Clueless commentator blames Williamsburg gentrification on lack of supply

Williamsburg stuck in 1961? Has the author even visited?

Taking my usual Saturday morning survey of recent news on Williamsburg and Greenpoint, I came across a fantastically ignorant post on The Atlantic Cities in which the blogger by the name of Stephen Smith attempts to blame Williamsburg’s gentrification troubles on the lack of supply of apartments and condominiums. Throughout the short piece Mr. Smith betrays a shocking lack of knowledge on Williamsburg that one can garner simply by the following quotes: “the neighborhood is more or less frozen in 1961″ “the industrial zoning along the waterfront and throughout Bushwick is hopelessly out of date.” This article’s appearance on the Atlantic, a generally respected site, had my blood boiling so hot that I ran off a hasty anger-filled comment that admittedly is not my best writing, but is full of rebuttals to the article:

“To say that Williamsburg-Greenpoint is “frozen in 1961″ is the most blatantly false statement I’ve ever seen on the Atlantic. Hundreds of new condominium and high-end apartment buildings have been built with an incredible boom coming after the 2005 rezoning, which removed protections for industrial uses on over 200 blocks. Just take a short walk around the Bedford Avenue L train stop and you will see dozens of new condominium buildings ranging from 6 to nearly 20 stories high (the highest ones built before neighborhood residents won a reduction in density in 2008). These lots used to be home to one story workshops protected by the fine-grained mixed use zoning. And this is not even considering the waterfront, where The Edge and Northside Piers added over 1,100 new units in towers over 30 stories high. There is no industrial zoning on the North Brooklyn waterfront anymore — the entire waterfront is zoned for these Battery Park City style developments. Supposedly the towers on the far northern end in Greenpoint are set to begin construction later this year. The neighborhood has been turned upside down by new construction in the past decade. Where is Stephen Smith writing about?

Affordable housing production has been too low and too ineffective because the “inclusionary zoning” in the neighborhood is only optional — developers can choose to get density bonus for incorporating affordable units. The inclusionary zoning should be mandatory and the affordable housing should be targeted at working-class incomes, the people being displaced the most are making $30,000 and less, not $100,000 household incomes that much of NYC affordable housing is targeted at (due to the HUD formulas based on area median income for the entire region, which is $80,000, not NYC which is closer to $50,000 or specific neighborhoods like Williamsburg where it’s closer to $40,000).

We’re also burning over $1 billion from the city budget every year paying for property tax breaks for millionaires — this is the disgraceful 421a tax break that gifts 15 years of no property taxes to new condominium owners. This is a relic from the 70’s when it was needed to spur investment in NYC, now the politicians won’t kill it because of the power of the real estate lobby, it’s a zombie policy. $1 billion a year could go a long way towards affordable housing development. Zoning for and giving subsidy to high end residential development, the City has put the gentrification and transformation of Williamsburg on steroids.

The remaining industrial zoned areas are full of a diversity of manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, arts and design businesses. Has Mr. Smith ever visited the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center (, where there is a years long waiting list for affordable industrial space and tenants range from traditional blue collar manufacturing to high-end specialty arts manufacturing? Unfortunately these areas are constantly under siege by residential conversion from the ill-advised Loft Law and entertainment spaces (bars, bowling allies, etc that are unfortunately allowed under M-1 light manufacturing zoning). The average industrial job makes nearly $50,000 a year and these jobs are being displaced every day by residential and entertainment conversion. Perhaps Mr. Smith would have the workers get jobs serving the new wealthy residents in restaurants and retail — too bad these jobs pay half the average industrial wage….does this not contribute to the displacement of the working class if they no longer have a well paying job?

And I’m not even beginning to address the lack of infrastructure to support the kind of density Mr. Smith is talking about — Williamsburg-Greenpoint is totally lacking in the sewage, roads, and public transportation to handle that kind of population, it is straining under the existing conditions. Mr. Smith’s ignorance is again displayed in his suggestion that Newtown Creek become the site of dense residential development — the land around Newtown Creek in Eastern Greenpoint and East Williamsburg (what else would you call the area east of Graham Avenue north of Flushing Ave?) is horribly contaminated from decades of improper industrial waste dumping.

And I’m not even begging to address the advantages of “live-work” neighborhoods socially, economically, environmentally……

I know this is supposed to be an “opinion” piece but the Editor should require at least a working knowledge of the area and policies the author is talking about before clearing the post…”

End of my post on the article. Perhaps another commented did a better job of responding in one sentence: “stephen, this is way over your head. you’d be better off writing about main street in your hometown of bumblefck, wisconsin.”

I will give poor Stephen credit for one thing — some of the zoning and building codes are overly restricting — Williamsburg might be better off by allowing dormitory style developments with shared kitchens and bathrooms to help absorb the transient recent college grads so they don’t split up the three and four bedroom apartments that are needed by families. But he doesn’t even mention this in his article, which is all about how more buildings should be built in Williamsburg Greenpoint because apparently the neighborhood is the same as it was in 1961…unbelievable this as allowed to be published.

Those who are better informed need to counter this kind of dreck whenever encountered, it is shilling for the worst elements of the real estate industry, whom have always targeted zoning and rent control and any other restrictions on the right to built whatever one wants regardless of the impact on the public.

– Brian Paul, 1/19/13






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