September 09, 2003

Article at The New York Sun

Doctoroff Opens the Shorefront

At least one reason that much of the city's waterfront is a forlorn mess is that city government has for decades zoned the property to be unusable. Instead of permitting uses that are in great demand - residential and commercial - the city has zoned a good one-third of its waterfront for heavy industry, which has been in steep decline in New York since World War II. New York was so confident of its industrial future in 1961 - even in the face of mounting job losses - that the Wagner administration revamped the zoning code to expand the already huge industrial zones into adjacent residential areas. The code prohibited new housing construction in neighborhoods that had been - and often still are - primarily residential, in practice mandating blight and stagnation.

Somehow New York has clung to its romantic self-conception as an industrial colossus, even long after its shipyards shut down, its ports moved to New Jersey, and its 45 breweries gradually closed. While rival cities like Chicago, Miami, and San Francisco have developed their waterfronts with bikeways, promenades, restaurants, shops, and residences, New York's waterfront has lain fallow. It is often just plain inaccessible.

The problem is particularly glaring when a shabby waterfront serves as a boundary to a rejuvenated neighborhood, such as Greenpoint or Williamsburg in Brooklyn. In the 19th century, Greenpoint-Williamsburg formed the largest manufacturing district in the nation. Today Greenpoint's East River edge is dilapidated, but its residential core of beautiful brownstones, handsome row houses, wooden frame houses, and old tenement buildings is being restored by both longtime owners and new investors.

Youngsters fleeing Manhattan's high rents have moved into this neighborhood of immigrants, where waves of newcomers settled in order to be able to walk to work in the many factories. Greenpoint was once home to famous shipyards, including the one that built the Civil War's ironclad Monitor, launched in 1862. Eberhard Faber's yellow Mongol pencils were manufactured here, as were porcelain china, pottery, and glass. Brooklyn Flint Glass was made here until 1868, when it moved to Corning, N.Y., and became Corning Glass Works.

Similarly, neighboring Williamsburg, now regarded as one of the hippest neighborhoods in New York, has welcomed young artists and professionals into its base mix of Eastern Europeans, Jewish refugees from Nazism, African- Americans, and Latin Americans.

The housing stock is solid, the views of Manhattan splendid, and the restaurants, bars, and clubs are excellent. But its East River waterfront is decayed and largely inaccessible.

Daniel Doctoroff, deputy mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding, and Amanda Burden, Director of the Department of City Planning, intend to do something about this longstanding, city-driven impasse. They are proposing a major rezoning of Greenpoint and Williamsburg to allow residential and commercial development where it is now forbidden. Covering a 1.6-mile stretch along the river and encompassing some 170 blocks, the rezoning will permit the development of up to 65,000 housing units. Some 49 acres will be dedicated to publicly accessible open space, including a continuous two-mile esplanade along the East River. The two areas with concentrations of industry now - the old Domino Sugar strip and the still flourishing Brooklyn Brewery section - will be preserved as manufacturing districts.

The overall principle of the new zoning is the coexistence of mixed uses. Light industry would be permitted alongside residences, much like the existing historic pattern in Greenpoint-Williamsburg - a pattern that had been outlawed by the 1961 zoning. "Light industry" includes woodworking shops, bakeries, breweries, warehouses - current uses regarded by the city as compatible with residential. Noxious uses will be prohibited. So "no stone crushing, no soap rendering, no chicken plucking," says a city planning official. "No animal pounds, no crematorium," adds a colleague, getting into the spirit of things.

A bonus is that the new zoning will impose an imprimatur of legality on the many illegal residential lofts whose conversion from manufacturing uses has helped fuel the neighborhood's boom. "I don't think you ever want to have regulations or laws that can't be enforced," says Mr. Doctoroff. "To some extent the zoning proposal recognizes that market forces are such that conversions would continue if there's no substantial enforcement of the code. So the right thing to do is to recognize the reality. "According to city planning, the reality is that over 100 industrial buildings in the area have been converted to residential use.

The plan is striking in its reliance on the private sector. "The property to be rezoned is almost 100 percent privately owned now," says Mr. Doctoroff, who adds that future development will be virtually 100% private. The required public investment will be low, he adds. This is a plus but some residents worry about being pushed out of their homes or jobs by gentrification. Mr. Doctoroff believes that the plan accommodates a wide range of economic needs, preserving jobs while providing new housing.

"This is a much more nuanced look than ever before at how these uses can be compatible," he says, adding that he doesn't want jobs lost. Of the city's remaining 250,000 manufacturing jobs, some 7,400 are in Greenpoint-Williamsburg.

Developers can ease the affordability problem by getting special low-rate bond financing under the city's 80-20 program, which mandates that 20% of apartments be earmarked for moderate-income housing, leaving the remaining 80% at market rate. The city also has subsidy programs, such as the New Housing Opportunities Program for moderate- and middle-income households and LAMP, the Low-income Affordable Marketplace Program. But officials emphasize that the rezoning does not require developers to use subsidies. "Subsidies are there for incentives," says one official, "but no developer has to take them."

The plan has a long approval process ahead of it. City officials have been building substantial good will in their meetings with elected officials, community boards, business representatives, and neighborhood and civic groups. Many of these groups had been pushing a similar plan in 1998, but were rebuffed by the Giuliani administration, which saw such extensive rezoning as impossibly cumbersome.

The hard part begins in earnest this month, when a scoping session on an Environmental Impact Statement will be held. City officials say that when the EIS is complete, the project could be certified for Uniformed Land Use Review Proceedings by January. Then would begin the formal, onerous, seven month public review process.

"Let's do it," says Brooklyn College sociologist Jerry Krase, a life long resident of Brooklyn. "Let's develop the waterfront, and let's do it well, the way other cities have." Mr. Krase just returned from Australia, where he toured Sydney's inner harbor, which he calls a "joy." Sydney has a "sense of the waterfront as a tremendous asset," he says. "Restaurants, shops, parks, residential, all mixed up."

Mr. Doctoroff likes to say the city has "a once-in-a-century opportunity to reclaim a waterfront that since New York's founding has been dominated by industrial uses, cutting off the water from the people." Mr. Doctoroff is a mixed-use kind of guy - an advocate for growth and development by the private sector and also an athlete who regularly bikes to City Hall along the Hudson. He has precisely the right impulse on land use: reform the city's cumbersome zoning and building codes, and direct development to derelict areas. Perhaps at last the city that earned untold riches from its waterways is preparing to make its next fortune on the water as well.