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.

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."

"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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