Board members and elected officials made it loud and clear that they did not want any part of the “City of Yes for Economic Opportunity” at the January 17th meeting of Community Board 18 (CB18). Although it was a bone-chilling, frigid night, residents came out in force to express their opposition of a plan that they say will ruin the character of one of the last suburban neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
Before the public hearing for City of Yes began, Naomi Hopkins, the new chairperson for CB18, introduced herself to the audience, thanking board members for their support. This was followed by a City Council citation presented to Michael Ien, who served as chairperson since 2021. Hopkins called up Councilwoman Mercedes Narcisse, past chairpersons and the executive board to thank Ien for his outstanding service.
Representatives from the Department of City Planning (DCP) gave a presentation on the City of Yes for Economic Opportunity at the November 15th meeting of CB18. They said the proposal, if approved, would increase opportunities for small businesses with “flexible” zoning. With four goals, and 18 proposals to digest, along with technical difficulties, there were a lot of unanswered questions, so the board requested that the DCP team return at a later date to give a second presentation (see “‘City of Yes’ Proposal Put on Hold,” Canarsie Courier, November 23, 2023).
Kyra Cuevas, Senior Borough Planner at DCP, told attendees, “Because zoning has not been updated in more than 60 years, there are outdated and sometimes confusing or counterproductive regulations.”
Economic Opportunity is one of three citywide initiatives, Cuevas said, to modernize and update the city’s zoning regulations to support small businesses. With 2,470 storefronts in CB18, and a 10% vacancy rate, “the proposed zoning changes would make it easier to fill empty storefronts by giving businesses more certainty on where they can locate and what they can do with their space,” she said.
If approved, one of the proposals would permit commercial activities to be expanded to upper floors of existing businesses. Another proposal would permit corner stores in residential areas, including commercial space on NYCHA properties.
A cabaret law that was repealed in 2017 created restrictions on music, dancing and comedy shows in some restaurants and bars. New zoning regulations would simplify the rules based on the size of the venue rather than the activity.
Amusements (like trampoline parks, indoor skydiving and arcades) could be located on a small scale in neighborhood commercial corridors, rather than being limited to Coney Island and the city’s industrial areas.
Since the pandemic, more people are working from home. City of Yes would lift restrictions that currently prohibit certain occupations, like barbers and interior decorators, from running a home-based business.
Following the presentation, board members, many of them heads of their neighborhood civics, were given a two-minute time limit to share their thoughts and comments, which were mostly negative.
Frank Seddio expressed discontent that the plan is a one-size-fits-all for the City of New York, not taking into account that our district is very residential and many of the proposals don’t pertain to the area.
And Greg Borruso, a small business owner for 28 years, believes the proposal is deregulatory and would overwhelm our neighborhoods. “Right now, there is no law enforcement. The only thing it will allow is more smoke shops and urgent cares!”
Along with presentation handouts, DCP provided a summary sheet for the full proposal, which is 1,157 pages long – Assemblywoman Jaime Williams brought the extensive document to the meeting, tied neatly in a gold ribbon.
“You brought a packet, but Jaime brought the full proposal – 1,157 pages; there’s no way anyone could vote yes for a proposal that has this much heft to it,” Borruso said.
Sal Calise echoed his sentiments. “How can community board members who are all volunteers be expected to vote on this package when they can’t understand a 1,157-page document or if they are being misled by city planning about the details contained in that packet? I don’t know if the wool is being pulled over my eyes!”
Armed with an applicability map outlining every location that could be transformed into a corner store, Paul Curiale said the restrictions in place today are for good reason. “Look at all the corners; how do you explain this?”
Others, like Joan Gilbert and Kenny Jean-Baptiste, shared their concerns that commercial activity on upper floors could be a fire hazard as well as a public safety concern, suggesting if a business gets robbed on an upper floor, it’s harder for police officers to reach the destination.
Rob Mazzuchin, an attorney, pointed out that the proposal would allow your neighbor to use 49% of his property for commercial use and have up to three employees. “I don’t know if anybody saw a slide of the 20 cars waiting to go into that business in the neighbor’s house.”
He expressed his concern that no negative points were brought up. “It sounds like propaganda. You guys want this without giving us an opportunity to understand what it is. You talk about studies that were done – what studies will be done for the infrastructure, the sewers, the sinking ground in Canarsie?”
Eugene Burshtein likes the fact that we live in a suburban area. “We come here because we want to be away from all the action. Everybody has cars; no one wants congested neighborhoods.”
Others labelled it “neighborhood suicide” and stated that no one wants higher commercial use in CB18.
Once the board members were done with their comments, elected officials made some pretty strong statements in opposition to the proposal.
Assemblywoman Jaime Williams said, “You talk about environmental impact. I’m still waiting for an environmental impact study for Floyd Bennett Field!”
Her office has circulated a petition in opposition to City of Yes that has already garnered close to 1,000 signatures. Stating that she is fed up with the rhetoric in this city and that we are the last of the suburban communities in NYC, in Brooklyn, she told the packed room of residents, “We are residential. We live here. Our community is not broken. Who are you to come in and tell us what we need? We are a community of ‘No.’”
She said that low-density neighborhoods are being targeted and blamed for what is happening in the city. “You should make it a caveat to preserve residential communities like ours, to preserve generational wealth and green spaces, and put citizens first.”
Councilwoman Farah Louis agreed. “The lack of ability for DCP and intent to preserve what we have is disheartening. We moved here because we didn’t want it to be changed. We love the way it looks.”
The comments finished up with a special guest, Paul Graziano, who is an urban planner and land use expert for 30 years. Graziano is well-versed on the subject, having read the 1,157-page proposal three times backwards and forwards.
“This [proposal] was not done with you or with professionals like myself. It was done in consultation with big business, just like the housing piece was done in consultation with the biggest developers and construction companies in New York City,” Graziano explained.
“What they are proposing will be devastating to all of our communities…the housing piece will be a nuclear bomb.”
Although last week’s meeting only addressed the economic portion of the City of Yes, Graziano said, “The problem is that while it is divided into two separate proposals, they are very intertwined with each other.”
“This is a planning commission that is bent on deregulating housing and commercial development in New York City. The City of Yes is a City of Chaos, a city of destroying our communities.”
He continued by saying that many of the 18 proposals are what he calls “puppy dog and ice cream,” meaning that they present the best case scenario, not the worst case. “We are always concerned about the worst case because that’s what always happens to our communities.”
A vote was taken, and all 38 community board members in attendance voted a resounding “No” against the City of Yes!
A new application for an “adult-use retail dispensary premises license” for Kosher Cannabis LLC, 2346 Flatbush Avenue, was voted down by members of the board. A kosher dispensary must grow all of its products organically, using no chemicals or fertilizers, and certified rabbis oversee the production of all edibles. This is the fourth application that was brought before the board, but the first one that was not approved.
In CB18 District Manager Sue Ann Partnow’s monthly update, she said that there were three fatalities from fire in January alone and that education, and proper handling and storage for lithium batteries, is important. She recommended calling 311 if you know of a business that is improperly storing lithium batteries.
Partnow announced that Mayor Adams is holding Town Hall meetings across the city and will be visiting CB18 at the end of February or beginning of March (such date to be announced).
There were 309 complaints to the DEP in CB18, including water main breaks, leaks and clogged sewers. Partnow suggested that residents make their complaints to 311 first and then call the community board office with the 311 reference number.
Street lights along Bergen Avenue, between Avenue K and Ralph Avenue, have been replaced, and traffic signals were installed at Schenectady Avenue and Avenue L, as well as East 105th Street and Avenue J. Partnow requested a survey of curved streets in Mill Island “for purposes of signage to let drivers know that the upcoming streets have a severe curve. There have been accidents and one fatality on one of the streets.
Construction of Select Bus Service along Kings Highway has begun with the replacement of water mains. There are some ongoing water shutdowns, but only for a few hours a day.
The next meeting of CB18 will take place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, February 28th, at 1097 Bergen Avenue (one week later due to the holiday week).