Is Williamsburgs Boom a Bust? Ward Dennis with Williams Cole
Over the last decade—and certainly in the last four years—Williamsburg-Greenpoint has experienced some of the most dramatic growth in the city, from the plethora of steel and glass condos—as well as empty lots—where industrial buildings used to stand to the legions of new residents that pile into the L and even the G trains. The 2005 rezoning of these neighborhoods represented one of the most anticipated, ambitious, and potentially problematic actions of the Bloomberg administration, as it ushered in the wholesale transformation of the area. Recently I sat down with Ward Dennis, Chairman of the Land Use Committee of Community Board 1, a founding member of the Waterfront Preservation Alliance of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, and a board member of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG). We assessed the state of these neighborhoods, what progress has been made, and what promises are yet to materialize.
Williams Cole (Rail): What happened four years ago and where are we now?
Ward Dennis: In May of 2005, the City Council passed the final rezoning of about 185 blocks along the waterfront and inland in Williamsburg-Greenpoint from largely manufacturing to largely residential. The city’s basic idea was to allow higher density development, including towers, on the waterfront, and as you move inland, there would be medium or lower density. Tied in with that were a whole series of promises and agreements to do with the zoning itself based on negotiations between the Council and the Mayor’s Office on issues like affordable housing, parks and open space, industrial retention, and relocation and the like. So now we find ourselves four years after the fact. It’s important to remember that all of this came out of community efforts in the 1990s to early 2000s to put together a plan that tried to do some of the same things that the Bloomberg rezoning did. But the community’s plan, which Denich was formally endorsed by the City Planning and the Council through the 197-A process, differed in some fairly significant ways from what the administration ultimately passed. It envisioned a lot more mixed use, with residential and industrial side by side, and it had some very clear ideas about a significant amount of affordable housing. So when the city came forward with its rezoning, it was based on the community’s plan, but it was not—and it did not actively reflect—the community’s plan.
Rail: So let’s go through the state of the rezoning bit by bit. The most obvious change is the presence of new condominiums.
Dennis: I think anybody can see that there’s a lot of construction happening in that area on the waterfront and inland a few blocks. I think in terms of the gross numbers of new construction what we see is fairly close to what was expected. The idea for the residential rezoning had been in development for ten years or more, so there was a huge pent-up demand on the side of developers. A lot of owners were basically waiting for the rezoning to happen so they could kick-start their development plans. So the reality is that there’s a hell of a lot of development going on, even with the economy what it is now. I think what has not been realized—and what a lot of people were expecting and hoping for—was first, the development of affordable housing, and second, a more rapid development of the waterfront. The towers of Northside Piers and The Edge are going up in those prime real estate areas on the Northside, but all of the development north of Bushwick Inlet, along the Greenpoint waterfront, is hardly moving. And that’s important because most of the real affordable housing you are going to see is linked to these waterfront sites up in the Greenpoint area. Until they get developed you’re not getting the 20-30% affordable housing that those sites are going to generate and you’re not going to have a waterfront esplanade because they are still walled-off industrial sites. The fact that city-owned sites in north Greenpoint haven’t been developed means we can’t sell the air rights to create parks and we can’t turn those sites into affordable housing.
Rail: What about the inland inclusionary housing plan?
Dennis: The city’s plan anticipated that there would be some level of developer-financed affordable housing where developers would get a bonus of building more density in exchange for developing affordable housing either on-site or off-site. But so far very few developers are using it and it’s questionable at this point in the process, four years down the line, if there is any affordable housing being developed by market-rate partners. There are, of course, a number of factors involved. First, housing activists question whether the inclusionary bonus was deep enough to really encourage developers to use it in the first place. On the practical side, the city’s rule for the inclusionary program in this area wasn’t even formalized until way after the rezoning happened. So developers were eager to break ground when the rezoning went through in 2005 but they didn’t even have a way of engaging in inclusionary housing at that point. I think many developers would have considered it at that point but, in the booming market of that time did not want to wait. So, to sum up, we’ve had development on the waterfront and it has generated affordable housing both on-site and off-site and I think that’s been successful. What hasn’t been successful is that the fact that we haven’t developed the full waterfront and that we haven’t developed affordable housing up-land.
Rail: So basically the bottom line is that when certain things don’t happen, nothing happens. It gets stalled, essentially. What about open space? How does that stack up?
Dennis: I think we’ve seen some successes in the open-space arena, but the overall score is not good. The city is rehabilitating McCarren Park Pool to the tune of $50-plus million dollars and putting some money into other areas and that’s good. We’ve also got the Open Space Alliance, a new group that is doing really good work. But a lot of the new open space that was promised as part of the zoning negotiations with the City Council isn’t even under construction yet. There’s a lot of issues connected to acquisition and now, of course, financing. For example, Bushwick Inlet Park is a huge proposed—and promised—park that extends from the newish East River State Park on Kent Street north up through the inlet. At present I think they’ve acquired one site and broke ground a couple of weeks ago, though it looks like they literally created a pile of dirt. One site for this park is still being litigated as a potential natural gas power plant on the Bayside fuel site because, even though the city seems to have won, appeals are still open. Other huge sites of the park haven’t been acquired and when they are, there will be huge amounts of remediation required—after all, it was once a place where oil and kerosene were processed and water contamination will be an issue and that will take a lot of money and time. Farther north is one site that still needs to be acquired from the MTA and there’s another place a park is supposed to go on DuPont Street that’s tied up because the city needs to get rid of the industrial sludge that is there and ship it up to Newtown Creek. That was supposed to happen last year, but now it’s probably not going to happen until next year and until it does, we can’t put a new park there.
Rail: In general, we’re talking about changing a formerly industrial area where not a lot of people lived into a massively residential one.
Dennis: Yes, people forget just how heavy the industry was in these neighborhoods. As recently as fifty years ago there was the kind of heavy industry that has now largely disappeared. You had hugely polluting manufacturing gas plants basically turning coal into gas, you had the Oil Works and, of course, the Newtown Creek oil leak. I think we’re seeing a lot of the consequences the community was warning about four or five years ago. The city’s plan was not comprehensively looking at some of these issues. You have a neighborhood that’s traditionally been industrial and you have, for example, truck routes going through the neighborhood. Now you have people building condos on the truck route. I think that had, there been better planning at the outset, and a more comprehensive approach to everything, a lot of these growing pains or transition pains, as it were, could have been anticipated and avoided.
Rail: Finally, what about public transportation? The Bedford L stop is a nightmare during morning rush hour.
Dennis: We’ve seen improvements in the service on the L train but at the same time, the number of people getting on that train has been far out-pacing any service improvements. And that’s not just rezoning, that’s people getting on at Morgan Avenue, that’s people getting on you know seven, eight, ten stops into Brooklyn. So it’s not just what happens at Bedford Avenue, which is sort of ground zero for rezoning—it’s the overall market conditions of the past ten years. But water taxis are not going to help that. New York Water Taxi does not make money off commuter traffic—it makes money off tourist traffic and even if it is subsidized that’s not going to work for the vast majority of people.