Crystal clear: Council member spikes two projects in first week

Hudson: “I am willing to do things differently”

Council member Crystal Hudson with renderings of 870-888 Atlantic Avenue (Twitter via Crystal R Hudson, Archimaera)
Council member Crystal Hudson with renderings of 870-888 Atlantic Avenue (Twitter via Crystal R Hudson, Archimaera)

City Planning Commission meetings normally prompt snores. But last week, a newly minted Council member shook up the room — and the development world.

Near the end of an approval process that began before she took office, Crystal Hudson said she would not support rezonings sought by developers for two projects on Atlantic Avenue, one of Brooklyn’s busiest thoroughfares. She asked them to rescind their applications and start from scratch, setting the builders back by about a year if not longer.

Hudson launched her last-minute torpedo after the proposals, by EMP Capital for 1034 to 1042 Atlantic Avenue and by Y&T Development for 870 to 888 Atlantic Avenue, had been reviewed by the relevant community board and Brooklyn borough president.

As unusual as Hudson’s move was, the developers have little choice but to comply: The full Council almost always votes with the local member on rezonings.

“Considering this process left me without the explicit opportunity to be involved from the beginning, I cannot in good conscience vote to approve either of these projects,” Hudson told the planning commission Jan. 5.

Despite its proximity to transit options and shopping, much of Atlantic Avenue is lined with low-rise, low-density buildings. A handful of rezonings for major residential developments along Atlantic moved through public review in the waning days of the de Blasio administration, when Hudson’s predecessor and former boss, Laurie Cumbo, controlled the district.

Cumbo was no developer in sheep’s clothing. In her tenure, she butted heads with Bruce Eichner, Don Capoccia and others who tried to build luxury housing in her district, even when they sweetened their proposals with large amounts of affordable housing.

Still, Cumbo allowed some projects, notably Capoccia’s Bedford Union Armory redevelopment, which will bring 415 apartments to Crown Heights. “It was a mistake at the time, and the evidence on why it was a bad deal has only compounded since,” Hudson wrote in an op-ed for Bklyner in November.

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Hudson’s statement could give her leverage to negotiate concessions from the developers rather than force them to withdraw the applications. Elie Pariente, the founder and principal of EMP Capital, declined to comment. Richard Lobel, an attorney representing both developers, did not respond to requests for comment.

EMP’s project would be built on two parcels owned by Gold Star “A” Realty, according to public records. Deeds show that Gold Star has owned the land since 1999. Y&T’s project, filed by Lobel and developer Joel Teitelbaum, would be on two plots last purchased by Odyssey Realty in 1996.

A delay would be more costly for the developers if they had taken out loans to buy the properties, which they apparently have not. Still, a delay entails opportunity costs as well as more fees for architects, lawyers, public relations firms and consultants needed to navigate the rezoning gauntlet.

In a phone interview, Hudson said she wants to develop a comprehensive plan for rezonings along Atlantic Avenue (although some activists also oppose comprehensive rezonings, which they blame for gentrification and displacement). To her, the city’s existing land use review process cuts out everyday residents in favor of the wealthy and well-connected.

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“It’s really designed to make it almost impossible for anyone other than private developers and lobbyists to intervene in the process,” she said. “I support more housing and greater density but it needs to be done in a thoughtful and deliberate way,” Hudson added.

The public review, known as Ulurp, takes about seven months and is governed by the City Charter, which is difficult to change. Modifications were considered during the second term of the de Blasio administration, but only a tiny revision to Ulurp was approved.

The land-use review does provide several opportunities for public input, but the basic parameters of projects are set behind the scenes by developers and the Department of City Planning before Ulurp begins. Hudson, it seems, wants to be in on that.

The two developments she called out would yield about 438 units, a substantial portion of them affordable because rezonings trigger the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing law. Hudson, a third-generation Brooklynite, says she’s seen her longtime neighbors, many of them Black, poor or both, leave. She sees project-based rezonings not as a remedy, but as a cause.

“My district in its entirety used to be a Black district. And it’s very much no longer that,” she said.

But Will Thomas, executive director of pro-housing group Open New York, said, “We share Council member Hudson’s concerns about rising rents and displacement. The solution to those problems isn’t more process, it’s more mixed-income housing.”

Research has largely failed to show that residential development raises local rents or accelerates displacement. The impact of upzoning on an area’s racial makeup is also unclear, although last summer a study predicted that upzoning Gowanus would diversify the neighborhood. Hudson’s district, which includes Crown Heights, Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant, has gentrified over the past 20 years without any large-scale rezonings like those approved for Gowanus and Soho this fall.

The City Council recently passed legislation requiring a racial impact study be done for neighborhood rezoning proposals. It would not apply to spot rezonings such as the ones being targeted by Hudson, who says her comprehensive rezoning plan would center on racial equity.

Wages grew by 4.3 percent in the New York City metro area last year while home prices jumped by 16 percent in Crown Heights and 27 percent in Bed-Stuy. The year was reflective of recent decades, during which housing costs in the city have risen faster than middle-class and working-class wages. Such changes can force tenants to move to cheaper neighborhoods and induce homeowners to sell, sometimes walking away with millions.

While the new developments Hudson aims to restart would create market-price housing beyond the reach of most of her constituents, a growing body of research suggests that residential development, even luxury housing, eases local rents. Even as higher-priced businesses open to serve wealthier newcomers, studies have shown, the so-called “amenity effect” is more than offset  by the increased housing supply reducing competition for homes.

Under Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning, at 888 Atlantic Avenue, 30 percent of the units would be affordable to a family of three earning $62,000. The rezoning triggers the affordability mandate, and Council members use the law as a floor from which they can wrangle additional concessions.

But for Hudson, that is not good enough.

“I am willing to do things differently than they’ve been done before,” she said.

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