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Williamsburg Rises Up



The funky, warm mix of low-rise residential, manufacturing, commerce, and arts spaces that has made Williamsburg a unique spot for many long-time residents is on the verge of changing into a landscape dominated by the kind of high-rise luxury condos that are developers' wet dreams. "Brooklyn Rises in Developers' Eyes," declared a 2004 headline in the Real Deal, a real estate newsletter, and as the article ominously stated, "What's already built is only a drop in the bucket compared to the deluge about to come, developers and brokers say."


One building planned for N. 7th Street between Bedford and Berry in its legal application stated it would be 16 stories, yet people who have looked at the architect's model have counted 22 stories of luxury units. "Try to think of it as a huge symbol marking the end of the neighborhood as we know it," says Larry Walczak of Stop Our Supersizing (SOS), a community group strategizing to stop the tower, "Visually it will be so powerful as to change the entire feel of much of the Northside and sit much like the Citibank building does in Queens—a kind of 'evil tower.'"


This building is not part of the hotly debated Department of City Planning waterfront rezoning plan, in which the DCP claims that luxury towers on the waterfront are the only way a boardwalk and new parks can be built. There is no affordable housing element in the N. 7th tower, something the community has demanded in any luxury building that goes up near the water. In fact, if the proposed rezoning goes into effect for the whole Williamsburg-Greenpoint area, a tower with the height of the one at N. 7th would not be allowed inland. The Developers Group, a real estate investment group responsible for luxury (and often strange-looking) developments at 970 Kent Avenue, 209-11 N. 5th Street and 171 N. 7th Street, acquired permits to build the tower through loopholes in the existing zoning rules. According to Walczak, the developers are "attempting to get the foundation work done pronto in order to 'grandfather' themselves under the current—and soon to be old—zoning guidelines."


Stop Our Supersizing (SOS) has managed to get a temporary "stop-work" order through the Transit Authority because the foundation work, which includes an underground garage, is close to the L train tunnel and, as it turns out, even though they began excavation the developers did not have an adequate bracing system in place. According to SOS, the Department of Buildings has also issued a temporary stop-work order, having found 15 violations in an audit of the developers' plans. "We're trying to stall them any way we can," says Walczak.


There is also an issue of safety in the building of the tower. The developers' now-completed building on N. 7th (between Bedford and Driggs) actually collapsed last year as it was near completion. According to Stephanie Thayer of SOS, the CEO of the Developers Group told her it happened "because of the hurricane." While there were reports of high-winds at the time, it goes without saying that any structure, be it four stories or 22 stories, should be able to withstand any amount of wind.


It's clear that after testing the waters and liking them, developers are gung-ho about building luxury units in over-designed buildings that go as high as possible. While the Williamsburg-Greenpoint area has been gentrifying in earnest for much of the last decade, it's about to reach a turning point that could potentially turn the neighborhood into a sort of Battery Park for post-hip rich folks who like the cachet of living in a place that artists used to live. As Larry Walczak says, "it's the beginning of the 'new' Williamsburg that developers are lusting for. We're standing up to fight this and what we're doing could be repeated all over the North and Southside." There are many other sites in the neighborhood where developers are trying to get their foundations in before the zoning changes come into effect. Walczak warns that "this is just the beginning of what they want to do to this neighborhood in the next 5 to 10 years."


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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2005

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