Monday, July 8, 2013

Eh, Why Not Here? - Bloomberg and Brooklyn. Rambling Intro.

This is the second time a piece that took a relatively long time was "cancelled." It probably won't much look like it, since I tried to squeeze what amounts to the fifth largest city in the country (and some (10,000 - 12,000 words in notes) into 2,000 words (I can't decide whether that's more of a humblebrag or failure, but I will let the internets judge).

Like before, I suppose I could have just spent more time pitching it a bunch of places. But, I've decided I have too much other stuff to do and wanted to see it somewhere. So why not here?

It's not quite a final edit. So there's still some awkward wording I was still mulling over (all highlighted in yellow). And even one portion where I have a filler [##] where I'd like to fill in a number I could not confirm. But, whatever, it's cool beans for me for now.

If anything I enjoyed walking and driving around Brooklyn. Still feel like I didn't get to see enough. It is HUGE. And much more interesting in its entirety than I would have imagined.

I don't know what kind of impression the write-up leaves. But I'm sort of Bloomberg neutral (as I am about too many things). Mostly, because New York City is such a large place. And after his decade-plus governing the city, there's a lot of ground to judge and cover that I haven't yet.

I can say that the rezonings were an effort towards something. Good or bad, it's a start that can be improved upon by the next admninstration (yeah, you can call that a copout if you'd like. I'm still trying to figure if it is myself).

Look out below, and all that good stuff.


Jerome Krase has lived in Brooklyn 70 years, has been teaching college-level sociology, most recently at CUNY, for more than 40 years, and has given local tours for 30.  Over the last 10 years, as Bloomberg rezoned one-fifth of New York City blocks, Brooklyn went through its share of real estate development, gentrification, in no small part due to the rezoning policies.

Media took growing interest in Brooklyn’s transition over the past few years. And Krase says he’s “almost every reporter’s cheap date” at the rate of about one per week.

He essentially tells a franker version of pretty much everything you’ve read in the newspapers.

Pre-Bloomberg (1970s), sprawl-weary policy and public temperament made public housing or small, self-funded real estate projects the norm. The 90’s happen.  “Some Midwestern kid” drops $1,500 - $2,000 a month for a $1,000 apartment. His friends, their friends, and press coverage follow.

Bloomberg’s elected. The Bloomberg administration bypasses traditional piecemeal variances, rezoning some one-fifth of the entire city of New York City. The floodgates open.

Private credit and public subsidies flow where it used to trickle.  Luxury apartments touch skylines. Chain stores, and “chi chi” boutiques touch downs. “Yuppies” join the heard. Out-priced residents move out yonder. Krase questions who benefits.

“That’s the key thing,” said Krase. “Brooklyn for whom?”  

“Bloomberg has a vision of what he wants New York City to be doing.” And what he wants, says Krase, is a statue of Bloomberg to be resurrected when he is gone. “But he’s surrounded by all kinds of people who want certain things.” Developers want taller skylines and freedom to build. Residents wanted to preserve their homes, downzonings, and reduce density.  The result reflects a triangulation between Brooklyn’s most vocal, the powers that be, current residents with the means to maintain economic value, and future residents who can spend enough money to add to it.

Wherever a group of tall buildings group, long retail cooridors exist, or a collection of valuable pre-war residences cluster, there’s bound to be a rezoning meant to preserve the neighborhood or allow for residential development. One only need a map of the city planning department rezonings and two feet to see it with their own eyes.

Where Brooklyn Heights runs into Downtown Brooklyn, rows of historic” refurbished brownstones are hidden behind a dense collection of retailers, commercial sites, and government buildings. An new Equinox, Starbucks, and sign declaring a future neighborhood upscaling converge on Court Street.

Walking East on Atlantic from Brooklyn Heights towards downtown Flatbush Avenue, you can still see a downtown Brooklyn in transition. The aged, nine- story low-income Muhlenburg apartments, once one of downtown’s larger real estate projects, sits between closed and fading retailers, and across from refitted facade rowhouses, boutiques, and restaurants.

Once Atlantic runs Flatbush, you’ll find a neighborhood transformed.

Downtown Flatbush Avenue resembles the Brooklyn rezoner’s ethos: A long row of retailers, gradually giving way to pockets of upscale eateries, clothiers, and boutiques, all flanked by high-value brownstones, extending into retail-heavy Fulton outdoor Mall area. Only a few years old, the Barclays’ Center’s shiny glass shell, wrapped in winding metal curtains the color of rust, blends into the old industrial-looking buildings behind it, the shiny new Atlantic Center mall to its right, old-timey and upscale stores on and off of Flatbush Avenue.

And there’s more to come. In 2004, rezonings were added for residential development on two sides of downtwon Flatbush Avenue. One, behind the Atlantic Avenue Terminal (near 3rd Avenue side), where a new apartment building stands. Another, further west, where brownstones on State Street, a row of closed retail shops line Flatbush, and side-street of refurbished and aging retailers sit the near a Board of Education building on third avenue.  

It’s a common theme. Downtown residential upzonings generally reserved lots for large luxury apartment projects in crowded commercial areas. Rezonings made room for 9 Townshouse luxury apartments amongst government buildings in Brooklyn Heights. Before the massive 200 Schermerhorn apartment building was parked amongst the retailers, school, community center, and older housing between downtown Flatbush and Fulton Mall, it was a nameless, brandless amendment on a city planning map. Concentrated development on Atlantic’s south end followed an eleven-block long upzoning along the avenue.

It’s planned density. A new Brooklynite who can afford the $2,000 a month rent can spend their free hours and extra dollars eating, shopping, seeing a show, or otherwise entertaining themselves just outside their doorstep, for blocks in any direction. No need to cross the bridge into Manhattan. You can now feel just as comfortable in dark jeans and loafers as you would in worn jeans and a T-shirt.

The Bloomberg rezonings are largely a bet on the upper-middle class.  Commercializing  the downtown area and stabilizing adjacent neighborhoods, the theory goes, helps create an economic loop where stable, well-to-do neighbors and neighborhoods could anchor and feed into the growing downtown retail scene.

Of course, not everyone in Brooklyn is well-to-do or earns professional, middle class incomes to help them keep pace with rising skylines and rents. So, starting with rezonings in 2004, the administration also sought to “facilitate new mixed-use academic and revenue-generating office buildings” along two blocks adjacent to the Brooklyn bridge. Brooklyn universities and tech startups occupy the space at the center of a planned technology hub. Those two “super blocks” have since grown into the ambitious Tech Triangle Initiative, which extends the hub across Downtown Brooklyn, Dumbo, and the Brooklyn Navy Yards. The city expects that the Triangle will add 18,000 direct and 43,000 direct jobs in the next two years.

It’s another forward looking all-in bet that’s nothing short of admirable. Plenty cities have touted technology hubs, and often don’t take action necessary to forward their visions.  It’s an admirably solid and ambitious plan that can benefit those with the right skill sets. But for low-income or long-time residents without tech acumen on or freshly minted top tier college degrees, the benefits are questionable. Will these tech companies hire long-time locals with as much verve as they might Columbia grads or Silicone Valley transplants?

The alternative $10 an hour service jobs that come with all the new retailers, restaurants, and luxury real estate don’t exactly compensate enough to support a $2,000 per month rent, let alone a sense of upward mobility.  The 1980 development of the East Brooklyn Industrial Park was the last medium-scale effort to help improve working class economy. The Bloomberg-era rezonings, in contrast, have slightly reduced industrial zones downtown, and have remained indifferent to mini industrial parks and manufacturing areas elsewhere. Every community facility rezonings (schools, government, etc. buildings) reduce space (although irrelevancy can be argued due to recession-era government cutbacks).

Affordable housing often sit in the middle of gentrifying areas, without new widescale employment programs to support its tenants. Large public housing sites are tucked behind brownstones and restaurants in Gowanus. Inclusionary housing amendments exist at the intersection of Fulton Street Mall and Flatbush Avenue, an area upzoned for upscale residential development and retail capacity, but reduced in manufacturing capacity. In Fort Greene, by Myrtle Avenue, a rezoning was passed in order to build The Andrea, a luxury apartment building, on a small sliver between two sizable public housing developments and a CVS.  

In addition to economic barriers to upward mobility, there is the law to consider. Under the current charter loopholes, contributing below-market rate housing is voluntary, and inclusionary housing units can be provided off site. Plans are approved in a lengthy process in which council reps, a city planning board (which includes developers), and the mayor’s office have voting or veto power. Renters, vocal or not, don’t have as much leverage in the rezonings as developers with money, or home owners who properties help anchor economic value. The common man’s only enforceable power lay in city council representatives that side with them.

This power imbalance reflects itself through policy.  In neighborhoods where residents own a significant portion of valuable real estate, contextualized rezonings strike a balance between preservation and preparation for upscaled architectural uniformity. In rezoned areas with higher portions of lower-income renters, rezonings and development reflect more dramatic developer-driven transformations.

“Brownstone Brooklyn,” for example, mainly consists of downtown adjacent neighborhoods with high concentrations of valuable resident-owned brownstones. Rezonings essentially double down on previous efforts to maintain negligible development, carefully controlled traffic flow, and purposefully limited parking, while allowing room for managed retail growth on commercial avenues.

In Williamsburg, a well-prepared, actively involved, but less-elite renting population was more or less plowed over during the rezoning process. A request for small scale manufacturing space was nixed. Inclusionary housing was placed in separate buildings with fewer amenities. Demands for a clean waterfront in exchange for development ushered in what looks more like a cleansing. Gleaming 20 story buildings were built next to and above old factories, 2-3 story buildings, and neighborhood bodegas.  Today, the waterfront looks like a parody of Williamsburg’s past. 

In Bedstuy, Fulton Avenue, a [##] block long commercial road of well-attended retailers, splits through 300 blocks of neighborhood brownstones and town houses. The neighborhood infrastructure is a dead ringer for the larger Brooklyn rezoning vision. Despite gentrification that began in the mid 1990’s and city planned “contextual envelopes,” most of the neighborhood doesn’t yet have the refitted, post-rezoning look common to downtown. However, much as new money has transformed  Williamsburg’s waterfront, small cafes, new restaurants, and boutiques are clustered in pockets off of Fulton, Classon, and Greene. Given an active local interest in developing the neighborhood’s business district, more change should be expected overtime. 

That’s good news for residents who own brownstones or can afford the increase in rent. Again, questionable for those who have no way to increase income. The Bradford, the neighborhood’s only new “mid-priced” Bradford apartment building pairs $2,000 per month apartments with $400 inclusionary units.  

Further South and East of downtown, the skyline shrinks into mixed-style low-rise architecture, there is more space, fewer side-street brownstones, and commercial avenues are less developed. The rezonings in these neighborhoods sell preservation and minor overhauls in the same package.  City planning department documents focus on contextualized preservation while describing the kinds of “contextualized envelopes” that foreshadow downtown’s block-by-block uniformity. Often, rezoned areas are bordered by something resembling the end goal: blocks of refitted housings, tidy architecture, and manicured lawns these neighborhoods are slowly, but visibly, transitioning towards.

Canarsie, the only rezoned neighborhood in east East Brooklyn, shares the same appeal, feel, and planned future as south Brooklyn, with a twist. It is a decidedly middle-class, tree-lined neighborhood where more than one-third of residents are homeowners. The rezonings focus on contextualized neighborhood preservation, including the “enveloping” that comes with it. But here, the modest commercial avenues look especially bare compared to city plans and the income that surrounds it. That potential, that space between the tidy city plans and the actual transitioning neighborhood, will allow the Bloomberg-era rezonings to have extended influence in Brooklyn beyond his final term.

Across Brooklyn, despite a decade of partially policy-enabled, Bloomberg-era change, noticeable gaps between the shifting landscape and documented ambitions remain.  Downtown isn’t quite yet Manhattan’s ultra-dense metropolitan doppelganger. Poster ads on the outer windows and walls of newly built luxury apartment buildings still beckon first tenants. Buildings, some patched with bright orange tarp and nettings, are being built. Signs in empty lots claim space for the next newer, taller, shinier things to come. Square blocks rezoned for residential development in the heart of downtown Brooklyn have yet to be claimed.  Even 4thAvenue, the widest, longest, and most ambitiously rezoned mixed-use avenues, looks sparse compared to city plans.

The rezonings set a precedent for the most obvious and common of urban development dilemmas. In passing policies that support developers, protect real estate owners, benefit newer high-income residents, and supports a job infrastructure for the young and highly educated, downtown Brooklyn is not-so-gradually becoming a more self-sustaining retail, residential, and entertainment hub.

For better and for worse, Bloomberg gets to own all of that. What he doesn’t, or shouldn’t, want to own is a legacy of stunting equality and mobility that comes with all the other benefits. And when he leaves office this August, that portion of his legacy may be left in the hands of the next administration.

As outpriced renters move further east into already old “new frontier” neighborhoods like Buschwick and East New York, developers are claiming space ahead of them, without government assistance.  And, unlike in years past, they aren’t announcing plans to build the next semi-skilled manufacturing and shipping hub. Whether via digital bytes or metal machines, a concentrated effort on working class and semi-skilled employment opportunities may lead to a better Brooklyn for everyone.

Even for the Brooklynites who have always been here.