Hipsters Defend Brooklyn

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

More than just your standand anti-development hoopla, Monday's protest reflected longstanding efforts by folks in this community to have a say in how their neighborhood is shaped. They've spent the past 15 years hashing out their own set of plans for the area, which would have allowed 10- to 20-story buildings on the waterfront, mandated a substantial amount of affordable housing, and turned over a smaller number of industrial blocks for mixed-use development in hopes of preserving the area's eclectic mix of bars, restaurants, artisan studios, and light manufacturing. After several years of back and forth with various agencies, the city officially adopted the so-called 197a plans for Greenpoint and Williamsburg in January 2002. Though they lacked the force of law, these 197a plans at least codified where the community stood.

Now community leaders say the city is blowing their ideas off in favor of a developer's dream scheme that gives away the store.

Bloomberg officials are doing their best to counter that impression. Just prior to Monday's hearing, City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Shaun Donovan, and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe held a press briefing to talk up the mayor's plan, which they claim is the "most aggressive affordable housing strategy in the nation."

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.

"It's the first ever commitment for inclusionary zoning outside of Manhattan high-density districts," says City Planning spokesperson Rachaele Raynoff. "In order to make it work, we enabled the combination of financing programs—what some people are calling double-dipping—but which we feel is really a powerful combo of incentives to create affordable housing."

City officials estimate that 23 percent of the projected 10,000 new units created will be affordable to low, middle, and moderate income families, with the bulk reserved for families earning up to $31,400. (At the high end, there will also be subsidized units slated for families earning up to $109,900.)

The city, says Raynoff, has worked very hard to translate the community's wishes into what the market can bear. "Of course there are people who advocate a little more—or a little less in the case of the towers—but that's always going to be the case," Raynoff adds.

Raynoff insists there will be no "wall of 40-story towers," as the posters plastered all over the neighborhood claim. "There are very careful controls to limit the height and width to [ensure] a varied or undulating skyline," she says, adding "We're projecting 16 towers at 150 to 400 feet, a maximum of six of which could reach up to 400 feet" if the developer opts for the affordable housing bonus.

Opponents say the city is underplaying its size projections; its own online renderings indicate that there could be 22 towers or more. At the same time, they argue that the city's formula of subsidies and voluntary incentives to developers offers no real guarantee that the affordable housing will be built.

The city will likely have to tweak some numbers to get this past the City Council, which is currently slated to vote on the rezoning proposal in May. With some 25 affordable housing groups in Williamsburg/Greenpoint, local politicians have focused most on upping the affordability. That leaves many locals fearing they will be forced to accept mammoth condos as a tradeoff.

And because the city is relying on the developers to build the esplanade, many fear it could end up like the so-called Gold Coast in Jersey City, where the waterfront is technically "open" to the general public, but in reality isn't all that inviting.

"It's like a hostile corporate takeover," says Stephanie Eisenberg of American Metal Stamping, which has been on the corner of North 14th and Berry for the last 25 years and in the neighborhood for more than 50. Last week, Eisenberg led a coalition of manufacturers who launched orange balloons on 400-foot lengths of fishing wire to illustrate just how tall the mayor's proposed towers would be.

"We're calling it the Brooklyn Gates, because it symbolizes our opposition to what they're building on the waterfront, which is gated communities," Eisenberg says.

"Four hundred feet—that's taller than the Williamsburg bridge," she adds. "Business like ours can't survive with that kind of real estate pressure. Once the property values rise, we'll have no choice but to sell out."

It turns out the police also seem to think 400 feet is too high. Last week, they ordered the balloons lowered to 100 feet, claiming they were a flight hazard.

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