The Unholy Alliance of New York City Upzoning and how it’s Affecting the Lower East Side [OP-ED]

Posted on: December 16th, 2019 at 5:03 am by

Oct. 2019

Community Board 3 expressed grave reservations about the scale of GO Broome on THREE separate occasions. But Alysha Coleman-Lewis, chair of the Lower East Side board, voted yes, as did a majority of the board. Coleman-Lewis is reportedly a specific target of Gotham’s lobbying, according to JCOPE. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer voted yes despite also expressing reservations. Brewer is also a frequent target of lobbying for this development, according to JCOPE.

Based on this pattern, we expect the City Planning Commission to vote yes on the project when it meets today. Many of whom are reported as Gotham’s lobbying targets.

Ask yourself this: if all of these buildings fulfill such an important public need, why does Gotham need to spend so much money lobbying officials?

The elected and appointed officials don’t tell you that they’ve been lobbied, or the extent of that lobbying. They tell you that they are voting yes because these buildings create badly needed affordable housing; the same story from the developer.

In nearly all of the affordable housing developments under consideration, including GO Broome, the lowest amount a family or individual can make and get an “affordable” apartment is HIGHER than the current average median income of the neighborhood. This means that, by law, more affluent people than are typical for the neighborhood must move in, often resulting in higher prices of local stores and amenities. An exodus of existing residents typically follows.

And because the developer gets to stick a market-rate building on top of the affordable housing (via the waivers), even MORE affluent people move in.  Even more people get forced out.

All under the banner of “affordable housing.”

We also believe any developer receiving enormous tax abatements, and waivers to capture public land and sky, should be held to a higher standard. This is out of respect for the taxpayers who are subsidizing the developers’ profits with actual money (tax abatements) and subsidizing with local community resources (land and sky).

Gotham, for example, is a multi-generational developer with a great track record. Yet several specific incidents have occurred at the Norfolk Street development site. One has been resolved, but the other two should make Margaret Chin, the City Council Member with ultimate decision-power on this development, at least press pause.

First, a fire destroyed the landmarked synagogue on this lot shortly after Gotham entered the picture. Cause was later determined as arson committed by local teenagers. Then this past October, excavation onsite killed one asbestos abatement worker (and injured another) when the surviving south tower collapsed. This tragedy is under investigation by the Department of Buildings.

And finally, a federal lawsuit [PDF] against Gotham, which claims over a decade of violations of New York’s Human Rights Law by allegedly creating housing that was inaccessible and dangerous for the disabled in several developments.

Our group, LES Against Upzoning, proposes the following:

1. Cap lobbying for any project that would receive tax abatements, and/or increase building height or reduce sidewalk width by more than 5%, at $1,000 per month. Cap all lobbying by any single entity at $3,000/month. This will level the playing field, allowing residents in the typically lower-income neighborhoods targeted by developers to pool resources and lobby.

2. Institute a moratorium on any upzoning request in a neighborhood that has had a substantial rezone in the preceding ten years. For instance, the Lower East Side had the largest recent upzoning effort in the city to create Essex Crossing.

3. Require developers requesting an upzone to also deliver plans that show what could be built without the exception. In the case of GO Broome, Gotham claims that it could not build without the upzone, yet offered no alternative proposal under the existing 20-story zoning.

4. Require city employees, elected officials, or appointed official who speak on any agenda item relating to rezoning, or submits any written material or recommendations, to publicly disclose connection to any lobbyists.

5. Require any individual or entity testifying in favor of the project to disclose any financial relationship they have with the developer or affiliated entities.

6. Require a racial impact study for any rezoning to determine if the action would further the goals of the Federal Fair Housing Act. Many of these upzoning requests occur in neighborhoods that are majority people of color with low-to-moderate income. For instance, the four known Gotham projects in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan are all in neighborhoods where the majority are people of color. As noted, these neighborhoods typically list a median income below the MINIMUM allowed for the so-called “affordable housing.” Research shows that upzonings typically displace low-to-moderate income people of color and shifts the population towards majority mid-to-high-income Caucasian.

We believe in a city where the needs of not-for-profits, developers, communities, and residents are balanced by careful consideration rather than heavily influenced by lobbying dollars.

The future of our city depends on it.

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