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Activists file suit to overturn Pfizer site rezoning in Brooklyn

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The plaintiffs contend the city violated the Fair Housing Act by refusing to incorporate a racial impact study into its rezoning process

Magnusson Architecture and Planning, via Department of City Planning

The seemingly endless fight over the Broadway Triangle, a stretch of land on the border of Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy and Bushwick, continues: A lawsuit brought by housing activists Churches United for Fair Housing and Brooklyn Residents Against Segregated Housing claims that the city’s rezoning of a former Pfizer factory site didn’t properly study the effects it would have on displacement and racial segregation.

As the approved plan currently stands, the developers, Rabsky Group, would build 1,146 housing units on the plot of land bound by Harrison and Union Avenues and Walton and Gerry Streets. Of those, 287 apartments are classified as affordable housing, the majority of which are slated for families making 40 percent and 60 percent of the area median income). Rabsky’s proposed development was approved by the City Council in October 2017 after a loud fight by activists claiming it would speed up the displacement of black and Latino residents in Bed-Stuy and Bushwick.

The lawsuit is just the latest battle in a larger fight over the Broadway Triangle, one in which activists and the city settled a separate suit over a development on a parcel of city-owned land in the area. The result of that lawsuit resulted in a promise from the De Blasio administration to deliver 375 units of affordable housing, pick new developers in charge of building the apartments, and extend preferences for the affordable units to residents of Community Board 3 in addition to Community Board 1.

Alex Fennell, a representative of CUFFH, says that activists who have signed onto the suit—which, along with that organization, include various tenants’ associations and some residents who live near the development—contend the city violated the Fair Housing Act by refusing to incorporate a racial impact study into its rezoning process. It’s an argument that failed to sway Community Board 1, where the project sits, but has animated the discussion of development in the area for almost a decade.

“Under the Fair Housing Act, the city has an obligation to affirmatively further fair housing,” Fennel says. “It’s not just ‘don’t do segregation,’ but you have to take an active role in promoting and fostering integration. You need to take an active role in making sure your housing is inclusive and provides fair choice to all.”

According to Fennell, the development’s mix of affordable housing options (40 percent of the apartments are going to be 3 or 4 bedroom units, which CUFFH says disproportionately favors the area’s Hasidic Jewish families) and market-rate housing—which will most likely be filled by more affluent, primarily white tenants—will exclude black and Latino families and make Williamsburg even whiter.

“The impact on the demographics of this deeply segregated neighborhood from this development should have been studied as a whole,” Fennell says. The lawsuit notes previous claims by the city that the Fair Housing Act doesn’t require them to study the effects of both this rezoning and 2016’s East New York rezoning on displacement and segregation, which the plaintiffs claim violate the Fair Housing Act.

CUFFH and BRASH are asking a judge to throw out the Pfizer site zoning and do it again with a racial impact study included. “The study will determine what the project needs to look like,” according to Fennell.

In response to the suit, a judge has issued a temporary restraining order, which Fennell said halted all construction on the project for the moment.

“The horrendous discourse that characterized the public review process was not enough to stop approval of the redevelopment of the privately-owned Pfizer sites, and certainly will not prevail in a court of law,” Tom Corsillo, a spokesperson for the Rabsky Group, said in an emailed statement. “We are confident that the rule of law will prevail, and that the City of New York will successfully defend against the meritless claims lodged within the lawsuit. This will allow the development—including some 300 units of affordable housing that will contribute to the de Blasio Administration’s vision of keeping New York affordable—to proceed.”