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Atlantic’s Credibility Crisis

Wow – Atlantic Cities let someone with no clue about development in Brooklyn write about development in Brooklyn. The basic premise of the article is that zoning (both use and FAR limits) is making housing more expensive by restricting the amount of new housing that can be constructed. In other words, the classic libertarian argument about land-use restrictions.

Let’s review:

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of housing units in the five boroughs inched up an average of 0.5 percent annually between 2000 and 2010. That’s not even enough to keep pace with average U.S. population growth, which is about 1 percent per year.

The 2010 Census is so flawed, particularly with regard to Williamsburg and Greenpoint, that no credible argument can be based on its data. Remember, according to the census, much of North Brooklyn did not see a population increase between 2000 and 2010. Despite the very gentrification that Smith writes about, despite a building boom that has added thousands of new housing units since 2002 and despite a massive rezoning halfway through the decade that allowed for the creation of thousands more new housing units in formerly industrially-zoned areas. In all, something on the order of 4,000 new dwelling units (very conservatively estimated) have been added to the western parts of Greenpoint and Williamsburg since 2005 (the areas within and immediately adjacent to the 2005 rezoning). Hundreds if not thousands more have been added elsewhere in Greenpoint, Bushwick and the Southside.

Functionally, the industrial zoning along the waterfront and throughout Bushwick is hopelessly out of date. Urban manufacturing here is a shell of its former self. Car repair shops, wholesalers, warehouses and storage facilities are now the main tenants of Brooklyn’s “manfacturing core.”

What industrial zoning along the waterfront? 80% of the Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront was rezoned for residential use 7 years ago, and another 10% (Domino) in 2010. Hundreds of new housing units have been created on the Williamsburg waterfront, and hundreds more are coming to Greenpoint. There are three blocks of the Williamsburg waterfront that are still zoned manufacturing (between Grand and North 3rd) one of those blocks contains a power plant), and the other two.

Meanwhile, the remaining industrially-zoned areas of north Brooklyn are creating a lot of jobs. Good jobs, too. Look at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a center of high-tech manufacturing and film production. Look at GMDC, which has a waiting list of small manufacturers. Look at the booming film production industry in Greenpoint. Historically, many people in north Brooklyn worked in north Brooklyn – not in Manhattan.

East Williamsburg actually has an abundance of underused land around Bushwick Creek, but Mayor Bloomberg and Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz don’t want to allow any residential development in the neighborhood, in order “to preserve the city’s manufacturing base.”

Bushwick Creek is not in East Williamsburg. It is not even a creek anymore. It is an inlet on the East River that divides Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Yes, the city created a small industrial carve out around Bushwick Inlet in 2005, and no, that carve out probably doesn’t make any sense.

…northern Brooklyn is underdeveloped. The hip neighborhoods around the L train, the main vehicle of gentrification in Williamsburg and Bushwick, are less than half as dense as Brooklyn neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy.

Perhaps true – hard to tell from a jpeg of a map with no data sources listed (perhaps its from the census?). Regardless, much of Williamsburg and Greenpoint is actually under built compared to the allowable zoning. The potential density for north Brooklyn at current FAR limits is well above the actual density (in fact, it is probably comparable to the density shown in the fuzzy jpeg map, which seems to show much of brownstone Brooklyn at higher density than north Brooklyn – though all these areas have roughly the same zoned density).

Aesthetically, the vinyl-covered two- to four-story houses that dominate are some of the ugliest in the city. They lack the ornate cornices of their peers in south Brooklyn, and the brick patterns hidden behind the vinyl and stucco are plain compared to other pre-war styles.

So tear them down and we can build to a higher density. Zoning isn’t stopping that, and in fact that’s what is happening already (and has been happening very actively for a decade now). (And by the way, the brick is plain because a lot of those houses are pre-a-different-war – the Civil War; Williamsburg in particular has some of the oldest housing stock in the city.)

Problem is, from an infrastructure point of view, north Brooklyn is hurting. Unlike other areas of Brooklyn with higher population densities, north Brooklyn is not as richly served by public transit (if you pay attention to the map, the areas of highest density are along the public transit corridors), and it does not have as much park and open space as a lot of other areas. L trains run at capacity (in part because more newer residents are more likely to work in Manhattan, not locally), JMZ trains are rapidly gaining capacity (and neither line can be readily expanded), new bus lines, bike lanes and ferries are being added (but that only helps at the margins), parks and open space are overcrowded and over-utilized, and on and on. Sure, we could double the zoning density of North Brooklyn, but our infrastructure can’t even handle the thousands of people who have been added to the area to date, let alone the thousands more that will be added if currently as of right development continues apace.

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