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Builders Beware: In Williamsburg, A Community At Work

Ever since the rezoning of the Williamsburg-Greenpoint area last spring, the building of luxury McCondos and the real and rumored plans of a neighborhood Supersized run rampant. Lots are being sold, buildings demolished, and immense cranes loom on the Northside and Southside, while familiar views such as the Orthodox Church near McCarren Park will now be paired with the towering presence of new residents.

The bullying pace of development has brought with it incompetent developers who increasingly run roughshod, endangering residents, and ignoring zoning laws often with the knowledge that city regulatory agencies are ineffective. Fortunately, the area has a long tradition of community activism and residents willing to put up a fight.

“The problem lies with the New York City Department of Buildings,” says Phil DePaolo of the People’s Firehouse in Williamsburg. “They do not enforce existing zoning regulations.”

Ward Dennis, who chairs the Public Safety Committee of Community Board 1 concurs that “in the end of the day, it comes down to oversight,” but adds that with the pace of development and the “Wild West attitude when it comes to construction in North Brooklyn, there needs to be a local resource where residents can turn.”

According to Dennis, hasty development in the area over the last year has led to one dead construction worker and seven forcibly vacated buildings. On Diamond Street in Greenpoint, two buildings were condemned and their residents evicted indefinitely because of the hapless mistakes of a contractor tearing down the building between them. “There’s a land rush, and everyone wants to be the next one on the market. Unfortunately, that has led some developers and some contractors to do quick and sloppy work,” he says, adding that “even when life-safety isn’t threatened, there are considerable health and welfare issues, from dust and noise to improperly abated asbestos, lead, and other hazardous materials.”

Understanding the role of the Department of Buildings sheds some light on problems inherent to such fast-paced development. As DePaulo describes it, the DOB currently allows architects hired by the developers to approve their own construction plans with no review by a DOB plan examiner, a process called “self-certification.”

“As a policy, self-certification is wrong,” says DePaolo. “We must intensify our efforts to professionalize the buildings department and provide them with the expertise needed to enforce the zoning resolution before and after a permit is granted. It is their operation that directly impacts on communities throughout our city.” And some movement is happening on this front. The Public Safety Committee of CB1 is holding a special meeting with representatives of the DOB on February 9, 2006, to discuss the myriad issues raised by the construction boom—from common nuisances to matters of safety.

“Hopefully that will be a first step in raising awareness and getting some straight info on what’s legal, what’s not, and what can be done about it,” says Dennis.

Community monitoring on these issues has already achieved some significant victories, similar to past efforts against waste transfer stations and power plants. A stop work order was issued on the 20-plus story “finger building” rising on North 7th Street, for example, because someone inadvertently found an infraction in the builder’s zoning application and notified the DOB. An excellent new blog,, posts useful links for residents to make sense of zoning and understand how to record and report infractions, as well as keep abreast of development in the area. The site also provides information on what to do if a neighboring building is sold and you suspect a McCondo is on the rise. Assemblyman Joseph Lentol has pledged to track information posted on the blog, and there is some talk of posting photographs of careless construction and zoning infractions.

Many politicians hailed the disputed rezoning plan for the area a “success” when the City Council finally gave its nod. But as those in the community forewarned, the reality of development is in the details of enforcement. In Williamsburg-Greenpoint (and many other parts of Brooklyn), developers are pressed to unload luxury condos before the inevitable bust comes. In the hustle, it is residents who must endure constant demolition and the real dangers of careless building.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2006

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