Dawn of a New Neighborhood?by Williams Cole
“Once redevelopment and rezoning hit, Williamsburg is going to be a brand new neighborhood, like Battery Park City.”
—a real estate broker quoted recently in The New York Sun
The long-anticipated rezoning of the Williamsburg-Greenpoint area is reaching its final stages. In March, the City Planning Commission is due to anoint the current plan before it goes to City Council for final approval. Thankfully, the plan has changed in many positive ways from its first incarnations, due to challenges from Community Board 1, affordable housing advocacy groups, and various local politicians, most recently Borough President Marty Markowitz. Regardless of which specific details become reality after the final vote, there is little doubt that the whole neighborhood is destined for accelerated change that will make that seen in the last decade seem like baby steps.
I am an eight-year resident of Williamsburg, an amount of time that obviously doesn’t qualify as growing up in the neighborhood (though I was born in the city), nor does it put me in the first few waves of artsy and broke folks who came here beginning in the mid-’80s. But when I did arrive, Bedford Avenue was still eerily quiet and shuttered at night, and my girlfriend and I found a place that we rented for cheap (and gutted and renovated) from an old-school Polish-American woman named Helen who used to work as a sewing operator on Driggs Avenue when Williamsburg was still a “walk to work” manufacturing area. When we first met her, she asked us point-blank why we wanted to move to a poor neighborhood and said, “You don’t fight, do ya?” When we told her what we did for work, she replied, “Ah, pencil pushers!”
It was a sad day when I found out that Helen had passed away. That same day, the Mets lost to the Yankees in the Subway Series. I’m not a baseball fan, but to me it was significant because I’d already been to a wake for a Puerto Rican man, a fixture on the block, and they had draped a Mets flag over his coffin. Since Helen’s passing, we maintained good relations with her daughter. We managed to stretch finances thin and, with another couple, buy the building that the family had grown up in and that Helen’s daughter generously did not put on the open market. Late this spring we’re expecting a baby, who was conceived probably two weeks after the drawn-out closing on our place.
As someone now hunkered down here in Williamsburg for the long haul, I’ve certainly been thinking a lot about the kinds of monsters that this new zoning could unleash.
Every Block Poses a Question
Lately, as I walk about the neighborhood, I’m no longer seeing all the empty lots and derelict or worn-down industrial buildings as relics of a bygone area but instead as places where some luxury condo tower might rise up. For years, a corner lot down the street was a monthly rental car park, but for the last months it has been suspiciously empty. Every hodgepodge block now invites some speculation. How long before that boarded-up building on North 7th and Bedford is ripped down? What about that beautiful old storefront on Driggs Avenue? Will it meet the same cellphone store fate as the store with the beautiful old bowed glass over on Metropolitan? These are the questions that all residents who don’t plan to move along soon should be asking.
City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden has said that the proposed zoning map “is finely drawn, block by block, to fit in with the uses that have already evolved over time.” But I wonder. While some luxury towers by the waterfront are inevitable, it’s also clear that, in increasingly egregious moves, developers are trying to get foundations in place for huge towers further inland, before a positive aspect of the rezoning will limit new building to “contextual” heights. If you’re skeptical, all you have to do is go and look at the building permit for a 16-story building posted on what was once the Pod restaurant on North 7th Street.
Affordable Housing Is Key
There is little doubt that the kind of community activism that began years ago mostly around environmental issues has significantly changed the zoning plan. According to Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, when city plans for rezoning were first certified there was no meaningful plan for affordable housing. “Now there are a range of calls for everything from inclusionary zoning to antiharassment laws to protect low-income tenants from landlords,” says Lander. “There has definitely been some movement.” The affordable housing initiative has been tenacious and concerted. As Lander notes, “Advocates and the Community Board are on the same page, along with churches and many elected officials. That’s very rare.”
The rapid growth of luxury housing would hit a breakneck speed with the rezoning, making affordable housing a priority in order to minimize displacement and keep a diverse profile in the area. A huge percentage of area residents earn less than $30,000 a year, and luxury gentrification is creating a harsh contrast, with little falling in between.
Inclusionary zoning, which gives incentives to developers to create affordable housing, has become a centerpiece of the housing initiative. The idea is generally based on allowing more height for buildings at the waterfront in exchange for setting aside a percentage of dwellings for people with limited incomes. It would give developers a choice of putting affordable units either in the towers or near them, or of buying an older building for low-income residents in the area and sustaining it.
If approved, the housing plan would be the most aggressive in the nation, but it still remains a voluntary program. “Incentives are always iffy,” says Lander. “I think the community is open to a voluntary program if there is strong confidence that developers will choose it.” In this case, Lander hopes that in the final plan a mandatory program will be implemented. “With a mandatory housing program, developers would say to the city, ‘OK, come up with the money, we just want to build.’ They don’t care so much about the details.”
The Olympics Factor
Longtime Williamsburg-Greenpoint community advocate Deborah Masters lauds the efforts of the community around affordable housing but points out that the toxic environmental aspects of the neighborhood have been left out of the discussions. “Most of the waterfront areas they want to build on are Superfund sites, and the height of the towers will dramatically decrease the fresh air coming into the neighborhood,” she says. Also, the actual construction will spread toxins from their somewhat stabilized current location, under the dirt. “When parcels of land where there was heavy industry are dug up, toxins can spread. Lead and heavy metals will increase in the air, and all the trucks going back and forth down all the streets will have this stuff on their tires.”
But Masters is enthusiastic about the prospect of New York City securing the 2012 Olympics because of what she sees as the accelerated positive impact it will have on the development of the neighborhood. “Without the impetus of the Olympics, new large parks will take much longer to come if they come at all,” says Masters. “It will bring amenities to the neighborhood that I can’t see coming easily otherwise, including more transportation like buses, water taxis, and trains.” Masters sees the rezoning as “really historic,” yet while lauding the initiative for affordable housing, she does say that there is little doubt that “there will be a different population” living in the neighborhood.
The Gold Coast
While the city says its plan to redevelop the Williamsburg-Greenpoint area is aimed at solving the housing crisis—in the past 10 years, half a million residents have moved to the city, while only 85,000 new houses and apartments have been built—it’s also about the tax money. From Bloomberg and Co.’s perspective, it’s better to have wealthy people living and paying taxes in new luxury dwellings along an East River Gold Coast rather than in New Jersey or Connecticut. But while that equation makes sense economically, it leaves many people by the wayside. Lander sees the rezoning as part of a much bigger change in the city—toward a “postindustrial service economy.” And the Bloomberg administration, he says, is “embracing that shift without sharing the prosperity.”
There is little doubt that once the first tower goes up it will be a shock to many. “With the advent of the 12 to 24 story luxury condo development in Williamsburg, we can expect a fundamental change in the economics and aesthetics of our individual neighborhoods,” says Larry Walzcak of Stop Our Supersizing, a community group opposed to the building of tall luxury towers inland. The architectural designs Walzcak and others have already seen do not bode well for how towers will meld with the neighborhood. “Look for a transient market of condo ‘flippers’ and huge ugly condo towers that more resemble office buildings in their garish starkness,” adds Walzcak.
Ten Years Ahead
As the broker quoted at the outset of this piece indicates, the Williamsburg-Greenpoint area is just at the beginning of a sea change. The transformation of the area into a waterfront community with better and larger parks would be a welcome development for all residents, and it’s one that should have happened long ago. The city, however, claims that the only way that a 40-foot-wide boardwalk from the Williamsburg Bridge to the tip of Greenpoint can be built is through the development of luxury towers.
Which brings me back to my story. We were lucky enough to get our break from people who grew up here and who were increasingly baffled by what was happening to the neighborhood. Their self-described “poor neighborhood,” while no doubt unpleasant in many respects, holds stories of regular block parties and all the intimacies of a community that has not been invaded. The Puerto Rican man who had the Mets flag on his coffin would keep an eye on the block and had keys to the many houses where he was the all-around handyman. Many of us who qualify as part of the gentrification brigade also want to keep our neighborhoods vibrant and diverse—saturated in community, not luxury. Luxury brings with it a different ideology and mindset than the one I hold dear. I don’t want to be surrounded by people who are pricks to waiters, drive Hummers, and talk really loud on their cellphones. Did I move to a poor neighborhood because I thought it would be cool? Of course not. But now that we happen to have a stake in a rapidly transforming neighborhood, I also don’t want it to morph into something I don’t recognize. May Helen’s spirit carry on.