As religious group cashes in, former councilman lashes out
by Erik Engquist
December 17, 2015
In 2004, David Yassky backed a rezoning that will soon yield a windfall for the Jehovah's Witnesses, but not the amenities they promised.
Eleven years ago, David Yassky signed off on a deal he would come to regret: An upzoning of parcels owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses along Jay Street near downtown Brooklyn.
Yassky has had several professional identities since then: He lost close races for Congress (in 2005 to Yvette Clarke) and city comptroller (in 2009 to John Liu), ran the Taxi and Limousine Commission for Mayor Michael Bloomberg and last year became dean of Pace Law School.
But the 2004 agreement with the Jehovah’s Witnesses is now coming back to haunt him, as the Witnesses now plan to resell the upzoned land for a huge profit without having delivered the local improvements they promised in return, Yassky said.
“When I heard about their proposed sale, I was appalled,” he said in a phone interview.
“I’m outraged and infuriated because the witnesses got considerably larger zoning designation than someone ordinarily would have on that site with no affordable housing required,” said Yassky. “They argued that they deserved deference as a religious organization, and they got that deference from the city. For them to turn around and flip the site to a developer is completely contrary to the premise that they held out to the city in getting the zoning in the first place.”
The group’s failure to fund upgrades to a nearby park and the York Street F-train station, as promised in the deal, amounts to salt in Yassky’s wound. “I voted for [the rezoning], based on the promises that they made about the park and the subway stop, and based on the theory that religious organizations shouldn’t be treated the same as for-profit developers,” he said.
When the council's Land Use Committee weighed in, only Charles Barron voted against the zoning change, which was backed by the Bloomberg administration.
Yassky couldn’t recall to what extent the promise of improvements was put in writing, but said, “These commitments were made on the record in a zoning committee hearing, and the practice in New York City is that people who make zoning commitments on the record live up to them. There’s not a lot of reneging.”
It should be noted, though, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses never built their project, which was to be a 222-foot building, a 195-foot building and two nine-story buildings for the organization’s residential and religious use.
But whoever buys it will have no legal obligation to use the site for religious purposes or to provide the community benefits once offered by the Witnesses, although any major project there is certain to face political pressure from the de Blasio administration to include affordable apartments.
The mayor’s proposed housing mandates would only apply to future rezonings. But Yassky said the City Council could make that happen by reducing the site’s density to what it was before the 2004 vote.
What would be fair to the city,” said the former councilman, “is to return that site to the zoning designation it had before the Witnesses sought the change, and as with any other site, let the developer come forward and explain his plan and see if that justifies the rezoning.”