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Greenpoint and Williamsburg waterfront advocates recently celebrated two small, but pivotal, victories in a decades-long battle for walkways along the East River in North Brooklyn and 28 acres of waterfront parkland that were promised but never delivered by the Bloomberg administration’s 2005 rezoning. Both victories could signal an important turn by Mayor Bill de Blasio toward community control and could restore a slight measure of confidence in the citywide rezoning process currently underway. Most remarkably, AECOM’s incorporation of FEMA-recommended flood levels, a terraced amphitheater bluff, and a living shoreline into plans for the Greenpoint Monitor Museum waterfront are evidence of the penetration of resilient design into every corner of New York City’s shoreline.
The district’s residents spurred the first victory last fall when they voted to award $599,200 of the $19.5 million Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund (GCEF) to the Greenpoint Monitor Museum’s visionary waterfront design and permitting project. AECOM’s Gonzalo Cruz, a Harvard Graduate School of Design alumnus who directs the firm’s Urban Design and Landscape Architecture studio, prepared the support materials, leading the conceptual design pro bono. The project, dedicated to honoring the pioneering Civil War battleship manufactured there, its engineer John Ericsson, and Greenpoint patriots who fought to preserve the Union, presented a unique opportunity.
“They owned the land so the project did have the potential to go somewhere,” Cruz said. “It was incredible for us to be able to help them. They’re very committed to the site and the history. We provided a one-stop shop: People who can provide coastal and marine engineering services as well as design services.”
To protect the land from erosion and to create a natural habitat, a living shoreline wraps the edge of the site with plantings of cordgrass, sea lavender, switchgrass, black needlerush, glasswort, and groundsel bush. An ecological walkway and scenic overlook loft above, providing a continuous public right-of-way that ties into the 2005 zoning resolution. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Bushwick Inlet flooded five blocks inland, so the team designed a tiered amphitheater facing the Manhattan skyline that ascends 12 feet above sea level, with berms that reinforce the upper edge, softened by a retaining lawn featuring educational displays about engineering and history. At the top, Cruz reserved a section of the site for the future Greenpoint Monitor Museum.
“It was a wonderful thing they did,” said Janice Lauletta-Weinmann, president of the museum. “Without those conceptual drawings, it would have been very difficult to get the idea across what would have been nice in the neighborhood.”
The GCEF award acted as a signal for the city government to eliminate the threat of eminent domain that has dogged the nonprofit since the 2005 rezoning clumsily designated its property as part of the anticipated 28-acre Bushwick Inlet Park. The Greenpoint Monitor Museum gained title to the one-acre parcel along the Bushwick Inlet in 2003 but has been unable to effectively fundraise with the threat hanging over it. Meanwhile, the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations neglected to acquire the other parcels designated for parkland before rezoning caused land values to explode. With the GCEF grant and AECOM’s design moving to the next phase, the Greenpoint Monitor Museum project is now embarrassingly far ahead of the city’s barely preconceptual zoning diagrams.
“There was some sort of idea of a beach situation, which at the time the plan was put together, was ten years ago,” Cruz said. “There were some trends at the time where people were just latching on. Besides that there was nothing more. There was just a path full of benches; that’s what the original master plan had along the site.”
In December, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Mayor de Blasio’s spokesman publicly affirmed for the first time that they would not support the use of eminent domain on the site.
Meanwhile, the battle for the rest of Bushwick Inlet continues: The Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park has been organizing regular street actions and protests aimed at pushing the city to acquire an 11-acre parcel for the park where the CitiStorage building burned down last January in a suspicious fire. Activists predicted a real-estate development would soon follow; six months later, Midtown Equities and East End Capital signed an option to purchase the land, floating the offer to build a section of the park in exchange for a variance to add residential units. Related Companies reportedly joined talks to provide capital; the developers could already build up to 600,000 feet of as-of-right commercial space. In late December, waterfront activists scored another important victory: A de Blasio spokesman affirmed in Crain’s New York Business, “The administration would never accept a rezoning here that did not have the support of the councilman and community.” CitiStorage is the last section of the now 27-acre Bushwick Inlet Park remaining to be acquired; activists say legislation sitting in a State Senate committee in Albany would use eminent domain to force its sale.
“A great park will be such a boon to this neighborhood,” said Katherine Thompson, cocaptain of Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park. The people that have lived here for a long time and have done the fighting, it’s going to be a really big disappointment if they feel like this neighborhood has been taken away by rampant outsized development that has disregarded the fabric of our community.”
In early February, a seven-alarm fire tore through a storage warehouse on the Williamsburg waterfront burning countless pages of documents and casting a thick plume of smoke over the low-slung neighborhood. Within days of the non-lethal fire, as the building continued to smolder, Brooklyn residents started demanding that the damaged CitiStorage Warehouse be replaced with parkland. They say they are owed nothing less and have been since 2005 when Michael Bloomberg rezoned a massive swath of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
The impacts of that rezoning are hard to understate. Much of the formerly industrial waterfront is now home to glass towers and the wealthy residents who can afford to live in what has become one of New York’s most coveted neighborhoods. At the time, the city promised that the rush of development would bring with it Bushwick Inlet Park, a 28-acre green space along the East River. To date, only part of that promised park have been delivered.
Designed by Kiss + Cathcart and Starr Whitehouse, the 11 acres contains an athletic field and a Parks Department building with a sloping green roof. While the park has been quite popular, it is only one block wide, impeded to its north by the CitiStorage facility and another warehouse. To the chagrin of local residents, and some elected officials, the recent fire will not lead to more parkland, at least in the short-term.
“The unfortunate fire at Citistorage will not affect Parks’ development of Bushwick Inlet Park,” said the Parks Department in a statement. The department said the acquisition of the privately owned site is currently unfunded, as are plans to build a museum to honor the USS Monitor, a Civil War–era gunship. Under current law, the owner of the CitiStorage site is not required to sell to the city, and according to the Brooklyn Paper, the site is now valued between $73 million and $100 million. This is roughly three times its value back in 2005 when the zoning was approved. To many, not purchasing the property 10 years ago was a major missed opportunity by the city.
It is not yet known what will happen next at the highly desirable site. But, back in 2005, the Parks Department drew up grand conceptual plans for the property that included a youth athletic field, a dog run, and volleyball courts. While that vision may be dead in the water, Bushwick Inlet Park will continue to expand, at least to the north of CitiStorage.
This spring, the city expects to complete its $68.5 million acquisition of the Bayside Fuel Oil Depot. After the existing oil tank infrastructure is demolished and the site is remediated, a design for the site will be put forth.
When the neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint were rezoned in 2005, a parade of luxury condominium towers were expected to replace moribund factories and warehouses along the North Brooklyn waterfront. Few of those towers materialized before the collapse of the real estate market, though, and with thousands of apartments already under construction in the area—and many sitting empty—it could be years before developers renew their march to the water.
But this is New York City, where developers never cease to dream. And so, up in the far reaches of Greenpoint, first-time developer Jonathan Bernstein is plotting what would be the tallest tower on the waterfront—nearly 20 percent taller than current zoning allows—making it among the most audacious projects in the borough to date.
Located two blocks from the last G-train stop before Queens, the project is being designed by marquee firm Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects. Adjacent streets would be transformed into parkland. Piers would be built to accommodate historic ships, ferries, and Water Taxi service. A new beach would offer sorely needed waterfront access. And all of these perks would help blunt community concerns about the project’s blockbuster proportions.
So far, the plan seems to be working.
“It’s a beautiful project with a hard sell,” Ward Dennis, chair of local Community Board 1’s land-use committee, said in an interview. “What the community needs to decide is where that balance is between density and open space and affordable housing. And really, that’s what all of these projects come down to.”
For a 100,000-square-foot lot on India Street currently occupied by a warehouse, Bernstein—who was once Donald Trump’s personal attorney—is proposing two muscular glass towers, one rising to 470 feet, the other to 200 feet. As with all new projects on the North Brooklyn waterfront, the towers are surrounded by a base of more contextual row buildings that rise no higher than 65 feet. And the project is not only taller than zoning allows but also bigger, containing roughly 890,000 square feet, as opposed to the 660,000 square feet potentially allowed as of right.
“We are asking for radical changes to the zoning, but we do think it’s way different than anything that’s been proposed on the waterfront,” Bernstein said during an informal presentation to the community board’s land-use committee last week. “We think it will be a gateway to Manhattan and Greenpoint.”
Bernstein has employed some clever zoning tactics to make his radical moves. Under the 2005 rezoning, the most a developer could expect to build would be two towers, one at 400 feet, the other at 300 feet. More typically, buildings top out in the range of 300 feet and 150 feet, as is the case at the Edge condominiums further to the south. So far, no building has even reached 400 feet, though a third tower at Northside Piers is planned for that height.
Even more unorthodox is Bernstein’s proposal to demap all of neighboring India Street and part of Java Street. Bernstein wants to turn these streets into parkland that connects with a larger-than-required park on the waterfront, replete with an amphitheater, sand dunes, and wetlands designed by W Architecture and Landscape Architecture. By incorporating thousands of square feet from the roadbeds into his project, Bernstein would significantly increase the project’s density, and hence the tower’s permitted height.
Bernstein said he must build big in order to afford his project, citing the expense of creating required public amenities, even arguing that zoning restrictions are one of the main reasons the waterfront remains under-developed. “We have to pay for these things,” Bernstein said. “We’re trying to create something that is good for the community and yet financially feasible.”
While the tower would be an eye-popper for such a lowrise neighborhood, it would not be the first in the area to exceed zoning restrictions. This spring, 155 West Street, an Ishmael Leyva–designed project proposed for a site directly north of Bernstein’s, won approval to rise to 400 feet, instead of a permitted 300 feet.
On that site, however, a sewer easement prevented the developer from building out the entire lot. Instead of a 300-foot tower and a 150-foot tower as of right, the two were combined into a single, 400-foot tower, plus a $2 million waterfront park. Moreover, in this case the developer was simply shifting density, unlike Bernstein, who is seeking to increase it.
Bernstein has yet to seek the numerous city approvals it would take to realize the project, including permission from the city planning, transportation, and parks departments, and one of his associates emphasized that specifics could still change ahead of public review. Bernstein said he has spoken with these agencies, though, and that they’ve expressed enthusiasm for the project. (He has even signed a contract with the city’s Economic Development Corporation to serve as the Greenpoint stop in an East River ferry service program.) Representatives of the agencies did confirm such meetings to AN, but said it was premature to make any judgments before a formal public review.
Elected officials, including local Assemblyman Joseph Lentol and Brooklyn Democratic Party chairman Vito Lopez, have expressed reservations. A Lopez spokesperson said that he is particularly uncomfortable with the project’s height: “He’s against anything that’s not contextual with the neighborhood, especially a 45-story tower.”
Some in the community believe this opposition is why Bernstein has come to them first, seeking their support ahead of a formal public review expected in the next few months. And despite reservations about the project, locals have been keeping an open mind, such as Christine Holowacz, co-chair of the Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning. “I love the open space on the project,” Holowacz told AN. “I’m not so sure about the tall towers.”
Pilings in empty lots behind dilapidated chain-link fences. Foundation pits filled with rainwater. Steel frames of five-story condos rusting, with no sign of further construction in sight. A walk around Williamsburg, Brooklyn is enough to tell you that its future is on hold.
According to a recent report by the New York City Department of Buildings, there are currently 18 stalled construction projects racking up citations and blighting the landscape of this North Brooklyn neighborhood and its sister district, Greenpoint. The view from the street, however, suggests that the number is much higher.
This signals a significant turnaround for the development hotspot. As recently as 2008, the picture was sunnier. The hip neighborhood, once the province of artists and students, was beginning to draw a larger contingent of families. The waterfront—an industrial landscape of garbage transfer sites and warehouses—was being transformed into a green swath by the opening of East River State Park and the city’s soon-to-come Bushwick Inlet Park. The future seemed wide open for continued growth.
A quick look at the numbers gives an immediate sense of the optimism that once imbued the area, as well as how much that optimism has faded. According to Aptsandlofts.com, a residential real estate broker, 2,818 new apartments will hit the Williamsburg market by the end of this year. Next year, the brokerage expects that number to hold, with 2,766 new apartments coming on line. According to real estate appraiser Miller Samuel, in 2008, buildings in Williamsburg and Greenpoint were selling for an all-time high of $668 per square foot on average. But in the first quarter of 2009, the average price had fallen to $519, a number likely to fall further.
The future of the waterfront is also in question. The State Parks Department cut its funding for East River State Park from $169.1 million to $112.1 million earlier this summer, and the New York City Parks Department cut its budget by $57 million, most of which was earmarked for Bushwick Inlet Park.
One thing making the downturn harder on North Brooklyn than on other parts of the city is its high concentration of new construction, said Miller Samuel CEO Jonathan Miller. Formerly a light industrial zone, the neighborhood has been deluged with residential units. In the last two years, new buildings have accounted for 75 to 85 percent of all sales in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, he said.
The problem starts with banks. A new rule prohibits Fannie Mae from guaranteeing mortgages for units in buildings that haven’t sold 70 percent of their units. And because Fannie Mae considers New York to be a real estate market in decline, that number goes up to 75 percent. With banks scrambling for their own survival, few are willing to take risks, especially on real estate. For new buildings, in particular larger developments like the Northside Piers or The Edge, reaching that figure is an increasingly daunting task.
As a result, smaller, better-funded buildings are still selling well, said Leah Ellis, an associate at Kutnicki Bernstein Architects. But many of the big buildings with over 100 units are struggling, she added, and developers are getting nervous.
The banks play another role in the woes faced by North Brooklyn developers. Architect Karl Fischer, whose firm has designed many of the modern condominiums that typify recent development in the neighborhood, said that one distinguishing characteristic of the Williamsburg real estate market is that many of its developers are not established or capitalized enough to withstand the downturn. First, they get squeezed by the banks, and then they paint themselves into a corner where they lose control of the property to banks that refuse to lower unit prices to sell.
In a sea of price cuts, no building illustrates this nightmare scenario as well as Warehouse 11, a Karl Fischer-designed, 120-unit development on Roebling Street. Construction on Warehouse 11 is 95 percent complete, and it’s in foreclosure, with the developer owing $50,766,000. The bank has pulled all sales listings for the individual units, and in May hired brokerage Massey Knakal to sell off the building’s senior debt. Massey estimates that the building’s potential gross annual rental income could be as high as $4.1 million.
With sales heading for a dip as low as $350 per square foot, developers and their architects are resorting to survival tactics, from rethinking the finishing touches to buying cut-rate treadmills for the fitness room. Many buildings have already gone from being condos to offering some or all of their units as rentals, Ellis said. Some developers are also retooling their condominiums as dormitories or eldercare facilities. In one luxury condo in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a desperate developer went one step further, renting out the unsold units in his building to the city as housing for homeless families. While that’s an extreme example, it’s clear to most developers holding unsold units in Williamsburg that something has to give.