Rezoning retrospective: Activists look back on the battle for the North Brooklyn waterfront
November 21, 2019
By Alex Williamson
“The displacement has been massive. I would almost say violent.”
When the city rezoned 184 waterfront blocks in Greenpoint and Williamsburg in 2005, it did so after making a slew of promises. The changes were meant to mitigate the influx of roughly 20,000 new residents that higher density zoning would bring to the area. But more than 15 years later, many of those promises are still unfulfilled.
Members of the coalition that was on the front lines of the 2005 negotiations gathered at Brooklyn Historical Society on Tuesday to remember the “battle for the waterfront.” They discussed their ongoing fight for the city investments the neighborhood was promised more than a decade ago and offered advice for communities facing rezoning today.
New York City Criminal Court Judge Adam Perlmutter, El Puente founder Dr. Frances Lucerna and Katherine Conkling Thompson from Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park took part in the conversation, which was moderated by Brooklyn Brewery co-founder Steve Hindy.
The most notable broken commitment from the rezoning agreement is the majority of Bushwick Inlet Park, a planned 28-acre waterfront park along the Greenpoint/Williamsburg border. Less than 15 percent of the park has been completed today. The city has acquired most of the land but has not started the extensive environmental remediation needed before the acreage can be developed into parkland.
Prior to the rezoning, North Brooklyn already ranked near the bottom of neighborhoods citywide in terms of parkland per capita. According to Thompson, Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park is on what feels like a never-ending quest to bring about the park’s completion.
“Every week we spend hours plotting how to persuade the city to fund the park,” said Thompson. Meanwhile, she says, “developers have made out like bandits. There are tax abatements, there are incentives to build more property.”
(Left to right): Brooklyn Brewery cofounder Steve Hindy, Katherine Conkling Thompson of Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park, NYC Criminal Court Judge Adam Perlmutter and Dr. Frances Lucerna of south Williamsburg community nonprofit El Puente. Photo: Alex Williamson/Brooklyn Eagle
Thompson and her group of park advocates have resorted to creative tactics, including camping out along the waterfront overnight with U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Borough President Eric Adams to raise awareness about the missing park.
Thompson also started visiting community board meetings around the city as Mayor Bill de Blasio was working to pass a package of new land use laws in 2016, policies that codified the trade-off of higher residential zoning for a minimum number of affordable housing units.
At the meetings, Thompson would tell communities facing rezoning to beware.
“We said, watch out. This rezoning, it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Look what happened to us,” she said. “It became apparent that the city started noticing and they were like, oh God, there they are again.”
According to Hindy, who co-founded Brooklyn Brewery two blocks from the Williamsburg waterfront in 1988, the rezoning did major damage to the neighborhood’s Industrial Business Zone. The changes allowed for commercial uses, which were much more profitable for landlords and forced manufacturers out. He says Brooklyn Brewery is the only industrial business within the IBZ still operating today.
“The whole concept of an industrial business zone was undercut by the fine print of the rezoning plan, which enabled these other kinds of businesses,” said Hindy.
Lucerna, who has been running the community nonprofit El Puente on the neighborhood’s south side for more than 30 years, said that the tradeoff for a small amount of parkland in exchange for significantly higher residential density wasn’t worth it for her neighborhood.
“The displacement has been massive. I would almost say violent,” said Lucerna. “The community of Los Sures has been totally fractured … when you talk to people they talk about it as a ground zero for what you do not want to have happen in your community.” El Puente has started monitoring the air quality in the neighborhood’s scarce green spaces, and Lucerna says the particulate matter and black carbon in the air is four to six times higher than what’s considered safe.
“I think the effect of rezoning has only exacerbated those conditions,” Lucerna said.
Perlmutter reminded the panel that what brought the community to the table in the first place in 2005 was a desire to stop fending off heavy polluting proposals along the industrial zoned waterfront, first what would have been the East Coast’s largest trash transfer station in the 1990s, then plans for the TransGas power plant in the early aughts.
“If you had 30 blocks of heavily industrial zoned land, you were going to get heavy industrial projects proposed for that,” said Perlmutter. “Without the rezoning, we’d probably be looking at towers and a power plant. Which I don’t think anyone would like.”
Hindy saw some takeaways for other communities fighting their own rezoning battles today. “I think the lesson is, beware of the promises that are made for future development of parks … because the housing gets built and the changes come, but a lot of the reasons people came down in favor of the rezoning take many, many years to come to fruition.”