Wednesday, October 18, 2017
The fight over the controversial Pfizer site redevelopment plan last week took an odd turn concerning whether City Councilmember David Greenfield, who is chair of the Council's powerful Land Use Committee, should recuse himself from the matter as he readies to leave the city council in order to assume a leadership role in a large nonprofit (the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty) that has past ties to the project.
A non-profit organization that bills itself as one that provides succor for indigent and financially challenged Jews and their families, the Met Council, as it is commonly referred to, is still attempting to emerge from a public relations imbroglio that it found itself mired in. In 2014, its long time executive director, William Rapfogel was arrested and sentenced to prison for stealing millions of dollars from the organization's coffers.
Since that juncture, the social service organization that has spent more than $110 million a year, mostly from government funds, on home health care and other services for older people and the poor and has descended into a tailspin that seems almost irreparable.
The brouhaha at the public hearing on the Pfizer site included verbal threats and allegations of anti-Semitism which in turn then overshadowed the merits of the plan as hundreds of advocates, opponents and elected officials who had descended upon City Hall for the City Council's subcommittee on Zoning & Franchises.
The current plan is set in a two-block area situated between Harrison and Union Avenues, from Walton Street to Gerry Street known as the Broadway Triangle area.
As developers of the project, the Rabsky Group are proposing eight mixed-use buildings for the site including 1,146 mixed-income residential units of which 287 will be permanently affordable units, 65,000 square feet of neighborhood retail, a half-acre of public open space, and 405 parking spaces.
The Broadway Triangle has been a contentious issue for local officials and community advocates, who have been fighting over the property for almost a decade. Back in 2009, community members successfully sued the city claiming the Broadway Triangle Rezoning favored the Hasidic community over blacks and Latinos.
During the hearing, which Queens City Councilman Richard Donovan Jr. (D) led, Marty Needleman, Executive Director of Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A and one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs in a 2009 lawsuit to stop the project, hinted at a possible "money connection" between the United Jewish Organization (UJO) of Williamsburg and the Rabsky Group.
Needleman specifically accused the Williamsburg-based developer of favoring the Hasidic Jewish community over the black and Latino community due to strong Hasidic community connections, specifically regarding the UJO and its Executive Director Rabbi David Niederman.
"Rabsky with some of the connections especially with the Hasidic community, is a money connection, not necessarily because he likes Jews, or he's Jewish or Hasidic. It's because they [Rabsky] know that the UJO is a very powerful political force in this area [Williamsburg]," said Needleman.
One of the partners of the Rabsky Group, Simon Dushinsky, was born and raised in Israel and currently lives in the Vizhnitz Hasidic community in Williamsburg. According to the Real Deal New York, Dushinsky, formed Rabsky Group in the early 1990s to develop condos for the Hasidic community.
In questioning Needleman, Councilman Greenfield (D) who represents constituencies in Borough Park, Midwood and Bensonhurst, was quick to walk him back on the allegations, questioning the truth of the accusations on the official record.
Needleman was forced to concede that the allegations were "idle speculation but based on much experience over 45 years."
Rabbi Niederman also refuted the allegations, calling them "outrageous lies" and completely denying any knowledge of such a connection.
"It is honestly disappointing, when we are trying to have a hearing on the merits and facts, for you to say something that seems factual, but later under questioning, is based on speculation, is a pretty serious accusation, and is an unfair claim to make," said Greenfield, who is stepping down from the council in January to head the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty (Met Council).
According to Needleman and separate sources, the UJO and the Met Council had a stake in the original Broadway Triangle rezoning proposal that included an affordable housing plan specifically proposed by the UJO back in 2009.
Additionally, according to the UJO website, "The UJO has had a long-standing and successful collaboration with the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. Many of the valuable services that the UJO provides would not be possible without the dedication and cooperation of Met Council."
Needleman said his comments and allegations about the relationship between the UJO and the Rabsky Group has nothing to do with being anti-Semitic, and that there are good and bad people in all communities. This has to deal with the politics, money and things that go on in this particular area, he said.
Needleman added that it's troubling Greenfield was more focused on the UJO allegations than on the impact that the rezoning may have on Hispanics and blacks, and their ability to stay in the neighborhood.
In questioning Greenfield's office on whether he should recuse himself on the issue because of a possible conflict of interest due to his upcoming job with the Met Council, Greenfield's office issued a "no comment," and made a point of telling the reporter that it is blatant anti-Semitism to even follow this line of questioning.
Additionally Greenfield, though refusing comment, made veiled threats regarding his connection to the UJO and his upcoming tenure at the Met Council to the publisher of KCP, promising an intense smear campaign in the future.
In August of this year, the Jewish Voice published a searing investigative piece about the corruption ridden past of the Met Council. When it was reported that Councilman Greenfield had made the decision to take on a leadership role at the troubled organization, the Jewish Voice reached out to him.
When asked for comment on his new position at the Met Council and what steps he plans to take to extricate the organization from the public relations quagmire it finds itself in, Councilman Greenfield declined to issue statements to the media. He did, however. tell the Jewish Voice that he would be more than glad to provide responses to the questions that the publication posed to him after he assumes his position at the Met Council.
Using his powerful position on the Land Use Committee, it was reported last month by the Jewish Voice that Greenfield has secured $9M in city council funding for Jewish groups. This past summer, Greenfield advocated for a $2.75 million aid package for New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage. . According to the Museum, these funds will initiate new high-impact exhibitions on anti-Semitism, revitalize public space, and introduce new technology for the benefit of 50,000 schoolchildren, their teachers, and other visitors.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage is just one of the many Jewish organizations whose funding Greenfield advocated for in this year's budget. Greenfield supported the efforts of Council Member Laurie Cumbo to secure funds for the Jewish Children's Museum in Crown Heights which will see $2 million to provide supplemental educational opportunities focused on Jewish history. Jewish social-service providers like the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services will receive new office space, equipment and new vehicles including for transportation to and from Boro Park's Mishkon.
City Councilman Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO, Williamsburg, Boerum Hill) whose district includes the proposed redevelopment site, opened the proceedings with remarks addressing the ethnic tensions surrounding the plan.
"Over the past 20 years, all of these communities have been feeling the squeeze. At some point we have to get past the fights of a previous generation. We have to move past training our fire on one another. We have to be constructive because if we aren't constructive, the situation is going to get worse. We can continue to build as much affordable housing as were able to build, and the situation for a lot of people is going to continue to get worse. But it's going to get that much worse if we do nothing," said Levin.
But City Councilman Antonio Reynoso (D-Bushwick, Williamsburg), whose district is across the street from the proposed development, countered the claim by citing the previous 2009 lawsuit brought against the city. That lawsuit eventually halted construction in the Broadway Triangle in 2012.
"Everything that has been said now has been said in the past. Without the ability to sue, without the court system, we would not get justice. It is a judge that has said that the rezoning will perpetuate segregation in the Broadway Triangle. That is not an opinion, that is a fact. This whole notion that one community is pitted against another is real, it is not something we can sweep under the rug or hold hands and sing Kumbaya," said Reynoso.
The Rabsky originally paid $12,8 million for the property back in 2012 when it first acquired the property from Pfizer.
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