A Struggle for a Neighborhood

By Felipe De La Hoz

The Community Board 9 Executive Committee meeting on February 17 devolved into a shouting match within two minutes of it having begun. Board members and residents alternately appealed for calm and joined the shouting themselves. The meeting, held at the CB9 office on Nostrand Avenue, in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, lasted for an hour, with one accomplishment – setting a draft agenda for the next meeting.

“It’s been like this since September of last year,” said CB9 Chairman Dwayne Nicholson.

At the center of the commotion was community activist Alicia Boyd, director of the Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP), a community organization that she claims wants to protect the neighborhood from over-development and gentrification. Boyd, along with an associate, had been arrested at the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure meeting on February 11.

“I wouldn’t say that we want to protect the culture. It’s hard to say culture. But we protect the people. Gentrification removes the people of color,” she told me over the phone.

Prospect Lefferts Gardens, in Flatbush, belongs to Community District 9, and is a largely residential area of African-American and Caribbean composition. Most buildings are below 5 stories high, anchored with small businesses on the ground floor. Large-scale development, however, has already begun, with projects such as a 23-story building at 626 Flatbush Avenue. Though 20 percent of the units will be designated affordable units, MTOPP argues that it will inevitably lead to gentrification.

The struggle over its identity and development is one that mirrors the struggle of many New York neighborhoods, especially those in rapidly growing Brooklyn. Neighborhoods like Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, East New York, and Howard Beach face the existential crises of upzoning and the specter of huge construction projects.

Asked to illustrate the dangers, Boyd pointed to Williamsburg. “That was fast and quick and sharp.” she said. “They displaced that entire community, really bad. They promised jobs, but people there got nothing.”

Nicholson, however, argues that the Community Board is looking to preserve the neighborhood by influencing the city housing authorities’ decisions on zoning and construction, and MTOPP’s turmoil only delays the process.

“Most of this area is classified as R6 and R7-2. R6 allows for buildings to be built with no height limit, and R7-2 allows for 25-story buildings. While we sit here and waste time, towers are going to go up everywhere. Developers are already buying land,” he said after the meeting.

R6 and R7-2 zoning is designated by the city as “Non-Contextual,” meaning that it need not follow a general context in terms of the surrounding area, and can include high-rises.

Pearl Miles, the District Manager for CB9, doesn’t recall having seen Boyd before July 2014.

“I’ve been running this office for 29 years. I never saw Alicia until July 2014. She’s never had an input before. And now, she has done nothing but halt the process. We have moved not one step forward since May,” she said. “Some of this area is classified as C8-2. That means that if somebody wants to come and build a hotel, they can do it.” 

Boyd’s central claim is that the members of the Executive Committee, who set the agenda, do not include regular community residents, and can therefore not accurately represent their interests. This claim is vehemently refuted by Nicholson, who during the meeting yelled: “I live two blocks from here.” 

A heated discussion over whether only elected Board members could serve on the Executive Committee continued even after Miles produced the Board’s by-laws, whose article 8.6 confirmed that the Committee “shall have as its members the officers of the Board.”

Both MTOPP and CB9 argue that the other side is misleading the public.

Boyd told me that CB9 is “keeping information from the people. They say that they’re going to set height limits without explaining that they can leave out density limits.”

When I asked Miles about Boyd’s supporters, she told me that “some people here, you tell them something’s red, and it doesn’t matter if it’s green, pink, blue, or anything else, because they’ll believe it’s red if you told them it is. They don’t get to the information.” 

Barnabas Wolf, a community resident for 3 years, said that he believes that “certain areas of the neighborhood” need to be protected, in order to ensure that existing housing is not destroyed. “Certain people might be interested in upzoning, and that could change the face of the neighborhood,” he said.

As for what will come of the open dispute between MTOPP and CB9? “Well,” he said with a smile, “that remains to be seen.”

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