Brooklyn Boro

The future of Brooklyn: Introducing our new series ‘Zoned In’

September 11, 2019 Steve Hindy
The Downtown Brooklyn skyline. Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane
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What will be the future of New York City’s largest borough?

The once-thriving, once-independent city is again growing and attracting the young, the talented and the dispossessed from shores near and far — settling the displaced, and displacing the settled.

The future of Brooklyn is playing out in rezoning exercises that are underway in Industry City, Gowanus and Bushwick. The city’s Zoning Resolution determines the size, scope and purpose of every parcel of land within the five boroughs; a mirthless 1,300-page tome from which springs skyscrapers and hospitals, parks and schools, brownstones and commuter rail lines. Small changes unleash considerable turmoil, at times pitting neighbor against neighbor.

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Zoned In:

An ongoing series exploring the changing rules of New York City zoning and real estate, spotlighting important moments shaping the borough from more than 370 years of history. Stories in this series:

New stories will be posted here.

The latest transformation of Brooklyn began in the mid-1980s with the construction of the MetroTech complex in Downtown Brooklyn, a project that required rezoning and the use of eminent domain to demolish low-rise buildings and make way for tall buildings. It eliminated an entire neighborhood that rezoning supporters called “blighted.” Residents said if there was blight, it was because of municipal neglect and systemic discrimination.

Brooklyn’s development continued with the decadelong battle over Atlantic Yards that killed a grand plan for a Frank Gehry-designed residential development and sports arena. Gehry’s design was scrapped. The arena got built. The housing is rising — slowly.

325 Kent Ave. in Williamsburg. Photo by Chase Brush.
Eagle file photo by Chase Brush.

Meanwhile, Downtown Brooklyn was being redeveloped with high-rise apartment buildings and hotels — becoming an extension of Manhattan. Before MetroTech, much of New York metro’s new development was happening in North Jersey.

Advocates for and against these dramatic changes would argue either that Brooklyn was enjoying the greatest revival in its history or Brooklyn was being ruined, gentrification was pricing out the real borough and turning it into a downscale Manhattan.

The conflict was passionate and intense but the momentum for change was unstoppable. Brooklyn’s reviving economy and the demand for living quarters befitting the coming 21st century took development to the waterfront communities of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, stuck as they were in the trappings of manufacturing 100 years prior.

Restaurants, bars, hotels, clubs, breweries and distilleries would sprout in the suddenly “hip” enclave. It would become New York City’s most vibrant nightlife destination. The L Train, the only direct mass transit link to Manhattan, would be jammed with riders.

The cover of the July 14, 1969, edition of New York magazine. Courtesy of New York magazine.

Brooklyn showed the first signs of a renaissance in the early 1970s. A 1969 New York Magazine headline screamed, “Brooklyn: the Sane Alternative.” The story described the migration of Manhattanites to brownstone homes in Brooklyn Heights. It was written by one of Brooklyn’s most prominent living writers, Pete Hamill. Eventually, the wealth of Brooklyn Heights spread to Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens — two neighborhoods named by real estate salespeople. Park Slope’s run-down brownstones began to attract young couples looking for “fixer-uppers.”

By the ’90s, artists and other pioneers moved into housing in the mixed-use Gowanus neighborhood, the undeveloped link between Park Slope and Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens. Some small manufacturers sold their properties to developers; others hung tough. The federal government undertook a clean-up of the fetid Gowanus Canal, once a commercial hub of the city. Developers bought land on both sides of the canal, anticipating a bonanza when the canal was cleaned and the area rezoned.

As Greenpoint and Williamsburg flourished, many residents moved south to Bushwick, once a forbidding high-crime neighborhood. Much like Greenpoint and Williamsburg, the first new settlers were artists establishing studios and galleries. Then came restaurateurs and clubs.

Brooklyn’s metamorphosis began long before the skyscrapers. The sloped roofs of Dutch farmhouses replaced Lenape wigwams; Victorians sprouted in their fields. Ports and warehouses scabbed the coastline and so did housing for workers. People came. People went. The rules were still being written.

They’re being rewritten as we speak.

The Brooklyn Eagle presents “Zoned In,” an ongoing series exploring the changing rules of New York City zoning and real estate. Over the coming months, we’ll speak with the activists who fought the battles of the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s. Expert planners and historians will put today’s fights over land use in context, spotlighting important moments shaping the borough over more than 370 years of history. We’ll talk to the people of Brooklyn whose lives are being shaped by these rezonings each and every day.

Follow along, and see the latest here.

Is there a topic you’d like us to explore in this series? Let us know here.

Have you or your family, or your business, been affected in some way — good or bad — by changes in zoning? Let us know here.

Steve Hindy co-founded Brooklyn Brewery in 1988. He previously served as Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press where he covered wars and assassinations in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Sudan.

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  1. normanoder

    It’s misleading to say that the “battle over Atlantic Yards… killed a grand plan for a Frank Gehry-designed residential development and sports arena.”

    Gehry’s design was conceived in a time of economic optimism, in which the developer unwisely professed that the project would take ten years, and Gehry would design every building. That deserved severe skepticism–and developer Bruce Ratner, in fact, later claimed that ten years was never supposed to be the timetable.

    That ten-year claim failed to anticipate the probability of an economic downturn, like the severe recession that hit in 2008, after the subprime mortgage crisis began a year early. That was not long after the project was officially approved in 2006.

    Yes, litigation contributed to delays, but those delays likely saved the arena, which would’ve been too expensive to build once the recession hit: Gehry’s 850,000 square feet vs. the Ellerbe Becket/SHoP substitute, which is 670,000 square feet.

    Gehry was a useful marketing tool, in retrospect, winning over important figures like New York Times architecture critics Herbert Muschamp and Nicolai Ouroussoff, as well as certain members of the chattering class.

    Norman Oder
    Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report

    • It seamed obvious at the time that the Gehry plans were a kind of “bait-and-switch” plan that developers pull to make a big splash in the media for upbeat support with a star architect. Many just didn’t believe, even then, that Ratner had any intent to execute a Gehry design of any kind.