The Future of the Brooklyn Waterfront

Brooklyn, as Borough President Marty Markowitz reminded a recent public forum in Williamsburg, is currently “denied access to the most beautiful waterfront in America.”

While that might be true for the borough as a whole, several communities are fighting to control the planning direction of their sections of the waterfront. A number of proposed developments are currently in the works, varying in scale and attractiveness. The largest proposal—and a quite innovative one in terms of planning—is for the Brooklyn Bridge Park, to be constructed in DUMBO. Meanwhile, Red Hook is angrily debating whether to allow a giant Fairway supermarket to dominate its shoreline, while Greenpoint and Williamsburg residents are loudly protesting yet another new plant moving in, this time next to a proposed state park. The disparities in wealth and power between these three communities produce these contrasting uses, ultimately pointing to the need of Brooklyn, and more generally the city, to adopt a comprehensive waterfront plan.

In 1998, the State Legislature gave financing to the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation (BBPDC), a nonprofit group, to develop a plan for the park. According to BBPDC president Joanne Witty, this was the first time New York City had entrusted the design of a public works project to a volunteer, nonprofit group. She also stated that the BBPDC was “counting on the planners to come up with technical solutions, but the decisions of what we want in the park, they will be made by us, the community. If it works, it will be a model.” It is a model that ensures that future plans will consider people before dollars. The BBPDC is led by Urban Strategies, a Toronto-based planning and urban design team that has received numerous awards worldwide for its humanitarian approach to its work. Designers were able to interact with the community at 50 public meetings and via a popular website. As State Senator Martin Connor observed, “This is the exact opposite of the way Robert Moses did things. We wanted to open the process, and everyone has just been astounded by the response.”    

Even though planning decisions for the riverfront park lie with community members, there has been some division among neighborhoods over the direction of the park. Brooklyn Heights residents want a park for quiet contemplation. The residents of Farragut, a public housing project, envision a more active park that includes playing fields and basketball courts. In Cobble Hill, where there are many new middle-class families with young children, many residents acknowledge that any park will most likely include some commercial development. DUMBO dwellers generally feel very strongly that public money rather than private investment should fund the park .

Problems have also arisen due to elitist and isolationist sentiments among Brooklyn Heights residents. Lawrence Whiteside, a Clinton Hill resident and a member of Community Board 2, notes, “There are some people in Brooklyn Heights who are concerned the park will draw elements they are not happy to have come to their neighborhood.” In the current plan, access to the park will be provided on the now quiet and residential Joralemon Street, which has angered some Heights residents.

Many who support this point of park access believe that Heights residents, who are primarily white and affluent, are using issues like foot traffic, crime, and litter as code words for their fear that black and Hispanic residents of poorer sections of Brooklyn will enter the park by Joralemon Street. Unfortunately, once the civic battle against developers has been won, there will still be a contest to be fought among different communities of different strengths. The Brooklyn Heights community has shown that it is looking out for its own residents and does not wish to share with other Brooklynites in the planning process. This lack of solidarity across communities accessing the park potentially threatens the BBPDC project’s success. But due to the political clout of both the organization as well as the community it most represents, in early May, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki committed $150 million in public funds toward the BBPDC’s $550 million, eight-year project.

Phase One of the park, a one acre children’s playground, was already completed this past December. It includes a large wooden boat structure for children to run around on. “Rather than slides and swings,” observed former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, “we’ll have something that evokes the waterfront.” The park plan has been amended within the past two years to include the creation of a natural cove and marshland. Additional plans call for a series of rolling hills beneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to decrease the traffic noise heard on the piers. Ultimately, the BBPDC has thus acted as an efficient, responsive planning body, at least for the community it most directly serves, making this type of public-private partnership a good potential model for waterfront development. However, this model would be much harder to implement in some of Brooklyn’s less advantaged neighborhoods.

Over the past decade, lower-income waterfront communities have largely turned to the relatively new concept of 197-a planning. In 1990, the New York City Charter revised Section 197-a to enable New York’s 59 Community Boards to propose their own plans for adoption by the city. Community involvement within city planning has historically been relegated to a reactive role; communities only exercise agency over the planning process once plans have been proposed against which affected residents protest. While the charter revision gave the potential for a widening of the community’s role in city planning, few have the planning expertise and resources necessary to develop workable plans. The 197-a plans also have a merely advisory effect; if passed, they are not binding.

Two communities that are investing themselves in 197-a planning are Red Hook and Greenpoint-Williamsburg. The city has approved the plans of both neighborhoods, yet each plan now faces challenges from private developers that will test the strength of 197-as. Red Hook’s 197-a, approved in 1996, stressed the need for new housing in the area. This past January, however, a City Council Committee approved the proposal of developer Gregory O’Connell to turn a city-owned warehouse on Van Brunt Street into a giant Fairway supermarket. Civic associations believe a supermarket to be a tremendous waste of prime waterfront location and continue to press for residential housing instead. The proponents of the supermarket say that it will provide jobs to a depressed area, but civic groups argue that it will greatly increase noise, traffic, and pollution in the area.

Over 70 percent of Red Hook residents live in the towering Red Hook Houses projects built in the 1930s. Robert Moses’s creation of the Gowanus Expressway in the 1940s severed Red Hook from what is now Carroll Gardens and exacerbated its isolation from the rest of Brooklyn. The area’s population has dropped from 21,000 to 12,000 since shipping declined in the 1950s, and it now suffers from high unemployment. Over the past 20 years, Red Hook has fought off proposals from the city for two sludge plants and for 17 of 21 waste transfer stations. As local actor and activist Lou Sones laments, “Cities tend to dump the noxious, the unwanted, on low-income waterfronts of color.”

The debate over the supermarket has created somewhat of a racial standoff. Red Hook’s population is predominantly African American, but the occupants of the apartments outside of the projects are mostly white. Fairway expects to hire 375 local residents in entry-level union jobs. At a recent city council meeting, a home-owner complained, “Three hundred $6-an-hour jobs are not what we need!” Ray Hall, a former security guard for O’Connell who was raised in the Red Hook Houses and heads a local youth group, responded, “I started working for $6 an hour. Don’t tell people what’s good for them.” Yet $6 an hour is awfully low pay for union employment. John McGettrick,  a private detective and local activist who opposes the supermarket, points out that “union jobs do not always equal good jobs.” McGettrick is one of O’Connell’s most vocal critics. He complains that O’Connell promised the community of Red Hook years ago that the Van Brunt Street warehouse would be converted into affordable housing units in accordance with the 197-a plan. But now only 45 apartments will be placed above the supermarket under O’Connell’s proposal, and all of them will be at market-rate. O’Connell has been able to deflect some of his opposition by making concessions to the artist community that has grown there in recent years. In the past, he has extended a helping hand to artists by providing them with free workspace in his buildings. As part of his Fairway proposal, he will allot 33,000 square feet of space on top of the supermarket for artists and non-profit groups to use free of charge.

While some homeowners in Red Hook may simply be concerned about the noise and traffic coming into their neighborhood, other residents envision a revival of manufacturing jobs in the area that will provide more than the dead-end, service-based employment at the Fairway.

Proposed improvements to the area’s transport would also create opportunities for those living in Red Hook to commute to better jobs elsewhere. These plans include a 25-stop ferry service that would link Red Hook to Manhattan and the rest of Brooklyn, and a trolley line that would run from Red Hook to downtown Brooklyn. As it now stands, the area only accommodates those who work at home or own a car, for there is no nearby subway and commuting by the unreliable local bus remains difficult and time-consuming. McGettrick points out that the B61 bus will become even less reliable once traffic to and from the Fairway clogs up the few main streets connecting Red Hook to the rest of Brooklyn. While the supermarket may become an immediate source of a few low-income jobs, many believe that Red Hook is selling itself short when better options may exist that would be in the best interest of every segment of the local population.

The 197-a planning experience in Red Hook can hardly be deemed a success at this juncture, considering that its provisions contradict O’Connell’s plans. Even though it has so far been a failure, it should be noted that Red Hook was only able to develop a plan and get it approved because it fell under favorable community board districting and was able to use the resources of Park Slope, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens. Even with this support, the 197-a plan seems to have had little effect in Red Hook. McGettrick, who helped formulate the 197-a, feels disenchanted about the plan now that the supermarket has been approved. If the supermarket is built, he feels that the credibility of 197-a planning will suffer a serious blow.

Williamsburg and Greenpoint have also confronted some objectionable proposed developments. While there has often been antagonism between residents of this diverse neighborhood, the various groups have united in contesting the excessive industrial burdens placed on their waterfront area. In 1996, a plan was defeated for a 55-story trash incinerator to be built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, largely due to the efforts of a coalition between the Hasidic and Puerto Rican communities within Williamsburg. Recently, the New York Power Authority (NYPA) has been planning to build three new power plants along the East River in Williamsburg. The ramifications of these plants, which cause significant air pollution, would include an increase in allergies and asthma attacks among surrounding residents. Williamsburg already has the third highest asthma rate of any neighborhood in New York City.

In the fall of 2000, NYPA announced plans for Trans Gas to build a 1000-megawatt power plant adjacent to the one half-acre Grand Ferry Park, the only public river access available to Williamsburg residents along their two mile stretch of waterfront. This proposal completely contradicts the 197-a plan that, although only adapted in January of this year, had been in the works for over a decade. Many community advocates argue that there are already too many industrial edifices in the neighborhood, and that residents are in dire need of recreational areas to play and experience open space. NYPA claims that the city suffers from a power shortage but has failed to substantiate this claim with evidence.

Many of the issues involved in this community’s waterfront debates were brought to the fore this past March, when the New York State Department of Public Service (DPS) held a meeting in Williamsburg’s south side to inform the community about the process of reviewing power plant applications. Representatives from the DPS as well as the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) detailed Article X of the New York State Public Service Law, which outlines the review process and describes how communities can participate in the application process through planning meetings. Many Brooklyn residents consider this an “obligatory” process, for the many power plants and waste transfer stations sited previously in Williamsburg and Greenpoint faced opposition as well. Although the process supposedly includes reviews of the environmental impact of each siting application, existing environmental hazards are not considered. The purpose of Article X, plain and simple, is to site power plants. Since Article X was amended in December 1999, seven plants have been certified and only one project has been turned down. The exception was in the town of Ramapo, New York. Williamsburg community activist Deborah Masters attributes Ramapo’s success to local political influence, for the town voted overwhelmingly for Governor Pataki, who appointed the siting commission.

At the same meeting, DPS Administrative Law Judge Gerald Lynch was stopped in the middle of his long-winded Power Point presentation on Article X by an outraged resident who yelled, “We’re not interested in the applications, we want to stop the process!” At this point, members of the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Waterfront Task Force rose from their chairs, many wearing surgical masks to demonstrate the harmful effects of energy plants on air quality. One woman read from a long list of all the energy- and waste-related sites already present in Williamsburg.

The audience grew even more hostile when Lynch suggested that, “If you want to have an impact, hire your own experts and have them participate in the [Article X review] process.” In response, the crowd asked where it was supposed to get the money for such an undertaking. Much like section 197-a, Article X discriminates against lower income communities, precisely due to the government’s refusal to provide adequate resources for community participation in regional planning. “Why not in the Upper West Side?” another man shouted from the back of the auditorium. The answer, although no government official would dare say it, is that market forces control power plant sitings, as well as the placement of just every other sort of environmentally hazardous development. The lower land value in Williamsburg and Greenpoint compared to neighborhoods like the Upper West Side leaves these Brooklyn residents vulnerable to objectionable projects.

In the summer of 2000, Governor Pataki announced plans for the State purchase of 70 acres of waterfront land at the cost of $9.3 million on the site of the Eastern District Terminal. It will become New York’s 160th state park. New York University plans to invest $10 million in the park to construct fields and athletic facilities, along with the waterfront promenade, to be shared by its teams and the public. Under the 49-year agreement, NYU will also manage the park on the state’s behalf in exchange for using the site. Soon after the announcement, former NYU President L. Jay Oliva proclaimed, “This historic partnership will make it possible for us to have the kind of athletic program that our students deserve and for the community to have important new recreational opportunities.”

NYU’s involvement makes it difficult to consider the park truly public, for community access will be restricted during team practice, meets, and other events during the academic year. The current planning climate, however, requires the involvement of an entity like NYU to stimulate development, for city and state agencies are unwilling to undergo such planning alone. State Parks Commisioner Bernadette Castro has lauded such partnerships for making public dollars go further, but a purely public development might better satisfy community needs. Williamsburg resident Peter Gillespie, president of the local environmental group Neighbors Against Garbage, worked closely with NYU in creating the partnership. He acknowledges, “There is no state money for development. To create open space, you have to have a private partner. Ideally, we would like this to have been a strictly public project, but that’s the political reality.” Considering the other options presented for the region, including a movie theater complex or a high-rise luxury housing enclave, Gillespie feels optimistic about the new partnership. He does take issue, though, with NYU’s refusal to publicly address the Tran Gas power plant proposal, which would be sited adjacent to the park. Along with many others, he feels the plant is incompatible with the park and that NYU’s influence would be very beneficial in preventing the plant. Deborah Masters believes that NYU is holding its tongue because it is worried about keeping its lease on the park.

The influence of affluent new Williamsburg residents in achieving desirable development may prove to be a curse on longtime inhabitants.  In an area that is already gentrifying, the addition of a grandiose state park to Williamsburg may increase the rent prices further and drive out more lower-income residents. It would certainly be a shame if those residents who have fought so long and hard to protect their waterfront were not around when something favorable like a state park is finally constructed. As Gillespie points out, the gentrifying forces at work in Williamsburg are beyond anyone’s control. This is surely a disheartening thought, but at least a state park promotes the more socially beneficial aspects of gentrification, as opposed to the luxury high-rise housing developments proposed along the same stretch of waterfront.

There are certainly enormous disparities between the plans for Brooklyn Bridge Park and the proposals that Red Hook and Greenpoint-Williamsburg are attempting to fight off. While wealthy waterfront communities get parks, lower-income waterfront communities tend to have industrial- and waste-castoffs dumped on them. The uneven distribution of recreational and industrial uses for New York’s waterfront is largely the fault of incremental planning. When waterfront areas are dealt with individually, only the more wealthy communities are in the position to fight off objectionable development. An even distribution of waterfront uses thus can only be achieved through comprehensive planning of the sort that has been rejected in recent years, as a result of the socially irresponsible thinking of men like Robert Moses and the backers of Westway.

The New York Department of City Planning issued a Comprehensive Waterfront Plan in 1992. Among other aims, the plan calls for several new zoning regulations that would promote water-dependent and waterfront-enhancing uses. This plan, if given teeth in implementation, would seem to preclude proposals such as the Fairway supermarket in Red Hook and the Trans Gas power plant in Williamsburg, which are neither water-dependent nor waterfront-enhancing uses. The waterfront zoning proposal also calls for mandatory public access requirements for any developments. If given enough financial backing, a comprehensive plan such as this one could ensure that all Brooklynites, rich and poor alike, will be able to finally appreciate the impressive waterfront that surrounds them.

Contributor

Eric Simundza

Eric Simundza recently graduated from the Metropolitan Studies Program at NYU. This essay is adapted from his senior Honors Project comparing waterfront planning in New York City and London.

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