The underdogs: Legal activist Marty Needelman, City Council member Diana Reyna, and El Puente organizer Luis Garden Acosta. — Photo by Aaron Short
It may not be as inspiring as Fela! or as tear-jerking as Billy Elliot, but there will be high drama on December 2 in City Hall. Postponed from Monday afternoon, Council members will likely cast their final vote on the Broadway Triangle, the 31-acre South Williamsburg development project that has pulled half of North Brooklyn into its turbulent vortex. While others may argue about the process and timeline of events (and the timeline of who attended which planning meeting and why is among the more contentious issues), we at BushwickBK felt it was better to bring you up to speed on what has been going on. Curtain up!
UPDATE: The vote has been postponed again, possibly until Thursday.
Since 2005, nonprofit directors, city officials, religious leaders and politicians have clashed over the city’s planned rezoning of the Broadway Triangle, which could set the stage for several residential buildings to be erected on the industrial patch of lots next to Woodhull Hospital. After earning a brownfields opportunity grant for the remediation of several properties in the Broadway Triangle, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC) and United Jewish Organizations (UJO) met with city officials from the Department of Housing and other agencies in 2007 to outline how the site would be developed for residential use. A proposal soon followed, based on an initial planning workshop conducted by Columbia University graduate students, which included 1851 units of housing, 905 of which are designated “affordable.”
Over the next two years, the rezoning action slowly proceeded through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) including the Environmental Impact Statement for the site, the Community Board, the Borough President, and the City Planning Commission before arriving at the doorstep of City Hall.
Meanwhile, forty community organizations, including Williamsburg housing organizations such as Los Sures and St. Nicholas NPC, heard about the meeting and criticized the city for excluding them. They called themselves the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition, and they have sought to oppose the ULURP process every step of the way, from disrupting meetings, raising awareness about eminent domain issues, and filing lawsuits, to putting forward their own plan complete with Pratt Institute graduate students and campaigning hard for Diana Reyna.
The fight that has pitted Latinos, Orthodox Jews, city planners, nonprofit leaders, and Council members against each other has gotten a lot of attention. The New York Times even weighed in on Reyna’s Council race earlier this month and its effect on the project, and is following the Triangle story closely. So far it has been a drama wrought with tension, history, religion, politicking… and smoked fish. And on Wednesday afternoon, it will all come crashing down in Council Chambers, like the bits of furniture and livestock in a tornado. According to a couple of Council sources, this vote is a toss-up and was delayed in order to give more time for supporters to lobby for the bill’s passage. Will Diana Reyna and the network of nonprofits that was strong enough to ensure her reelection also block the Triangle proposal? Will the pressure that Council member-elect Steve Levin and Assembly member Vito Lopez employ on city legislators push the plan into the end zone?
The Players (in no particular order):
Angela Battaglia: City Planning Commission member, Housing Director for of the one of the largest private nonprofits in the state, and longtime girlfriend to Vito Lopez, head of the State Assembly’s Housing Committee, Battaglia and the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council have a lot to gain if this plan ends up passing. Though she recused herself from a CPC vote on the topic, Battaglia has maintained a significant behind-the-scenes presence throughout the process, leading the original planning charette two years ago. Expect an appearance Wednesday.
Diana Reyna: Reyna, who won not one but two elections against an opponent backed by the Democratic Party Chair, staked her political reputation on her opposition to the Broadway Triangle. It helped her win the primary, but negotiating among 50 colleagues in a legislative body is a different story. Reyna had the most compelling line of questioning during a subcommittee hearing earlier this month, but will she be able to lobby enough rank-and-file Council members to oppose a project that isn’t even in her district?
David Yassky: Wait a minute! If this project isn’t in Diana’s district, than whose district is it in? Ahhhh right, outgoing Council member David Yassky, the term limits supporter who did not seek a third term, instead choosing to run for Comptroller, has been sucked into the Broadway Triangle seemingly against his will. Yassky has expressed sympathy with those groups excluded from the planning, and his particular admiration for El Puente’s Luis Garden Acosta, but maintains his support for the city’s plan as necessary to add affordable housing in Williamsburg. His vote on the project will be one of his last ones cast as a Council member, as he is set to leave office on December 31.
Al Vann: Every play has an X-factor, an unpredictable yet memorable character. This is where Al Vann, Council member for Bedford-Stuyvesant, fits in. Morgan Freeman-like in his wisdom and serenity, Vann represents much of Community Board 3, which was excluded from the planning process yet still sits within the urban renewal area that is being altered by the city’s rezoning plan. This is a problem. You will be hearing more about this.
Tish James: The other Council member representing parts of Community Board 3 has expressed her opposition to the plan if it continues to contain elements of eminent domain possibilities for local businesses within the urban renewal area. Which it probably will do if it does get passed.
Dan Garodnick: The perky, ever-smiling Upper East Side Council member is shepherding the first round of Broadway Triangle voting as Chair of the Land Use Acquisitions and Dispositions Subcommittee. Garodnick has not stated his position on the plan and is considered by some Triangle opponents as a toss-up vote. He may add modifications before advancing it out of his subcommittee to…
Melinda Katz: …the Land Use Committee, which is chaired by the fierce-but-friendly outgoing Council member representing Forrest Hills and Kew Gardens. Katz, a one-time Comptroller candidate, is a Reyna ally and may be a No vote. This committee is expected to sit on Wednesday and give its recommendations before the Council votes on the bill.
Steve Levin: The Council member-elect has had a busy fall. After blowing out six other candidates in a competitive primary, Levin has continued meeting community groups and constituents throughout the 33rd District and assembling his own office while helping the transition inside Lopez’s office as the Assemblyman searches for a new Chief of Staff. One additional duty appears to be lobbying council colleagues to support the Broadway Triangle plan and acknowledge the wishes of the incoming Council member. If the vote is close but still in favor of the plan, it will likely be because of Levin’s efforts.
Evelyn Cruz: With Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez in Washington working on the health care reform bill, her constituent liaison Evelyn Cruz has been carrying the fire by representing Velazquez’s position against the plan. Wherever there is a press conference, vote, or demonstration, Evelyn is omnipresent, reminding people of the history and political context of HPD’s planning decisions.
Rob Solano: There are several members of the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition who have distinguished themselves as a voice of opposition to the rezoning and the process by which it was carried out, including BTCC Executive Director Juan Ramos, El Puente’s Luis Garden Acosta, Community Board 1 member Esteban Duran, and Catholic clergymen John Powis and Jim O’Shea. However, it is Churches United for Fair Housing’s Rob Solano who not only articulated the most concise arguments against the plan but helped organize the community groups involved to develop a message, attend hearings, and volunteer on a tough council race. That’s probably why the Village Voice‘s Tom Robbins recognized him as an unsung hero.
Marty Needelman: The loud guy in the audience talking on his cell phone that ushers briskly eject; the other wild card, though not necessarily on Wednesday. If the rezoning passes, then the opposition will focus on the lawsuit Needelman filed last month alleging HPD and the Mayor of violating the federal Fair Housing Act. A civil litigator for more than forty years, the Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A attorney was also heralded by Robbins and has had a busy year fighting off his Corporation A’s move to consolidate offices and representing the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition. Marty also has a particular way of getting under an elected official’s skin, as was apparent at the last subcommittee hearing.
Michael Bloomberg: Ultimately, if the Mayor really wants this project passed, he will make some phone calls to wavering Council members. So far, he’s been fairly hands off, refraining from speaking publicly on the matter, but he has emphasized affordable housing projects as a cornerstone of his platform and the Broadway Triangle is part of PlaNYC 2030. Some of the connections between the Mayor’s office and the Broadway Triangle, particularly Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff’s role in the early stages, remain unclear. It’s ok. Theatergoers rarely pay attention to the producers.
Department of Housing and Preservation Development (HPD): The agency that everyone loves to hate has taken heat from a variety of political leaders and community groups at forums in Williamsburg for their role in the planning of the rezoning, but this is their plan and they are sticking with it. Unless there are changes recommended by Council members, in which case the agency will make those changes and re-present their plan in a couple of weeks. Still, HPD staffer Jack Hammer’s mustache is the best in city government.
David Niederman: Executive Director of the UJO, David Niederman has seen his power surge in the past year, helping deliver votes to secure Steve Levin’s victory and convincing political leaders throughout Brooklyn to support the Triangle plan. Facing the pressing need of serving a rapidly growing Orthodox Jewish population with few places in Williamsburg to house them, the UJO has the most to gain if the plan passes. Many of the lots within the Triangle will contain 8-story buildings — short enough to walk up on the Sabbath — to house the predominantly Hasidic population that lives nearby, and Niederman has emphasized multiple times in public that the plan should pass strictly for that purpose.
Vito Lopez: He’s really more of a director than a writer. This production has Vito’s fingerprints all over it, from the political horsetrading to the purpose of adding to his substantial legacy of affordable housing in North Brooklyn through the nonprofit that he founded over 30 years ago. Professor Nicole Marwell argued that RBSCC is expanding into Williamsburg because it needs to as a grant-receiving entity and affordable housing provider. We don’t doubt that. Vito likely won’t make a public appearance on Wednesday but he’ll be tuned into what’s happening like an aeronautic engineer in mission control.