INTERACTIVE MAP: GREENPOINT-WILLIAMSBURG
In the fall of 2005 a Subway sandwich franchise opened in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, drawing the ire of an anonymous community activist.
The "open letter to Subway," pasted on a wall along Bedford Avenue, protested that the appearance of the franchise had "added nothing positive" to a community that "embraces artisanship, diversity and individuality." Subway represented "homogeny and banality, low wages and manufactured foods."
For some long time residents the opening unequivocally signaled the end, the sanitization of a thriving art community. In many of lower Manhattan's neighborhoods gentrification has become part of a natural progression of things, the
restoration of a blighted urban area, often resulting in the displacement of lower-income residents.
Subway will remain as a beacon of Williamsburg's future direction, and the activist's cries will go unheard, a barely audible postscript to a battle that was waged between community residents and the city's government for more than three years.
Currently, more than 130 new residential buildings are slated for construction in the area, the result of a massive rezoning plan passed by the New York City Council on May 11, 2005. One hundred and seventy former industrial blocks were rezoned to permit high-rise housing, high-end retail, a proposed public waterfront park and private waterfront esplanade. Within the next 10 years, the neighborhood can expect a projected influx of up to 40,000 new residents.
The Department of City Planning's first proposal ostensibly grew out of the comprehensive development plan completed in 2001 by members of North Brooklyn's Community Board 1 (CB1), called the 197a plan because of its authorization of the New City Charter. Greenpoint-Williamsburg's 197a plan envisioned a mixed-use neighborhood, where light industry and affordable low-rise residential could share space, where new residential construction would conform to the scale, density and character of adjacent buildings. CB1 proposed non-negotiable industrial sanctuaries for light manufacturers and demanded that balance be found between the pressures of the residential market and the need to maintain industry and jobs in Williamsburg.
But when the city unveiled its plan, it failed to address the community's concerns. The vision of a public waterfront park was replaced by renderings of 40-story tall luxury condos. The city's proposal placed over 4,000 blue-collar industrial jobs and over 60 businesses at risk of displacement. To address the needs of affordable housing, the city implemented an inclusionary zoning policy, requiring developers to build 30 percent of residential units as affordable if they wanted to maximize the height and bulk of their buildings. But construction costs and increasing land values place limits on developers, who can opt to exclusively build market rate housing and still be guaranteed considerable height.
The initial effects of north Brooklyn's rezoning have already been felt. Construction cranes loom over McCarren Park, the neighborhood's only significant recreational space. Banners advertising luxury lofts hang over the crossbeams of many projects. The largest parcels along the waterfront are scheduled to be developed in the spring of 2006, but Moise Kestenbaum, the owner of the Austin, Nichols warehouse - a grocery warehouse overlooking the East River at 184 Kent Avenue -- has already evicted most of the tenants in the converted industrial loft. The building will be renovated to accommodate luxury apartments. In November of 2005, construction of a controversial new condo development - nicknamed "the Finger Building" by some residents who felt its height represented a rude gesture to the community - was halted over demolition and zoning issues.
Since last year, five buildings have been vacated due to adjacent construction mishaps. Some residents living near new developments have been subject to harassment from developers. Currently, no legislation exists to protect homeowners and tenants from the effects of negligent development.
Roughly 19 blocks between McCarren Park and Kent Avenue - Williamsburg-Greenpoint's "industrial sanctuary" - remained unchanged in the city's rezoning plan. The manufacturing businesses in the area complain that their zoning designation limits their ability to grow their business. Additionally, city officials have yet to follow through on millions of dollars in protection pledged for tenants and business affected by the rezoning.
The spring will bring an increase in the development of projects. Eight months after the rezoning, many questions still remain. Is manufacturing in Williamsburg dead? How will residents and homeowners protect themselves from the effects of fast-paced development? Will the inclusionary zoning policy, touted by the city, keep the neighborhood affordable? How will the community respond to a projected influx of 40,000 new residents?