2017-04-05 / Front Page

Justice 4 All Meets For 2nd Time

By Thomas Cogan
The second Justice for All Coalition meeting in two weeks’ time was held in late March at the Jacob A. Riis Center in Queensbridge Houses, for the purpose of hearing two academic figures talk about zoning and how, as they asserted, it was an expedient that developers and the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), among others, employ to manipulate neighborhoods and advance their own interests, particularly regarding luxury housing and the dubious promise of simultaneous housing affordability for the less affluent.  Their message to the audience was to beware the persuasion and blandishments of these parties and reject them completely.

Speaking at the meeting were Tom Angotti, professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College and Samuel Stein, a Ph.D. candidate at Hunter.  Angotti is an editor of and contributor to Zoned Out!, a book that indicts the city’s zoning policies and speaks of how “race matters but is not acknowledged in land use and housing policies.”  Angotti said that when the Department of City Planning rezones neighborhoods it does so at the behest of the real estate interests.  He said the long-standing assumption that zoning does not apply to public housing is a mistaken one.  Zoning, he said, has been significant since the days when Ronald Reagan was president, at which time the drive was initiated to make public housing private.  These days, Mayor Bill de Blasio is aligned with the DCP to move that effort forward, he charged.                                                                                                         

He referred to Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, as a cautionary tale.  It was once a working class community that developers either ignored or kept in reserve for further consideration, since it fronted on the East River.  Eventually, its potentiality became appreciated.  The DCP arrived and, after careful examination, approved zoning that would facilitate the building of waterside high rises. Community resistance did not become effectively strong and Williamsburg finally got high rises and was Manhattanized as its working class was scattered.  Angotti said the book concludes by saying that community effort to resist such forces is the only way to keep communities from being destroyed.

What in recent decades has come to be known as gentrification is still occurring in Manhattan too.  Stein spoke of Chinatown and its plan of contextual zoning, designed to keep the neighborhood reasonably intact.  Chinatown residents had seen development in nearby neighborhoods, followed by up-zoning and the uprooting of residents, Stein said; so when local rents rose to the $3,000-a-month level, local residents fashioned some zoning of their own, with anti-eviction provisions and restrictions on big-box stores.  Thus far, the mayor and the DCP have not shown any fondness for this presumptive seizure of their administrative hegemony, Stein said.

Zoning’s effect on public housing can manifest itself in the form of infill, Stein said.  The open spaces in such public housing projects as Queensbridge can be taken by the city and filled with structures having no relation to them.  Angotti said it is NYCHA itself putting forth these infill proposals; and developers, true to their name, are ready to develop.

There was a period when groups of a half-dozen or so conferred, after which the meeting resumed and the speakers took questions.  When asked about the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), the plan for building housing on giant platforms over the Sunnyside Yard and the rezoning of Long Island City, Angotti said the BQX would entail building high-rise housing along the shoreline from Sunset Park in Brooklyn to Astoria in Queens as homes for engineers, lawyers and other prosperous folks who will use the BQX as their ride, while current residents will be priced out or left to view the urban renewal as unwelcoming to them.  Looking at these proposed projects generally, Stein warned the audience not to be taken in by the good parts while disregarding the bad.  “Don’t say yes to what you don’t want in the hope they’ll grant you something you do want,” because they are in control of procedure. 

Angotti said you mustn’t sit down with people who have a lopsided share of the power.  Don’t bargain, oppose!  When Sharon Cádiz of J4AC asked, “What do we say we want?” Stein said that as you organize you must decide what you want preserved and what needs to be altered.  There was a moment of disagreement between Angiotti and Stein when the latter advised taking a low alternate median income (AMI) number and demanding it during negotiations.  Angiotti said numbers should not be brought up since they are theirs, not yours, to begin with.  Just turn their plan down, make one of your own and propose it, he said.

Solidarity sounded like a plan as the meeting was adjourned, but there are disagreements on several matters (the BQX, for instance) that have to be settled before J4AC is ready to do battle with the city, the planners, REBNY and the developers.  The final statement of the meeting came from the coalition’s Yvette Kemp:  “If we fail, shame on us."


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