Hipsters Defend Brooklyn

NYC pols want a Williamsburg Gold Coast. Cool kids and neighborhood vets say no way.

What a difference five years and a little Olympic ambition makes.

Today, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is championing a massive rezoning plan for Williamsburg and Greenpoint, in Brooklyn, that could mean 20- and 40-story condominiums sprouting along the East River.

Yet back in 2000, when community leaders were begging the city to rezone portions the waterfront for residential housing in order to prevent Con Ed from constructing yet another power plant in the neighborhood, city officials weren’t interested. City planners cried poor and real estate developers said they couldn’t take on the expense of converting the area’s moribund factories into housing.

Don't supersize our 'hood! Residents denounce the mayor's high-rise plan on the steps of City Hall.
photo: Kent Woolridge
Don't supersize our 'hood! Residents denounce the mayor's high-rise plan on the steps of City Hall.

"They laughed at us," says Joe Vance, a local architect and member of Community Board 1's rezoning taskforce, recalling his efforts to convince developers to build on the old Greenpoint Terminal Market, which has been boarded up for decades. "They said, 'Who's gonna pay that kind of money to live in Greenpoint and take the G train?'"

That was before Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff began pushing the city for 2012 games, and before the housing market blew up like '90s tech stocks.

With private developers now scrambling to buy air rights for condominiums, these days it's all community advocates can do to hold back the floodgates of speculation in this working-class enclave turned hipster haven. A recent report by the Corcoran Group predicts an influx of 20,000 new units of housing in area over the next three years.

That may not be the half of it. Under the guise of responding to the community's demand to redevelop the waterfront, the Bloomberg administration is pushing a rezoning plan far more radical than residents ever asked for. In addition to the condominium towers, some of which could reach 400 feet, some 110 blocks now designated as industrial and manufacturing would be converted to residential and mixed-use in order to boost development inland. The plan would also create 49 acres of much-needed parkland—including 28-acre waterfront park where Doctoroff hopes to site an Olympic aquatic center and beach volleyball venue.

City officials justify the build-out by saying it will finance the creation of a riverfront esplanade, which the community has long wanted, clean up contaminated areas, and generate up to 2,300 units of affordable housing.

But community leaders say the mammoth condos and the loss of manufacturing sites will swamp this low-rise community with an influx of 20,000 people—many of them far wealthier than the folks who live there now—while jeopardizing as many as 4,000 industrial jobs.

"It's gentrification on steroids. It's a wholesale transformation of the shape and character of the neighborhood," says Beka Economopoulos of the Change You Want to See Gallery, an activist-oriented art space on Havemeyer Street. The gallery has become headquarters for the Creative Industries Coalition, a group of artists, bar and gallery owners, and local businesses that recently banded together to oppose the plan.

Admittedly, many of them might count as the same stripe of hipsters whose presence helped propel the gentrification in the first place. But group members say the city's plan is so out of scale it will displace the creative ferment that's made Williamsburg so attractive.

"They're talking about putting in chain stores like Old Navy," says Nevett Steele, 34, who runs the KCDC Skateshop on North 10th Street. "It's just too much too fast. It's already forcing people out in a panic. Landlords are trying to get rid of people right away in anticipation. They're already jacking up the rents."

On Monday, Steele and Economopoulos were among hundreds of residents and activists—many carrying cardboard pick axes and shovels stenciled with the phrase "Defend Brooklyn!"—who turned out to show their dissent during a packed public hearing on the rezoning plan.

"We want to show that we, the community, are the developers," declared Economopoulos, before a cheering crowd of more than 150 people who jammed the steps of City Hall. "The community has a plan; Bloomberg has a scam!"

But at least as many protesters were kept outside City Hall’s gated security perimeter by police, prompting the crowd inside to break into chants of “Let them in!” and “Hell no, we won’t go!”

"We will not become another luxury enclave like Battery Park City," vowed longtime advocate Phil DePaolo of the People's Firehouse, a neighborhood advocacy group. "We will not let them take away our diversity."

Indeed, the range of those out there demonstrating—from Latinos, Polish seniors, housing activists, and area manufacturers to the hipster-led Willimsburg Warriors—signified just how far the mayor's plan has gone to unite the diverse quarters of this community against him.

Among those who testified during the seven-hour hearing were the area's two City Council members and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who all say the plan doesn't provide enough affordable housing; the Trust for Public Land, which says the new park land is still too little to handle an influx of 20,000 or more people; and members of the Municipal Arts Society, who called the towers wildy "out of context" for an area where most of the buildings are only three to five stories tall. Also on hand were some Billionaires for Bush, who expressed their heartfelt thanks to the city planners for "privatizing" Brooklyn's waterfront for the rich.

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