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.
For example, the Mayor’s plan would add some 20,000 new units of housing to the area, meaning tens of thousands of extra residents. Given the current rush hour crowds on the L train, a person might expect some sort of allowance for increased public transit to accompany such an expansion. And, in fact, the stairwell at Bedford Avenue is slated to be widened a few extra feet, but aside from that, there’s nothing much doing. Similarly, as New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum has noted, despite the potential influx of new residents, there are currently no plans for new schools or additional classrooms to service this expanding population.
Above and beyond such fairly significant oversights, there are a few fundamental areas of concern with regards to the Mayor’s plan. High among them is the lack of new park space provided for in the proposal. Greenpoint and Williamsburg are already among the city’s most underserved neighborhoods in terms of green space. And while the City Planning Commission recommends 2.5 acres of green space per 1,000 residents as the benchmark for future development, the Mayor’s plan offers less than a third of that — just .7 acres per 1,000. Particularly suspect is the reliance on private developers to build the oft-promised waterfront promenade. Private development along the waterfront will most likely proceed unevenly and in pieces, and any promenade developed along these lines will inevitably be under construction and incomplete for decades. One wonders what Manhattan’s Hudson River landscape might look like today had it been given the North Brooklyn treatment.
Perhaps most important, though, is the issue of affordable housing. Given all the talk of luxury condos rising at the river’s edge, many residents are justifiably concerned that at the end of the day, they’ll be priced out of the very neighborhood they’ve helped sustain and build over the preceding years of somewhat less than benign neglect. As it currently stands, the Mayor’s plan does little to address this problem. Although the city has recently added to its plan financial incentives for builders who voluntarily include low- and middle-income housing in their developments, there’s a fair amount of evidence suggesting that for such programs to really create the significant amounts of affordable housing the city needs, they must be made mandatory. Such inclusionary zoning programs (as they’re called) should be part of any Williamsburg/Greenpoint rezoning effort. They can play a crucial role in maintaining the area’s diversity and ensuring that longtime residents aren’t sent packing when the new condo-dwelling hordes parachute in.
Which is not, of course, to say that condo-dwelling hordes are unwelcome. They are, if anything, inevitable. But the rezoning proposals currently under discussion represent one of the most dramatic facelifts in city history, and it’s essential that the area’s current inhabitants be intimately involved in the process. The chance that the city will suddenly clutch the neighborhoods’ 197A plans to its icy bosom and run with them is roughly nil. But over the last two years, the hard work of thousands of residents and activists has slowly nudged the city’s proposals closer to the vision that the community has developed for itself. And that, fundamentally, is what this is about. People demanding their role in determining what they’d like their neighborhood to become. It is, even for a congenitally uninspired sort like myself, somewhat inspiring, and it is at the root of what makes for a healthy, vital city. The final meetings and votes on the city’s plan are coming up over the next several weeks. Below are a few organizations to contact if you’d like to be involved.
Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks &
North Brooklyn Alliance
Not an Alternative www.notanalternative.net
City Councilman David Yassky www.davidyassky.com
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