Those sentences were written some 70 years ago as part of a Depression-era public works project for underemployed scribblers. And while the "unrelieved slums" bit might be a touch harsh, the point is this — ever since the last of those aforementioned magnates trundled off with their fortunes into the fading river light, the North Brooklyn waterfront hasn’t really popped up on too many people’s radar.
The old docks and piers lie in various states of disrepair. Rusting bits of chainlink fence and concertina wire line the river. Greenpoint itself sits atop the largest urban oil spill in North America — a slick some one-and-a-half times larger than the mess left by the Exxon-Valdez — compliments of a 1950s-era leak from an old Standard Oil Refinery. The two neighborhoods were also eyed recently as the potential home for a new TGE power plant — an idea the community has combated in part by pointing out that the area already plays host to, among other things, the highest concentration of waste transfer stations in the city, the largest sewage treatment plant in the Northeast, and a nuclear waste disposal facility. For some time now, Williamsburg and Greenpoint have been the spare rooms of New York — places to hide all the junk that won’t fit neatly anywhere else.
Lately, though, the Bloomberg Administration has taken an interest in the area. After all, North Brooklyn might not be Battery Park City, but waterfront property is still waterfront property. And while Williamsburg and Greenpoint still aren’t, perhaps, what you’d call destination neighborhoods, they’ve nonetheless caught their fair share of the recent outer-borough real estate boom. Accordingly, in the fall of 2003, the city released its proposal to rezone the area waterfront for residential use, making way for one of the most massive spates of development New York has seen in decades. The response from local residents was, shall we say, underwhelming.
Now, granted, there’s a lot of knee-jerk anti-development sentiment floating around the city these days, much of which isn’t particularly productive. One reason New York City has some of the highest housing prices in the country is the simple fact that there aren’t enough units to go around. The city needs more buildings. And they have to be built somewhere. But the locals’ resistance to the city’s development plans wasn’t a matter of anti-development animus. In fact, if anything, the city was actually a bit late to the party. Community groups had been advocating waterfront rezoning for years, and residents had developed their own set of plans for the area some time ago. In January of 2002, these plans, one for Williamsburg and one for Greenpoint, were sponsored by Community Board 1 and officially adopted under section 197A of the city charter. 197A status didn’t really give the groups’ proposals any great leverage over the Department of City Planning, but it did serve to codify the community’s interests regarding future waterfront development. It was the blind eye that the city’s proposal turned towards many of these interests, not the notion of development itself, that sparked the battle currently being waged over the fate of North Brooklyn.
It’s not that the Mayor’s plan is some avaricious scheme designed to build a model city of waterfront condos on the bones of longtime residents (though cynics could probably find a little bit of that in there somewhere). But there’s a certain thoughtlessness to the plan, a disregard for seemingly important details that makes a person fear that the proposal, as it currently stands, may just be a bit half-assed.