Gotham Gazette

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A Small But Mighty Model for Community-Driven Development

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New Yorkers participating (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Decisions around development are among the most controversial and consequential that our city leaders face. Whether a single building or an entire neighborhood, rezoning can change the face of a community for years to come. With New York’s desperate need for affordable housing and economic recovery competing against corporate profits and big developers, it is not surprising that these decisions are so contentious. 

Yet as we recover from this pandemic, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to forge a new path forward on zoning decisions to put communities first and ensure new affordable housing that prevents the further displacement of low-income communities of color. 

In my community of Sunset Park, the rezoning of a residential building at 737 4th Avenue provides a small but powerful example of developers succeeding by actually listening to the needs of the community and moving forward in partnership for the common good. 

But this kind of responsible development is the exception in this city when it should be the norm. Without a commitment to community-led development, comprehensive city planning, and real reform to our land use process, we’re leaving our city’s future up to powerful corporate interests when it should lie with the people. 

Over the past several years, Sunset Park’s waterfront has been the focus of many fights over large-scale development projects. As Chair of Brooklyn’s Community Board 7, I fought hard for community voices to have a seat at the table in discussions around the rezoning plan at Industry City that effectively fell apart last year. The project had the potential to create new jobs and spur economic growth, but from day one the private developer ignored the voices of the community. We held more than 25 community meetings on the issue and sought a comprehensive community assessment to inform the negotiations and understand the long-term impacts of the project. The developer refused to change their proposal and moved forward with the process in defiance of the community they hoped to fundamentally reshape, or, more accurately, replace. 

The rezoning at 737 4th Avenue stands in stark contrast. From the outset of the project, the local developer participated in Community Board hearings, heard our concerns, and made key changes to the plan that will benefit our community for years to come. Sunset Park is incredibly diverse, and our immigrant and low-income families desperately need more affordable housing. By listening to advocates — the people who know this community best and want to see it thrive — the developer was able to focus on building much-needed apartments for families, not studios that would attract gentrifiers. Our recommendations helped us win a guarantee of 25% affordable housing and sustainable, good-paying jobs. Due to our efforts and the willingness of this developer to make responsible changes, the rezoning passed unanimously in the City Council. 

While the plan isn’t perfect — we can always fight for greater affordability and more guarantees for the community — this process has proven that we’re being served a false choice by wealthy developers: jobs and economic opportunity in the midst of a recession or affordable housing and services for the community. We can have both — we just have to empower and engage communities in rezoning, and force the developers to take our concerns seriously.  

First and foremost, we need a comprehensive, citywide rezoning plan. We need to stop reacting to one-off development projects, an approach that leaves community members playing defense against powerful interests. Our current approach favors developers and the well-connected and fails to center the needs of those most vulnerable to displacement, homelessness, and the effects of environmental racism. Year after year, we spend precious time and resources fighting harmful proposals like Industry City where developers have the upper hand and can take advantage of hidden loopholes. To build a stronger city, we need to plan for the long-term and enact our vision — the community’s vision — for sustainable, equitable city planning. 

Next, we need to make the land use review process, ULURP, more equitable. If we want to level the playing field and create a real plan for New York City, we need to reform the process from the ground up. Throughout any land use process, our city government has to be open, transparent, and engaged directly with community stakeholders.

On Brooklyn Community Board 7, we’ve worked hard to make meetings accessible, offering simultaneous Chinese and Spanish translations, guaranteeing childcare for working parents, and providing food. To ensure real community engagement, not just the illusion of it, the city needs to provide funding and resources for Community Boards to hire experts, expand language access, and ensure residents can be involved every step of the way. Moreover, we should be utilizing ULURP to support a fully unionized workforce for any new project. 

As with so many issues, this pandemic has created a pivot point in our city’s future. If we want to solve our affordable housing crisis, it’s obvious we need more development. And as we recover from this pandemic, we need to be thinking of new ways to spur economic growth and create more good-paying jobs. But that needs to be driven by the people who live in a community, not developers who would prefer to drive them out.

Projects like the 737 4th Avenue rezoning show us what’s possible when you view the community as key partners, not adversaries. When community voices lead, everyone benefits. 

César Zuñiga is a Democratic candidate for City Council in Brooklyn’s 38th District. On Twitter @Cesar4Council.

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