When Sapna Advana, an urban planner, joined the Brooklyn Waterfront Research Center as a research fellow six months ago, she polled residents in Sunset Park about changes they’d like to see to see along the harbor.
The majority asked that the waterfront remain exactly as it’s been for decades: a working port, with cranes, warehouses, and graving docks, where cargo ships are drained of water.
“Residents favor industrial over high-rises,” said Advani, who directs planning at Chelsea West Architects. “They want proximity to well-paying jobs.” At a conference last week on redevelopment plans for Brooklyn’s 40-mile shoreline, held in a courtroom at Borough Hall, Advani urged the city to strike a balance between residential development and the preservation of Brooklyn’s industrial heritage.
In one of the city’s earliest experiments in waterfront reclamation, derelict portions of Williamsburg’s western edge were rezoned for residential use. At the time, the neighborhood’s street grid didn’t extend all the way to the East River, and luxury towers were virtually non-existent.
To scale new construction to the neighborhood’s low-rise character, buildings farthest from the immediate shoreline were capped in height. Developers of towers like the Edge and Northside Piers were given incentives to build parkland, which could then be turned over to the city for maintenance.
“We knit open spaces together into one public promenade,” said Purnima Kapur, director of the Planning Department’s Brooklyn office.
Today, there are 3,500 units set among landscaped grounds on the Williamsburg waterfront, including 650 set aside for homeowners earning 80% or less of the area’s median income.
Further south, in Brooklyn Heights, residents took the opposite tack of those in Sunset Park, clamoring for housing to extend to the East River. In 2005, Robert Levine of RAL Companies signed a ground lease to convert a Jehovah’s Witness property into One Brooklyn Bridge Park, a 400-unit condo project with prices ranging from $400,000 to $8 million.
As part of the agreement, he constructed the development’s namesake park, just as developers in Battery Park City built a landscaped esplanade along the Hudson River. “I paid a premium for the property as if the park had already been developed,” Levine said.
Now, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation is reviewing proposals for a new hotel and residential complex near the esplanade. The site, which has room for up to 225 hotel rooms and 180 units, will also include parking and park maintenance facilities, according to the Corporation. “They’ll deliberate next year,” said Levine.
The Battery Park City model worked for Williamsburg and Brooklyn Heights, but isn’t necessarily suitable for the rest of the borough. Rather than take a one-size-fits-all approach, planners are shaping the waterfront into a city in and of itself, with a mixture of manufacturing facilities, parkland, and residential development, where appropriate.
“Today, we look upon the waterfront almost as the sixth borough,” Kapur said. With its revamped amusement park and plans for middle-income and market-rate housing, Coney Island will look a whole lot different, in other words, than the shipping containers stacked along the western edge of Sunset Park. With the Gowanus Expressway separating the neighborhood’s residential portion from the harbor, Sunset Park is an unlikely candidate for luxury construction to begin with.
To the west of the elevated highway are the docks, which have lost marine traffic to the port in Newark and Elizabeth, but still receive a handful of ships, some carrying up to 1,200 containers. Three- and four-story rowhouses, some brick, others covered in white and yellow aluminum siding, line the blocks to the east of the Gowanus. As in Red Hook, another neighborhood bordering a working port, “the community wants to preserve low-scale housing,” Advani said.
And presumably, they want to hang onto the mom-and-pop shops and restaurants along Fifth Avenue, many catering to Chinese and Latin American immigrants. Though planners hope to introduce some new housing west of the expressway, none will be as flashy as Williamsburg’s condo towers.
Homeowners in Sunset Park have asked for green space, which is limited at the moment to a public cemetery in nearby Greenwood Heights, and would welcome a walkway or transit link to the waterfront, where a handful of new residents might find jobs. But a greater priority will be improving the neighborhood’s port, and expanding rail infrastructure to Queens and Staten Island. “It’ll decrease a reliance on trucks,” Advani explained.
The city has toyed with building a mega-port, which would accommodate the arrival of massive ships once the Panama Canal widens. But that project may be better suited for Newark and Elizabeth.
“Our land size isn’t very large in Brooklyn,” said Jonathan Peters, a finance professor at the College of Staten Island and a colleague of Advani’s at the Waterfront Research Center. Rather than haul in landfill to expand the port, a less intrusive alternative would be to make Sunset Park a hub for ship maintenance, Peters said.
The good news, for residential developers hoping to see prime waterfront rezoned, is that state-of-the-art industrial facilities would boost Brooklyn’s economy and perhaps fuel growth further inland.
“Brooklyn has more manufacturing than the rest of the city,” said Peters. “But the reality is, Brooklyn is way short of jobs.” 500,000 residents have to travel off the borough for work, Peters said. Of the jobs that do exist in Brooklyn, over a quarter are concentrated at waterfront facilities.
A major hub is the Brooklyn Navy Yards, a 300-acre industrial park with over 250 tenants. The facility, which is home to three of 18 ship maintenance facilities in the Port of New York and New Jersey and leases space to manufacturers of everything from fire hydrants to plastic bags, isn’t undergoing residential rezoning any time soon. “There is long term certainty on zoning, so businesses can invest and expand,” said Andrew Kimball, president of the Navy Yards.
Kimball is seeking to redefine public notions of manufacturing to include artsy crafts like film production, fashion design, and custom furniture making. “Don’t put arts and industry in separate bubbles,” said Kimball. “40% of people who are making things [in the Navy Yards] are in arts and culture.”
One of the most prominent examples is Steiner Studios, where Sex and the City was filmed. But a number of smaller film studios and gourmet food production businesses have leased space at the facility. Even a number of army uniforms, worn by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, are manufactured at the Navy Yards. In coming months, Kimball will oversee the construction of a 40,000 s/f rooftop farm, which would provide produce to surrounding neighborhoods.
In Sunset Park, Industry City, an industrial campus much like the Navy Yards, opened three years ago on the corner of 32nd Street and Second Avenue, next to a nearly 80-year-old factory that produces artificial flavors. A handful of loftlike spaces, some of which rent for only $1,000 a month, were set aside for creative types; on blogs and other online forums, artists praised the development, including the smell of vanilla wafting through the complex.
Red Hook is undergoing a similar industrial renaissance. Though an Ikea and Fairway opened several years ago along the waterfront, and an esplanade was built where graving docks once stood, distribution companies are leasing space near the neighborhood’s port.
Towards the end of the conference at Borough Hall, the publisher of a local arts newsletter asked the panelists about a beer warehouse owned by Phoenix Beverages, a distributor of Heineken, Guiness, and Smirnoff Ice, that had opened recently on a vacant pier.
Convinced that manufacturing and distribution had little place in Brooklyn’s future, painters and writers renting relatively cheap apartments in Red Hook were confused about the construction of the warehouse, which began after Phoenix shut down facilities in Elizabeth and Long Island City.
Roland Lewis, president of the Metropolitan Waterfront Association, a group that advocates for the strengthening of New York’s ports, reassured the publisher that the new facility was the best thing the borough could ask for.
“My beer doesn’t go to the port in Elizabeth and sit around in a warehouse in central New Jersey,” he said. “It goes straight to Brooklyn, to my front porch.”