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Bedford-Union Armory redevelopment, East Harlem rezoning both pass City Council

The council also voted to approve a rezoning of Sutton Place that will limit the height of new development

Ariel view of Bedford-Union Armory in Crown Heights BFC Partners

The City Council this week voted to adopt three proposals that have, for many, called into question the city’s commitment to its residents versus the interests of real estate developers.

The approved proposals include the redevelopment of Crown Heights’ Bedford-Union Armory into 400 rentals with community recreation space and nonprofit offices; the rezoning of East Harlem that’s estimated to lead to the creation of 1,288 new affordable apartments; and the rezoning of a roughly ten-block stretch of Sutton Place that will cap heights on new development in the area.

Under the plan approved by the City Council, the redevelopment of the Bedford-Union Armory will include 150 market-rate rentals and 250 rentals priced below market rate and available to New Yorkers earning between $25,000 and $57,000 a year. (The median income for Crown Heights, for reference, is about $44,000.) A community recreation center, and permanently affordable office space for nonprofits will also be included, but market rate condos will not be built.

The reactivation of the city-owned Bedford-Union Armory has been in play since 2013, when the city issued a request for proposals for the property. It chose BFC Partners, which proposed bringing 150 market rate apartments, 150 affordable apartments, 12 townhouses, and community recreation space to the site. The project was vocally rejected by the community, with activists calling it a “terrible deal,”, and residents citing fears that the proposal was not doing enough to mitigate gentrification.

Local and state officials lead the call for more below-market-rate housing with deeper affordability at the site, with Crown Heights City Council member Laurie Cumbo stepping forward to reject the plan in May. Cumbo was also joined by City Comptroller Scott Stringer in her rejection of the plan. “We’re sending a loud and clear message: We will not accept a plan that pushes out the people who built this community,” said Stringer.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams released his recommendations for the embattled project in June, including that the development should not include condos. That recommendation was adopted by Cumbo, who negotiated the proposal to the state in which it was ratified on Thursday.

Despite its increased emphases on affordable rentals and a focus on enlisting union labor, the approved proposal is still counted as a loss by many community activists. “Cumbo approved a project that turns a public resource over for private profit,” said NYCC Crown Heights leader Vaughn Armour. “Even before it was approved, the Armory project has accelerated landlord harassment and evictions. ... Today's vote is nothing short of betrayal.”

Taking the floor at Thursday’s council meeting, council member Inez Barron, who represents areas of Brownsville, East New York, and Canarsie, slammed the plan. “The Bedford Armory project presented an opportunity, as the community wanted, to have a community land trust established or to have development by a not-for-profit organization,” she said. “They wanted a multi-purpose community facility, and they wanted 100 percent affordability. This vote today that we’re taking does not meet any of what community board voted to have.”

Other council members praised the project. “[Council Member Cumbo] is providing the deepest level of affordability that the neighborhood has seen in quite some time,” council member Treyger, who reps Bensonhurst and Coney Island, said. “Killing the deal would have meant zero affordable housing on that site.” He went on to applaud council member Cumbo for her “strength under fire.”

The East Harlem rezoning plan passed with less commentary. It’s a major part of Mayor De Blasio’s plan to create and preserve 300,000 units of affordable housing by 2026 and is the third rezoning to pass under the administration, trailing East New York and Far Rockaway.

The proposal approved on Thursday was revised last week to include less density and lower height limits than originally proposed throughout the roughly 96-block area. Now, new development in the area will be capped at 275 feet along Park Avenue north of 118th Street.

The rezoning also comes with a $50 million pledge for capital improvements in NYCHA projects from the city, and will include an $83 million upgrade that will expand the Harlem River Greenway Link from 125th Street to 132nd Street. The East River Esplanade will also see $15 million in improvements from the city.

The city anticipates that the rezoning will lead to the creation of 1,288 new affordable apartments through Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, with the creation and preservation of 4,000 units of affordable housing in total.

Like Bedford-Union, the plan has proven divisive from the get-go. An October City Council hearing to discuss the rezoning erupted in chants of “East Harlem is not for sale”; many believe that it could bring a large number of market-rate apartments to the area, while potentially displacing long-term, lower-income East Harlem residents.

That sentiment did not drift away, even as density and height measurements and the city’s fiscal commitment to the area were adjusted. “The agreement reached on the East Harlem rezoning plan benefits developers, not the low-income residents of El Barrio,” Maria Rodriguez, a member of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, said in a statement issued last week. “As soon as it is approved, the real estate industry will be celebrating its passage because of the profits they will generate off this luxury housing plan.”

De Blasio addressed that concern (sort of) in a statement issued after the proposal was passed: “As we plan for the future, we protect the core values of our city and our neighborhoods—and most importantly the very residents who built these communities. We are making progress, and today we applaud ... the dedication of the East Harlem [community] for working with us to guarantee a fairer future for New York.”

Another rezoning—this one proposed not by the Department of City Planning but by the community—also passed on Thursday. Born out of the desire to stymie a proposed 900-foot skyscraper in the Sutton Place area, the East River Fifties rezoning puts into place “tower on a base” standards that will require between 45 and 50 percent of buildings in the area roughly between 51st and 59th Street East of First Avenue to be constructed below 150 feet.

“For us, this was never about just one building,” said Alan Kersh, president of the East River Fifties Alliance who spearheaded the community-driven rezoning proposal. “It was a district-wide application to prevent megatowers on soft sites. It was a successful effort to deter assemblages of parcels containing low-rise, often rent-stabilized, housing to be demolished for the construction of megatowers.”

Developer Gamma Real Estate has been at work on the building’s foundation, with Kathryn Brenzel of The Real Deal noting that Gamma is only about 15 days away from finishing foundation work at the site. Gamma says it will return to the Board of Standards and Appeals, who are tasked with issuing zoning variances, to seek approval. If the development team can show that most of the project’s foundation work is complete, then city law will require the BSA to sign off on the project.

“New Yorkers are tired of out-of-control, out-of-scale development destroying affordable housing an our neighborhoods,” said Council Member Ben Kallos, whose district includes Sutton Place. “We have an opportunity to stop the march of supertall buildings from commercial districts on East 57th Street into residential districts where they would displace rent-regulated residents to build buildings for billionaires. Your vote today is in support of residents over real estate developers.”

Bedford-Union Armory

1579 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 1225