Turmoil At Community Board Reflects Intensity Of Change In Brooklyn

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Rutland Road in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. (Photo: Google Maps)

The battle over gentrification and displacement has boiled to a head in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens/North Flatbush.

The early February removal of Tim Thomas, who chaired the transportation committee of the local community board, CB 9, has sparked more heated conversation about who controls the board and how it should respond to widespread fears that the area is about to be hit by a tidal wave of development which will lead to the displacement of many long-term residents.

Board 9, which covers Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, portions of North Flatbush, South Crown Heights, and Wingate, is one of several parts of Brooklyn in the midst of ongoing gentrification, displacement, and new development.

Board 9 Chairman Demetrius Lawrence removed Thomas from his post on February 5th, saying to Thomas in an email that he had taken action because of Thomas’ “lack of proper behavioral boundaries, inappropriate language, lack of decorum, and…overall combative personality.”

Thomas, a six-year veteran of CB 9, is “not a team player,” Chairman Lawrence said.

Thomas argues that he was actually the victim of a “smear campaign,” and that Chairman Lawrence was pressured into removing him by some community and board members who are resistant to discussions of development of any sort in the district.

In his written response to Chairman Lawrence, Thomas stated that Board 9’s transportation committee has new members who are “ALL [Thomas’ caps] antagonistic to me and to one proposal in particular – the Empire [Boulevard] Reconstruction Project of DOT [Department of Transportation].”

“This [discourse over the Empire Boulevard DOT project]  led to the hostile environment, my vocal frustration, and ultimately my removal,” Thomas wrote in an email to board members, some residents and Borough President Eric Adams, who is responsible for appointing community board members.

The DOT has proposed to redesign the areas around Empire Boulevard’s intersections with Washington Avenue/Franklin Avenue and Utica Avenue/East New York Avenue to improve pedestrian safety, create new public space and improve traffic circulation. Measures like wider sidewalks and other large, continuous pedestrian spaces are under consideration.

“My future on the Board is not the point. The cohesion of the community and the opportunity for meaningful dialogue is being destroyed before our eyes,” Thomas continued.

Major Rezoning On The Horizon

The stakes are high for residents of CB 9.

Chairman Lawrence confirmed to us that CB 9 has given its consent — after much dispute — to the Department of City Planning (DCP) to initiate a “study” to look at the western half (from Prospect Park to New York Avenue) of the district, which could eventually lead to recommendations for a rezoning.

The hope is that in working with the DCP on the study, Board 9 can have a real influence on the City’s final recommendations and steer development in a way that serves the interests of residents.

While City Council members are able to vote yes or no on a neighborhood rezoning once it has been finalized by the City, community boards have a non-binding vote.

The City has already reportedly been looking at rezoning a one-mile section of Empire Boulevard, now lined with commercial uses like auto repair shops and storage facilities, for housing development.

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Empire Boulevard looking west towards Prospect Park. (Photo: Google Maps)

The area under consideration on Empire Boulevard lies just off Prospect Park, on the border between Crown Heights and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.

As many as ten luxury towers could be coming to Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, one of the most densely populated communities in Brooklyn, noted Crain’s back in 2014. The debate over the City’s plans for Empire Boulevard alone are “likely to deepen divisions within the community,” they reported.

Rendering of 626 Flatbush Avenue. (Image: Hudson)

Residents lost their fight against the construction of a 23-story residential building on the edge of the district, at 626 Flatbush Avenue, which can be seen looming over Prospect Park. Eighty percent of the building’s 254 units will be rented at market rate and twenty percent will have rents affordable to households earning 40 to 50 percent of the Area Median Income, says the developer.

Breakdown In Dialogue

The removal of Tim Thomas has sparked an outpouring of comments over the current situation within the board.

“Chairman Lawrence is in a tough spot,” Daniel Kristjansson, a member of the transportation committee, said to us in an email, arguing that the “board was divided against itself.”

Of particular concern, said Kristjansson, is the role of area resident and community activist Alicia Boyd, who spearheads the advocacy group Movement To Protect The People (MTOPP).

Boyd, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, is not a member of Board 9 but has been an active participant in board discussions.

Over the last two years, Boyd has charged that Board 9 does not operate in a transparent manner, has been slow to welcome more participation from community residents, and should not cooperate with city studies that would pave the way for a neighborhood rezoning.

Kristjansson described Boyd as a “demagogue.” She “has successfully incited infighting within the CB 9 to the point of paralysis. Tim Thomas is one of the few members of the board who has the courage to stand up to her attacks and accusations,” Kristjansson said.

(A community member who is not on the board, but has attended several CB 9 meetings,       echoed Kristjansson’s statement to us but would only do so off the record.)

CB 9 Chairman Lawrence pushed back strongly against the claim that the board is being unduly influenced by MTOPP or any other group. “The board has not been hijacked,” he said.

“With regards to Alicia Boyd,” Lawrence continued, “she as well as other community members’ opinions are respected and taken into consideration. We as a board and a governing body will not tolerate anyone harassing or disrupting our monthly general meetings; as Ms. Boyd has attempted in the past.”

But, Lawrence acknowledged, Boyd, along with some board members, including Karen Fleming, have “pointed my attention to some concerns they’ve had with Tim [Thomas].”

In an email to us, Karen Fleming said that she had “presented a Bill of Particulars to the Executive Committee of CB9 requesting the REMOVAL OF TIM THOMAS as CHAIR for FABRICATING A VOTE.” [Fleming’s caps]

We were not able to get any more information from Fleming before publication about what her bill entailed.

Thomas, who is white, states (and details in his blog) that discussions with Boyd had deteriorated to the point in which Boyd called some of his actions racist and a petition was circulated, demanding his removal. Chairman Lawrence told us he was unaware of such a petition.

Another member of CB 9’s transportation committee, who asked not to be identified, said to us that many of the complaints raised about Thomas were “made-up. Tim’s the only one who has really stood up to Alicia,” the committee member said and added, “Chairman Lawrence over-reacted.” But, the committee member added, these were historic tensions and the committee is already trying to move forward.

The Real Battle

While a rezoning looms and developers circle around the area, the fundamental question is whether CB 9 can respond effectively and in a unified fashion. There is a real lack of consensus, for example, as to whether steering new development toward Empire Boulevard would be good or bad for the district.

Celeste Davis, who was a Prospect-Lefferts Gardens resident for 27 years and active in the community, said that attacks on individual Board 9 members (who are also neighbors) by MTOPP and others did not create any meaningful results for area residents.

Davis, who moved out of the neighborhood last June, said there was real merit to questions about the impacts of a rezoning and the intentions of developers. But CB 9 needs “productive dialogue,” she said, not behavior that is “injurious and disruptive,” if it is going to be able to fight on behalf of the community.

Quest Fanning, who is president of the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association and also a member of the CB 9 transportation committee, said that the association is watching the experience of other neighborhoods who have been rezoned by the City, such as Greenpoint-Williamsburg, with great trepidation. Renters in CB 9 are already being forced out by landlords using “highly questionable tactics,” he said.

The debate within Board 9 about how to proceed, Tim Thomas argues, is “much deeper and older” than disagreements about one particular project. “It’s about Old Brooklyn and New Brooklyn colliding,” he said.

Thomas described a “New Brooklyn” which is more open to phenomena like tech and restaurant culture, and new construction. And while race plays a huge role in this battle for what Brooklyn will become, who is a “gentrifier” and who is an “old timer” does not always fall along racial lines, he argued.

In the meantime, residents of CB 9 ponder the future of their beloved — and historically diverse — community. Several of them posed the same question to us that Thomas asked: is there a way to “get us all sitting down and talking to each other again?”

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  1. This is some great reporting and further evidence of the important service you provide to our community.

  2. Prospect-Lefferts has always been a fascinating area. My aunt, who would have been almost 100 now, remembered Midwood Street as being exclusive, a “doctors’ row” — for black physicians.

    That is, for the gentry. Doesn’t matter the color.

    The neighborhood’s limestones and half-timbered townhouses have for the most part been well-maintained by both their black and their white owners; the apartment buildings in that area used to be lovely — completely unaffordable for my in-laws when they went looking there in the 1940s, after the war, as Flatbush was for my parents in the 1950s.

    Flatbush Avenue along that stretch was filled not only with magnificent movie palaces but also with fine restaurants, bookstores, French bakeries, and boutique clothing shops. As with the rest of Flatbush, the crash came in the late 1960s with the introduction of dysfunctional families and their offspring, whose dubious character and behavior made their neighbors’ lives unbearable and unsafe.

    So all the hoopla about keeping that area “for the people” is odd. Which people? Only people that Ms. Boyd likes?

  3. Tim Thomas has worked tirelessly as a citizen reporter and, apparently, a CB member, to inform and serve his community, bending over backwards to be reasonable (albeit with a colorful communication style, to judge from his excellent blog)–but this board is clearly being hijacked by MTOPP shenanigans, in a playbook I recall all too well from the bad old days when Sonny Carson and his minions would try to disrupt the proceedings of CB 14. There are huge issues at play and huge stakes, yet the one feeble instrument for the community to leverage for a voice in their future has been split into rancorous little factions by a two-bit local demagogue. It’s a damn shame. Poor PLG will get what we’re all doomed to get–a sky full of towers filled with the rich, and a neighborhood snapped up and transformed by outside developers who made their moves while the true stakeholders–the folks living there–were busy shouting at each other.

  4. From last year’s Voice, a decent synopsis of the Alicia Boyd phenomenon. Ironically, I share her horror of high-rise development around the park and her concern that the now-slumbering Empire Blvd. corridor will be turned into a luxury condo row–but her foul and hateful tactics are just making matters worse. I’ve seen CBs in action–they’re lumbering, inefficient, and parochial–but you’d still have to be a saint to continue to serve on one once a harasser like this gets the board in her sights. (Irony: Alicia the Anti-Gentrification Crusader has also been reported to be cleaning up on the area’s new economy as an AirBnB host…)

  5. So glad that I moved out of New York City, experiencing the gentrification of my neighborhood (Cortelyou Road) was too painful for me to experience and I know that it’s going to get worse. Good luck to all of the long-term residents who face displacement.

  6. Good heavens, Ann, where did you move to in order to escape Cortelyou Road’s so-called gentrification? To one of the seedier streets in Hartford or New Haven?

    I remember Cortelyou Road when it was clean with nary a 99-cent store in sight and no overly large, plastic signage. It even had a ski shop selling good equipment and chartering day trips to Hunter Mountain, which in those days was a pleasant family area and not the domain of maniacs screaming “Get out of the way!” as they careen straight down.

  7. If the goal was to get away from gentrification either Newark or Baltimore would be my guesses for areas she would move to.

  8. Well, I know this is going to come as a newsflash here, but please know that there there is no law of logic, science or government that requires all people to live on top of each other in urban cesspools. Perhaps she moved upstate or to some place in the country, where for very modest sums she could have more space a higher quality of life and peace of mind.

  9. ditmas park was an area built for wealthy people. it’s simply returning to it’s original purpose.

    hopefully kensington will be next. tragic how run down and scruffy so many of the houses have become. it’s starting to turn around though – some nice gut renovations being done getting rid of the tascky shiny railings and the like.

  10. I don’t know. We have plenty of hicks right here in NY, and lots of dog poop. I could go either way.

  11. I meant no disrespect to small, uncluttered towns; they are beautiful. But in their own way, they are no different from the Cortelyou Road and Flatbush and Church Avenues I remember from my growing-up years.

    The Flatbush I knew was tidy and quiet. You know, when the gentry and professional classes lived in pre-war apartment buildings and private homes, and shopkeepers didn’t have to worry about getting shot.

  12. i have a friend who grew up in brooklyn; her dad in kensington and mom in marine park. fourth generation brooklynite, recently moved to upstate new york. she did it because she realized she was just a townie–in other places in the country she’d be considered a townie, someone who never left her comfort zone. i kind of liked that. i grew up in lots of different cities and i’d never want live in any of them for my whole life. so i applaud people making changes, whenever they can afford to.

  13. Serving as a community board chair is thankless at best and I am grateful to Demetrius Lawrence for stepping up in CB9’s hour of need. However, it is incorrect for him to say, “The board has not been hijacked.” Alicia Boyd was allowed to create the current organizational environment that has claimed Tim Thomas as its latest casualty. Disregarding the unfounded accusations, I believe Mr. Thomas would have been far less likely to lose his perspective and temper when he did if the board had managed Ms. Boyd differently and earlier. By creating a dysfunctional environment, Ms. Boyd very much hijacked the community board.

    I remember when Teresa Toro was removed as chair of the CB1 transportation committee. The chair there later returned her to the post. I hope Mr. Lawrence can see fit to emulate that action because whatever Mr. Thomas’ failings, he clearly cares deeply for Prospect Lefferts Gardens and making its streets and sidewalks safer.

  14. Classrooms, community boards, city streets — it takes only one or two unpleasant, aggressive types to wreck a place. The secret, which none of us seems to understand, or perhaps we’re just loath to implement, is cut them off very quickly.

  15. You all are absolute idiots and don’t seem to know what gentrification means. If you support the gentrifying of a neighborhood you are nothing less than scum and I’m glad to be out of Flatbush where people with this disgusting mentality are coming in droves. If you think the displacement of poor working class families is a good thing, then you’re not worth my time. In the meantime have fun being a shit human being, and by the way I moved upstate and live in a young/racially diverse neighborhood in a 1800 square foot apartment with high ceilings for only 800 dollars a month, good riddance.

  16. There are, however, economic and environmental forces that make it difficult or impossible for everyone who wants to to escape urban sprawl.

  17. And who did you displace by moving into that fancy $800 a month apartment? That ain’t cheap either, especially for something not in the NYC metro area.

  18. Hahaha, you’re full of it. You moved because where you used to live didn’t suit your needs in terms of space and price. Sound familiar? Your lack of self-awareness is glaring. Pat yourself on the back for being a pioneer and heading “upstate.” I’m sure they’re all simply delighted to have you.

  19. The way to combat gentrification is to make it possible for everyone to live in homes and in neighborhoods that they cannot afford.

    Sounds great! Sign me up!

  20. How about no one, as it’s a 3 bedroom apartment in BUFFALO which has one of the lowest homelessness rates in the country, and I live with two other students AND my landlord lives two doors down. God, you guys are dense. It’s funny to me that you assume you know everything from a vague post, when in actuality you know nothing.

  21. Right, because they could have “afforded” to live in it BEFORE the middle class showed interest. Idiot. When I lived on Cortelyou Road before this influx of lame hipsters moved in, my mother and I were living happily in the neighborhood with rent that was more than reasonable, but when a bunch of young white hipsters show interest, all of a sudden our rent is being raised to two hundred more dollars over the course of two years? You know nothing.

  22. You’re the one who is full of it. I actually moved to attend University, and mind you that a GREAT DEAL of these young white introductions into the neighborhood are from the MIDWEST whose prices in real estate is much lower and much more affordable than NYC, no one is moving from there because there’s not enough space and it’s too expensive. Idiot.

  23. I have been here since 62. The area went full circle. This is not only happening in Brooklyn. It is happening in all major cities. There are about 20 of us and some even older. This change did not start with hipsters. It started in the mid 90s.Unfortunately people don’t pay attention to community board meetings and the people they vote for. Then others took the credit and started to invite big money in. Unfortunately what will happen is whether an area is down zoned or not most of the private homes will go down, and be replaced by new buildings. This is happening in every borough, and NYC will lose out because new talent and innovation will not move here or the whole thing will just collapse.

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