Rezoning Williamsburg

Next week, a city council committee will decide whether to rezone the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Under the Bloomberg Administration plan, 175 blocks would be freed up for new uses, there would be 9000 new apartments, and new parks.

But residents and elected officials from the area say the plan gives too much away to developers who’ve recently snapped up large plots of land in the area. WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein reports.

REPORTER: On the Williamsburg waterfront right now, here are razor wire coils around abandoned factories. Rusted chain link fences surround litter-strewn plots of dirt. Fifty five gallon drums stand like sentinels in a long-disused battlefield on the East River.

WINTERS: Where we are standing this exact site would be the site of the beach volleyball competition.

REPORTER: Andrew Winters is an urban planner who works for NYC 2012. For him, looking at disused neighborhoods is part archeology, part computer graphics. One hundred years ago, he says, New Yorkers fled from the waterfront, a roiling brew of disease and effluent from the factories that drew their livelihood from the river. But now, he says, that waterfront provides a magnificent view, a commodity to be mined for New York’s future prosperity. In the late 1990’s he says, NYC 2012 planners began thinking about where to locate Olympic venues.

WINTERS: We were looking for areas that we thought were underused and that had opportunity to be developed as recreational facilities because you really need a lot of space for recreational facilities.

REPORTER: Under their plan, in addition to beach volleyball, this new park would host swimming and diving. NYC 2012 thought a park here would spur a neighborhood transformation.

WINTERS: I don’t think we were the only ones look at this site in that way. It’s almost an obvious site, but I think we were one of the first ones to be very public about saying this is an area we could invest in from a public point of view and really get that private reaction .

REPORTER: But there were others thinking about it. Residents of Williamsburg and Greenpoint were long distressed by this stretch of abandoned industrial buildings and warehouses blocking off the East River. Vincent V. Abate, Chairman of Community Board One is an 87-year resident. He says the community has long fought to maintain its character and deserves to reap the benefits of a re-opened waterfront.

ABATE: When the BQE tore through our community we got together and rebuilt our two and three family homes around it and survived. When the waste transfer stations deemed up their capital we fought back and won.

REPORTER: Over in the halls of government, City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden also had her eye on the East River waterfront.

BURDEN: This proposal has been carefully crafted on a block by block basis.

REPORTER: Under the direction of Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff, who is also the head of NYC 2012, she came up with a plan, presented a recent city council hearing.

BURDEN: Today, we are at a crossroads, a once in a lifetime opportunity to reclaim over 100 acres of neglected and deteriorating waterfront.

REPORTER: When the Bloomberg Administration first presented a plan on Greenpoint and Williamsburg, it included no provisions for affordable housing. Now, the proposal aims for twenty three percent. Even so, every elected official who represents the area is rejecting the current plan. Here’s Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez at the hearings.

VELAZQUEZ: This city cannot, Mr. Chairman, cannot afford to have an economy solely dependent on the development of new high end residential development.

REPORTER: The Bloomberg plan would allow for the construction of luxury high rises along two miles of waterfront. But this is a low-rise neighborhood, Velazquez and the others say, and the city should only allow developers to build high IF they guarantee more affordable units. City Housing Commissioner Sean Donovan says the Bloomberg Administration has concluded you can only push developers so far.

DONOVAN: The balance we have to strike is always to make sure we get the development in the first place. If we lower the base density and increase the requirements on developers as a result of that, the risk that we take is that we get no development at all and if we get no development we get no affordable housing no development of the esplanade.

REPORTER: Over on the Brooklyn waterfront, City Councilmember David Yassky praises the Mayor for some of his efforts to create affordable housing. But when it comes to Williamsburg zoning, he says, the Administration has it wrong.

YASSKY: I think there is zero chance of developers walking away from this waterfront. Look at this view! This is the best view in New York City, maybe in the whole world. You’ve got the entire Manhattan skyline right in front of you.

REPORTER: There are other things Yassky doesn’t like. He says the planned 28-acre park here is far too small, especially for a dense neighborhood that has few parks – and will grow even denser. And he doesn’t like the idea of allowing the developers to own the esplanade that will run along two miles of shoreline – an esplanade he says they’ll be able to close off to the public at dusk.

YASSKY: When a city rezones a piece of waterfront property we’re increasing the value of that property literally ten times something that’s worth a million dollars is worth ten million dollars the instant its rezoned so rather than give that value away to the developers I think the public should benefit from that too.

REPORTER: Land values are indeed skyrocketing here. Trangas President Adam Victor has a claim on one of the pieces of property that would be rezoned. He wants to build an underground power plant there, a plan opposed by the community and the Bloomberg administration. In the late 1990’s, he says, that land cost four million dollars.

VICTOR: Land speculation has gone crazy in Greenpoint because of the talks of this rezoning. Land that was worth 10 million is now worth 200 million. Our property is worth a minimum of 50 million now.

REPORTER: Real estate experts and land records confirm that. In the last five years or so, five groups of developers have snapped up large tracts on the Williamsburg waterfront. One of those developers, George Klein, has an option for a large tract where he wants to build luxury high rise housing.

REPORTER: Klein, who is a major donor to the Republican party and NYC 2012, has met at least three times with Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff to discuss the rezoning, including one as early as February 2002 just after Doctoroff became Deputy Mayor.

REPORTER: Klein wants to make sure the property he has optioned is rezoned for high-rising housing, and not, say, a park. He has also sought assurances that a sludge line that empties adjacent to his property would be moved. That could cost water ratepayers upwards of $100 million. These kinds of discussions are largely out of the public view. Councilmember Yassky says Klein’s actions are typical for real estate developers.

Yassky: I knew nothing about real estate or development till I had this job. A big part of the real estate industry in New York is buying land or buying buildings, then pressuring the government to increase the value of that property and then taking advantage of that increase of value.

REPORTER: Klein declined an interview for this story. Doctoroff’s spokeswoman says he met personally with all the developers about the rezoning. The spokeswoman provided a list of a few dozen groups, from affordable housing advocates to architects to environmentalists, that administration members had met with. But there was no response to a question about whether Doctoroff himself had met with anyone other than developers about the rezoning.

REPORTER: The city council is in negotiations with the Bloomberg administration. The land use committee will have a chance to vote the plan up or down in early May. For WNYC, I’m Andrea Bernstein.

» More on the City's plan for the waterfront