March 14, 2005
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
TODAY should see progress in one of Mayor Bloom berg's least-publicized top initiatives - revitalizing the north Brooklyn waterfront.
Greenpoint-Williamsburg has been in decline for so long that only the oldest New Yorkers can remember when it thrived. For decades, mayors either ignored it or made things worse. (Giuliani officials, for example, proposed Greenpoint as a destination for the porn industry they were trying to evict from Times Square - saving Manhattan at Brooklyn's expense.)
Bloomberg saw the enormous potential lying beneath the rubble when he took office in 2002, designating the waterfront a top redevelopment priority. Today, the City Planning Commission will vote on the administration's proposals to rezone Greenpoint-Williamsburg - permitting residential development, which has been outlawed since 1961, and opening new parks and esplanades.
The commissioners will almost surely pass the plan, as they should, though with some dissent. But then the debate moves to the City Council, where it may get acrimonious.
Yet the Bloomberg plan's merits are enormous.
First, by authorizing new residential development on the waterfront the plan will correct the injustice of the Wagner administration's 1961 rezoning.
Untilthen, the citysensibly treated housing as a beneficial use, to be built anywhere. But Mayor Wagner's planners, in a disastrous (and futile) effort to save manufacturing jobs, not only extended manufacturing zoning deep into existing residential areas but also forbade any new residential development on the waterfront.
Second, Bloomberg's rezoning recognizes and encourages Greenpoint's energetic mixed-use character. The zoning sets height limits to encourage new buildings to fit into their surroundings. It allows light-industry and commercial uses to co-exist with residences - which is how Greenpoint-Williamsburg developed historically.
Third, the plan will make the now-cut-off waterfront accessible to the public, providing a continuous esplanade along the East River.
Finally, the rezoning is sensitive to the neighborhood's low-rise character, siting lower buildings inland, thus encouraging a smooth transition in scale and style. And while taller buildings will be on the water, building heights will vary - discouraging the monumental, repetitive look of late-20th century architecture.
This is a heroic undertaking, for waterfront development is neither easy nor cheap.
* The area has been industrial, so infrastructure for residential development - streets and utilities - is missing.
* Property previously used for heavy manufacturing is invariably polluted, sometimes seriously. But the polluting industries - and their owners - are long gone, leaving it to government to clean up the mess.
* Because the waterfront is far from subways, many residents will want to own cars. But the East River's high water table prevents underground parking garages, so most parking will have to be above ground.
The most contentious debate by far, however, is over "affordable" housing in the plan.
For the last two decades, housing advocates have pushed inclusionary zoning - IZ. This lets developers build larger market-rate buildings than would be permissible under standard zoning, provided they also put up extra low- and moderate-income units.
In theory, the affordable units are subsidized by the greater density allowed the project. But - as with so many of the advocates' theories - it too often doesn't work that way in the real world.
Because they know they may have to carry the low-end units when the market slows, developers tend to build only high-end units in "their" part of the project - so housing at moderate rates gets squeezed out.
For that reason and others, the Bloomberg administration wanted to avoid IZ on the waterfront; it reluctantly embraced some as a compromise with political necessity. Developers will be able to build towers as high as 350 feet on the water in exchange for making 25 percent of the units affordable. Advocates, including Greenpoint-Williamsburg's community board, say they want 40 percent.
That would be a calamitous mistake. The neighborhood is an untested market for the high-priced market-rate housing that's to subsidize the affordable units. Even at 25 percent, the plan risks trouble the next time New York's volatile real-estate market hits a downturn. At 40 percent, if developers and planners overestimate how many households are willing to pay top dollar to live across the river, the whole plan will be jeopardized. Worse, as lawyer Howard Goldman notes, it's a very short step from this plan to the assumption that the city should mandate affordable housing in every district.
Bloomberg's genius has been to see value where previous mayors saw waste. This rezoning will be the start of something good - if the City Council lets it happen.
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
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