Why is the Broadway Triangle Still Empty?

The Broadway Triangle is both neglected and contested territory, perched between three Brooklyn neighborhoods — Williamsburg, Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Shifting demographics and intensifying real estate pressure have exacerbated long-simmering communal tension between local residents in this border zone, most pointedly in the controversy surrounding an 18-acre rezoning and housing development proposal for the area. For the past year, Meg Kelly, an urbanist and media artist, has been investigating this story on video. But rather than producing an expository documentary chronicling a familiar-sounding story of conflict and political favoritism among different minority groups, Kelly has instead crafted a restrained and poetic portrait of place in which carefully composed, static shots and a deceptively simple soundscape of street life in the Broadway Triangle offer a nuanced and fresh interpretation of terms like vacancy, disinvestment, segregation and development potential.

Kelly created her eleven-minute video as a member of the UnionDocs Collaborative Studio, an innovative year-long program for multimedia documentarians based at UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art in Williamsburg. This year, Collaborative members have focused on place-based nonfiction about the neighborhoods surrounding the center, inspired by the film Los Sures, Diego Echeverria’s 1984 documentary about South Williamsburg. Individually and collectively, the Collaborative’s work will soon be screened at film festivals and alternative venues nationwide. Kelly’s video does not explain the history behind the controversy unfolding in this landscape, so she has taken the opportunity to share that story with Urban Omnibus readers. But first, check out a short trailer for her video below.    –C.S.

Looking north from the corner of Flushing and Union Avenues, the shadow of the iconic Pfizer pharmaceutical plant falls over a few residences and businesses intermixed with vast tracts of vacant land. This 31-acre site, bounded by Union, Flushing and Broadway and known collectively as the Broadway Triangle, has sat largely vacant for the last twenty years, despite a 1989 urban renewal plan that called for the development of several hundred units of low-income housing and an industrial park. The plan’s intention was to bring new life to a neighborhood that had been home to the world’s largest pharmaceutical company for a century and a half. Pfizer, founded in 1849, moved its headquarters to Manhattan in 1961. The Brooklyn plant closed in 2008.

The setting feels almost post-apocalyptic, an empty stillness that belies the heated controversy that has surrounded the site for years. While its bordering neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant contend with rising demand for housing and rapid gentrification, the Broadway Triangle continues to suffer from failed urban renewal plans, political posturing, accusations of intentional segregation, and multi-year litigation. It is simultaneously Brooklyn’s no-mans land and the site of overlapping and contentious territorial claims.

Image by Meg Kelly

Underlying the decades-old vacancy are disputes and suspicion between three of Brooklyn’s core constituencies, each with distinct needs and visions for the future, each familiar with the political mechanisms that might see those needs met. To the east, South Williamsburg’s significant and longstanding Latino communities have faced pressure on the real estate market from the growth of the local Hasidic population and, more recently, a rapid influx of gentrifying newcomers from elsewhere in the city. To the south, African Americans continue to predominate in the demographics of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Tension between these three communities stretches back to racially-motivated violence that plagued the area during the 1970s and 80s. And extant mistrust continues to pervade neighborhood politics, limit civic collaboration, and render political consensus near impossible. And so, despite the valuable and accessible location, the Broadway Triangle has remained quiet, underused and undeveloped, for years.

After 17 years of dormancy, in 2006, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) reconsidered the development potential of both City-owned and private property in the area as part of Mayor Bloomberg’s goals to build more affordable housing. Using a no-bid process, HPD granted site-authorization letters to United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg (UJO), which represents the Hasidic community, and Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC), a non-profit headed by the long-time Williamsburg New York State Assemblymember Vito Lopez, a long-time housing rights activist for the Latino community. Just prior to the announcement of HPD’s redevelopment proposal, Lopez was elected as King’s County Democratic Party Chairman. He is said to have shepherded both UJO and RBSCC through the selection process. In effect, the site-authorization letters made UJO and RBSCC the only non-profits HPD consulted on its plan for rezoning and redevelopment.

Photo by Meg Kelly

Although a no-bid process raises instinctive concerns about transparency, its use in neighborhood redevelopment projects is not uncommon. The City first turned to this type of process (as opposed to an open request for proposals) based on the belief that neighborhood-based development organizations have the most sophisticated knowledge of community needs. Yet in this case, excluding organizations representing Latino and African American constituencies while including RBSCC, which works with neither Williamsburg nor Bed-Stuy residents, drew immediate criticism and fostered concern about the legitimacy of the planning process. A coalition of residents and activists led by City Councilmember (and Vito Lopez’s former Chief of Staff) Diana Reyna quickly formed to contest the methodology and selection of organizations.

The planning process was further complicated by Pfizer’s decision to close its plant in 2008. Leaving the neighborhood after 159 years of operation, Pfizer announced plans to sell its property, including large vacant tracts within the Broadway Triangle. The company reiterated its commitment to the neighborhood: it hoped to find a buyer that would continue to honor its vision of sustainable economic development and use the land — at least in part — for the construction of affordable housing. Pfizer issued a request for proposals that specified this particular vision for the property.

At the same time, Vito Lopez, who chairs the state housing committee in addition to other roles, drafted a bill for Pfizer’s properties to be taken through eminent domain. The City had already planned to seize a number of privately-properties. Should it succeed, this move would mean near the entirety of the Broadway Triangle would be open for development. Pfizer beat the City’s eminent domain claim, questioning the public purpose of government seizure of land for affordable housing development that was already privately being developed into affordable housing.

Photo by Meg Kelly

By May of 2009, details of the HPD’s redevelopment plan emerged. It called for 1,851 units of housing, 905 of which would be affordably and moderately priced. The buildings would only be eight stories tall, which opponents claim is a nod to the Hasidic community who cannot use elevators on the Sabbath. The plan cited surrounding context for the low building heights. Yet, it neglected to consider the 20-story Williamsburg Towers a few blocks away. Additionally, it provided for a significant number of larger apartments, which are often favored and required by the Hasidic community and its larger-than-average family sizes, as opposed to smaller apartments typically occupied by the African American and Latino families.

The plan gave preference — in term’s of the buildings’ heights, the units’ size and layout, and the ways those units were to be allocated — to the input of Community Board 1, whose constituents are predominantly white and Hasidic. The resulting zoning, opponents argue, does not serve the population of neighboring Community Board 3 (CB3), which was 70.4 percent black in 2010, according to census records. While Hasidic / white residents make up only 9,000 names on the public housing list, African American and Latino families hold 90,000 spaces. Councilwoman Diana Reyna was particularly outraged that CB3 — which represents Bedford-Stuyvesant, and whose territory lies at the edge of Broadway Triangle — was not consulted throughout the planning process and that the effects of the proposed plan on the surrounding neighborhoods were not studied.

Photo by Meg Kelly
Photo by Meg Kelly

HPD’s plan passed the City Council in late 2009 with Mayor Bloomburg’s support and an ever-growing opposition that, by that time, included Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez. Opponents sued the City immediately, charging that the plan broke laws barring racial and religious discrimination. Specifically, a group of opponents, now called the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition, argued the exclusion of dozens of neighborhood groups and Bushwick and Bed-Stuy’s Community Boards proves a lack of contextual foresight if not intentional bias. Additionally, they alleged that the City and HPD engaged in an exclusionary bid process that gave preference to politically connected community groups. Judge Emily Goodman of the State Supreme Court issued a preliminary injunction, prohibiting any further steps toward the plan’s implementation.

After some wrangling in the suit between the City and the Coalition, including a settlement offer, the case was back before Judge Goodman this past January. Ultimately, she blocked the City’s development plan, concluding that the “proposed developments will not only not foster integration of the neighborhood, but it will perpetuate segregation.” She cites the architecture in her decision, writing, “the need for large apartments (and a great need for small apartments) cannot justify construction of very commodious spaces, when such apartments are proposed only where the white / Yiddish speakers are the sole demographic group for whom the need for large apartments is greater.” She referred specifically to the imbalance of developing in the interest of one minority noting, “race neutral policies violate the Fair Housing Act if racial segregation is perpetuated or if a minority group or groups are adversely impacted.”

Photo by Meg Kelly

In April, neighborhood development organizations representing a variety of racial groups and community interests, including St. Nicks Alliance, United Jewish Care and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, tried an alternative route to City-sponsored development. Together, they placed a bid of $10 million dollars to buy the remaining Pfizer-owned portions of the Broadway Triangle (Pfizer sold a section to the Acumen group in 2010). If they acquire the land, they propose building 840 units of public housing that will serve the majority of the public housing list. There has been no announcement as to whether or not this bid has been accepted.

When the Acumen-developed Pfizer factory soon reopens as a massive culinary center, home to many of Brooklyn’s DIY foodies, market pressure to develop the remaining vacant land will only increase. Yet after producing six years of work, igniting an ongoing, multi-year legal battle, and reopening old racial wounds, consensus on how best to redevelop the land surrounding the Broadway Triangle remains an elusive goal for North Brooklyn. Its stalled but impending redevelopment embodies all the tropes of conflict that accompany housing provision in historically disinvested neighborhoods, especially the political complexity of balancing constituencies and shifting demographics in the city.

As Brooklyn looks toward its next twenty years, blight and vacancy will have very different meanings than they have in the past, but the Broadway Triangle controversy serves as an apt reminder of the way in which neighborhood futures are curated by politicians and activists as much as, if not more so than, architects and planners. It forces us, once again, to look closely at the conflicts and allegiances that help prioritize some needs over others, factors that are just as influential in the public sector — whose elected officials must fight fiercely for their individual constituencies — as they are in the private sector — whose determination of the most appropriate (or profitable) use of land is discretionary. Looking at the landscape of the Broadway Triangle today, its relative emptiness presents an opportunity to create a vital piece of connective urban fabric. Yet the competing visions of how this underutilized land could be used — each rooted in authentic and legitimate desires about shelter, community and livelihood — have so far prevented the seizing of that opportunity. Will the next phase of the Broadway Triangle’s development perpetuate existing challenges? Or could it soften the edges of borders born of mistrust, ethnic segregation and political expediency and serve to knit the neighborhoods of North Brooklyn together.

“The Broadway Triangle” by Meg Kelly, installed at the UnionDocs Collaborative end of year screening, July 15th, 2012

Meg Kelly is a researcher, designer and media artist who has documented physical, political and cultural landscapes in Mumbai, New York City and elsewhere. She is a former project associate of Urban Omnibus and a current collaborator at UnionDocs.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Nicole T September 17, 2012

Thank you for this balanced and thoughtful description. I do hope that whatever development occurs does in fact knit the neighborhoods together.