A New Colony

Williamsburg deal great for Manhattan developers, but not everyone will be priced out

The colonization of northern Brooklyn will no doubt quicken under the city's Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront rezoning deal, which clears the way for Manhattan developers to mine real estate gold.

The plan sets into motion forces that within a decade are expected to bring in 40,000 "settlers" (the Daily News' apt word), completing Williamsburg's transition from working-class enclave to skyscrapered Manhattan annex.

And yet, the deal the City Council reached two weeks ago has gotten applause from advocates for the poor and local politicians who tried to stop the Bloomberg administration from imposing a plan the community detested. The reasons go beyond the widely reported compromise for a third of the new housing units to be affordable. Pushed by a well-organized, grassroots opposition campaign, city officials agreed to important precedents that deserve more public attention than they've received.

First off, the deal upended the tax break given "as of right" to residential developers who build anywhere in the city except for an exclusion zone roughly between 14th and 96th streets in Manhattan.

For the first time, that exclusion zone for high-priced real estate will be extended outside Manhattan. It makes sense: If a piece of Brooklyn is going to be Manhattanized, the Manhattan rules should apply.

What it means is that if the developers are going to get the lucrative 421-a tax break, 20 percent of the new housing units will have to be affordable to low- and middle-income people.

This deal suggests that it's high time for the city to take another look at the 421-a subsidy, which last year cost its treasury $252 million and blotted out nearly $2 billion in assessed valuation.

"The question is now clearly on the table," said Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development.

Assembly housing committee chairman Vito Lopez had pushed for the change. "It's over a billion dollars the city was going to give up over the length of the exemption," which is 25 years, the Brooklyn Democrat said.

Interesting idea: The city's taxpayers should get something in return for their generosity—some affordable housing. But the deal went further, also establishing that poor and working-class people should be able to live in those tax-subsidized developments.

Before this, builders were granted "certificates" that meant they could put the affordable units they'd agreed to someplace else. According to several participants, the deal nearly unraveled in the wee hours of May 2 when Lopez insisted that the affordable units be located in the waterfront district itself. Lopez said he was able to push that point thanks in part to support from Bishop Joseph Sullivan of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn.

The deal also included a provision for the major developers to pay prevailing wages to service workers from Service Employees' Local 32BJ.

"You're talking about the difference between somebody making $30,000 a year and $40,000 a year and having health benefits," Lander said.

The deal set precedent by providing $20 million for nonprofit groups to aid manufacturers. And it created a $2 million fund to battle residential displacement.

In other words, if northern Brooklyn must be colonized by Manhattan interests, then there should be reparations. Here, the reparations are being paid in advance—another precedent.

That's not to say it's a happy ending.

"I think a lot of senior citizens will get housing, which is great. People with documents will get housing, which is great," said the Reverend Jim O'Shea, who helped organize residents through Churches United for Fair Housing and who supported the deal. But "the real poor people," undocumented immigrants, will be swept out by the accelerated gentrification, he said, adding that "in the real world," this was still the best deal possible.

And Adam Friedman, executive director of the New York Industrial Retention Network, was not optimistic about the prospect for keeping displaced manufacturing companies in the city. "The truth is, there's very, very little industrial space available in the city of New York," said Friedman, who praised the decision to set aside money to help find space for industry.

There were enough concessions from the city to draw support from most critics. But the headband-wearing Williamsburg Warriors, who convinced many a hipster that all those boring public hearings matter, will have none of it. These newcomers to Brooklyn were attracted to the neighborhood's Brooklyn-ness, not to a string of 40-story towers.

And besides, said Eve Sibley, the group's co-founder, there is still no guarantee in the deal that developers will take the subsidy to build affordable housing. But the longtime local groups pushing for affordable housing were pleased with the outcome—neighborhood residents will find that at least some of the "settlers" will be familiar faces.

 
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