by Alex Padalka, additional reporting by Steven Ehrenberg
Photos by Trude Vargas
Starting in the 1990’s, following an influx of young people now alternately called artists or hipsters escaping rising Manhattan rents, Greenpoint and Williamsburg residents started working on a plan to rezone the area from manufacturing to residential use, spearheaded by Community Board 1’s Rezoning Task Force. Department of City Planning started working on their own plan for the neighborhood. At stake was the derelict and mostly inaccessible waterfront, abandoned or underused industrial sites throughout North Brooklyn, and a large number of illegally converted lofts. Two alternate plans emerge. Under Mayor Bloomberg, the City’s plan becomes an avenue for developers to open up the lucrative waterfront land to luxury residential development. The Community plan calls for protection of 4,000 industrial jobs, 40 percent affordable housing, 70 acres of parkland, including a publicly accessible waterfront esplanade, and a cap on the height and bulk of the new buildings.
Years in the making, and following months of negotiations between the community and the city, the Greenpoint-Williamsburg redevelopment has finally been approved. Though the City Council voted 49 to one to go ahead with the much-altered plan on May 11th, the neighborhood was split.
● December 6, 2004: Community Board 1 voted “No”, with modifications, on all but one of the city’s proposals.
● January 13, 2005: Borough President Marty Markowitz votes “No”.
● March 14, 2005: City Planning Commission votes “Yes” to the city’s plan.
● April 4, 2005: Public Hearing on rezoning. Hundreds of community activists show up to push for the “Community Plan”, a grass-roots alternative to the City’s plan. Markowitz reiterates that the city’s plan is not enough, but says he’s willing to accept a compromise. Councilman David Yassky, representing many of the neighborhoods being rezoned, says he is ready to lead the City Council in voting “No” to the City’s plan if it is not significantly changed.
● May 3, 2005: City Council’s Land Use Committee votes “Yes” to a revised plan, with strong support from local representatives Councilmember’s David Yassky and Diana Reyna.
● May 11, 2005: Full City Council approves the city’s plan for the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Waterfront, converting around 175 blocks from industrial to residential and mix-use zoning that will bring around 10,800 new units of housing over the next 10 years.
After the plan’s passing, hurriedly scrawled signs in the windows of Teddy's Bar & Grill claimed victory for the neighborhood and announced a celebration party that same night, with Councilman David Yassky an honorary guest.
Yassky, who boldly stated in April that he would be ready to strike down the plan and start over if it didn't meet community demands, supported the revised May proposal, calling the plan "transformative." Councilwoman Diana Reyna, the other key Council member representing the neighborhood, said she was "happy" with the plan.
“[Council members David] Yassky and [Diana] Reyna were extremely strong advocates,” said councilwoman Melinda Katz, chair of the Land Use Committee that voted in favor of the plan a week before the full council vote. “They were amazing—they were very clear on issues important to the community, and the administration understood that.”
Online, and on the streets, some elements of the community resistance forces, particularly members of the 100-organization-strong Creative Industries Coalition and 40 organizations of the North Brooklyn Alliance, grumbled about handing over Williamsburg on a silver platter to luxury developers, unsatisfied with changes to the plan negotiated by the council. Some suggested throwing an anti-party across the street, but in the end the unsatisfied were just too tired and, well, too respectful of their neighbor Felice Kirby, Teddy's co-proprietor and veteran Greenpoint activist, to ruin the soiree. They came and kept their doubts to themselves. Quite a few were just happy to get some rest following months of community actions, rallies in front of City Hall, countless planning meetings and a literal informational blitz that resulted in extensive media exposure.
Almost everyone was glad that the process was over and the weekend could be spent in care-free revelry instead of committee meetings and rallies: the day after the vote, Creative Industries Coalition's listserv posted an invite to First Warm Night, a roving un-permitted street party that had less to do with rezoning than with creative ways of imbibing in public. At least for the weekend, the activists took a much-deserved break, websites went inundated and a large number of otherwise seriously committed individuals woke up with hangovers.
A number of factors changed since the vociferous opposition in April from community activists and local politicians. The plan approved May 11th will create 54 acres of parkland, up from 49, including a two-mile public waterfront walkway built by developers, and set aside $1 million for McCarren Park rehabilitation. The city further compromised with the community and added a clause allowing developers to transfer management of the esplanade to the city upon its completion. The transfer is voluntary, however, prompting some activists to question access and continuity.
Answering the community's demand to protect light manufacturing, the plan sets up a $22 million fund to retain industrial jobs and commits to a $70 million investment in Brooklyn Navy Yard as a relocation alternative for displaced businesses. According to Mayor Bloomberg, redevelopment would create 11,000 construction jobs and 600 permanent jobs over the next ten years, as well as attract $1.5 billion in private investment. In addition, the city got developers to agree to pay building workers' union wages.
Perhaps the biggest victory for current residents is the significant boost in low- and moderate-income housing under the new plan - the city council negotiated approximately 33 percent affordable housing, compared to the 10 percent proposed last year by City Planning, through voluntary programs and financial subsidies. Half of these units would be reserved for those living in the area already.
The "voluntary" part remains the single most important source of contention. One of the incentives, for example, allows developers more floors, up to 40, in return for affordable housing. Mayor Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff insist that developers are smart people and will participate in the programs in order to build bigger. According to Bloomberg, 60 percent of the low-cost units will be right on the waterfront.
The more suspicious strain of community activists is just as assured of the developers' intelligence, arguing that they will forgo affordable housing and build smaller luxury condos, force existing tenants to sell out as property values skyrocket, or create a slum too far away from even the unreliable G train.
At this point, the waterfront will see up to 28 towers 20 to 40 stories high go up in the next ten years, with the 10,800 new units attracting 20,000 to 40,000 new residents. Opponents argue that this is completely out of character for the neighborhood where buildings rarely exceed six stories, and disregards the community’s proposal devised over 15 years under the 197-A plans, a measure approved overwhelmingly by the City Council as a way to allow community participation in the development of their own neighborhood. In fact, some activists, including civil rights lawyer and public advocate candidate Norman Siegel, are looking into the possibility of a lawsuit on the grounds that 197-A plans were originally binding rather than just advisory.
Finally, the lack of infrastructure improvements under the plan, given the estimated 25 percent population increase, remains a substantial concern for proponents and critics alike. While the city plans to eventually start ferry service from North Brooklyn to Manhattan, the only expansion of subway service calls for a widening of the stairwell on the Bedford L train station. Although the new computer-run L train system is supposed to make the service more efficient, there are no provisions for more trains, and anyone taking the L during rush hour can attest to the fact that it’s already not enough.
Other groups, like the People’s Firehouse, point out the already increased emergency response times following the closing of Engine 212 in 2003. The plan calls for no additional firehouses or increased service.
The single opposing vote in the general council belonged to Brooklyn Councilman Charles Barron, who argued that the affordable housing provision was too modest, although a step in the right direction.
Regardless of differences, everyone involved in fighting for the community’s plan agrees that the process itself has brought together not only the diverse groups now living in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, but united communities city-wide and built a strong coalition of grass-roots groups that are now better educated, better connected and infinitely more powerful in making the local voices heard in the city’s drive to redevelop.
Councilman Avella Dismissed
from Crucial Rezoning Committee
by Steven Ehrenberg
In the weeks preceding the vote to rezone the Brooklyn waterfront, Councilman Tony Avella and his staff made a point to talk to community advocates and listen to their concerns. So it came as an unwelcome surprise to Avella when he learned that when the city met with developers to determine the neighborhood’s fate, he would not have a seat at the table.
“It’s normal procedure that I get involved in negotiations that come through my committee,” said Avella. “But I was informed that I would not be involved in the negotiations.”
The move also worried many in a community already afraid that their voice would go unheard by the council. Worse, council speaker Gifford Miller, whose office informed Avella that he wouldn’t be needed, seemed inattentive to Williamsburg and Greenpoint residents. Avella listened to hundreds of community members testify at a public hearing about the rezoning at City Hall on April 4; Miller didn’t attend the meeting.
Who would represent Brooklyn’s interests now? “That’s a legitimate question,” said Avella. “I think you should call the Speaker’s office and ask him that question.”
Instead of Avella, Councilwoman Melinda Katz served as the lead negotiator with developers. Katz chairs the Land Use Committee, which is composed of three subcommittees; Avella chairs the Franchises and Zoning subcommittee.
“A member of the media asked me, ‘Why was Avella dismissed from the committee?” said Katz. “And I said, ‘That’s funny, I didn’t know he was on the committee.” She added that it wasn’t unusual for her to lead the negotiations, and that she had done it before, in talks over the development of Manhattan’s Hudson Yards.
Avella says that the move was unorthodox. “When an application comes before my committee, I review it, negotiate it, and do whatever has to be done,” he said. “The land use committee is really a joke. All it does is approve what the subcommittees do, and the [meetings] are like 15 minutes long.”
In case his position on the matter wasn’t clear, he added: “The land use committee should be abolished.” Both Avella and Katz agree on one thing: that they exchanged no words on the matter.
Some community leaders wonder if Avella was dismissed simply because of bad blood between him and the Speaker. In the fall of 2002, Avella defied his party by voting against a property tax increase. The move allegedly angered Miller, and the following February, Miller unseated Avella from one committee and stripped him, along with other Democrats who voted against the hike, of committee responsibilities.
Paul Rose, a spokesperson for Miller, denied that Avella’s dismissal was unusual, noting that Avella retains his committee chairmanship. “He’s going to continue in his role as chair,” he said. “I’m not saying it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to be included on the [negotiating] committee, but Melinda Katz will do the negotiating.”
Whether Miller’s removed Avella from a negotiating role due to political reasons, personal reasons, or ample confidence in Melinda Katz, the decision probably didn’t affect the final proposal. Avella said that he would rather have seen the city take over the promenade, but overall, he likes the final proposal.
Katz, describing the dynamics of the negotiations, emphasized that there was no shortage of community representation.
ALL EARS: One Residents Reaction to Rezoning
If you dissect this plan, it's not so bad. We get parks and open space, affordable housing, an industrial retention fund. But that's the problem with how politics and policy are practiced. We lose the forest for the trees.
In this rezoning there is little consideration of the big picture...of what this means for the future of our community and for the health of our democracy. We are not against development, but development must include the meaningful participation of those who'll be affected, and it must happen in a way that benefits the local community. This rezoning looks nothing like our 197-A community plan, and it poses a threat to what is unique and inspiring about our diverse and tight-knit community.
The density of this development is irresponsible - it's hyper-development. 40,000 new residents, a more than 25% population increase, without adequate infrastructural support. Beyond the troubling reality of a closed firehouse, inadequate EMS/hospital services, and an already over-taxed subway system, this will radically alter the delicate balance and composition of this community. Much of the affordable housing in this plan will be built off-site, elsewhere in Brooklyn. The titanic influx of wealth into the area will drive up rents and drive out local residents and businesses.
We want a balanced and holistic plan for development that will push our vibrant community to new heights, not push us out with 40-story high-rises and high rents. Bloomberg thinks he's done us a favor with this plan. But we need more than hand-outs; we need to play a role in shaping our destinies.
Community is an endangered species in modern society. This rezoning fight has made clear to us just what it is that's worth fighting for. And for this we are grateful. We ARE community developers - we've initiated a massive development plan that no zoning code or luxury condos can tear apart. With creativity and spirit, we are building and strengthening a community. Igniting what lies beneath the surface, what we know has always been there.
Beka Economopoulos, Not an Alternative
Not an Alternative is a Williamsburg-based collective of artists and activists that was active behind-the-scenes on the rezoning campaign. NAA offers materials, conceptual framing, art production, campaign development, PR support, and organizing assistance to communities doing social change work. They manage The Change You Want to See Gallery and Convergence Stage, where they hosted weekly barbeques and art-making in the lead-up to the Republican National Convention protests, and threw the NEO-CONey Island Block Party and Fashion Show. They built props for demonstrations and press events, and helped to build the Creative Industries Coalition, of roughly 100 local businesses and creative groups working to promote the Williamsburg/Greenpoint community rezoning plan. www.notanalternative.net, www.communityplan.org.
Rezoning Statement from Councilman David Yassky
"Finally, we have a plan for the North Brooklyn waterfront of the people, by the people that will provide much-needed affordable housing, park space and job protections for several neighborhoods that were feeling the squeeze of new development,” Council Member David Yassky said. "This rezoning will allow for massive private investment in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, but -- through creative zoning tools such as Inclusionary Zoning -- it will also leverage that new interest to get amenities that the area needs and deserves."
McCarren Pool: Sink or Swim?
by Sarah Baar
On a chilled afternoon this past February I was walking in Greenpoint and happened upon an unusually beautiful brick structure that emerged like a mirage out of the concrete and weeds. In spite of its decay and its ominous chain-link fence barrier, its main archway welcomed me and inspired the question, “What could this possibly be?”
It’s the old McCarren Pool, constructed in 1936 as one of 10 giant pools in New York by the Works Progress Administration. In its heyday, it served as a miniature ocean for residents of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, replete with two octagonal islands and underwater lighting for the night swim. With a capacity of 6,800 it was one of the largest public pools in the world.
In the late 70’s the pool was closed down because of mechanical difficulties and, well, mischievous activities. And there it sits, neglected. Not that it hasn’t been a hotbed of controversy – in 1984 the Parks Department received a $100 million grant to restore all of the pools, but the community voted against it because they didn’t want crime and “outsiders” coming in; hence, this pool remains the only one of the 10 WPA pools untouched.
Slated for demolition, it was saved by the Independent Friends of McCarren Park in 1989. Phyllis Yampolsky became the chair of the Independent Friends (she is now president of the reorganized McCarren Park Conservancy), and her infectious enthusiasm for this sorely underutilized space began to snowball. Yampolsky states that if restored “it would be like no other place in the city.” When she first set foot on the dilapidated grounds she could feel the potential. “I fell in love with it immediately – and then I had a responsibility,” she says.
In 1996, with Yale’s renowned dean of architecture Robert A.M. Stern on board, the McCarren Park Conservancy presented the first restructuring plan to the Community Planning Board #1. Several modifications later, their current plan retains an Olympic sized swimming pool and all of the original structures but reinterprets the space to accommodate the modern community, including an athletic field, inline skating park, amphitheater, restaurant and information center (the Arch Café), and large center piazza in the mode of the Mediterranean. The space would again be a centralizing force, providing an oasis for this neighborhood. Among other plans circulating, architect Leah Kreger has developed a design with a transparent retractable dome that allows the pool to be used year-round.
One of the key problems, besides funding for restoration, is the lack of a centralized plan of attack. There are good intentions and practical ideas in dire need of strong organization, and without the dollars to back them up (an estimated $30 to 40 million would be needed to complete these plans) they remain simply ideas.
A meeting on April 12th between locals and the CPB1 was encouraging in that it heralded a new air of agreement between the two parties; for example, the modified 1996 CPB1 “Field of Dreams” proposal no longer calls for demolition and confirms that the city is ready to listen to alternate proposals. At the meeting, District Manager Gerald Esposito, along with McCarren Pool advocates, decided that NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe will be approached with a defined plan of action. Yampolsky is grateful for this flux towards progress, as she wrote to the CPB1 on April 25:
“So now, there is no opposition. The new constituents of Greenpoint/Williamsburg are not the old guard who used to look at the pool and see something dirty and dangerous, something that had to go. No, the new influx of people into Greenpoint/Williamsburg look at McCarren Pool and see a magnificent potential.”
Noemie Lafrance wants to dance with that very potential - choreographer of Sens Productions, she has a plan to jump-start the process. She sees the pool as “a large scale performance space that has the possibility of being a cross between a museum and theater and is completely transformable.”
Her idea is to have a pool by day, stage by night. The pool would physically transform into a stage via removable floor panels to showcase the “nontraditional and progressive idea of what performance and art can be…the room in which it happens is the artwork.”
Her vision is to create a nurturing environment for our high concentration of artists to have an accessible outlet that can bring them to the next level. It will be a cultural center that simultaneously funds the restoration of McCarren in a three-phase plan. Lafrance met with the Parks Department on April 27th to discuss the first phase to make the grounds accessible immediately in order to host her site-specific dance performance piece Agora from September 13th to the 24th. Through public and private funding over the next 5 years, including ticket sales for the pool and the performances, the restoration will occur as the community enjoys the space.
A fundraiser will be held at Studio 450 (450 West 31st Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues) on June 16th with the goal of raising $150,000-200,000 to get the ball rolling.
Feeling inspired? Visit sensproduction.org for more information.