The first rendering for the apartment building under development at 1601 Dekalb Avenue. Used with permission of Camber Property Group.

As the City Council prepares to vote on a controversial new development, Bushwick residents worry about zoning changes to come.

The first rendering for the apartment building under development at 1601 Dekalb Avenue. Used with permission of Camber Property Group.

City Councilmember Rafael Espinal indicated on July 17 that he’s open to approving a controversial Bushwick apartment building, currently the site of two parking lots used by a nearby hospital.

It’s a reversal from his previous position on the development, which has received pushback from neighbors and community groups who fear the nine-story building will inflate rents in the neighborhood, and the zoning amendments the project requires will leave surrounding buildings vulnerable to developers.

The lots in question, at 1601 Dekalb Avenue, are currently zoned for one-story manufacturing. The City’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) laws allow exceptions, or “upzoning,” for developers who provide a minimum number of affordable units. Espinal has said he wants the developer, Camber Property Group, to make at least half the units available for 40 percent of the Area Median Income.

On a drizzly day in May, Espinal joined Bushwick residents and immigrant rights organizers from Make the Road New York as they marched to protest the development.

“There is no way I can move forward with this plan,” Espinal said in a speech at the rally. “I ask the developers to withdraw their application.”

Espinal seemed to grow more receptive after a City Council Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee hearing on July 17, at which Camber President Rick Gropper announced revisions to the proposal.

“With input from community groups, residents and stakeholders, we have made significant changes to deliver a 100 percent affordable project,” Gropper said in a statement.

Despite Camber’s concessions on affordability, some area residents still aren’t satisfied with the proposal. Marcel Negret, a city planner and tenant of an adjacent loft building, has requested that the City Council leave his building’s zoning as is to prevent developers from eyeing the property.

“Leaving the zoning as M1 on the loft buildings would alleviate pressure from speculators trying to build something twice as big and displacing tenants in the process,” he said.

Negret and his neighbors have also urged the City Council to work with the developer toward a plan that doesn’t block their building’s light and air access.

The lot at 1601 Dekalb, and the neighboring loft where some residents’ windows would be blocked by the current design. Photo: Alex Williamson for BK Reader

Some residents view the battle over the lots at 1601 Dekalb as an omen of larger changes to come in Bushwick.

Earlier this year, the Department of City Planning (DCP) laid out a rezoning proposal to members of the Bushwick Community Plan, a neighborhood group established in 2014 to push back against large scale, out of place development. DCP’s plan, which is not yet final, proposed the rezoning of several manufacturing lots for residential space, ignoring one of the community plan’s chief priorities – the preservation of lots zoned for manufacturing.

“Rent’s going to go up,” said Jamie, a life-long Bushwick resident who was sitting by his stoop next to the Dekalb lot on July 27. “It’s going to mess up the neighborhood,” he added.

Julia Salazar, a candidate for New York State Senate District 18, which includes Bushwick, has made upzoning a key issue in her campaign. Her website pledges to “Fight the upzonings which hold our communities hostage to the forces of gentrification.”

But not everyone views upzoning as inherently bad. Stephen Smith, a member of the pro-development group Open New York, sees the battle over the lot differently.

Speaking on his own behalf, and not on behalf of Open New York, Smith said, “Where are we going to live if not in projects like this? … I’m not leaving New York if this project isn’t built, and Julia Salazar isn’t either – we’re just going to continue living in older buildings, bidding up the rents and competing with less well-off residents for apartments.”

Jamie, the lifelong Bushwick resident, may see the new development at 1601 Dekalb as a problem for his neighborhood, but not one he and his neighbors can fix.

“You can do whatever you want,” he said. “They’re still going to build it.”

If the application makes it through the Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee, the City Council is scheduled to vote on the proposal in mid-September.

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Alex Williamson

Alex Williamson is a Brooklyn-based reporter whose work has appeared in Brooklyn Eagle, Queens Eagle, Gothamist and elsewhere.

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