Supersized Williamsburg on the Way

Council committee approves great big zoning plan

Imagine Battery Park City's residential towers transplanted onto Brooklyn's Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront. That's something of the scale of the radical rezoning plan that was unanimously approved by the City Council's land use committee on Wednesday.

There was plenty of backslapping to go around as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city officials announced the details of the plan, the result of nearly a month of intensive negotiations between the administration, local developers and City Council reps—with vociferous input from community groups and labor unions.

"Transformative," "unprecedented," and "of watershed importance" was how Bloomberg and the council members described the plan, which calls for the creation of as many as 28 towers ranging from 20 to 40 stories along this long derelict section of the Brooklyn coast line.

Calling the revitalization of the waterfront a centerpiece of his five-borough economic strategy, Bloomberg said, "Today we passed a major milestone."

He was joined by Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, who praised the plan for creating "new models" for using market incentives to generate housing and open space. "If you really step back, in so many ways, this breaks new ground," Doctoroff said.

And in truth this mammoth redevelopment scheme is a lot better for rank-and-file residents than what the administration initially proposed in April—particularly when it comes to affordable housing. By beefing up the tax breaks and height and density bonuses, city officials project up to a third of the 10,800 new units of housing to be created on the waterfront and further inland will be affordable to low and moderate-income New Yorkers—compared to the 23 percent the city was offering in April.

"That is the largest commitment for affordable housing creation that the city has ever made in such a rezoning plan," Bloomberg said.

Twenty percent of those affordable units will be set aside for families earning $18,000 or less, and 60 percent of the subsidized units will be on the waterfront itself.

The administration also upped the amount of new parkland from 49 to 54 acres and agreed to establish a $20 million fund to help create space for local manufacturing in order to prevent the loss of jobs by surging property values. Another $70 million would go to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to help house displaced businesses.

Bloomberg even threw a bone to the local service workers union 32BJ SEIU by getting developers to agree to pay building workers' union wages.

But while the building unions and affordable-housing advocates were pleased, many community leaders and neighborhood residents still think their neighborhood of low-rise buildings is being supersized out from under them.

"There is no way that you can say that 40-story towers have anything to do with the existing character of the neighborhood," complained Stephanie Thayer, a member of the North Brooklyn Alliance, which has been battling to scale back the development.

Thayer notes that because the providing of affordable housing is voluntary, developers could still build up to 33 stories high without offering any subsidized units.

"That's our worst nightmare," Thayer said. "That we get these grotesque buildings with no affordable housing."

City officials said that's unlikely because developers could double their profits if they agree to tack on affordable units in order to get more floors. "Ultimately we all know developers are pretty rational economic animals," Doctoroff added.

Taller buildings, Bloomberg noted, would also mean more land remaining available for open space—including a two-mile waterfront esplanade that would be financed by developers and then turned over to the Parks Department to ensure it remains accessible to the broader public. Or that's the theory anyway, because this part of the deal also remains voluntary. Developers could opt to maintain the land themselves.

And while 54 new acres of park land will be a welcome boost to this painfully underserved area, neighbors longing for open space say it's way too little to make up for the influx of 20,000 new people this redevelopment plan would bring.

Indeed, the net gain in open space is nil. "Right now, the vacant parcels in the neighborhood are being bought up," said Joe Vance, chair of Community Board 1's rezoning taskforce. "If we don't start carving out more park space now, we'll never get it."

The plan has yet to be approved by the full City Council, which votes on May 11, yet even the most ardent opponents concede it will be an uphill battle to change it at this stage of the game.

"Our community plans are being bulldozed by this administration," charged Beka Economopoulos, a local gallery owner and member of the Creative Industries Coalition, a group of artists and performers who have banded together to fight the rezoning, which they fear will displace them.

On Wednesday, she and some 30 other activists stood on the steps of City Hall condemn the plan. They announced the formation of a new citywide coalition of neighborhood groups fighting aggressive rezoning and redevelopment schemes. At issue, they say, is the right of community folks to have a say in how their neighborhoods grow.

"We don't have the money that developers have," said David Goldstein of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, who is currently fighting efforts by developer Bruce Ratner to displace him and his neighbors to make way for an NBA stadium. "But combined as a citywide coalition, we have the votes that Gifford Miller and Bloomberg need."

 
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