Rezoning Brawl In The Bronx Latest Example Of NYC's Broken Development Process
Another acrimonious battle in New York City's rezoning process is coming to a head in the Bronx.
The dispute — centering around a proposed 339-unit, mixed-income housing development — is a fresh reminder of how broken the city's rezoning process has become, land use experts told Bisnow, even as rents hit new record highs every month and the city's housing shortage is worsening.
“I think the word gamble is not the right word, I think the better word might be it's crazy to go through the [rezoning] process,” said Bruce Teitelbaum, the developer who pitched the One45 project in Harlem before withdrawing it amid political pushback.
“Because it is so uncertain, it is so fraught with peril, and there is no predictability or reliability in the process any longer."
The would-be development is on multiple parcels on Bruckner Boulevard in the East Bronx neighborhood of Throggs Neck, which mostly consists of one-, two- and three-family homes after it was downzoned in 2004 under the Bloomberg administration.
The proposal, now undergoing its rezoning hearing, would bring 94 income-restricted units to a community district that saw just 58 units built between 2014 and 2021, according to a report from the New York Housing Conference, despite a citywide push to add hundreds of thousands of new units.
Peter Bivona, part-owner of the Super Foodtown on the site, proposed upzoning the site to allow for two eight-story towers and a five-story building after Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson asked the developers to reduce the height of one tower. The project would include a refurbished Super Foodtown at its base.
Bivona’s planned development also includes 22 units reserved for veterans, and 30 units of permanent affordable senior housing. It would appear to be the exact type of project housing advocates say the city desperately needs — even Mayor Eric Adams, who didn't weigh in on the One45 dispute, attended a rally backing the rezoning, calling it “the right project for the right time.”
Nevertheless, many neighbors have come out vociferously opposed, saying it would change the neighborhood’s character and overwhelm its public services. Residents launched a nonprofit to preserve the neighborhood’s “existing beautiful suburban feel” and crowdfunded more than $36K by June to pay for legal fees opposing the project, Gothamist previously reported.
“They will build monstrosities that will destroy our way of life,” resident Marianne Luzano said at a June hearing reported by Gothamist. “Developers will descend on our community like locusts.”
The development team said in a statement to the opposition that "it pains us" to see such a "sharp” reaction.
"Our proposal will bring a new and more modern supermarket to the neighborhood, along with quality housing and jobs," the development entity, Throggs Neck Associates LLC, said in a statement to News12 last month.
City Council Member Marjorie Velázquez, the elected representative for District 13, was unable to attend hearings over the project in May after receiving violent threats over the rezoning, the Bronx Times previously reported.
“As this project finds its way through the land use process, I continue to oppose the Bruckner proposal,” she told the Bronx Times in a statement last month. “As a Council, we must work together to identify solutions that meet the needs of our unique communities. No one project works for all demographics and constituencies, and it is my mission to advocate on behalf of my district.”
Velázquez didn't respond to Bisnow’s request for comment. It is unclear if she will officially vote against it when the city council's review of the rezoning application wraps up next month, but her vote is critical — the council almost always defers to the local member on a rezoning.
“I think the challenge of member deference is that council members are somewhat fairly incentivized by the system that we have, with term limits and the way the council is structured, to prioritize short-term interests over long-term and local over citywide,” Citizens Budget Committee Director of Housing and Economic Development Studies Sean Campion said.
The CBC released a report last week that found the rezoning process for developments like the Bruckner Boulevard sites go on for a median time of two-and-a-half years.
And while community input is necessary to ensure that developments serve existing residents in neighborhoods, Campion said it literally comes at a cost — which makes some developments economically unfeasible for developers.
“Just that process alone can increase the total development cost of a project by 11% to 16%,” Campion said. “For an apartment building like what they're proposing to build in Throggs Neck, that's upwards of $50K to $60K per apartment.”
CBC's report called for reforming the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure as a way to spur more housing development.
“It's not to say that we shouldn't listen to neighbors, because we should, and we shouldn’t look at the impacts of new development and rezoning, because we should," Campion said. "But the question is, how do you balance them? And that that balance is off.”
Department of City Planning Commissioner Dan Garodnick acknowledged this week that there are problems with the zoning process, and he said the city is considering streamlining the environmental review process and making it easier to develop affordable housing, Crain’s New York Business reported.
“For me as a developer, if I had to go through a rezoning 10 years ago compared to today, the only thing in common is the word rezoning,” Joy Construction principal Eli Weiss told Bisnow. “But the actual outcome — and the time, and the risks — are completely different.”
Weiss, who mostly develops affordable apartments, said he would think twice today before joining a project that needed rezoning because of the uncertainty that has crept into the process over the past decade.
“I get calls all the time from people saying, ‘I have a property for sale, it’s zoned M-1, but you could rezone it to an R-7’,” he said. “That's akin to saying, ‘I have a friend of mine, you should meet him. He's 6 feet tall but if you want, he could be 6-foot-7.’ You know?”
This spring, Elie Pariente, the principal and founder of EMP Capital Group, had a brush with the rezoning process over a housing development he is building in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. Council Member Crystal Hudson, in one of her first actions after being elected last year, withheld her approval of EMP and partner Y&T Development's project until they included more income-restricted units than the city's requirement.
Without a fallback plan, Pariente told Bisnow, he had few alternatives after the time and expense that he and his partner had already invested.
“If usually, a development would take two to three years to get developed, a rezoning one would comfortably take six years, and require two to three times the amount of equity,” he said.
Pariente said he had previously found the rezoning process to be one where local community requests — like schools or public green spaces — can be incorporated into developments. But it has changed in recent years, he said.
“It's a very, very different game,” he said. “I really feel like it could be beneficial to both sides if those hearings and votes and presentations were used as a way to collaborate, rather than clash.”
Hudson’s office didn't respond to Bisnow’s request for comment.
For some elected representatives, NYC’s eye-watering monthly rents are reason enough to approve large housing projects with income-restricted components.
This week, Tiffany Cabán, a progressive city council member in northern Queens who campaigned on social housing, approved an almost-1,400 unit mixed income development on an industrially zoned site in her district, saying approving the private rezoning is a better alternative than what would be built otherwise.
“At present, Halletts North is a sacrifice zone of shuttered industry and vacant lots. It contributes nothing to the community,” she wrote on Twitter explaining her endorsement. “The best we can hope for without rezoning is a 'last mile' facility where some massive corporation like Amazon would pay our neighbors garbage wages for non-stop, back-breaking work that would clog our neighborhood streets with dangerous, pollution-heavy delivery vehicles. A No vote would have be a vote for that.”
Not all Throggs Neck residents are opposed to the Bruckner project, and not all complaints are flat-out rejections, Chaz Rynkiewicz, vice president at union Construction and General Builders Laborers Local 79, told Bisnow.
“Some people put words in other people's mouths like, ‘No, the community is against it because there's not enough parking’,” Rynkiewicz said. “And then you'll talk to somebody and they're like, ‘Yeah, no, I would love to have it there, but they just need to put more parking in it.'”
Local 79 has recently collected more than 600 signatures from local residents in favor of the development on behalf of the developer, Rynkiewicz said, and would be delivering them to Velázquez’s office in the coming weeks.
If Velázquez does formally oppose the Bruckner Boulevard rezoning application, it could go the same way as the recently tanked One45 development that Teitelbaum had hoped to build in Harlem.
Local Council Member Kristin Richardson Jordan rejected multiple proposals for the 917-unit development proposed by Teitelbaum on a site that is partially vacant and currently zoned for commercial use.
“It's been underutilized for many, many years, and in terrible, terrible condition prior to our acquiring it,” Teitelbaum told Bisnow, adding that he felt he had no alternative other than to withdraw the rezoning application and to find a new use for the site.
Jordan’s argument was that the final proposal — which called for 51% of the units to be income-restricted, including 112 units set aside for those making 30% of area median income — still wasn't affordable enough, The Real Deal reported. Jordan went on to say she would only support fully income-restricted developments, City & State reported.
“Our preferred course of action was rejected by that single person,” he said.
Teitelbaum said that Harlem has suffered from redlining, reverse redlining, high unemployment and underemployment, and has high rates of diabetes, asthma and respiratory issues. He had hoped that some of those issues would be helped by One45, which he had planned to develop as one of the first geothermal-energy-powered residential buildings in the country — providing sustainable power for the housing and for surrounding buildings.
But he is also a developer with a business to run, he said. This month, he found a potential tenant, Patch reported: a truck depot.
"We have no alternative but to pursue other options," Teitelbaum told Bisnow. "We don't live in the state of Nirvana, we live in the state of New York, and we have to be realistic with what we do."
CORRECTION, SEPT. 20, 3 P.M. ET: A previous version of this story included a typo in reference to the Construction and General Builders Laborers Local 79 union. This story has since been updated.