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Planning with the Community in East New York

The continually skyrocketing cost of real estate affects every sector of New York City, but harms small businesses and low-income renters in particular.  Wages have not kept up with climbing rent costs.  Since 2000, the median gross rent increased 12 percentage points, while the median household income grew just 2%.  This disparity has made it difficult for New Yorkers to stay in their communities, afford basic needs such as food and healthcare, or keep a home at all.  The number of homeless people staying in shelters surpassed that of the Great Depression under the Bloomberg administration, and has continued to soar, with 59,246 individuals now sleeping in shelters every night.  Bill de Blasio won the 2014 mayoral election on the platform of closing the inequity gap.  A hallmark of his plan is to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next 20 years.  In its first stages, the East New York Initiative is an experiment in community-based planning, as the city prepares to build mixed-income affordable housing in the neighborhood, focusing on the square-mile community of Cypress Hills.  On 11.24.14, individuals involved in the research, outreach, and planning of the East New York Initiative convened at the Center for Architecture to share their efforts and findings so far.

Receiving a HUD-funded Sustainable Communities grant, the city created the East New York Initiative to capitalize on its strong transportation infrastructure.  The site of an LIRR train station and subway hub (the A, C, L, and J line converge at Broadway Junction), East New York is ripe for transit-oriented development.  Once a thriving retail corridor, East New York is marked by empty storefronts and a dearth of services for the community.  The city intends to bring retail and services back to the broad Atlantic Avenue, Pitkin Avenue, and Fulton Street through zoning changes, densification, and encouraging ground-floor retail spaces and facilities in new mixed-use and mixed-income housing developments (although without subsidy incentives).

Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation Director of Community Development Shai Lauros reported that residents, are desperate for affordable housing.  Max Weselcouch, director of the Moelis Institute for Affordable Housing Policy, NYU Furman Center, emphasized the particular need of the East New York Community with demographic studies.  The annual median household income is $34,349, compared to $51,750r city-wide.  For this income strata, $856/month is an affordable rent, but the median asking price in East New York is currently $1,501-$2,000. While 78% of residents are renters, 17% of rental housing stock is public housing, 25.5% is subsidized, 16.1% is rent stabilized, and 41.5% is market rate.  These numbers do not include, as Lauros, pointed out, undocumented residents.  In addition to creating housing affordable to a range of income groups, from the very low to moderate and middle, both Weselcouch and Lauros emphasized that the city’s investments need to be holistic.  Housing alone cannot lift the quality of life for struggling East New York; the city needs to invest in fostering safer streets and strengthening the public school system (Weselcouch reported that 16% of students in East New York performed at grade level in Math).

The de Blasio Administration has adopted the initiative as a case study for community-based planning.  According to Vincent von Engel, director of the NYC Department of City Planning Brooklyn Office, the dity has conducted extensive outreach since the summer, 50 meetings altogether, including visioning meetings and theme-based workshops that brought together as many as 200 participants.  At the meetings, government agencies broke down what changes in zoning would mean for the neighborhood, and listened to community desires and concerns.  Agencies have taken note of the following priorities: the community wants a variety of affordable housing options, job opportunities, small retail businesses, safe streets, and sustainability initiatives.  They want stronger resources, like parks, education, and transit access, and they want to maintain the neighborhood character.  The initiative is in the process of developing plans that should begin public review in April 2015.

Lauros confirmed the community desires outlined by von Engel, and detailed some of their concerns.  Having seen what has happened to neighbors in Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Bed-Stuy, residents are fearful of both densification and gentrification.  Accustomed to three- to four-story buildings, they are worried that their neighborhood character will be replaced by the crowds and towers of Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn.  Once the neighborhood is more populated, how will resources be allocated?  Will public schools or bus lines be overburdened?  Will manufacturing, now a large source of employment, be sustained?  Will it be lost to zoning changes?  To whom will new retailers market?  Will there be artisanal cheese shops and kickboxing studios, or affordable markets and a YMCA?  And importantly, with the attraction of resources, will current residents eventually be displaced by larger-pocketed newcomers?

These concerns are to be expected, but Adam Weinstein, president and CEO of Phipps Housing, added that in terms of statistics, “The analogy to East New York is not Williamsburg, but where Phipps has been developing, in the South Bronx. Don’t expect that if you zone or build it, they will come.  Merchants matter more, and they go where there’s purchasing power.”  The city must carefully encourage a consumer base in East New York through density while protecting its low-income community with long-term or permanent affordable housing in addition to other means.  On one hand, there is a threat that the desired development won’t take hold, like the struggle in the South Bronx, and on the other hand, there’s a fear that the city is coming in too late to plan East New York’s development.  At a rate of six to12 blocks of gentrification every year in Brooklyn, the market may direct what development looks like in East New York before the city’s plans, crafted with the community’s input, can be realized.

Event: Inclusionary/Integrated Housing
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.24.14 and 12.15.14
Speakers: Winston von Engel, Director, NYC Department of City Planning Brooklyn Office; Shai Lauros, Director of Community Development, Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation; Adam Weinstein, President and CEO, Phipps Houses; Max Weselcouch, Director, Moelis Institute for Affordable Housing Policy, NYU Furman Center; Ethel Sheffer, FAICP, Principal, Insight Associates; Ernie Hutton, Assoc. AIA, FAICP, Principal, Hutton Associates Inc., and Co-Chair, AIANY Planning and Urban Design Committee; Josiah Madar, Research Affiliate, NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy; Gary Handel, AIA, Handel Architects; Ed Wallace, Esq., Greenberg Traurig; Mark Ginsberg, FAIA, LEED AP, Partner, Curtis + Ginsberg Architects; and Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, 2014 President, AIANY
Organizers: AIANY Planning and Urban Design Committee, AIANY Housing Committee, AIANY Codes Committee, and APA Metro Chapter