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An Open Letter from City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo: Planning for the Future of Crown Heights with Mutual Respect

City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo Dear Neighbor, Rapid change, growth and development are happening throughout Brooklyn.
Laurie Cumbo
City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo

Dear Neighbor,

Rapid change, growth and development are happening throughout Brooklyn. We have all been to the town hall conversations, rallies and protests surrounding our beloved Brooklyn and watched as people and local businesses have been displaced as luxury skyscrapers have taken their place to attract more affluent residents who did not participate in the struggle to make Brooklyn what it is today.

The rapid change that is taking place in Brooklyn would naturally cause every resident to fear what this change would mean for his or her community, including myself. As a born and raised Brooklynite whose family migrated here in the 1940s, I have always loved the diversity and neighborhood feel of our communities. I love the fact that this has been a place where local businesses could thrive and people could afford to raise a family.

In the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, more specifically in Community Board 9, the potential approval of a resolution to conduct a study that would evaluate how a rezoning would impact our community has caused a great deal of contention to put it mildly.

When you look at what upzonings have meant in other parts of Brooklyn such as Downtown Brooklyn and Fort Greene, where the entire fabric of the community has been changed with big box stores, massive buildings, a new arena, etc., the level of anxiety and contention that this idea poses is completely understandable. Logically, one would think that the best idea is to do nothing - as in no resolution, no study, no ULURP and no rezoning, in order to preserve the character and affordability of the community.

The reality of the situation is that as I write this letter, the cost of rent is increasing dramatically in Crown Heights, people are being displaced, local mom and pops are being replaced with boutique style shops and bars, plots of land are being cleared for "unspecified reasons," and housing developments that require no allocation of affordable units are rising.

Crown Heights-- Dr. Ronald McNair Park - Challenger mural Photo: Wally Gobetz, Flickr NYC -
Crown Heights-- Dr. Ronald McNair Park - Challenger mural
Photo: Wally Gobetz, Flickr

The development that is happening in this neighborhood is completely unplanned and the current zoning does not require the construction of affordable housing alongside new market rate development. In addition, unplanned development means that developers can build on their property as-of-right without having to take into consideration more support for the building of schools, parking, hospital beds, sanitation, and many other critical needs. It also means that the cost of rent will dramatically increase as the demand for housing increases, outpacing the development and creation of affordable housing.

I have stated at Community Board 9 meetings several times that not making a decision is making a decision. I have come to the conclusion that we simply cannot abstain and just hope that Crown Heights will remain the same, because you only have to walk down to the Franklin Avenue train station at 8am to see that the Crown Heights of 20 years ago has dramatically changed. I believe that the best option is to put forth a resolution that takes into consideration the lessons that have been learned from past studies and infuse them with the vision of local residents for their community.

Herein lies the challenge. Every Community Board 9 meeting has been abruptly interrupted by a consistent small group of individuals, who ridicule, humiliate, verbally attack and interrupt anyone that attempts to speak at the meetings with racist and anti-Semitic comments. Their bouts of shouting, running up and down the aisles and spinning on the floor is a total lack of respect for everyone that has taken valuable time from their families and jobs to participate in the meetings in order to have their voices heard. It has risen to such a level that a squad of police officers with a van parked outside has to be present at every meeting to ensure the safety of the people in attendance.

The unfortunate part about all of this is that we have all missed a valuable opportunity to hear diverse opinions, ideas, thoughts and experiences in a safe space that can be incorporated into the planning of the community. I too have great concerns and reservations about the 80/20 model and how moving an influx of wealthy people into our community will impact us in exchange for a modest amount of affordable units and my concerns are further compounded by the fact there are very few safeguards in place for our commercial corridors.

Crown Heights, gentrification, development, Laurie Cumbo, open letter
Photo: Justin, Flickr

As an elected official, you have to make difficult decisions and I believe that putting forth a resolution to conduct a study gives us the greatest understanding of what all of our options are in order to determine what is the best way to move forward. I do not have enough information nor have I come to any conclusions as to whether a re-zoning is right for the community. However, I am clear that we need all of the information possible to determine what is best for the community and I also support the idea of independent studies to be simultaneously conducted in order to create a checks and balance system for the recommendations of the study.

I ran for this office not to "go along to get along" in order to get re-elected. I ran because I care about my Borough greatly and I value the sacrifice and commitment that my family and thousands of other families have made to make Brooklyn a better place. A study conducted by City Planning with our input is only a set of recommendations and is not legally binding.

Though my character has been challenged at meetings, on flyers and in emails, specifically in order to create an environment of distrust amongst the political leadership and the communities that they represent, I will simply let my track record over the past two decades; my body of work at not-for-profit institutions and my voting record speak for itself. We have to move forward.

Yours in Partnership,

Laurie A. Cumbo

Member of the New York City Council