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Pfizer rezoning brings simmering community tensions to a boil at City Council hearing

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Several community groups argue that the rezoning will only favor the neighborhood’s Orthodox Jewish community

Via Department of City Planning

Long-simmering community tensions came to a boil at a heated City Council meeting on Tuesday concerning the rezoning of the Pfizer sites in Williamsburg.

Developer Rabsky Group presented its plan for 1,146 apartments, as well as retail and public space, to the City Council’s subcommittee on zoning and franchises. The developer is seeking a rezoning for a large swath of land bounded by Union Avenue, Gerry Street, Harrison Avenue, and Walton Avenue, and the application is currently winding its way through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure.

But residents of the Broadway Triangle area have been warring over the site’s best use since a 2009 rezoning of eight blocks nearby ignited a debate between the neighborhoods' Hasidic, black, and Latino communities about the land's best use and who developments in the region should cater to.

Community groups, such as the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition and Churches for Fair Housing, have argued that this type of rezoning unfairly favors the Orthodox Jewish community in the neighborhood. The developer has, in turn, called these accusations “anti-semitic bullying.” All of these tensions once again came to the fore at Tuesday’s meeting.

The council subcommittee grilled the developer’s reps on the specifics of the project, particularly concerning the number of affordable apartments. Rabsky has said it will earmark 287 units (or about 25 percent of the total number) as permanently affordable, as required by the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy.

Of the affordable units (which will come in one- to four-bedroom variants), five percent will be offered at 100 percent of the area median income; 10 percent will be offered at 60 percent of AMI; and the remaining 10 percent will go to residents making 40 percent of the AMI.

Market-rate apartments will also be offered in these size variants, but a legal representative for the Rabsky Group said the developer hadn’t worked out the specifics of how many units would be offered in each size.

Here’s where it gets even more complicated: Rabsky is also involved in a large section of the development at the nearby Rheingold Brewery site, having purchased a parcel from the Read Property Group. (All Year Management is also developing part of the Rheingold site.) Read had previously pledged to make 30 percent of the units at the overall Rheingold site affordable, but when those parcels of land were sold off, those commitments were no longer legally binding.

Rabsky agreed to the number of affordable apartments required by law—20 percent—and no more than that. That’s a sticking point for City Council member Antonio Reynoso, who argued at Tuesday’s meeting that the developer is doing the exact same thing at Pfizer. He argued that the developer should sign a legally binding contract with the city that holds it to its promises, which—in addition to the commitment for affordable apartments—also pertains to hiring minority and women-owned business to carry out work at the site, and to ensure that no discrimination takes place in marketing the market-rate units at the property.

Reynoso and other community advocates argue that the 2009 rezoning of the larger Broadway Triangle area led to the creation of private development that caters exclusively to the area’s Orthodox Jewish community, and excludes the neighborhood’s black and Latino populations. Following the rezoning in 2009, community advocates sued the city over what it felt were discriminatory practices. A judge ultimately sided with the community groups, which halted construction on city-owned land in the Broadway Triangle area. However, work on privately owned sites continued.

Reynoso’s colleague on the City Council, Stephen Levin remained skeptical about this narrative of exclusion. He questioned why groups like Churches United for Fair Housing (CUFFH) had not opposed the Rheingold project, or the rezoning that led to the creation of the Domino megaproject, where there were similar concerns about the long-standing Latino community being displaced. (CUFFH director Rob Solano countered that his organization was run by a different group of people when the Domino rezoning was approved in 2010.)

Martin Needelman, the executive director of Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, ultimately pressed Levin not to focus on the past, and said it was a mistake to have supported projects like Rheingold and Domino without ensuring greater affordability. He argued that it was important to not make those same mistakes this time around. Levin did not seem convinced.

Supporters of the larger Pfizer project, including the Real Estate Board of New York, and 32BJ SEIU, also gave public testimony during yesterday’s meeting. They argued that the Pfizer sites are a blight on the community, and are in desperate need of rejuvenation.

But after hours of heated debate, the subcommittee ultimately did not vote on Rabsky’s proposal; a vote is expected in the coming days, before the proposal moves on to the full City Council for approval. As things stand right now, the opposing sides are far from reaching a resolution.

Previously, the City Planning Commission and the local Community Board had approved the rezoning. But the proposal passed by a 25-15 vote at CB1, showing that support for the project is nowhere near unanimous. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, meanwhile, has not offered his support for the project, saying that it lacks an appropriate amount of affordable housing.