November 2017
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Greenpoint and Williamsburg Deserve Better Rezoning

greenpoint williamsburg waterfront fence

One glance at a photo or map of Brooklyn’s East River waterfront makes the point: so much potential and so much to gain. The rezoning that’s presently working its way through city government could lead to more public access to the river, more parkland, better housing and a brighter future for everyone in Brooklyn. Instead, the plan that’s pending is hugely disappointing.

For the past several months, the MAS has been helping community groups in Brooklyn respond to the city’s plan to rezone 350 acres of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. The City Planning Commission passed its plan on March 14, but it’s not too late for the City Council to make a number of badly-needed improvements.

A truly public waterfront, new buildings that are compatible with the existing neighborhood’s scale and more affordable housing are all goals within reach. The decisions that the City Council makes on these issues will foretell success or failure for Brooklyn’s waterfront.

The city’s proposal allows for a row of two dozen residential towers along the East River — a wall up to 40 stories high blocking Brooklyn from the sunset. The creation of this wall of towers rising taller than the Williamsburg Bridge would clash severely with the neighborhood’s average height of three stories.

Worse still, the city’s plan would allow the towers to be built much too close to the proposed public riverfront esplanade. Tall buildings should be built inland and away from open space along the waterfront. Above all, they shouldn’t cast shadows on it.

Public access to the water’s edge and the construction of a walkway along the East River stretching for 1.6 miles is a crucial part of the proposal. But the city’s plan places the burden to build and manage this public space on the backs of 14 different private developers.

The proposed rezoning covers a stretch of Brooklyn waterfront equivalent to the distance between Canal Street and 34th Street in Manhattan. Can 14 different developers and owners guarantee continuity along the waterfront? Simply requiring public access to the East River will not result in a coherent network of parks and greenways. The city should ensure public financing, ownership and management of the waterfront esplanade.

Greenpoint and Williamsburg share a long and venerable past and there remains a wealth of buildings related to that history. Ninety percent of the existing housing stock in Greenpoint was built before World War II; Williamsburg is filled with 19th-century row houses and manufacturing buildings interspersed with historic banks, schools, churches and synagogues.

The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the area failed to adequately address the historic fabric of the neighborhoods, making it difficult to assess the impact of the rezoning on the historic buildings. To address shortcomings in the EIS, the MAS Preservation Committee has been surveying and researching buildings in the area and has nearly completed a long list of historically and architecturally significant buildings.

Housing the wealthiest citizens of Brooklyn in pristine waterfront towers should not be one of our city’s objectives. Thousands of badly needed residences near the East River will be built, but the incentives that the city plans to offer will not induce developers to build enough affordable housing. A reasonable point of compromise between rational height limits and the need for more affordable housing can and should be achieved.

The creative synergy in these neighborhoods between artists and artisans has resulted in many small manufacturing firms and good jobs. Fostering the creative sector has proven to be good public policy elsewhere. Brooklyn will not be able to remain competitive in the future if it sacrifices its remaining manufacturing districts to mixed use zones which have proven to favor market rate and luxury housing.

Greenpoint and Williamsburg need only to look north to the recent rezoning of Hunters Point where rising rents and land costs have forced manufacturers to consider permanently relocating outside New York City. This can be avoided in Greenpoint and Williamsburg if the most job-intensive blocks are taken out of the rezoning, and if a fund for non-profit development of new manufacturing buildings is provided by the city.

For more than 100 years, the MAS has looked after the built environment of this city. We look forward to continuing our partnerships with the local community and other civic groups to promote a more livable city, but the time to act is now: contact your local city councilmember today. All citizens of New York deserve neighborhoods they can be proud of.