Affordable Housing: A Community United?by Leah Kreger
If the first high-rise building in Greenpoint-Williamsburg had been conceived of from a perspective within the neighborhood, if it resembled the work of the community’s 197-A plan, it would not be taller than Northside Piers became during the month of February. Twenty-one of its soon-to-be 30 stories have been constructed. Our landscape, our relationship to the sky, the light and to Manhattan, has been changed forever by concrete and steel.
The community’s most visible response at the time of the 2005 zoning proposal, which rezoned the waterfront from North 4th Street to the north end of Greenpoint, was to demand action on a single issue: providing 40% affordable housing. In focusing on one issue only, we effectively paved the way for future developers—at Dominos, “Williamsburg Square,” and elsewhere—to obtain what they want: buildings up to 400-feet high. We created and defined the trade-off, inadvertently cutting ourselves out of any meaningful discussion with the city about land use in our neighborhood. After all, discussion slows down building.
The groups that went on the record at public hearings against the zoning proposal for Northside Piers will be forgotten. New proposals will cite the approved waterfront zoning as a precedent.
But how did the protest message demanding affordable housing effectively turn into support for high-rise buildings? What was the motivation for creating the single-issue response in the first place?
Developers form relationships with civic groups as “community partners” in land-use proposals. These relationships are especially valuable in generating local support. In addition to needing to conduct positive public relations, developers need local groups to want the project to happen. This support can be sought from religious organizations, local development corporations or social service organizations, as well as community planning boards.
Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning, Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, and other local business groups prepared complicated responses to the city’s rezoning proposal. They voiced concerns about affordable housing, the height of new buildings, displacement of hundreds of manufacturing jobs, access to parks and open space and the waterfront, and concerns about infrastructure such as public transportation and fire service.
In contrast, the advocates that organized strictly around affordable housing during the city’s 2005 rezoning proposal included a coalition called Mobilization Against Displacement—comprised of St. Nicholas Housing Preservation and Development, Los Sures, People’s Fire House, Brooklyn Legal Services, and North Brooklyn Development Corporation—and a group that would become central to providing support for the rezoning, Churches United.
Do housing advocates care about density, parks and open space, and job retention? Perhaps on a personal level, but not on an organizational level.
Churches United originated as a grassroots coalition of Catholic churches on the Southside of Williamsburg, which joined forces in response to their parishioners being displaced by gentrification and excluded from new affordable housing developments at disproportionately high rates. Seven Southside churches joined to form what was then called Churches United for Fair Housing. These churches are comprised largely of working-class families, high numbers of which have been forced to move from the neighborhood, further into the borough.
Churches with attrition are at risk of being closed by the archdiocese; church property may eventually be developed into other uses more commensurate with higher real estate values. Last month, the Archdiocese of New York announced the closing and merging of 21 churches in the city. On Monday, February 12, six parishioners were arrested for singing, praying, and otherwise keeping vigil for 28 hours after the archdiocese shuttered and locked Our Lady Queen of Angels in East Harlem.
During the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning process, Churches United for Fair Housing joined forces with predominantly Polish and Italian parishes in the area, forming Churches United. Father Jim O’Shea, director of the group, said that the total membership is now 20 or 21 churches, including some from Bed-Stuy. The joining of forces between these parishes is historic and significant. It’s a successful example of cooperation among disparate, yet similar, groups of people.
Seeking the codification of inclusionary affordable housing so that working class parishioners can relocate within the neighborhood is one way for the parishes to hope to hang on, to hope to continue to exist. The mission of Churches United is “advocating for, developing and preserving as much affordable housing as possible and assuring that members have access to it,” principally to serve the members of its congregations.
The membership of the Catholic churches in Greenpoint-Williamsburg has become an effective voting block in Brooklyn. And through its relationship with big developers like Community Preservation Corporation—owner of the Domino Sugar Factory—Churches United is also getting into the business of development itself, poised to receive no-bid contracts from large developers whom they offer “community” support in exchange for pacifying the group’s singular concern: affordable housing for its parishioners.
In the almost two years since the zoning amendment approval, Northside Piers is the first building in the zone to break ground. It has become visible from Bedford Avenue and North 7th Street. Every day it rises and becomes denser and less transparent. The Community Preservation Corporation is now due to unveil its proposal for towers at the Domino site, which it has been working on for more than a year and a half. The developer of Williamsburg Square, Quadriad, has proposed a zoning amendment that would affect 12 blocks between Bedford Avenue and Kent Avenue.
The North Brooklyn Alliance is leading the community’s post-zoning response. The coalition of more than 40 organizations is making a great effort to communicate with the Mayor’s office as one unified group. They are holding the city accountable for funds it promised: $4,000,000 for anti-harassment and tenant relocation provisions and a separate fund for the relocation of manufacturing businesses and jobs. The Alliance continues to refer to and draw from the community’s 197-A plan.
Churches United did not sign the Alliance’s post-zoning letter to Mayor Bloomberg. The group is staying out of the Alliance’s efforts; it has ceased working with the community at large.
This matters because it erroneously indicates that this community is not concerned with the future of out-of-scale construction and out-of-character buildings in Greenpoint and WIlliamsburg. This matters because it indicates that the Commissioner’s and Mayor’s offices and private developers can circumvent negotiations with local Greenpoint-Williamsburg leaders who don’t agree with the city’s plans—as long as one group acts independently from our disparate, yet similar selves.
Leah Kreger is an architect and a writer who lives close to Domino.