Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Proposed Grand St. Rezoning, a Step in the Right Direction for Williamsburg-February 1, 2008 (Block Magazine)

"While we're sitting here they're out pouring concrete." Those are the words of Tom Burrows, a deeply concerned Williamsburg resident whose sentiments echo those of the community. I spoke to Tom at the January Community Board One public hearing where the primary topic of discussion was the rezoning of thirteen blocks of Grand St. in Williamsburg.
The resolution in front of the board for review is a proposal by the Department of City Planning to rezone thirteen blocks of Grand St. bounded by Berry, N Third, Fillmore, Hope, Marcy and South First, from R6, with C1-3, C1-4, C2-3, and C2-4 commercial overlays to R6B for all blocks along Grand Street and north of Metropolitan Avenue and R6A for the entire block bounded by Berry Street, Metropolitan Avenue, Bedford Avenue, and North 1st Street. In other words, the city would be imposing height limits to protect against real estate developers erecting tall apartment buildings that would ruin the character and consistency of the neighborhood.
The meeting room of the Swinging 60's Senior Citizens Center was packed with Hasidic Jews, hipsters, activists, angry citizens, rabbis, priests, students, lawyers, and journalists. Board-members and bystanders alike, over a hundred people filled the room to capacity. There was a solidified consensus of outrage and resolve as community members took the microphone one after the other to voice their concern for the future of their neighborhood. The angry citizens weren't opposed to the passing of the resolution; they were angry it's so limited.
Williamsburg is, and has been, one of the most sought after areas in the city for developers and builders. Last year alone in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, nearly 1, 400 permits for new buildings, alterations, and demolitions were issued, a 46% increase from 2002. The increase in development has coincided with a steady increase in construction-related complaints; 784 emergency 911 calls involving mishaps in Greenpoint and Williamsburg were logged last year - a 300% jump from 2003. Calls to the city's 311 hotline more than tripled as well with 1,662 construction complaints recorded last year, up from just 487 in 2003.
Williamsburg residents have just about had it with real estate developers coming in and disrupting their neighborhood. Nancy Wechter, a long time resident of Williamsburg, is concerned for the future of her community and is encouraged by the action being taken, "I'm very disgusted with the changes that are going on in the neighborhood. The whole fabric of life is being ripped apart. I applaud city planning for doing the right thing, and I feel that as a community, and a community board, seeing this small change go through quickly is one of the only things we can do to restore any quality of life in the neighborhood." Wechter is fed up, and the cheers her words garnered from those in attendance let her know she wasn't alone, "I'm just tired of things being done for the benefit of one or two developers at the expense of the entire community."
Elizabeth Hynes, a representative of Assemblyman Vito Lopez, spoke on his behalf, "We would like to applaud the dept. of city planning and Community Board 1 on their effort in putting forward this proposal. We feel this goes a long way towards addressing the issues and concerns the residents of the neighborhood have about height density and a design concept, however the resolution doesn't go far enough. For the rezoning to stop just north of Grand St. presents a problem for us. We feel south of Grand St. would like height restrictions and be a good fit for contextual zoning as well. We look forward to to working with the Department of City Planning and Community Board One on expanding this proposal and having a healthy dialogue moving forward."
Several other community members spoke at the meeting all delivering the same message, "This is not what we want for our neighborhood." Ken Fisher, an attorney representing a real estate developer in the area, was the only one to voice opposition to the rezoning for obvious reasons. Everyone else in attendance stood unified against the overdevelopment of the community.
Community members are concerned the time needed to complete the review process will allow developers more than ample time to circumvent the zoning changes and rightfully so. The rezoning legislation is in the midst of a five step public review process. After the Community Board One review is over, there are 30 days of Brooklyn Borough President Review, 60 days of City Planning Commission Review, and 50 days of City Council Review. If developers can get a shovel in the ground and make enough progress in their project before the new rezoning laws are enacted, they will not be subject to the changes, a practice that leads to a lot of rushed construction and shoddy planning.
Only time will tell what the future holds for Williamsburg. Already, neighborhoods like Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant are being increasingly populated with young artists, students, and other recent transplants due to climbing rent in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. While moving further out along the L-train may be fine for artists and students, long-term residents of Williamsburg like Nancy Wechter, Tom Burrows, Laura Newman, and all the other angry community members who raised their concern at the CB1 meeting are looking to save their neighborhood while they still have the chance.

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