On the Williamsburg Waterfront

The Williamsburg Bridge

The Williamsburg Bridge

Nestled onto the East River in North Brooklyn, Williamsburg has a long history as a leading industrial community. The neighborhood, known generally today for its notorious gentrification and resulting hipster culture, became a booming spot for manufacturers during the 19th century as factories for Domino Sugar, Brooklyn Union Gas, and Dutch Mustard, among others, flourished on the waterfront. When the Williamsburg Bridge was completed in 1903, an influx of Manhattan-ites from the Lower East Side fled to Brooklyn and the area continued its upward mobility. Residents lived and worked locally and a thriving, diverse community subsisted. In recent decades however, as manufacturing increasingly fled overseas to cut costs, the waterfront was left largely vacant and underutilized.

It was based on this notion of unfulfilled waterfront potential across the city that in 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled his expansive New York City waterfront development plan. The plan, called WAVES (Waterfront Vision and Enhancement Strategy), was twofold – first, Vision 2020 consisted of a Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, which established long-term residential housing and open space goals for waterfront communities, continually referred to as the “sixth borough” by Bloomberg. Second, WAVES outlined a Waterfront Action Agenda, featuring 130 priority projects to be implemented within three years.

“New York’s waterfront was developed in the 19th century as an industrial resource and the day of that industry and shipping from that industry has long since passed,” explained Hugh Kelly, Clinical Associate Professor of Real Estate at NYU’s Schack Institute. “So you had an underutilized asset with the most desirable thing in a dense city – access to light and air and a view of water.”

But before there was WAVES, the 2005 rezoning – a massive and ultimately fateful Bloomberg-sponsored plan aimed partially at the North Williamsburg and Greenpoint areas – forever transformed the neighborhood. Through rezoning a large portion of the North Brooklyn waterfront, the city was able to accommodate the creation of several new high density, mostly residential developments. Soon, high-rise luxury condominium and apartment buildings such as The Edge and Northside Piers sprouted up along the previously industrial waterfront.

North Williamsburg Luxury High-Rises

“I think if you look back even ten years ago, you’ll see that the East River was a vastly underutilized public resource,” said David Lombino, the Director of Special Projects at Two Trees Management, a group of developers based in Dumbo. “Part of the vision of the mayor was to push into these underutilized areas through rezoning, through public investment to spur growth and to absorb some of the demand to live, work and play here in New York City.”

Phil DePaolo

Phil DePaolo

The effects of the rezoning were soon felt as previously vacated buildings and areas downtrodden from losses in manufacturing were revitalized. An economic upturn in the area began as the residential real estate market took off, though much to the chagrin of many of the longtime residents. Rent prices skyrocketed and several Williamsburg lifers found themselves fighting displacement due to being priced out. Gentrification in Williamsburg had begun.

Phil DePaolo grew up in the Bronx and lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan before moving to Williamsburg in 1979 when he was  29 years old. Commuting to the city every day, DePaolo regularly encountered empty cars on the now-chronically overcrowded L-train “Everybody worked locally in the neighborhood in the factories,” he said.

Over the years, DePaolo became renowned within the Williamsburg community for his extensive civic advocacy work; in 2009, The Brooklyn Paper even appointed him the “unofficial mayor of Williamsburg,” citing his prominent activism in the community. Following Bloomberg’s 2005 rezoning, DePaolo and others started a community council to educate Brooklyn residents about the nuances and effects of Bloomberg’s rezoning policies – policies that he says were “intentionally designed to lull people to sleep with terminology that goes over most people’s heads.”

DePaolo, who has since moved to Fort Washington in Nassau County in search for better schools for his children and writes an opinion column for TheWGNews.com entitled Phil On Fire, was also instrumental in efforts that eventually led to building height restrictions for inland zonings in North Greenpoint – constraints that do not exist in Williamsburg. Having seen firsthand the gentrification of his former neighborhood, DePaolo is predictably stark in his analysis.

“The whole plan for Bloomberg was basically to change the whole waterfront demographic from a mixed use industrial form of community into a luxury community,” said DePaolo. “That was the whole game plan from the 2005 rezoning, and follow-up mechanisms that have taken place since then. And now you have the Williamsburg that you see today.”

The new Williamsburg is rooted in arts and culture, rather than manufacturing, as an abundance of art galleries, restaurants, bars and luxury housing developments have taken over the North Side.

According to the NYC Department of Finance Property Assessment Roll Archives, the percentage change in residential property values in Williamsburg from 2008 to 2012 sits at 175.8 percent, by far the largest number of any New York City neighborhood over that time period.

The Domino Sugar Factory

The Domino Sugar Factory

The latest potential addition to this new Williamsburg is a South Side project on a grand scale usually reserved for North Side developments. The Domino Sugar Refinery, first built on the South Williamsburg waterfront in 1856, was a leading producer of sugar in the United States for over 150 years until operations ceased in 2004. The Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) bought the site that year and began a six-year design and planning process to transform the location into four new luxury high-rise apartment buildings, surrounded by several public amenities. In 2010, the developer’s plan was approved by Williamsburg’s city council, though financial difficulties stalled construction in subsequent years, forcing CPC to sell the property. In 2012, Two Trees Management Company purchased the Domino site for $185 million – a profit of $120 million dollars for CPC. Using the pre-approved plan as a springboard, Two Trees hired new architects from SHoP (the firm responsible for Barclays Center) and began working with the community to design its own redevelopment plan.

“To go back and sort of have a second swing at it is an extremely valuable and important opportunity, both for us and the community,” said Jed Walentas, Principal at Two Trees.

One of the most notable changes from the previous plan included a 10 percent increase in affordable units (now 30 percent, good for 660 total units); however, this commitment to affordable housing on the Domino site is currently unbinding – Two Trees maintains it requires government assistance in creating the low-income units, and nothing in the proposal is currently obligatory. The plan also includes extravagant plans for 2,284 apartments, as well as extensive space for a public park, commercial businesses, a new bike line and streets and eventually, a new public school. Really though, for most community residents, it is just more of the same – unnecessary development added to a neighborhood that is already growing far too quickly.

The aptly named location has a potential to produce a real domino effect in South Williamsburg. West of Wythe Avenue and one street East of the waterfront Kent Ave, the population is expected to double as a result of the Domino development. An already disturbingly overcrowded L-train will likely be unable to withstand the added stress. Although the zoning facilitated on the Domino site was originally a private rezoning effort and not a Bloomberg-sponsored initiative, the proposal essentially rides the wave of waterfront development touted by Bloomberg and continues to fuel the fire that it has created locally.

“Domino would be a substantial blow to the South Side because it’s the same mechanism that took the North Side to where it is today,” said DePaolo. “You create luxury housing on the waterfront and once the money moves into the waterfront, it all then moves inland.”

Speaking at a recent Community Board 1 meeting, Brian Paul, co-producer of The Domino Effect documentary, offered his thoughts: “I think the big picture here is that this kind of out-of-control development dominated by luxury residential housing is killing the dynamic mixed use, mixed income, mixed ethnicity character of this neighborhood. This is going to be a displacement bomb – it’s going to flip the neighborhood.”

This displacement process is already well underway. From 2000-2010, the Hispanic population in Community Board 1’s constituency dropped by 24 percent. Furthermore, with the real estate market focused on building luxury residential housing as opposed to mixed-use developments, the Williamsburg-centric 11211 zip code lost nearly two-thirds of its industrial jobs during that same decade.

In response to community concerns over displacement, Lombino counters, “the supply of housing is so scarce in Williamsburg relative to the demand that…new development will relieve the pressure on rent – it doesn’t exaggerate it, it doesn’t accelerate it.”

Two Trees’ Domino Factory proposal began its Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) city review process in late 2013; the next step in the complicated process features a vote by Community Board 1 on December 10. After that, the plan must then be confirmed by the Brooklyn borough president, the city council, the land use committee and finally, the mayor’s office sometime early next year. Walentas fully expects the community board to approve the plan (a subsection of the Board has already unofficially approved the proposal), and maintains that the new proposal is far better than CPC’s for all parties involved.

Even opponents to the development are inclined to agree: “I do think that the Two Trees plan is better than the original CPC one,” admitted Colin Miles, co-founder of SaveDomino.org, an organization founded to raise awareness about the continuing development within the community. “Two Trees has definitely done their homework and it’s not as bad as the old plan, but it’s still more of the same old shit.”

Either way, it appears as though construction on the Domino Sugar Factory site is all but inevitable. If Two Trees’ new plans are unexpectedly denied, Walentas maintains they will move forward with building the 2010 CPC approved plan.

“We are going to start construction onsite in about 15 months whether the plan gets approved or no,” said Walentas. “And it is our goal to build it as quickly as possible – we believe strongly that the whole in this case is greater than the sum of its parts.”


A Bird’s-Eye View of the Two Trees / SHoP Domino Development Plan

During his atypical 12-year mayorship of New York City, Mayor Bloomberg was extremely effective in implementing his urban planning and development initiatives: he changed the city’s physical landscape significantly.

Critics will look to his failure to address several pertinent issues that affect middle and working class New Yorkers, while proponents will point to his visionary-like improvements of many social living issues including the expansion of parks and open space, public health initiatives and urban landscape of the city. Riding the wave of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s safer New York City, Mayor Bloomberg made it a more attractive place to live – perhaps even too attractive. Just as the height of his waterfront developments continued to rise, so has too the cost of living in the city.

Thus, an affordable housing crisis has emerged, with its needs felt no more so than in Brooklyn. According to NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Housing Policy (2011 data, the most recent available), 58.4 percent of Brooklyn households are “rent burdened,” meaning that the household spends greater that 30 percent of its total income on rent, as compared to 55.7 percent in Queens and 46.7 percent in Manhattan. Furthermore, homelessness has grown by 60 percent across the five boroughs in the past decade.

“Having lived in Brooklyn for 64 years, one thing that is for sure is that the character of the borough is constantly changing,” said Kelly. “Affordable housing is felt now because the need is great. The challenge is going to be working with a community so there is more fertile ground for your ideas and for working hand-in-glove rather than in opposition.”

Running on his promise to bridge the gap between New York’s “Tale of Two Cities,” as he calls it, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has extraordinarily lofty goals for developing affordable housing in the city – an initiative born largely out of public necessity. In order to make good on his ambitious commitment to deliver 50 thousand units of affordable housing in the next 10 years, de Blasio will need to empty his bag of tricks and cultivate collaborative efforts in communities on and off the waterfront.


Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio (Photo from of NY Daily News)

“The question is, will the focus on the waterfront and the momentum from the Bloomberg administration carry forward into the de Blasio one?” posed Kelly. “The short answer is that it can’t because of the scope of the ambitions of the de Blasio program requires many more neighborhoods than just the waterfront neighborhoods to make it successful. Can some of that forward momentum carry forward? Yes. Will the real estate development community seek those waterfront sites and pay for them? Absolutely…we will have to see how it plays out.”

It is unclear what de Blasio’s impending mayorship will mean for Williamsburg, and the greater Brooklyn and New York City as a whole. As he attempts to “fix” issues that arose from Bloomberg’s narrow eye on urban development, it could be more difficult than expected to get things done – especially with affordable housing, a uniquely complicated and dynamic issue.

Whereas his predecessor lived in an insulated world as an independently wealthy political outsider, Mayor-elect de Blasio will be standing very much in the spotlight. The first new mayor of New York City in over a decade, he has the chance to transform the more-is-better development craze from the Bloomberg administration into a more sustainable planning agenda aimed at addressing the growing needs of New Yorkers who wish to remain living in an affordable city.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s