Upzoning in Williamsburg

Just over four years ago, Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council agreed on how to rezone 184 blocks of the Greenpoint and Williamsburg neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

It is just one of 97 rezonings that have taken place during the Bloomberg administration. But it’s also one of the most ambitious. The goal was to give new life to a decaying waterfront while creating affordable housing and parks.

WNYC’s Matthew Schuerman visited Greenpoint and Williamsburg recently. He found the redevelopment is just getting started.

Slideshow: Rezoning Williamsburg

REPORTER: It’s 8:30 in the morning and Michael Freedman-Schnapp is standing in the Bedford Avenue L station, the main gateway into and out of Williamsburg.

FREEDMAN-SCHNAPP: The train is pulling into the station and it’s completely full.

REPORTER: He’s co-chairman of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth.

FREEDMAN-SCHNAPP: So this crowd of about 2 or 3 people deep on the platform is going to start packing in and the only other place you will see this in the system is on the Lexington Avenue line.

REPORTER: By the time the L train makes it to Bedford Avenue, it’s already gone through Canarsie, Bushwick and East Williamsburg—areas that have grown without any rezonings. Over the past four years, New York City Transit says ridership on the L line has increased 27 percent.

FREEDMAN-SCHNAPP: Now you can see there’s even people left on the platform who didn’t want to brave trying to squish themselves in.

REPORTER: Greenpoint and Williamsburg have been growing and gentrifying too, since long before the rezoning. In fact, the rezoning, which will bring an estimated 17-thousand people to these neighborhoods, hasn’t really kicked in yet.

FREEDMAN-SCHNAPP: … in the evening, it’s simply impossible to get up those steps….

REPORTER: As we walk away from the subway station, the neighborhood looks like a backyard barbeque where all the guests are sitting around in shorts until a couple of businessmen in suits walk in. The old-line working class, red brick walk-ups still dominate.

FREEDMAN-SCHNAPP …. You have two family homes, you have three family homes ….

REPORTER: But every once in a while, we encounter a building that was put up in the past four years. It’s just a touch of what’s to come. So far, the Bloomberg administration says there are 1800 units completed or under construction, few of which are actually occupied. That’s less than a quarter of what’s eventually expected to go up.

FREEDMAN-SCHNAPP: …. We just walked under a scaffolding …

REPORTER: The rezoning imposed height limits on the interior blocks. So the new buildings are about the same size as the old ones, except with larger windows and smoother bricks.

REPORTER: Then, at the waterfront, the scale increases dramatically.

FREEDMAN-SCHNAPP: I look out here and I see Miami.

REPORTER: Before us stand four high-rises. One is already open. The others soon will be. Two stretch 30 stories in the air.

FREEDMAN-SCHNAPP: It’s a very glassy look of building.

REPORTER: But these sleek structures are what is allowing Bloomberg to meet the affordable housing goals of the rezoning. So far, about a third of the new apartments throughout the neighborhood are affordable. Along the East River, where developers can build higher if they include subsidized units, more than 100 low-income families moved in last summer.

BLOOMBERG: … We prevailed and eventually we are here today …

REPORTER: Just to the north of the towers, at North 9th Street, stands a vacant lot with a couple of bull dozers moving dirt around. Last week, Mayor Bloomberg and other elected officials gathered to break ground on a park here.

BLOOMBERG: … Bushwick Inlet Park. Nice round of applause for the Brooklyn—There they go.

REPORTER: But many in the community were disappointed that construction hadn’t started sooner, much sooner. The waterfront parks—30 acres of them, plus an esplanade—were supposed to be one of the clear benefits the redevelopment would bring to the neighborhood. And aside from the block-wide section he broke ground on, Bloomberg doesn’t have a schedule for when they will be built, nor money set aside to construct them. That angers David Yassky, the city council member who represents the area. Yassky’s now running for city comptroller.

YASSKY: The existing park space was already overburdened. Now it’s even more so.

REPORTER: In 2005, Yassky made the Bloomberg Administration list, in writing, all of the promises they made to get his support for the rezoning. One of them was a park at the northern end of Commercial Street in Greenpoint. But the city hasn’t even been able to acquire the land for it.

YASSKY: When the mayor’s representative says, look, we’re going to put a new park on commercial Street, I don’t think any body envisioned that four years down the road there would be zero progress.

REPORTER: That parcel’s used by the MTA as a depot. But City Hall hasn’t found a place to relocate the authority’s vehicles.

REPORTER: It’s not just the MTA that doesn’t want to move out of Williamsburg. Dozens of small manufacturing businesses that gave the neighborhood its grit are being forced out also. Z and L Trading Company, owned by Leo Lewin, moved to East New York in October 2005, six months after the rezoning.

LEWIN: So I received a letter from the landlord, gave me three or four months to find a new location.

REPORTER: This trend started long ago. The rezoning sped up the process by making it legal to live in what were formerly manufacturing areas. Lewin used to operate out of 65 Hope Street, a hulking white warehouse that is now sitting empty, waiting for the economy to turn around.

LEWIN: I estimate that we may have about 10 to 15,000 pelts accumulatively in different stages of course.

REPORTER: His company processes furs for hunters and trappers. After the rezoning, he moved to a squat, single story garage in East New York. He’s since cut his staff from 4 employees to just one.

LEWIN In new facility we cannot operate 24 hours as we used to operate in Williamsburg due to unsafe location. People don’t want to stay overnight.

REPORTER: As part of the rezoning, the city promised to set up a fund to reimburse industrial companies for moving expenses. But Lewin had to move his tannery months before that fund got up and running.

LEWIN: I don’t know if the money was spent for moving would be ever make back or if we can be ever reimbursed for.

REPORTER: The city is helping 25 other industrial companies move elsewhere. But surveys by the East Williamsburg Valley Industrial Development Corporation show that at least twice that number of companies have closed up or moved.

REPORTER: Bob Lieber was promoted to Deputy Mayor a year and a half ago. He’s in charge of seeing the rezoning through.

LIEBER I think uh, so far so good. You know we’ve got some very specific goals that were established.

REPORTER: While he says he’s disappointed more parkland hasn’t been built, much of that depends on other government agencies, like the MTA.

LIEBER: I’m as guilty of this as anybody, trying to set these short term goals. What’s important to really remember though is what the long term effect is you want to accomplish.

REPORTER: Lieber acknowledges the rezoning is playing out more slowly than anticipated.

LIEBER: Before it’s all built out, it could be another decade.

REPORTER: He says the rezoning will help concentrate population near transportation, which will be necessary if the city is to grow by another million people by the year 2030.

LIEBER: So one of the things we look at is trying to look at where can we create the right kind of density, where can we create the right kind of growth for the community.

REPORTER: Bloomberg’s rezonings may turn out to be some of his longest-lasting legacies, but they’re also hardest to judge.

REPORTER: If the transformation of Greenpoint and Williamsburg fails to meet its goals, the people here on Bedford Avenue won’t be able to hold Bloomberg accountable. The neighborhoods were rezoned at the end of his first term. Now, at the end of his second, the effects are just beginning to be felt. If Bloomberg gets re-elected, they won’t even have played out by the time his third term ends in the year 2013.

For WNYC, I’m Matthew Schuerman.