Historical Narrative: 2005 North Brooklyn Waterfront Rezoning

Download the 2005 North Brooklyn Waterfront Rezoning narrative as a PDF [1.4 MB].

Written and researched by Homer Hill.

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The Greenpoint-Williamsburg area has undergone significant demographic shifts over the last 20 years. The area has experienced two major and often intertwined catalysts for change: industrial decline and gentrification. These two phenomena have conspicuously altered the community’s character, and subsequently, its future needs. The following history chronicles how GWAPP, its member organizations, Community Board 1 (CB1) and other community partners advocated for rezoning that would meet the needs of area residents.

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In April 2005, the Department of City Planning (DCP) rezoned Greenpoint and Williamsburg’s waterfront areas. The rezoning changed a low-density, waterfront, manufacturing sector into a now-prominent strip of high-density residential towers, situated among 75 blocks of mixed use-residential space North of the Williamsburg Bridge.

After a long review process, in which, GWAPP and its member organizations sought to include community planning needs that were previously developed under 197-a plans, the rezoning was passed by City Council and the Mayor’s office.

Similarly, between 2002 and 2005 before the rezoning passed, GWAPP, Community Board 1 (CB1) and other community partners sponsored a series of studies and reports to respond to the City’s Draft Scope of Work for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).1

The passed rezoning narrowly addressed height and bulk restrictions but did provide concessions to the needs expressed in the 197-a plans and other community reports.

197-a Plans
197-a plans are a participatory planning tool developed in the mid-1970s that allow community boards to sponsor and draft community based plans. Once passed by DCP and City Council, 197-plans serve as advisory plans for future private and public developments within a community district.2

In response to changing land-use needs throughout the late-1980s and early-1990s, Greenpoint and Williamsburg each drafted their own 197-a plan by 2002. View the Greenpoint 197a plan online and/or download the Williamsburg 197a plan Word document (201KB).

The neighborhoods agreed to draft separate plans, citing distinctly different land-use needs, in particular transportation and industrial retention. The Greenpoint and Williamsburg plans called for a series of revisions to the neighborhoods’ zoning that would:

  1. Decrease heavy manufacturing uses,
  2. Increase low density residential, and
  3. Develop contiguous waterfront open space.

Both plans converged at Bushwick Inlet, in mutual opposition to a proposed power plant facility.3

While 197-a plans have no legal stature of their own, they are a vital tool in recognizing and organizing community needs. Once Greenpoint and Williamsburg were slated for a massive influx of high density residential housing, both communities used these plans to articulate the unique socio-political context of their areas and attempt to negotiate the future scale of development, amount of affordable housing within the development and open space additions to the waterfront.

Demographic Shifts
As a result of systemic shifts in the American economy over the last 30 years, two-thirds of Greenpoint and Williamsburg’s industrial job base had disappeared. Changes in the local economy dovetailed into an increased demand for affordable housing outside of Manhattan resulting in a decline in vacant space. Between 1992 and 1999, 4,250 manufacturing jobs left the neighborhood.4 From 1989 to 2000, vacant land in the North Brooklyn neighborhoods decreased by 30%, while residential building space increased by 45%.5

According to an economic development report by the Office of the State Comptroller, this massive change in land-use was caused by “the high demand for housing and the significantly higher rents generated by residences that create pressure to rezone areas designated for manufacturing.”6

While changes in the local economy have caused much of the industrial to residential conversions, demographic shifts have also undoubtedly changed the neighborhood’s ethnic character. From 1990 to 2000, the area population grew by 2.8% with a significant decline in the Hispanic population (-8%) and black population (-1.5%). Conversely the neighborhood’s white non-Hispanic population saw a 10% increase.

In 2000, Community District 1 ranked as one of the poorest in the city. At the time of the report, 35% of the population lived below the poverty line, and the community board area as a whole ranked 2nd in Brooklyn and 4th citywide in the number of individuals receiving public assistance.7 A disproportionate amount of the area’s poverty lay south of Metropolitan Avenue, where 86% of the population was non-white Hispanic or black. Conversely the north side was 68% white non-Hispanic, and only 19% of the population lived at or below the poverty line, less than the citywide average of 21%.

The Making of the 197-a Plans
From 1996 to 2002, a six-year collaborative planning process was undertaken to develop the neighborhoods’ 197-a plans. The plans were the culmination of an extensive process of community outreach and collaboration between various neighborhood residents, community organizations and CB1. The 197-a plans were to serve as a DCP-recognized advisory document. They are designed to inform the planning process through historical context and aid communities in solidifying and expressing their needs and wishes for future development.

Both the Greenpoint and Williamsburg plans outlined four key objectives for the future development of the area:

  • Create new opportunities for residential and commercial development while preserving the community’s low-density, mixed-income, and mixed-use character;
  • Support and strengthen existing diversity and historic mixed-use character by reusing vacant buildings with a mixture of residential, commercial, workshops, high performance businesses, studios, parks and open spaces;
  • Significantly improve public waterfront access and increase the amount of public open space, both along the waterfront and in upland areas; and
  • Promote a work environment that is clean and safe, and encourage economic development.

The 197-plans were formerly passed by City Council and adopted by the department of City Planning in 2002. That same year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Amanda Burden to Director of DCP. Under the supervision of Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff, Burden spearheaded a proposal to rezone the Greenpoint and Williamsburg waterfront. The proposed plan would affect over 175 blocks, creating 900 new apartments in the area. At the time, Deputy Mayor Doctoroff also served as chairman of the NYC 2012 committee, a group who expressed interest in creating Olympic facilities within the Greenpoint section of the proposed rezoning area.

Prior to the start of the rezoning process, GWAPP initiated a community open space study. Drawing from this previous impetus, GWAPP pushed for the community to adopt the study’s conclusions as their platform for requesting more park space. As a result, GWAPP was able to channel the political potency of its inter-organization dialogue during the Con-Ed power plant fight into the negotiating process with the city.

Rezoning Task Force
In the summer of 2002, CB1 Chairman Vincent Abate formed the Rezoning Task Force in response to the City’s proposed rezoning. The task force was established to guide and inform the rezoning process in conjunction with the stated needs and objectives of the 197-a plans. The task force’s four subcommittees were: Height and Bulk, Economic Development, Parks and Open Space, and Affordable Housing.

Each subcommittee was intended to reflect a 197-a plan core objective. A year after its inception, the Task Force completed its first project, Formal Response to Draft Scope of Work for an Environmental Impact Statement. The report was intended to serve as an addendum to the 197-a plans; and as a reaction to the proposed zoning.

The Formal Response to Draft Scope of Work for EIS
A variety of different concerns were expressed in the Formal Response. Most prominently, the Task Force continually asserted that the 197-a plans should be consulted with regards to a number of issues. The Formal Response referred to the area’s need for future continuity in urban design that would respect the neighborhoods existing character as a low-rise, low-density community:

The massive and bulky development proposed for the waterfront areas is out of scale and character with the existing neighborhood. The proposed street wall does not affect ‘contextual’ development in a way that is appropriate to this neighborhood.8

In March 2003, GWAPP published an Alternate Height/Bulk Study (see image below) to propose solutions to the later-described height and bulk inadequacies in the original EIS report. The study proposed a reduction in the amount of buildings constructed (six instead of 22) and consideration of the open space areas for development into park space, as the Rezoning Task Force would later advise. It also rejected any development on the historic Monitor site.

The Formal Response also called for a guaranteed and significant amount of affordable housing. The 197-a plans had previously concluded that the community was experiencing rapid gentrification and was in danger of losing its socio-economic and cultural diversity because of increases in rent and instances of tenant harassment by landlords.9 The task force cited a 67% increase in median rents from 1990 to 2000 and suggested that the EIS socio-economic conditions study should target at-risk populations such as the elderly, Italian American, Polish and Hispanic communities.10

Additionally, the illegal conversions in East Williamsburg’s Industrial Zone were cited as a contributing factor to the neighborhood’s rapid rent increase (the highest in the city.)11 The Rezoning Task Force stated the need to acknowledge the impact of zoning variances on the manufacturing and industrial sector of the local economy and to look to retain the remaining 4,000 jobs provided by the industrial zone.12

They also suggested that pending variance applications be considered in the Worst Case Development Scenario future population projections. It was proposed that an industrial retention fund be established, financed through the collection of industrial conversion fees from landlords facilitating industrial-non-profit/art space conversions.13

The central focus of the Formal Response was the inclusion of public space and parks within the proposed zoning area. The Formal Response opposed the rezoning’s proposed piecemeal development of park space and requested that developers be required to guarantee continuous development of public walkway and connections between park spaces. In general, the overall lack of both existing and proposed park space was a major concern.

gwapp_rezoning_infographic

Particular points of contention included the inequity in the proposed distribution of park space, where 85% of development would occur in Greenpoint while 100% of increased park space would be developed in Williamsburg. Additionally, the proposed park space to person ratio (31 square feet per person) was less than one-third of the DCP’s recommended ratio of 100 square feet per person and one-fifth of the citywide average of 152 sq ft per person.

The open space recommendation came out of the community coalition request for more park space and the Greenpoint/Williamsburg Open Space Plan (OSP). In conjunction with the Formal Response, the OSP, sponsored and conducted by the Open Space Initiative and GWAPP, was a study that proposed increasing promised open space prior to rezoning to prevent a future (and arguably sustained) parks crisis. The plan was created through a GWAPP/Trust for Public Land (TPL) facilitated partnership with the planning consulting firm PPSA, the landscape architecture firm RGR and an urban design team from FFA. The 24-week project schedule included a needs-analysis conducted by PPSA, an urban design concept workshop with FFA and a landscape/park program development session with RGR.

The OSP specifically outlined the potential development of three spaces, as well as new open spaces for the community at Barge Park-Continental Iron Works and Under the Bridge Park, and an increase in park-space-per-individual ratio in advance of the anticipated population increase.

These new open spaces, as well as the proposed development of greenway connectors, safer walking and bicycle facility connections, a walking promenade, and a continued vocal resistance to waterfront power plant development were all outlined in the Open Space Plan as part of GWAPP’s ongoing open space re-envisioning initiative.14

In April 2005, the Open Space Coalition, a conglomerate of non-profits and community organizations concerned with the area’s open park space needs, published its Platform Report. The report summarized the coalition’s assessment of the proposed rezoning with four common advisory goals:

  • Ensure existing and future community open space needs are met in proposed redevelopment and rezoning,
  • Create public funds that match private sector proposed open space developments to ensure contiguous and timely development,
  • Create a legacy of Brooklyn Waterfront open space with development of active and passive recreational areas served by connecting pedestrian and bicycle facilities, and
  • Establish public oversight and management of private open space development to guarantee complimentary programming and design standards.

The coalition’s proposed strategy injects initial capital funding into the planning process guaranteeing that open space needs will be met while setting a standard for developers to maintain their promised contributions to the area’s park system. Establishing public ownership was advised as a means to facilitate long term operating standards via the design and maintenance standards of the NYC Parks Department.

In early April 2005, hundreds of community members and activists attended a seven hour public hearing session on the proposed rezoning. Protests were set up outside of City Hall as community activists decried the lack of provisions given to the 197-a plans and the collaborative planning work of GWAPP and other local and city wide civic organizations.

Local activist Joe Vance spoke out about the feasibility of proposed alternatives to the city sponsored rezoning: “They’re real numbers—they work. The city just doesn’t want to believe they do because they’re too beholden to the development community.”15 A consensus lay in the community’s stakeholders’ desire for a reasonable compromise with the city.

Passing of the Rezoning
In May 2005, the rezoning was officially passed by DCP and City Council. Many civic leaders, activists and organizations, including GWAPP, felt that the passing of the rezoning, while not perfect, helped prevent an abundance of new proposals for power plants, waste transfer stations and other heavy industrial uses.

While there were many hard-won revisions to the initial rezoning proposal that credit the work of the numerous community organizations and stakeholders’ advisory efforts, no significant concessions were made towards height and bulk restrictions. In Vance’s reflections of the experience he stated, “the density got out of control, we just got more density and height than anybody wanted.” A similar sentiment pervaded GWAPP board member and activist, Christine Holowacz’s memory of the experience, “as far as bulk and height, I think we’ve lost on every piece. It’s just privately owned property at the waterfront and it’s very much in demand, so in order for the community to have access to all of that, we would have to pay a hell of a lot.”

Dismay with the City approved rezoning was evident in the public protests of April 2005. Critics called the approved 150 ft. to 300 ft. waterfront developments a “wall” and claimed it would disrupt the neighborhoods’ existing character. GWAPP and its member organizations laid extensive and vital groundwork for establishing and communicating the community’s needs and lobbying the city and its developers to respect the area’s important low-rise, low-density character.

Significant changes were made in several of the major areas of concern. In the area of economic development, a $20 million industrial retention fund was established to foster nonprofit and art-sector organizations acquisition of industrial space. An additional study was planned for the Bushwick Creek industrial area, and Industrial Business Zones would be established for existing East Williamsburg and Bushwick industrial areas.

In the area of parks and open space, a five-acre parkland site was included in Greenpoint, as well as a $14 million pledge to acquire the three-acre MTA site on Commercial Street in Greenpoint. A two-acre site adjacent to the Barge Park ball field was included with a $7.5 million fund for its 2010 operating budget. A $10 million fund would be established to encourage and oversee the shore walk’s development. A provision was established requiring that all developed shore walk site deeds be mandatorily forfeited to the city after completion, effectively establishing public ownership of the shore walk at the completion of the development process.

© 2013 Homer Hill. Vacant lot between North 3rd St. and Metropolitan Ave.

In the area of public housing, major gains were made with a voluntary 33% affordable housing rate, with earmarked market rate unit bonuses as an incentive. Half of this affordable housing stock was guaranteed to 11211 and 11222 residents. A $2 million tenant legal fund would also be established.

© 2013 Homer Hill. Bushwick Inlet Park construction in 2013.

THE AFTERMATH OF REZONING

Affordable Housing
After initial interest in new condominiums spurred development, the 2007 housing market crash significantly delayed implementation and completion of the projects. As a result, Williamsburg contained more stalled housing developments than any other neighborhood in the City.16 As of 2013, less than 20% of promised affordable housing has been built with significant continued delays to all construction due to Hurricane Sandy. Now several affordable housing projects are underway in upland areas as well as some early affordable housing provisions from the Domino Factory site developers.17

Open Space
Only a fraction of the promised park space in the 2005 Waterfront Rezoning has been developed. After years of relatively little open space development, 2012 saw some hopeful open space gains for both neighborhoods.

In December, the waterfront access portion of Bushwick Inlet Park (BIP) between North 9th and North 10th Streets was finally opened. While the City has committed to purchase the 7.3-acre Bayside Fuel Company parcel, given the major environmental remediation necessary, parkland on that site will not be viable for the next decade. Additionally, both the 6.8-acre City Storage parcel and the two-acre strip along the inlet itself remain in the hands of private owners without an acquisition plan from the city. As of 2013, Bushwick Inlet Park, the 28 acre waterfront park explicitly promised to the community in 2005 rezoning is 16 acres under built.

McCarren Park will also add significant space with approved de-mapping of its Union Street border.18

65 Commercial Street, another portion of the City’s promised park space, remains an MTA depot without any concrete plans for the park’s development.

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The revisions made to the rezoning established a new legacy of community planning and advocacy work akin to the GWAPP’s history of fighting waterfront power plant development in the late-1990s. This collaborative planning was effective in assessing and then advocating for a rezoning that reflects the areas intricate balance of neighborhood character, economy, physical scale and open space.

GWAPP’s advocacy continues today publicizing and confronting the City’s slow response and lack of action regarding the parks and open spaces promised in the 2005 Rezoning.

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ACRONYM LIST

  • BIP: Bushwick Inlet Park
  • CB1: Community Board 1
  • DCP: Department of City Planning
  • EIS: Environmental Impact Statement
  • FFA: Fox & Fowle Architects
  • OSP: Open Space Plan
  • PPSA: Phillips Preiss Shapiro Associates
  • RLA: R.G. Roesch Landscape Architects
  • TPL: The Trust for Public Land