ULURP Hearing, City Hall
Councilwoman Diana Reyna asks questions to representatives from Churches United for Fair Housing, the Rheingold Homeowners and Make the Road New York, all of whom currently oppose the Rheingold proposal, during the hearing Tuesday morning. (photo by Tobias Salinger)

A proposal for a 977-unit residential project in fast-changing Bushwick faces opposition over the number of affordable housing units and whether those apartments will be affordable enough for longtime Bushwick residents.

The voices of protest are rising despite the fact the developer plans to set aside 24 percent of the apartments for families with incomes lower than sixty percent of the city’s area median income, an offer more generous than required under the subsidies that allow developers to build higher in exchange for the affordable units.

Representatives for Read Property made their pitch for the 10-building, 1-million-square-foot residential and retail project during a City Council hearing Tuesday morning at City Hall. But several testifying community members, as well as Councilwoman Diana Reyna, the representative for the area, demonstrated why this proposal for the old site of the Rheingold brewery still has high hurdles to clear before the full Council votes on it by mid-December.

The mid-rise structures would feature 242 affordable apartments, space for new ground floor retail stores to be filled by local businesses and a new public park. Concerned neighbors and Reyna, who represents the district, dispute whether there are enough affordable units and whether the project’s current definition of “affordable” fits into the income levels of longtime Bushwick residents.

“That’s part of the balancing act we’re trying to achieve here,” said Reyna at the hearing. “The issue of displacement is real.”

But only additional subsidies will convince developer Robert Wolf to increase the number of affordable units above their current levels of 24 percent of the new units available to people with incomes lower than 60 percent of the city’s area median wealth, according to the three lobbyists representing Wolf at the hearing.

The City Planning Commission approved the proposal on Oct. 23, which triggered the Council’s 50-day review period two days later under the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. While Read Property began lobbying the city on this proposal in 2005, according to city records, the final jockeying period in which other Council members usually look to the representative of the particular district to signal whether they’ll vote up or down often brings concessions from developers.

At this point, Wolf has reached agreement with two area nonprofits—one will market the low-rent units and the other will train community members for construction jobs building the site. He’s also pledged a $350,000 grant to the city Department of Parks and Recreation for improvements at nearby Green Central Knoll Park.

The proposed six and eight-story complex contrasts with the 40-story towers proposed for the Greenpoint waterfront and the massive complex slated for the old Domino sugar factory in Williamsburg, and Read representatives Ed Wallace, Mitch Korbey and Jennifer Dickson made the case that the plan to build Bushwick’s first large-scale residential development is feasible for the surrounding community.

“Taken together, our rezoning is not a traditional manufacturing-to-residential rezoning,” said Korbey.

Many community members who testified did not agree. Sixty percent of the city’s median wealth–$51,544 for a family of four—is out of step with Bushwick, where families of four have median incomes of around $34,000, according to Reyna. Representatives from Churches United for Fair Housing, Los Sures and Make the Road New York said they oppose the plan in its current form.

“Basically what the proposal is offering is that zero percent of Bushwick residents will access this housing,” said Jose Lopez, a lead organizer with Make the Road.

Lopez said the apartments should be affordable to residents with incomes under 30 percent of the city’s median wealth, and both he and speakers from a new neighborhood coalition support raising the number of affordable units to 35 percent of the new apartments.

“We understand the business model of the developer and we see room for an increase in affordable units and real community needs to be met,” said Brigette Blood, a Bushwick resident who helped form the North West Bushwick Community Group.

Reyna acknowledged their concerns and said she’s in negotiations with Read Property on those fronts. Her staff put together a community advisory committee composed of Blood and multiple nonprofits to meet regularly at Reyna’s office ahead of the vote that must take place before Dec. 13.

Reyna, who outlined affordability and a new grocery store for the area as two of her priorities for the proposal, said she’s trying to make sure developers live up to their agreement.

“We have seen a lot of lessons learned in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, and we don’t want to repeat them in Bushwick,” said Reyna, who is term-limited out of office in January.

But others testified in favor of the proposal, including members of the SEIU 32BJ union and Williamsburg’s St. Nicks Alliance workforce development program. Carolann Johns of St. Nicks announced Wolf agreed to pay the nonprofit $75,000 to train and staff 60 construction positions on the site—jobs with “comparable” wages and benefits to other employees in similar roles.

“Our target would be individuals in the community who are unemployed or under-employed,” said Johns, the managing director of workforce development at St. Nicks.

The other nonprofit that would provide services on the site, Churches United for Fair Housing, has yet to sign on. Executive director Rob Solano and director Daniel Bruno said they are looking for at least 30 percent of the new units to be affordable before they’ll think of supporting it.

“We’re not that far away,” said Solano after the hearing. “But some serious conversations need to happen. If it’s not going to benefit our community, then we’re willing to say no.”