BROOKLYN — Two community leaders with close ties to Assemblyman Charles Barron have placed a roadblock in front of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s grand vision to bring thousands of affordable housing units to East New York.
Longtime Barron associates Andre Mitchell and Viola Plummer led a successful vote last week by East New York’s local community board to suspend all presentations by developers and city agencies to its members in hopes of slowing down a rezoning process that is expected to dramatically transform the neighborhood.
The Wednesday night vote by Community Board 5 members canceled a presentation by the Department of City Planning, which was expected to update members on the planned rezoning that could bring more than 7,000 units to a neighborhood where median income is just $34,000.
“We still have a lot of questions that have gone unanswered. That’s why the board reached this decision,” said Mitchell, the chair of CB 5 and a former political aide to Barron.
Mitchell said while the de Blasio administration has held a number of planning forums, members feel the rezoning is moving too quickly. He said one question that remains unanswered is the percentage of units that will be affordable and market rate.
“It does appear to members of the community that it’s a rush job,” he said. “One of the reasons why we are attempting to slow down the process to a degree is to gain a better understanding.”
Mitchell didn't know how long the suspension will last, but said the community board has asked for an emergency meeting in the next two weeks with the mayor’s office and local elected officials to discuss their concerns.
East New York is the first of 15 neighborhoods that the de Blasio administration plans to rezone to reach his goal of adding or preserving 200,000 affordable housing units in 10 years.
While the rezoning — which will allow for high rises along major corridors — and a surging interest in the area's real estate have brought hope of a revitalized East New York, some longtime residents remain wary that development will bring a wave of gentrification and displacement.
Community board member Manny Burgos has mixed feelings about the rezoning but said voting to suspend presentations was a bad decision because residents need to hear as much information as possible from DCP.
“I’m part of a coalition that likes aspects of the plan. We want to see our neighborhood revitalize, but we want to see the same faces enjoy the revitalization,” said Burgos, who consults on development and construction projects. “[But] It’s dangerous to shut down the process.”
He said the suspension and DCP’s presentations will ultimately be pointless because, while community boards play an advisory role in rezoning and have a non-binding vote on the city's proposal during the formal review process, the rezoning can still move forward without CB 5’s input.
The formal public review process of the rezoning will begin later this spring.
The pushback to the neighborhood’s development began a week ago when the community board’s land-use committee voted to halt developer presentations — even ones unrelated to the rezoning — until it performed a “needs assessment” of the neighborhood, according to the meeting’s minutes.
During the meeting, the committee decided to table a vote on developer Mutual Housing Association of New York’s proposal to build 10 affordable units on a parcel of vacant land, according to members.
It also blocked two developers, the MacQuesten Companies and Best Development Group LLC, from giving presentations on upcoming projects in the neighborhood.
The chairwoman of the land-use committee is Viola Plummer, who is Barron’s chief of staff in the Assembly and held the equivalent position when he was in the City Council. Mitchell has run past political campaigns for Barron. He now runs the nonprofit Man Up! Inc., which has received city funding through Barron.
Some board members said they believe Barron was behind the push to suspend presentations to gain some leverage with the city and developers in a real estate frenzy.
“Everyone is maneuvering for control and Charles is no different. He’s the leader of that pack,” said Dennis Taylor, a community board member who runs the neighborhood housing nonprofit Sabaoth Group.
“In my opinion, he’s pulling the strings behind closed doors.”
Taylor also said that the maneuver wouldn't do much.
“They cannot stop the plan. The clock is already ticking. The worst they can do is slow it down,” Taylor said.
Another board member who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Mitchell appointed Plummer to the chair of the land-use committee in September because she is loyal to Barron — not because of any housing experience.
“She’s not a developer. She doesn’t know zoning, yet they made her chair. There were other people who knew more,” the board member said.
Plummer did not respond to a request for comment.
Mitchell said neither he nor Plummer is beholden to Barron or his wife, local City Councilwoman Inez Barron. He added that the Barrons weren’t at the board meeting nor does he know their opinion on the rezoning.
“We are colleagues out here, but that’s as far as it goes,” he said of his relationship with the Barrons.
He said the board’s vote to suspend presentations was 24 members in favor, two opposed and two abstentions.
“If you survey the 24, a lot of them are not close allies of the Barrons,” he said.
Despite the board’s decision, the City Planning Department still plans on holding a hearing on Thursday where residents can express their concerns and ask questions about the impact of the new zoning on the neighborhood. They’re also hosting two information sessions on the zoning in March, including one in Spanish.
City Planning Department spokeswoman Rachaele Raynoff said her agency is committed to working with residents on the rezoning as it moves to the public review process.
“Community boards play an important role in the public review process,” she said.
“Just as the city has worked extensively with the community over the last year to create this proposal, we continue to offer briefings, updates and opportunities for feedback so that the community boards and elected officials can be effective and informed participants in this process, including helping to shape refinements to the plan.”
Bill Wilkins, a community board member and director of housing for the Local Development Corporation of East New York, said he understands some residents’ caution and concern about the rezoning, but the neighborhood, with its growing population, needs affordable housing now.
"There is a fever pitch as it relates to development in East New York and it might be prudent or pragmatic to look at policies and procedures and protocol,” Wilkins said. "But you also need to do this expeditiously because people need housing."