council Member Reynoso stated the decline is 25%. “All we want is a voice in the process,” he stated. Ramos urged City Council to “stop greedy developers and be the progressive body it claims to be” as they have an opportunity to right the wrongs of their predecessors who approved the 2009 Broadway Triangle Rezoning. Regarding the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing component, Ramos asked, “Inclusionary for who?” as he finds his neighbors can never pay the rents developers want, and thus become displaced.

Marty Needleman, Co-Counsel of the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition, also testified against the project. He stated that developers are not ill-intentioned, but that the market rate housing they develop is not for low-income people of color.

II. The Affordable Housing Component 

In this project, 5% of the housing units will go to households earning 100% of the Average Median Income (“AMI”) ($85,900), 10% of units to households earning 60% AMI ($51,540), and 10% of units to households earning 40% AMI ($34,360), to make up the 25% of units (287) in the building that are affordable under Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (“MIH”). The remaining 75% of the units will be market-rate housing. Many in the community earn less than 60% AMI, so the economic effect of creating housing for those earning 60% AMI and above is displacement.

Another lawyer from the Coalition, Shekar Krishnan, noted that 80% of the neighborhood’s housing exceeds the AMI criteria of its community of color. Krishnan also stressed that New York City is the largest recipient of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding, which requires the City to actively promote inclusionary housing.

Council Member Reynoso noted how rezoning a manufacturing district into a residential one exponentially increases the property’s value, making this a “pennies on the dollar” investment for the developer. Due to this increase, Reynoso is disappointed the developer is only providing the legal bare minimum of affordable housing (25% under MIH Option 1), and could do more with City subsidies if they were truly committed to affordable housing. Council Member Levin also asked if the developer would reach deeper levels of affordability with City subsidies. The applicant’s land use counsel responded that it was a possibility, but one the developer had not yet explored.

On the other hand, this is the largest private application for MIH since the program’s inception. Raymond Levin, land use counsel for the applicant, testified that they are on the “cusp of something historic.” Levin emphasized five main goals of the project: (1) reactivate a long-dormant private site and give it to the community for productivity; (2) create much-needed housing, including 287 affordable units; (3) create economic opportunity through local hiring and contracting; (4) implement a thoughtful neighborhood design; and (5) demonstrate the viability of the private sector participating in Mandatory Inclusionary Housing. The architect, Magnus Magnusson of Magnusson Architecture and Planning (“MAP”) stated that “this project is a signal to private developers that MIH can work.”

Illustrative Bird’s Eye View. Image Credit: Pfizer Sites Rezoning EIS.

HPD will select an independent agent to administer the affordable units. The applicant will work with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce to advertise the units and inform the community on the application process.

25% of the construction jobs will go to local residents and provide prevailing wages and benefits. 25% of the contracting will be awarded to local Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprises (“MWBEs”). Representatives from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and 32BJ SEIU, the largest union of property service workers in the U.S., testified in support of the project. Both speakers cited the need to enhance economic opportunity in the neighborhood.

Concerns were expressed about the developer, Rabsky Group, not meeting affordable housing and local hiring goals in past projects. The developer’s representative replied to the concerns by noting that the developer did not meet past goals because, unlike this project, they were a subsequent purchaser, and not the initial developer who made the agreements. Additionally, the past project occurred before MIH was established, so the affordable housing commitment is now legally binding when it was not in the past.

III. The Restrictive Declaration 

Consistent with the concerns expressed, Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, asked the applicant’s land use counsel how the key aspects of this proposal will be maintained in a project of this scale. The developer replied by saying they intend to follow through a project they have been pursuing for years and will commit in writing that it will not sell the project.

The commitment to meet local hiring and affordable housing goals has been memorialized in a restrictive declaration between the developer and City Council. The restrictive declaration was a response to all of the concerns expressed about the developer’s commitment to serving the community at the October 10th hearing. The covenants in the restrictive declaration run with the land, binding all subsequent purchasers. The Speaker of the City Council has enforcement powers over the declaration. This is the first time the Council has done this.

The project passed through the Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee on October 24, 2017 by a vote of 4-2. Many community members opposed to the project showed up at the hearing, waving signs that read “No Pfizer. No Segregation.” Council Member Levin read portions of the restrictive declaration the applicant agreed to. Levin noted how it is unprecedented for the Council to demand this type of restrictive declaration from private developers, which shows the applicant’s commitment to following through on the agreed stipulations for affordable housing and local hiring.

IV. The City Council Vote 

Chair Richards ultimately supported the project because the public review process made significant changes to the application. Initially, the developer proposed that the types of apartment unit be evenly distributed. Now, the developer has committed to a minimum of 30% studios and 30% one-bedrooms, and a maximum of 20% three-bedrooms and 20% four-bedrooms. There will also be a community advisory panel overseeing housing applications for all units. Richards noted that this project facilitated a necessary conversation, thanking “Council Member Reynoso for pushing the conversation and Council Member Levin for listening.” Council Member Levin thanked everyone for their input and the developer for being responsive.

Council Member Rosie Mendez of District 2, who voted against the 2009 Broadway Triangle Rezoning, spoke out against this project at the October 31st Council Meeting. She stated, “We cannot go forward…without going back and looking at the disparity and inequity that happened years ago that continues to have a disparate impact in our community.” Council Members Inez Barron, Andy L. King, Carlos Menchaca, and I. Daneek Miller also voted no.

While explaining his no vote, Council Member Menchaca noted he was proud of all the legislation passed at the meeting “that really brings out the best in New York.” However, he stated “where we have failed today” is on this project. He was troubled by the Council approving actions that “require us to review with the eye of justice.”

Council Member Jumaane Williams, after voting no at the subcommittee and committee levels, abstained on the project vote at the Council meeting. Williams believes the “Council should do everything they can with the power that they have” and that Council Member Levin has done so. Williams respected that Levin did everything possible to codify key aspects of the project. However, he agrees that segregation will be perpetuated, and ultimately could not vote for or against the project.

When Council Member Levin began to explain his vote, members of the public who attended the meeting started chanting, “Housing, Yes, Segregation, No,” and then were escorted out. Levin expressed that this project “serves all the communities of North Brooklyn” and is a complex rezoning.

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez voted yes, while stating that “no project is perfect,” and encouraged the bordering Council Members Levin and Reynoso to continue working together and listening to the affected community.

CC: Pfizer Sites Rezoning (LU 0761-2017; LU 0762-2017) (Oct. 31, 2017).

By: Shelby Hoffman (Shelby is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2017.)

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