Gotham Gazette

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Greenpoint and Williamsburg Zoning Changes

The Department of City Planning recently released a proposal to rezone large sections of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn’s Community District 1. Most of the area to be rezoned is on and near the waterfront. Large sections of the waterfront, now zoned for heavy manufacturing (labeled M3), have been vacant for many years or occupied by industries such as waste transfer facilities strongly opposed by the surrounding community. Williamsburg activists are currently fighting the state’s plan to locate a 1,100 megawatt power plant on a waterfront site the city and community have proposed for a park. (For more information go to Stop The Power Plant).

The city and local community agree that changes have to be made on the waterfront. The current M3 zoning would not allow for the kinds of changes all agree are needed. But is zoning the right tool at this time to make these changes? Zoning is but one among many tools the city has at its disposal. Other tools include housing incentives and subsidies, infrastructure improvements (streets, sidewalks, utilities), industrial and business incentives, and city services (schools, community centers, and parks).

If zoning is changed without doing anything else, however, zoning can actually distort the way development occurs, leading to unwanted results. It can undermine the plan. How can that be?

Zoning Based on Detailed Planning and Programs

Zoning is basically a system for regulating the way land is used. The main “uses” set out in the city’s Zoning Resolution are residential, commercial and industrial. Within each of these uses, zoning sets up a maximum amount of building floor area that can be erected. But how do you know what the right mixture of uses and the right amount of building area should be? You know because you’ve planned the way you want the community to look, not in the abstract but on the ground, block by block. That is, the zoning is based on a detailed plan to develop and preserve the community.

Now, Greenpoint and Williamsburg do have officially approved plans, known as 197-a plans. The plans were made after years of community meetings involving a broad array of groups. Community Board 1 sent the plans to the City Planning Commission which, after numerous changes, approved the plans in 2001.

But these plans outline general principles that include waterfront revitalization, maintaining the mixture of residential and industrial uses, public access to the waterfront, and development of affordable housing. They do not say what uses should prevail on each block, or how much should be built on each block. That takes detailed block-by-block planning, by city agencies, property owners and community organizations working together to achieve the general vision set out in the community plan. It takes a detailed program and budget. Unfortunately, when the City Planning Commission looks at community plans it discourages them from putting in a lot of detail. The approved plans are completely disconnected from the city budget, so ideas mentioned in the plan don’t necessarily find their way into the programs or projects of city agencies. In other words, city agencies can easily file the plans away on a shelf and ignore them. It is then left to community activists to keep struggling so the city will honor them.

In Greenpoint and Williamsburg, the city has not done the detailed planning for redevelopment that should follow the general principles laid out in the approved plans. As a result, many community activists in Greenpoint and Williamsburg look at the zoning proposals and see them as potentially undermining the plan’s principles. Also, the rezoning is moving faster than the planning process, and will make any detailed planning, including design issues, moot.

Where’s The Affordable Housing?

For example, there’s plenty of room for new housing in the zoning proposal, but there’s no whiff of affordable housing, a cornerstone of the community plans. According to the Department of City Planning, making housing affordable isn’t their job. The department rejected proposals for inclusionary zoning in the recently approved Park Slope rezoning in Brooklyn. By rezoning without a plan for affordable housing the city will guarantee that the millions of square feet of new housing to be built on and near the waterfront will be “market-rate”–and out of the reach of most current residents. City planners points to the mayor’s housing plan, a city-wide plan that targets waterfront communities and promises over 65,000 units of affordable housing. But this is a city-wide proposal and there is no guarantee that any of those affordable units will end up in Greenpoint or Williamsburg. So for affordable housing there is no detailed plan. For market-rate housing, there is a detailed “plan”--the city’s rezoning proposal.

A committee of the Rezoning Task Force, a community-based group in Williamsburg, put together a vision statement for affordable housing that gets to the bottom of the issue. The committee states that “the city must guarantee that affordable housing will be integrated into each redevelopment site. Such a guarantee is possible through the implementation of present and any future tools such as: designating the use of ‘inclusionary zoning’ or an ‘affordable housing bonus’ zone, a Tax Increment Financing district, utilization of existing tax abatement programs.”

If we look more closely, the Department of City Planning rezoning plan explicitly negates the principles laid out in the officially approved Williamsburg Plan. That plan states that the city should capitalize on the availability of large underutilized waterfront sites to develop affordable housing and maintain income diversity.

Where’s the Mixed Use?

The Department of City Planning proposal also includes the establishment of mixed use zones (labeled MX), which theoretically would allow both industry and housing to coexist. But there is no detailed block-by-block plan or industry-by-industry plan that will guarantee the retention and development of industry. As a result, many of these blocks that are now zoned exclusively for industry will attract new market-rate investment for housing, pushing out whatever industry that’s left. Again, for market-rate housing there is a detailed plan--the city’s rezoning proposal. For industry, there is nothing—no incentives to grow, controls on rents, or assistance in making them better neighbors and eliminating conflicts with nearby residents. It is easy for planners to sit in their Brooklyn offices and draw lines on a map rezoning large areas of

Greenpoint and Williamsburg for mixed use, but unless something is done proactively to protect industry the net result will be a complete transformation of these areas from mixed use to upscale residential. It will be a “back-door” residential rezoning. (See the last two Land Use articles, about “as-of-right development" and “zoning to kill manufacturing" ). And that runs directly against the community plans approved by Community Board 1, the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

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.

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