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Waterfront Stories On Film


In a city that lives on legend, the waterfront is the source of not just many great lessons but also great New York stories.

Eighteen films about the New York waterfront are being presented over two weeks in a special film series at the Museum of Modern Art entitled “Waterfront: A Journey around Manhattan” , in celebration of a new book by Phillip Lopate with the same title. The earliest film is Thomas Edison’s “Panorama Waterfront and the Brooklyn Bridge,” which captures a traffic ballet on the East River in 1903 that is as busy and vivid as Times Square today. The latest film is Mark Street’s 2003 “Fulton Fish Market,” a look at the waterfront market slated soon to disappear.

Separate from this series (and scheduled for HBO later in the year) is a 40-minute documentary film called “Ferry Tales,” which follows six women as they commute every day on the 8:15 a.m. Staten Island ferry. It was nominated for an Academy Award this year. There is some irony in the ferry being the subject of such heart-warming national recognition at the same time that it is the object of a flurry of lawsuits and investigations stemming from the crash last year.

But so much about the New York waterfront has this kind of built-in disconnect, its history long a study in irony and contradiction, with present-day repercussions.

The lack of parkland in the city can be blamed, in a way, on its waterfront. When city officials devised the street grid in 1811 -- the leveling of hills and the filling-in of streams that enabled most of Manhattan to be laid out in square blocks.-- they justified the resulting lack of town squares and open spaces by saying that such amenities were unnecessary, given “those large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan Island” and make our natural environment “particularly felicitious.” But waterfront as open space has yet to emerge two centuries later, and we are left with the street grid’s “ruthless utilitarianism” (in the words of historians Ed Burroughs and Mike Wallace).

And just as the Battle of Brooklyn is better-known and better-celebrated than the valiant action by a handful of hearty patriots who held their position in the swamps of Westchester Creek in the Bronx, so now, it is not so surprising that Brooklyn is opening up its waterfront, while in the Bronx, the proposed Beretto Point Park at the foot of Tiffany Street seems less of a planned intention of the city, and more of a consolation prize for allowing the expansion of the sewage treatment plant next door.

Such critical history is often lost in New York, the city with no regrets, which is why the special film series at the MoMA Gramercy Theater is a worthwhile endeavor – ideally helping shape New York’s waterfront of the future by taking us on a cinematic journey through our past.

When “Pickup on South Street” was filmed in 1953 the area was still the emotional and symbolic heart of the city, as it had been for more than two centuries. Today, the Historic Seaport is overshadowed and overwhelmed by the Pier 17 shopping mall. The red scare in the neighborhood today is the specter of a Big Box storing rumored to fill the gap when the Fish Market moves to the Bronx late this year.

If there’s any recent film that captures the feeling of the waterfront in this series it’s Peter Huttons’ “Time and Tide," a silent film that leaves you with the same calm and meditative feeling that you only get at the water’s edge. Even in Prospect, Central or Flushing Meadows Park one is constantly surrounding by the unnatural hum of traffic. “The Docks of New York” or the famed “On the Waterfront” with Marlon Brando might help remind us all that the struggles in play along the waterfront today are not at all new ones. Hopefully they will encourage us to explore new methods and models to address them.

Carter Craft, an urban planner, is program director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.

Grassroots Community Organizing Is Malnourished


 I recently received a polite letter from the Organizing Support Centerannouncing that, due to a funding shortfall, it was shutting down its office, letting go of its staff, and putting its programs on ice, while it figures out how to sustain itself financially.

Over the last six years the center has provided training and technical assistance to hundreds of community organizers, many of them from communities of low or moderate income, who attempted to change their living conditions by confronting decision-makers. In the process of this direct action organizing, every-day people came to develop and exercise leadership collectively and exert power at a local level.

Small organizations, like the one I used to work for, were, through workshops, classes, social functions and other events coordinated by the Organizing Support Center, connected to a vast, sometimes underground, network of other organizations and activists. Disparate grassroots organizing campaigns, some with barely two sticks to rub together, learned from one another, supported each other’s work and grew stronger as a result.

The fact that the Organizing Support Center’s future is unclear is hardly shocking news. In these days of deep philanthropic cutbacks, well-intentioned and well-managed organizations alike are having either to scale back or to shut down. In New York, which is the poster city for unbridled corporate privilege, the grassroots community organizing is notoriously malnourished. While New York certainly has its share of organizing groups doing excellent work, especially around juvenile justice, housing and environmental justice, there is very little formal coordination of grassroots efforts that takes on the proportions of a city-wide movement. As a result, effective neighborhood- based organizing has occurred largely in isolation.

Take for example, the opposition to the New York Nets stadium complex being proposed for downtown Brooklyn. Rarely will you see such a high profile public display of local people and environmental interests going up against larger corporate and political interests. But the residents and business owners who have joined together to challenge the stadium proposal should be able to link up with a diverse, equally high-profile network of allies, a standing organizer army if you will, that is taking on other forms of corporate elbow-throwing. That is not happening.

I recently spoke to a leader of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, one of the groups organizing against the proposed stadium. While he had never heard of the Organizing Support Center, he nonetheless lamented the fact that it, or something else like it, wasn’t around to support his group’s campaign. He explained that neither their strategists nor their foot soldiers had been involved in an effort such as the stadium campaign before. As a result, there are a host of needs – fundraising, legal resource development, negotiation consulting, assistance with team-building and coalition-building – that his group struggles with while going toe-to-toe with the mayor, the local political establishment and one of Brooklyn’s most powerful real estate developers. And this is a group that includes a fair share of homeowners and relatively well-resourced professional people. Imagine how the strictly poor and property-less would fare.

The handful of foundations that consider community organizing worth supporting have long recognized New York’s unrealized potential. The creation of the Organizing Support Center by a group of activists was, after all, the direct result of a series of conversations that a small number of progressive foundations held in the mid-1990s about how to expand the capacity of community organizing groups, nurture a professional community organizing culture and coordinate organizing efforts in New York City. Some of these foundations even funded learning tours in which the center staff and board members visited regions – like the South and Los Angeles - where community organizing networks were reportedly thriving and relatively well-coordinated. Unfortunately, the conversations once held by these foundations, as well as the visions and goals of building a social justice support apparatus, now resemble American intentions to convert to the metric system.

In the meantime, the opportunity costs of not having the Organizing Support Center run on all cylinders are steep and self-limiting. Consider for a moment, the Ford Foundation’s fund for community organizing which has invested millions of dollars in building strong networks and strengthening collaborations in Chicago, Los Angeles and the South. Ford is now mulling over whether it will venture into other cities, including New York, in a new round of community organizing funding. The catch is, Ford forms partnerships with existing community organizing intermediaries and seeks places where a fairly sophisticated community organizing infrastructure is already in place. Without an institution like the Organizing Support Center or at least a recognizable effort to build a broader platform for organizing, New York’s chances of attracting Ford as a partner are slim.

Dating back to when I served on its steering committee, the Organizing Support Center’s board has been confronting issues that, in my mind at least, remain critical questions: Some are internal to that organization: Should the center become a membership organization? How should it define “organizing”? Should it have an explicit political ideology? What model should it use for financial sustainability beyond foundation support?

But there are basic questions that the center can help other organizations answer, like “Where do I find experienced, qualified staff and how do I find the money to do it?” And in the case of spontaneous campaigns and fully volunteer efforts that are trying to level the playing field against commercial and governmental Goliaths, where can these movements turn to find the kind of political consultancy that so many politicians enjoy?

Six years, a handful of staff people and a two hundred thousand yearly budget is not a lot to work with when trying to address these issues, especially when you are simultaneously struggling to provide some semblance of value to an organizing community desperately in need of emotional and material support. It’s like trying to feed the thirst of an entire city with a single garden hose.

Mark Winston Griffith, a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Essence and Spin, was also founder of the non-profit Central Brooklyn Partnership.

Grassroots Community Organizing Is Malnourished


 I recently received a polite letter from the Organizing Support Centerannouncing that, due to a funding shortfall, it was shutting down its office, letting go of its staff, and putting its programs on ice, while it figures out how to sustain itself financially.

Over the last six years the center has provided training and technical assistance to hundreds of community organizers, many of them from communities of low or moderate income, who attempted to change their living conditions by confronting decision-makers. In the process of this direct action organizing, every-day people came to develop and exercise leadership collectively and exert power at a local level.

Small organizations, like the one I used to work for, were, through workshops, classes, social functions and other events coordinated by the Organizing Support Center, connected to a vast, sometimes underground, network of other organizations and activists. Disparate grassroots organizing campaigns, some with barely two sticks to rub together, learned from one another, supported each other’s work and grew stronger as a result.

The fact that the Organizing Support Center’s future is unclear is hardly shocking news. In these days of deep philanthropic cutbacks, well-intentioned and well-managed organizations alike are having either to scale back or to shut down. In New York, which is the poster city for unbridled corporate privilege, the grassroots community organizing is notoriously malnourished. While New York certainly has its share of organizing groups doing excellent work, especially around juvenile justice, housing and environmental justice, there is very little formal coordination of grassroots efforts that takes on the proportions of a city-wide movement. As a result, effective neighborhood- based organizing has occurred largely in isolation.

Take for example, the opposition to the New York Nets stadium complex being proposed for downtown Brooklyn. Rarely will you see such a high profile public display of local people and environmental interests going up against larger corporate and political interests. But the residents and business owners who have joined together to challenge the stadium proposal should be able to link up with a diverse, equally high-profile network of allies, a standing organizer army if you will, that is taking on other forms of corporate elbow-throwing. That is not happening.

I recently spoke to a leader of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, one of the groups organizing against the proposed stadium. While he had never heard of the Organizing Support Center, he nonetheless lamented the fact that it, or something else like it, wasn’t around to support his group’s campaign. He explained that neither their strategists nor their foot soldiers had been involved in an effort such as the stadium campaign before. As a result, there are a host of needs – fundraising, legal resource development, negotiation consulting, assistance with team-building and coalition-building – that his group struggles with while going toe-to-toe with the mayor, the local political establishment and one of Brooklyn’s most powerful real estate developers. And this is a group that includes a fair share of homeowners and relatively well-resourced professional people. Imagine how the strictly poor and property-less would fare.

The handful of foundations that consider community organizing worth supporting have long recognized New York’s unrealized potential. The creation of the Organizing Support Center by a group of activists was, after all, the direct result of a series of conversations that a small number of progressive foundations held in the mid-1990s about how to expand the capacity of community organizing groups, nurture a professional community organizing culture and coordinate organizing efforts in New York City. Some of these foundations even funded learning tours in which the center staff and board members visited regions – like the South and Los Angeles - where community organizing networks were reportedly thriving and relatively well-coordinated. Unfortunately, the conversations once held by these foundations, as well as the visions and goals of building a social justice support apparatus, now resemble American intentions to convert to the metric system.

In the meantime, the opportunity costs of not having the Organizing Support Center run on all cylinders are steep and self-limiting. Consider for a moment, the Ford Foundation’s fund for community organizing which has invested millions of dollars in building strong networks and strengthening collaborations in Chicago, Los Angeles and the South. Ford is now mulling over whether it will venture into other cities, including New York, in a new round of community organizing funding. The catch is, Ford forms partnerships with existing community organizing intermediaries and seeks places where a fairly sophisticated community organizing infrastructure is already in place. Without an institution like the Organizing Support Center or at least a recognizable effort to build a broader platform for organizing, New York’s chances of attracting Ford as a partner are slim.

Dating back to when I served on its steering committee, the Organizing Support Center’s board has been confronting issues that, in my mind at least, remain critical questions: Some are internal to that organization: Should the center become a membership organization? How should it define “organizing”? Should it have an explicit political ideology? What model should it use for financial sustainability beyond foundation support?

But there are basic questions that the center can help other organizations answer, like “Where do I find experienced, qualified staff and how do I find the money to do it?” And in the case of spontaneous campaigns and fully volunteer efforts that are trying to level the playing field against commercial and governmental Goliaths, where can these movements turn to find the kind of political consultancy that so many politicians enjoy?

Six years, a handful of staff people and a two hundred thousand yearly budget is not a lot to work with when trying to address these issues, especially when you are simultaneously struggling to provide some semblance of value to an organizing community desperately in need of emotional and material support. It’s like trying to feed the thirst of an entire city with a single garden hose.

Mark Winston Griffith, a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Essence and Spin, was also founder of the non-profit Central Brooklyn Partnership.

Urban Issues: Housing


 

URBAN ISSUES - HOUSING

• • • • • • •

John Edwards

Edwards proposes an American Dream Tax Credit that would offer low and moderate income families up to $5,000 to help cover the cost of a down payment when buying a home. He also supports increasing funding for section 8 vouchers and the enforcement of fair housing laws. Edwards supports Community Block Grants to improve neighborhoods.

John Kerry

Kerry proposes an Affordable Housing Trust Fund that would create 1.5 million rental apartments over ten-years. He also proposes a Community Development Homeownership Tax Credit that would encourage the construction and rehabilitation of 500,000 homes over the next ten years. Kerry also promises to enforce fair housing laws.

Dennis Kucinich

Kucinich wants to create a housing trust fund to build 1.5 million new apartments and houses over ten years. He also proposes restoring full federal funding for Department of Housing and Urban Development's section 8 vouchers. He promises to enforce fair housing laws.

Al Sharpton

Sharpton supports housing assistance for low-income families and promises to enforce fair housing laws.

George W. Bush

Bush created the American Dream Down Payment Act that over the last two years helped 80,000 people purchase homes. With this act, the Bush Administration aims to “dismantle the barriers to home ownership.” In addition to helping low-income families with funding, the program puts pressure on mortgage companies and the real-estate industry to provide opportunities for minorities to purchase affordable housing. The White House claims there are 1 million new minority housing owners since 2002. Bush estimates at least 5.5 million new minority homeowners by the end of the decade.

However, the Bush administration is increasing requirements in order to qualify for federal housing subsidies. Beginning January 2004, a new regulation requires 8 hours of community service for approximately 60,000 people who live in public housing in New York City. If they do not abide by the regulations, they can be evicted. At the same time in recent years, federal subsidies for low-income housing in New York City have decreased. Between 1999 and 2003, the federal subsidy for the housing authority decreased by $58 million or 6 percent.

• • • • • • •
Back to Urban Issues Main Page
• • • • • • •

GOTHAM GAZETTE’S RELATED ARTICLES


Urban Agenda: Housing
• Federal Housing Policy and New York City
• Public Housing
• Section 8 Housing

 

The Make-Up Of The Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation


It does not look as if the diverse downtown communities will have much to say about plans to redevelop Lower Manhattan. The new 11-member commission named by Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to plan for the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan is top-heavy with business executives and City Hall insiders. Local community leaders, people who live and work in the area, and the victims of the economic fallout from September 11 are not included.

The governor named seven of the panel members and effectively retains control of the new body, named the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation. The authority is a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corporation, headed by Pataki appointee Charles Gargano. It has the power to condemn land and override city land use regulations. In other words, it can thumb its nose at the city's new mayor and city council.

Four of the appointees to the new body are from the banking and financial services sectors. Two are from the ranks of Giuliani staffers who are wondering whether they will have a job after January 1. And another is a former Giuliani commissioner who is now a corporate executive.

The only representative from labor, Ed Malloy of the Building and Construction Trades Council, can be counted on to advocate any redevelopment that means more jobs for the limited and exclusive membership of the building trades. But no one represents the 80,000 workers who lost their jobs after September 11 or the 80,000 whose work has been cut back. Most of them are or were in the service unions, and many were not unionized at all. Many are immigrants whose access to relief and services has been limited.

Only one of the nominees, Madelyn Wils, Chair of Community Board 1, represents the directly affected neighborhoods. Portions of Community Board 2 were also heavily impacted but they are not represented. Absent are representatives from Lower Manhattan's diverse residential community, which includes Tribeca, Battery Park City and Chinatown. Absent are representatives of the families of the victims, who have a stake in shaping any memorial planned for the site and its surroundings.

WHY THE BIG RUSH?

Pataki's move might give one the impression that the governor is moving swiftly to support redevelopment of lower Manhattan after the September 11 disaster. However, John Whitehead, chairman of the new development corporation, made the point that "How quickly its done is not the primary concern. We want it to be done right." This makes the naming of the directors look more like a timely move to preempt any initiatives taken by Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg, who during his campaign stated that an independent authority was not needed. Most estimates are it will take five to ten years to redevelop the area. If there is no big rush, then why move so quickly to name an authority?

In the early days after September 11, downtown property owners, particularly Larry Silverstein, who owns the lease on the World Trade Center site, talked loudly about the need to reconstruct the financial district and the twin towers as speedily as possible as a defiant symbol of resistance against terrorism. There was talk of the need to override local land use and environmental rules. It soon became clear that it would take at least a year to clean up the site and many more to rebuild. In his election campaign Fernando Ferrer suggested that this was an opportunity to strengthen business districts outside of Lower Manhattan, a strategy that would help keep businesses from moving out of the city. Mayor-elect Bloomberg appears to share that view.

Cries were also heard from the residents and businesses in Lower Manhattan. They noted that Wall Street was just one of several parts of an evolving mixed-use community including over 100,000 residents, thousands of retailers, schools, parks and a network of community services. Over the last decade, thousands of vacant office units were converted to residential use, a response to the enormous commercial vacancy rate. In Tribeca, industrial buildings were converted to residential units. Before rushing to create new office space, it would be best to consider the millions of square feet of vacant office space that followed construction of the World Trade Center in the 1970s. Would it make sense to once again build for a market that never was there in the first place?

WHO WILL PLAN?

Will the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation be able to create a plan that makes sense to all those concerned about the future of the downtown? From the solitude of their office towers, can the appointed commissioners hear the diverse voices and build consensus? Or will they plunge ahead and use the exceptional powers granted by the governor to implement their own plans?

Is it too much to hope that the governor will name more directors and bring in leaders with roots in the affected communities to coordinate the planning efforts? Because everyone now recognizes the need to rebuild Lower Manhattan in the context of a comprehensive plan, the Authority could sponsor a broad public process that brings in all sectors of the community to develop a vision and strategy for the area. This should be coordinated by Community Boards 1 and 2, and the mechanism should be Section 197-a of the City Charter, which allows community boards to submit plans to the City Planning Commission and City Council for official approval. The redevelopment authority should pledge in advance to finance implementation of the projects that win consensus in the 197-a plan. This could have the effect of building consensus among the community's diverse sectors, and could minimize the inevitable expense and delays of conflict and litigation.

A 197-a plan for Lower Manhattan would help stimulate community planning throughout the city by setting a precedent of producing plans that get implemented. Up to now, communities have been reluctant to do 197-a plans because the city has made no commitment to help them or implement their recommendations. The plan for downtown Manhattan could be the first in a series of much-needed plans that engage diverse communities in plotting their futures.

The Overdevelopment Debate


 

Related Articles:
• Embracing Growth, Preserving Neighborhoods by Richard Barth

On our Community Gazettes, a look at three specific struggles:
• Staten Island: Confronting Rapid Growth
• Bay Ridge: Fighting the Fedders Houses
• Throgs Neck: Protecting a Waterfront Community

A red Cape Cod house on Bentley Street in the Staten Island neighborhood of Tottenville once had a backyard, but no longer. Where once was a lawn there now are two new two-family homes, bringing four new families to the neighborhood.

This scene, reported by the Staten Island Advance is being repeated throughout Staten Island, and through the rest of the city, in places like Bayside in Queens and Throgs Neck in the Bronx, where residents believe that an explosion of poorly planned, badly constructed, ugly housing developments threaten their attractive neighborhoods.

Old single-family houses have been torn down to make way for rows of flat-roofed, wooden townhouses in Staten Island and bulky brick apartment buildings in Queens. Developers have demolished bungalows in Throgs Neck and replaced them with as many as six attached houses. Few of the new developments offer open space, parks or play areas. Some have no trees or landscaping.

All of this construction adds to the number of people in the neighborhood. But the city has not increased basic services enough to accommodate the new people. The result is new burdens on the old residents.

But now the city is offering some relief. At his State of the City speech at the Silvercup Studios in Queens last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged to help fight overdevelopment. "Physical improvements and development are part of our efforts to improve neighborhoods, but we'll also work to end overdevelopment where it has gotten out of hand," he said. After tremendous applause he smiled and said, "I thought you'd like that."

But what is overdevelopment, particularly in a city whose fame and fortune come from its skyscrapers and towers, people crowding onto sidewalks and into trains, its sheer human density and diversity? And how can the city balance the need to protect neighborhoods with the demand for affordable housing? The problems encapsulated by the term overdevelopment are real, but they are also complex, messy, and not easily resolved.

DEVELOPMENT VS. OVERDEVELOPMENT

Development in New York City is regulated by the zoning code of 1961. Written at a time when officials believed planning should be centralized, the code assumed the city would have a population of some 12 million people and zoned accordingly. It allowed for denser construction than had existed previously in many residential neighborhoods that had predominantly single-family homes. Along with conditions that make building new single-family homes onerous and expensive, the plan virtually required multiple units in many neighborhoods.

High market demand for the new housing accelerated the trend toward larger homes, townhouses and apartment buildings. Townhouses in Staten Island, for example, are priced between $250,000 and $500,000. Although loathed by longtime residents of the borough, they sell quickly, usually to New Yorkers moving in from other boroughs. (See related story.)

The reason is simple. As Alan Cappelli of the Building Industry Association points out, buyers get more house for their money in Staten Island than anywhere else in New York. The market demand is immense, and no amount of neighborhood protest is going to stem those forces.

Faced with the growing number of New Yorkers in search of housing, the city has two choices. It can adopt policies that would squeeze more families into existing units, producing the kind of crowding found in many parts of Queens where dozens of immigrants cram into housing designed for a single family. The second choice is to permit more construction.

New York City's well-being requires development – particularly new housing to accommodate the hard-working people who want to live here and contribute to the economic and social life of the city. And it is certainly better for the city that home-owning, tax-paying New Yorkers move to Staten Island than to, say, New Jersey.

Yet Bloomberg, who generally supports economic development, has entered this war on the side of the anti-development forces, condemning "overdevelopment" and instructing the City Planning Commission to do something about it in the outer boroughs.

The mayor says he knows overdevelopment when he sees it. He describes "houses so poorly designed that they have front doors that open directly into the street and houses that have no front yards, that even lack sidewalks." The mayor went on to condemn developments "that seem, with little exaggeration, to pile homes, one right on top of one another."

The mayor's examples, however, are extreme and apply primarily to Staten Island. Indeed, the nature of the overdevelopment charge is generally that some new building is in the wrong place. Sensible regulation can easily address the problem of the poorly designed houses or those without sidewalks. The dense development the mayor cites, on the other hand, describes the very essence of Manhattan.

Despite what might look like a rush to judgment, however, Bloomberg intends to put expert opinion between him and angry residents: He has instructed city planning to carry out studies on growth management in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens, similar to the study already conducted in Staten Island.

NEIGHBORHOOD CONCERNS

The features of overdevelopment most likely to rile neighbors are traffic and the disappearance of open space. "Overdevelopment is the No. 1 issue here," James Vacca, district manager of Community Board 10 in the Bronx, which covers Throgs Neck, Pelham Bay and City Island, told the Daily News (See related story). "Our open space is disappearing, blocks are becoming congested beyond belief and there's not a parking space to be found."

The vanishing open space is usually, of course, private property and therefore available for development. When it is city property, such as a community garden, community boards have an opportunity to weigh in.

One only has to drive through some of the communities to understand the concerns about traffic. At its best, New York's planning has encouraged high-density development at places where subway and bus lines converge -- the West Side of Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn, Jamaica Center -- and low-density development far from transportation. Most of the neighborhoods reeling from overdevelopment are indeed badly served by public transportation. Thus more development and more people mean more cars and the parking woes, slow travel times, noise and pollution that they bring.

But a number of experts argue that choking off development is not the solution. Some say the focus should be on improving mass transit to serve the newly developed areas better. And others argue that what is needed is a judicious combination of allowing for more density in some areas –- or upzoning -- and downzoning, or permitting less density, in others.

Mobilizing the Region, a transportation advocacy group, points out that Staten Island's proposed huge downzoning -- which would make attached homes illegal and detached homes the norm -- is "a Band-aid solution for a larger problem," which "is too much unplanned, medium-density development. A better solution is to create growth centers with increased housing density and commercial areas.” This, it says, would focus the island's economic development where it makes most sense.

On the other hand, simply downzoning will freeze things as they are now and leave the traffic nightmare in place. While Staten Island needs more and better mass transit, Mobilizing the Region argues, its "de-centered nature does not lend itself to intensive transit investment. Without any centers, a good mass transit system is simply not feasible."

Some of the objections to overdevelopment focus on aesthetics and will not be addressed by changes in zoning. "The word overdevelopment doesn't quite describe the concern in Bayside and Bay Ridge, which largely has to do with the replacement of big old houses with rental units that are much less charming but that conform to the use and bulk restrictions of the zoning code," says Norman Marcus, former general counsel of the City Planning Commission and now a lawyer with Swidler Berlin.

Such changes are taking place in other attractive neighborhoods as well. As Brendan Sexton, who owns a house in Staten Island's historic St. George district, says a bit sadly, "the day of the detached single family home is probably over. They're just too expensive to build. The two- or three-family home is more realistic."

WHAT IS TO BE DONE

Some problems can be solved by the kind of sensible rezoning that the current city planning director, Amanda Burden, prefers. (See Embracing Growth, Preserving Neighborhoodsby Richard Barth.) In Staten Island, for example, the commission proposes that new one-family homes have two on-site parking spaces rather than one, and two-family homes have three spaces rather than two. The commission is also sensitive to the many ugly unintended consequences of earlier zoning restrictions and is proposing new homes that feature traditional pitched roofs rather than the flat roofs now encouraged.

City planning has also intervened piecemeal with some special district zoning, such as in Bay Ridge (see related story ). While special districts allow planners to avoid having to overhaul the entire code, they only provide a stopgap.

But beyond zoning, the basic problem in many growing areas is that the city has been derelict in providing the new services needed by new residents. The city knew that the opening of the Verrazano Bridge in 1964 would set off a great migration to once unsettled Staten Island. But government never provided the necessary public transportation or roads to carry people to jobs and services. Nor is the government seriously contemplating further transportation investment in the near future.

In the end, the city is going to need to zone to increase density in some areas, particularly in desirable sections near both public transportation and the waterfront, and to downzone areas that truly cannot accommodate more people.

The city is proposing to do this in some neighborhoods. It hopes, for example, to convert large swaths of manufacturing areas to residential use. On part of the Brooklyn waterfront, this would allow for the building of apartment towers as high as 35 stories. In other neighborhoods, such as East Harlem and Park Slope, the city has rezoned to allow high-rise housing to go up on some avenues, while preserving lower density on side streets.

Although acknowledging that it is usually easier to change the zoning to decrease density than to increase it, Michael Schill, director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at the NYU School of Law, says he would like to see the city allow for increased density in some areas. “The city is doing all this good stuff in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, but why not comprehensively look at the entire city? Where is transportation strong? What neighborhoods have the infrastructure to add people?" he says.

Schill notes that when the city rebuilt certain neighborhoods over the last two decades, it deliberately focused on low-density housing. Now those neighborhoods could sustain higher density. "The city did such a good job that it created a market for those areas that can now be developed more intensively,” he says. “The Bronx has great transportation. It was built for a lot of people, then it emptied out, then the city rebuilt the Bronx but with fairly low density. We now need to recognize there is a market for density along with a scarcity of vacant land. We need to increase density when areas can support it."

Despite the attention paid to overdevelopment, Norman Marcus points out that overall, the outer boroughs may have suffered until recently from a "dearth of construction." The new development, particularly in the Bronx, he says, represents "a vote of confidence in the city, a sign that the problem all along hasn't been the zoning but the market's unwillingness to go into some of these areas."

But the political fallout for any mayoral administration proposing denser zoning could be immense. The solution is probably that time-honored device of all well-intentioned but uneasy elected officials: a commission to look at the proposal, with a report due at a date well into the future.

Julia Vitullo-Martin, former executive director of the Citizens Housing & Planning Council, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

 

 

Embracing Growth, Preserving Neighborhoods


Related Articles:
Overdevelopment by Julia Vitullo-Martin

On our Community Gazettes, a look at three specific struggles:
Staten Island: Confronting Rapid Growth
Bay Ridge: Fighting the Fedders Houses
Throgs Neck: Protecting a Waterfront Community

New York City is undergoing a building boom, with more than 21,000 housing construction permits issued last year, the highest since 1973. As a result, some neighborhoods are being overwhelmed by development. Many quiet, tree-lined communities are struggling with traffic, a lack of parking, and housing that is vastly out-of-character for areas that are used to single-family homes and big lawns.

New Yorkers in neighborhoods fiercely protect their communities, and with good reason. The problems of congestion affect New York City's long-term prospects for business and job growth.

However, halting development altogether is not the answer. Our need to house a growing population is too great.

Instead, we at the Bloomberg administration are working with local elected officials, community representatives and builders to address real problems in these communities, while still allowing housing development of an appropriate density, type and scale.

OVERDEVELOPMENT AND SOLUTIONS

Many neighborhoods are beyond the reach of subway and bus lines, and so many households often have two or more cars.

Some new developments in these neighborhoods do not have enough off-street parking. A moderate-sized lot that once would have been the site of three single-family homes, might these days be developed with as many as 12 dwellings generating up to 24 cars. Even with driveways, garages and curbside space, many blocks cannot accommodate so many additional automobiles.

These larger dwellings are possible because of zoning rules that go back four decades, which enable new housing to be larger than its neighbors. The very qualities that make these neighborhoods attractive and desirable are being compromised by new multi-family development.In parts of Staten Island, for example, homes once had big back yards; today they often are developed as multiple buildings with minimal front, side or rear yards.

Last fall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg?s Staten Island Growth Management Task Force developed ways to revamp the zoning regulations for the borough that, when implemented later this year, will result in better housing and a better neighborhood fit.

Under the plan, parking requirements would be increased from the current one space per dwelling to two spaces for a single-family house, and three spaces for a two-family home. This will require somewhat wider lots and reduce the number of units on many lots.

New rules for developments on private roads and interior lots would be similar to those for lots that face public streets throughout the city, ensuring that new construction would enhance, not detract, from neighboring homes. There will no longer be any new housing without front and rear yards, or with stoops descending directly into the street.

BALANCING HOUSING GROWTH

The Department of City Planning has an ambitious, two-pronged program that seeks to create new opportunities for housing throughout the city, and to put in place new zoning that responds to local needs and conditions.

In the Bronx, for example, mixed-use zoning has already been adopted to spur housing development in Morrisania, even as special preservation rules were enacted for historic City Island.

Last year, we enacted the first comprehensive revisions to Harlem's zoning in more than 40 years. New zoning for 100 blocks of the community will preserve the row house character of its side streets while greatly increasing housing density on the avenues, which are well served by mass transit.

In Brooklyn, Fourth Avenue in Park Slope will embrace new 12-story residential buildings, while new development on brownstone-lined historic blocks will need to match the existing building heights and footprints.

In Queens, zoning changes will ensure that new development reflects the low-density character of such neighborhoods as Forest Hills, Rego Park and Holliswood, whereas new opportunities for growth will now be directed to Northern Boulevard and North Corona's other broad thoroughfares.

And, in keeping with the mayor's ambitious strategy to create 65,000 new units of housing over five years, thousands of apartments will be built along Brooklyn's East River waterfront, the west side of Manhattan and other neighborhoods throughout the city that are well served by transportation.

Zoning for other areas will also benefit from a fresh look.

In the Bronx, city planning studies are underway in Riverdale and Morris Park. In Brooklyn, we will be updating the zoning for Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. And in Queens, we are studying Bellerose, Kew Gardens/Richmond Hill, Bayside, and East Flushing. Lessons learned on Staten Island and in the zoning study of Throgs Neck in the Bronx will be applied elsewhere, if appropriate.

We will insist on tree planting on sidewalks and landscaping that camouflages parking to enhance the look and lifestyle of these neighborhoods. We will distinguish between areas that are far from the city's mass transit system and others that are better served. Our lower density neighborhoods deserve the same level of attention as the brownstone blocks on the Upper East Side, which were rezoned to protect their special character in the mid-1980s.

If we are to continue to accommodate a growing population and protect our precious neighborhood assets, we must preserve the very qualities that make these neighborhoods special without stopping housing construction.

We must continue to pursue new housing opportunities in the right locations and at the right scale. By doing so, we can increase the supply of housing for everyone and preserve one of the special attributes of New York City, the diversity of housing and neighborhood choices. Here in New York, we can choose from center-city high rises; converted warehouses in mixed use areas; the "suburbs" of garden apartments and one- and two-family homes.

With creative and responsible planning, we can balance neighborhood preservation and the need to create housing for New Yorkers, and we will.

Richard Barth is executive director of the Department of City Planning.

 

 

Decline In Tenant Organizers


Some of the tenants in an apartment building on Haven Avenue in Washington Heights were outraged recently. Their building, with a marble lobby, spacious rooms and beautiful views of the Hudson, had been a grand address when it was built in 1920. But for a while now, the residents have been beset, as one tenant puts it, by an "accumulation of annoyances" -- a lack of hot water, a broken front door, infestation of rodents and vermin, a faulty intercom, a spotty elevator, and a landlord who has been unresponsive to their requests for repairs. So they were aghast when they got their new rent bill in the mail, and saw that it included an extra charge of $3.86 per room.

A few tenants began to meet informally to figure out what to do. It was the beginning of a tenant association on the 200 block of Haven Avenue in Washington Heights - one of countless thousands of such tenant associations throughout the city.

The Haven Avenue tenants have only begun what will likely be a long, difficult effort to challenge their landlord. In their first official meeting, only 12 out of the 160 apartments were represented. "We're not even a zygote yet," one tenant said. Their effort, like those of other tenants in the city, is made all the more difficult because of the steady decline in professional tenant organizers.

Tenant associations have been an important part of housing in New York City for more than a century. State and city laws specifically establish the right of tenants to organize, forbidding landlords from harassing or punishing tenants for exercising that right, and permitting tenants to meet in a public space of their building at reasonable hours.

But some tenant advocates are convinced that tenants are suffering because of a decline in organizers. There used to be hundreds. Two decades ago, most of the 200 community organizations that are members of the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development listed in its directory "tenant organizing" as part of their work, according to the association's director of advocacy, Adrian DiLollo. That is no longer the case. Recently, the organization awarded grants to only 15 community groups specifically to finance tenant organizing.

Why did so many organizers leave the front lines of tenant issues? The main reason, advocates said, is lack of money to do organizing.

"There are fewer organizers because it's hard to raise funds for organizers - harder now than in the past, certainly," said Michael McKee, associate director of New York State Tenants and Neighbors.

State Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat representing the East Side of Manhattan, said the de-funding of organizations that did tenant organizing was a strategic goal of conservative Republicans.

"I don't feel it is an accident," Krueger said. "I can definitely tell you that in the 20 years or so of my career, we saw a dramatic drop in the funds available to do advocacy work on behalf of low-income people. It shifted fairly heavily on the city level when Giuliani came in, and in Congress with (former House Speaker) Newt Gingrich and in the state with Governor Pataki." McKee agreed.

"There's no question about it," he said. "We went through this during the Reagan Administration. De-funding the Left, that's what the Republicans call it."

The work itself is not for the faint hearted, McKee said, and there are few career organizers.

"It's very hard work, very frustrating work and it's low paid," he said. "And people don't tend to stick with it unless they must. It's the kind of thing that people do for a few years and then they do something else with their lives.

"There are more defeats than victories as a rule," he continued. "It's the kind of thing that a lot of people just find too hard."

Some say the decline in organizers may even have diminished the effect of the tenant lobby in City Hall and in Albany. Irene Baldwin, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development, pointed to the fate of city-owned vacant buildings (known as the in rem housing stock) under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's administration as an example.

"Under the Giuliani administration, all of a sudden the in rem housing, a lot of it was diverted from affordable housing programs - a diversion from a very effective housing plan," said Baldwin. "People challenged that, but that was an example where I think if communities had been stronger we could have had more of an impact."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's housing plan, which includes building or renovating 65,000 units of housing over five years, also reflects the decline of tenant organizers, she added: "There's not much of a role for community based groups because grassroots voices have not been as strong." Jenny Laurie, executive director of the Met Council on Housing, agreed: "I could talk for days about what tenant organizing in the past provided, in terms of building a tenant movement, educating tenants, and not just in their own building." Evan Hess, director of the community organizing department at the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, said his staff tries to link tenant organizing with broader political goals. The organization is now campaigning to obtain more money in the city budget to pay for code inspectors, for city attorneys to litigate cases and for emergency repairs.

"We actively try to make a link between the two here," Hess said. Some community-wide efforts "grew out of tenant organizing."

The consequences of fewer organizers are more significant for tenants, everyone agreed.

"Fewer people are aware of their rights, the ability to get support for organizing in their buildings, and knowing alternatives to resolving problems," said Larry Wood of Goddard Riverside Community Center. He said that was particularly ominous for people who find themselves in Housing Court, where tenants frequently represent themselves.

"There're more people going on their own then ever before," Wood said. "We're further and further away from" getting tenants the right to legal representation than ever.

Laurie of the Met Council on Housing said that tenants are often now "at the mercy" of city agencies. "Their only recourse is to call 311 and complain, and basically wait in a long queue for help."

The fact that tenants were organized "forced judges to deal with tenants on a different level," she said. "I think it was easier 15 years ago to get a judge to pay attention to housing conditions and the affordability of housing. The tenants won more frequently - the right to get services restored - and they won abatements."

On Haven Avenue in Washington Heights tenants have received help from the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, which directs one of the largest community organizing efforts in the city with a staff of six. It is hardly enough.

"We don't have the resources to meet the demand," Hess said.

"Any tenant group that can stay together will be successful," he said. "It's a question of persistence. If they can stick together and overcome the indifference that they find in courts and city agencies, and keep pushing, they can eventually get repairs."

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eight Ways To A Better Future Now


With talk of new stadiums for the Jets and the Nets, new buildings for the site of the World Trade Center, and the possibility that the Olympics will come to the city in 2012, New Yorkers seem to be focusing lately on the future, and hoping for a glorious one.

This has happened before – in the World’s Fairs of 1939 and 1964, for example – and, just as with those ambitious projects, the advocates envisioning an Olympics 2012 in New York City promise investments in preparation for the games that will result in permanent improvements in the city’s waterfront and waterfront communities. But those who remember past promises of future glory know that many of the shining new pools and shimmering lakes have turned into decrepit pools and silted-in lakes.

In any case, we shouldn't have to stay in a holding pattern until July 2005 (when the 2012 Olympics host city will be announced) in order to make improvements. There is much to improve right now.

A. Embrace the Water:

1) In the city's rush to revitalize the waterfront, we are overlooking the most important physical asset: the water itself. We should make water usage and water dependency a priority for waterfront land use policy. In 2002, the city conducted their first ever inventory of publicly owned waterfront. Now we need to take the next step and identify those inlets, bays, creeks and reaches of rivers where in-water opportunities exist.

2) The city has nearly a dozen marinas, stretching from Throgs Neck to Jamaica Bay. Too many of these places are viewed as physical blights rather than community assets. The city parks department should conduct a review of all municipal marinas and explore new partnerships with community-based organizations, particularly the variety of young and upstart rowing and boating programs.

3) Many great waterfront cities have a dock master, someone who understands the physical characteristics of the water (and the submerged lands, pile fields, and ship wrecks underneath) and can advise other agencies, communities, and waterway users on how that area can be used and maintained. New York should consider this as well.

B. Face up to End-of-Pipe and Bottom-of-Pail Problems

4) The greatest threat to water quality is our waste. One type of waste is the oily, polluted runoff from streets, highway and roofs that comes with every Nor'easter or summer downpour. In such a heavily paved environment as New York, every serious rain event makes our beaches unswimmable and our fish and crabs inedible. Our current municipal strategy for dealing with storm water is to build giant containment tanks that can capture and hold the "storm surges," as they are called. This end-of-pipe "solution," however, is perpetuating the dangerous trend of creating a whole new infrastructure that future generations will have to pay to maintain. To look at it another way, our gas taxes are being used to build new transportation facilities, which create more runoff. Then our water rates are raised to help pay for the new infrastructure needed to capture this runoff. It's a vicious cycle that is also costing us billions.

Rather than have tax- and rate payers perpetuating the problem of endemic over-paving, the city should institute a "Zero Tolerance for Polluted Runoff." This comprehensive greening program would include new wetland buffers at the water's edge, a giant green grid of new street and sidewalk trees throughout the city, and green roofs on buildings.

5) With two of the city's largest central business districts located on the island of Manhattan, we need more marine transfer facilities in midtown and downtown.

C. Invest In Better Mobility

6) Air quality is threatened with the growth of marine transit for goods, for people, and for trash. On the water, so-called "marine engines" are not regulated by the EPA as are land-based engines. New York City, home of the most famous ferry service in the nation, should invest in clean fuel technology to help our fleet get to the forefront of marine transit. The Staten Island Ferry will be 100 years old next year. We should make a more substantive investment in its long-term success that lasts long after the inevitable blue and orange balloons have gone flat.

7) Truck traffic exacts a tremendous toll on the physical infrastructure of the city, from the cobblestone streets of Soho to the structural steel and deck plates of the river crossings. The movement of goods is critical to keeping New York a center of world trade and business.

The city should look at truck ferries as a way to reduce truck traffic and increase the reliability with which goods are delivered. New freight ferries from the Greenville Yards in Jersey City to Brooklyn Army Terminal on Atlantic Avenue could help reduce truck traffic along other congested routes such as the Verrazzano Bridge or Gowanus Expressway.

8) And last, with long-range planning back in vogue for the first time in over a decade, the city should put stock into other long-range planning efforts now ongoing. City University's Gotham Center is looking ahead to "NY2050," and a "Comprehensive Port Improvement Plan" is looking ahead as far as 2063.

Carter Craft, an urban planner, is director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.

The Plans For Downtown Brooklyn Ignore Both People And Public Spaces


The city's planners are working overtime to clear the way for over 60 million square feet of new office space in such business centers as West Midtown, Lower Manhattan, Long Island City, and now downtown Brooklyn. While realtors see a big demand for prime office space now, it remains to be seen whether this amount of commercial space will be needed in the long run with the continuing trend of gradual movement to the suburbs. City officials backing this expansion are acting more like cheerleaders for local real estate than custodians of the quality of life in our neighborhoods.

The new downtown Brooklyn rezoning plan is now moving through the city's land use approval process and local residents and civic groups are turning out in droves to raise their questions and register their complaints. Even though some were involved in earlier discussions about the plans, there are still so many things that are important to neighborhoods that are not in the plan. The key questions have to do with impacts on the surrounding residential areas, transportation, lack of open space, and displacement of existing residents and businesses.

With its Downtown Brooklyn Plan, the city wants to create 4.5 million square feet of new office space and 1,000 new housing units in a small area just across the East River from Wall Street. Brooklyn civic groups say the potential expansion will be seven million square feet while the city is only considering the potential environmental impact of 4.5 million. The plan includes parking for some 2,500 cars, a 1.5 acre park, and some widening of sidewalks. The plan also incorporates proposed expansions of Atlantic Terminal, Polytechnic University, Brooklyn Law School, the Hoyt-Schermerhorn urban renewal area, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music cultural district. Atlantic Terminal is also the site of a controversial plan to build a basketball arena for the Nets while displacing perhaps 1,000 residents and businesses.

Where Are the People?

The downtown Brooklyn plan deals primarily with office buildings, not people. To its credit, the City Planning Department actually put its rezoning proposal in the context of a comprehensive overview of downtown Brooklyn. But the plan is still mostly about square feet of building space and has very little to do with the quality of urban life, which is what matters most to people who live and work in the city.

In the plan the people are invisible. The plan states that only 1,200 people now live in Brooklyn's business core. But 150,000 people live in the immediately adjacent neighborhoods. Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Park Slope and Prospect Heights are blank spaces. What do these people want to improve their daily lives? Are they only passive recipients of the abundant "growth" stimulated by the rezoning? Who will get the jobs that come with development, and who will lose their jobs? How do the locals relate to downtown and what are their development needs? What do they want to preserve that might be threatened by rising property values and speculation fueled by downtown expansion? Where are the tools to protect residential and commercial tenants from being displaced? Will they get any of the windfall profits reaped by property owners whose land gets up-zoned?

Traffic is one of the biggest gripes of Brooklynites, and downtown Brooklyn is already a congestion and pollution nightmare. It is both a destination and a thoroughfare for access to the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. The plan will only make things worse by expanding parking, which will encourage more people to drive there. The dangerous and disagreeable environment faced by pedestrians in downtown Brooklyn, which the plan obliquely acknowledges, would only be addressed by limited sidewalk widening. There's no commitment by the Department of Transportation to reduce traffic. Downtown communities remember how the department successfully undermined the recent multi-million dollar Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming Study, which went through years of public discussion to end up with only a few changes to traffic signals. The Department of Transportation has yet to demonstrate the will to reduce roadway capacity, the most essential measure needed to clean up the downtown traffic mess. The mayor has also backed away from his proposal to put tolls on the East River bridges, an action that would have significantly helped relieve downtown traffic. The same Brooklyn elected officials who defend the interests of the elite school of bridge commuters are also cheerleading for the downtown rezoning, compounding the damage.

There are no improvements to mass transit in the plan except for some station upgrades that may be made by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the future. The downtown's biggest problem is the lack of a decent surface transportation system. Buses are inadequate and perpetually stuck in traffic. Imaginative proposals for a downtown trolley loop that could be linked to the redeveloped waterfront have been around for decades but are nowhere to be found in the plan.

Disappearing Public Spaces

Not to be accused of forgetting entirely about greenery, the city's planners threw in a nice little park. Since it will most likely be surrounded by concrete and glass office towers, this public amenity is more likely to become a backyard play space for corporate tenants, much like Metrotech's little mall. In the meantime, downtown Brooklyn will become a forest of skyscrapers with fewer public spaces.

One of downtown's most lively public spaces today is Fulton Mall. The downtown plan will wipe it off the map. This historic mall was one of the city's first commercial strips that limited access by motor vehicles (city buses run through it). Once the nearby Metrotech complex was built, however, corporate tenants and white collar workers increasingly looked down their noses at the low-rent shops selling cheap goods and the management and clientele, who are mostly people of color. The mall's problems with truck loading were never seriously addressed. The city let the mall stagnate. Why can't the city's planners figure out how to preserve vital street life where it already exists; isn't that what good planning is supposed to be about?

Finally, questions about the downtown plan are growing with mounting opposition to the proposal for an arena over Atlantic Terminal. Developer Bruce Ratner commissioned famed architect Frank Gehry to decorate the arena site with one of his signature buildings. Gehry's noted Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain dropped jaws. But one can only wonder whether anyone will see his sculpted icon when it's surrounded by the commercial clutter of Atlantic Terminal. Most Brooklynites passing by will be trapped in the borough's most gridlocked intersection.

Downtown Brooklyn and its plan are large and complex. They both raise questions and merit much more careful discussion. But the starting point should be the people who live and work there, not the number of square feet of building space that should be built.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Planners Network Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.

#####

In This Series:

• Field of Schemes by Letitia James
• Netting the Nets by Marty Markowitz

The Plans For Downtown Brooklyn Ignore Both People And Public Spaces


The city's planners are working overtime to clear the way for over 60 million square feet of new office space in such business centers as West Midtown, Lower Manhattan, Long Island City, and now downtown Brooklyn. While realtors see a big demand for prime office space now, it remains to be seen whether this amount of commercial space will be needed in the long run with the continuing trend of gradual movement to the suburbs. City officials backing this expansion are acting more like cheerleaders for local real estate than custodians of the quality of life in our neighborhoods.

The new downtown Brooklyn rezoning plan is now moving through the city's land use approval process and local residents and civic groups are turning out in droves to raise their questions and register their complaints. Even though some were involved in earlier discussions about the plans, there are still so many things that are important to neighborhoods that are not in the plan. The key questions have to do with impacts on the surrounding residential areas, transportation, lack of open space, and displacement of existing residents and businesses.

With its Downtown Brooklyn Plan, the city wants to create 4.5 million square feet of new office space and 1,000 new housing units in a small area just across the East River from Wall Street. Brooklyn civic groups say the potential expansion will be seven million square feet while the city is only considering the potential environmental impact of 4.5 million. The plan includes parking for some 2,500 cars, a 1.5 acre park, and some widening of sidewalks. The plan also incorporates proposed expansions of Atlantic Terminal, Polytechnic University, Brooklyn Law School, the Hoyt-Schermerhorn urban renewal area, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music cultural district. Atlantic Terminal is also the site of a controversial plan to build a basketball arena for the Nets while displacing perhaps 1,000 residents and businesses.

Where Are the People?

The downtown Brooklyn plan deals primarily with office buildings, not people. To its credit, the City Planning Department actually put its rezoning proposal in the context of a comprehensive overview of downtown Brooklyn. But the plan is still mostly about square feet of building space and has very little to do with the quality of urban life, which is what matters most to people who live and work in the city.

In the plan the people are invisible. The plan states that only 1,200 people now live in Brooklyn's business core. But 150,000 people live in the immediately adjacent neighborhoods. Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Park Slope and Prospect Heights are blank spaces. What do these people want to improve their daily lives? Are they only passive recipients of the abundant "growth" stimulated by the rezoning? Who will get the jobs that come with development, and who will lose their jobs? How do the locals relate to downtown and what are their development needs? What do they want to preserve that might be threatened by rising property values and speculation fueled by downtown expansion? Where are the tools to protect residential and commercial tenants from being displaced? Will they get any of the windfall profits reaped by property owners whose land gets up-zoned?

Traffic is one of the biggest gripes of Brooklynites, and downtown Brooklyn is already a congestion and pollution nightmare. It is both a destination and a thoroughfare for access to the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. The plan will only make things worse by expanding parking, which will encourage more people to drive there. The dangerous and disagreeable environment faced by pedestrians in downtown Brooklyn, which the plan obliquely acknowledges, would only be addressed by limited sidewalk widening. There's no commitment by the Department of Transportation to reduce traffic. Downtown communities remember how the department successfully undermined the recent multi-million dollar Downtown Brooklyn Traffic Calming Study, which went through years of public discussion to end up with only a few changes to traffic signals. The Department of Transportation has yet to demonstrate the will to reduce roadway capacity, the most essential measure needed to clean up the downtown traffic mess. The mayor has also backed away from his proposal to put tolls on the East River bridges, an action that would have significantly helped relieve downtown traffic. The same Brooklyn elected officials who defend the interests of the elite school of bridge commuters are also cheerleading for the downtown rezoning, compounding the damage.

There are no improvements to mass transit in the plan except for some station upgrades that may be made by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the future. The downtown's biggest problem is the lack of a decent surface transportation system. Buses are inadequate and perpetually stuck in traffic. Imaginative proposals for a downtown trolley loop that could be linked to the redeveloped waterfront have been around for decades but are nowhere to be found in the plan.

Disappearing Public Spaces

Not to be accused of forgetting entirely about greenery, the city's planners threw in a nice little park. Since it will most likely be surrounded by concrete and glass office towers, this public amenity is more likely to become a backyard play space for corporate tenants, much like Metrotech's little mall. In the meantime, downtown Brooklyn will become a forest of skyscrapers with fewer public spaces.

One of downtown's most lively public spaces today is Fulton Mall. The downtown plan will wipe it off the map. This historic mall was one of the city's first commercial strips that limited access by motor vehicles (city buses run through it). Once the nearby Metrotech complex was built, however, corporate tenants and white collar workers increasingly looked down their noses at the low-rent shops selling cheap goods and the management and clientele, who are mostly people of color. The mall's problems with truck loading were never seriously addressed. The city let the mall stagnate. Why can't the city's planners figure out how to preserve vital street life where it already exists; isn't that what good planning is supposed to be about?

Finally, questions about the downtown plan are growing with mounting opposition to the proposal for an arena over Atlantic Terminal. Developer Bruce Ratner commissioned famed architect Frank Gehry to decorate the arena site with one of his signature buildings. Gehry's noted Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain dropped jaws. But one can only wonder whether anyone will see his sculpted icon when it's surrounded by the commercial clutter of Atlantic Terminal. Most Brooklynites passing by will be trapped in the borough's most gridlocked intersection.

Downtown Brooklyn and its plan are large and complex. They both raise questions and merit much more careful discussion. But the starting point should be the people who live and work there, not the number of square feet of building space that should be built.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Planners Network Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.

 

#####

In This Series:

• Field of Schemes by Letitia James
• Netting the Nets by Marty Markowitz
• Cheerleaders for Real Estate? by Tom Angotti

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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