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Friday, January 26, 2007

ain't no love in the heart of the city

Last night I attended the first of what will surely be a long series of meetings this year on zoning changes in my part of Brooklyn. I should probably point out for the benefit of my readers outside the city that New York is divided into 59 community board districts, each with a board of fifty appointed members who serve the city in an advisory capacity with regard to land use and other local matters. Although the boards' decisions are only advisory, their participation in many official actions is required by city statutes, and city agencies usually follow their advice. I am lucky enough to serve on Community Board 6 in Brooklyn, where I sit on the land use & landmarks committee and the economic & waterfront development committee.

The CB6 land use committee held last night's meeting with officials from the Department of City Planning and other agencies. The purpose: to begin a public discussion that will hopefully lead to a planning framework to govern eventual zoning changes in the district. CB6 covers the neighbourhoods of Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Red Hook, Boerum Hill, Park Slope, and, the subject of the meeting, Gowanus. Total population: 104,000.

As the newspapers daily report, New York is enjoying—although it's surely more complicated than mere enjoyment—an extended real estate boom that is transforming wide swaths of the city. Gowanus, the area surrounding the ferociously polluted Gowanus Canal, is zoned for industrial uses, but bit by bit more and more properties there have gone residential in recent years.

In a typical gentrification scenario, hipsters move in, longtime renters get pushed out, and real estate barons make out like bandits. In Gowanus things are a bit more complicated because the expansion of housing can only come at the cost of losing businesses. Everyone agrees that the city needs more housing, Brooklyn needs more affordable housing (a term we will surely revisit soon), and the city needs to hold on to the blue-collar jobs that one finds in Gowanus.

Something has to give. But the choices are not between good and bad; the choices are between competing goods. That is the discussion that the community had last night. It is often said of compromises that the best ones leave no one happy. But that's what city living is all about: ambiguous tradeoffs. Location versus space. Grittiness versus safety. Housing versus industry. Newcomers versus oldtimers.

I'm privileged to have a front-row seat and a say in Brooklyn's future. As the year progresses, I look forward to offering my readers more reports from the frontlines. It would be lovely if my overseas readers, especially those in London where the office of mayor is still a new institution, could offer their thoughts on the compromises of city living. Let's get inside the city—my city, your city, all cities—and see what we can learn that can help us make the city even better.


Anonymous Katherine said...

Okay, since I am one of those readers who lives overseas, in London specifically, I guess I should stick my two cents in. :)

Having lived in an area that is vastly changing, and has previous to the past 20, 30 years, changed almost beyond recognition, I can testify that it is not all a bed of roses. As fantastic as much needed housing is, the housing in these desirable areas never goes to the ones that need it most. As you have indeed mentioned, instead, the developers charge prices that are in line with a desirable and overcrowded area, the affluent move in, and those traditional to the area, who have perhaps spent their lives there, are slowly and surely pushed out. Of course rising rents and housing costs are not the only reason people leave an area - perhaps the fact that the area was previously undesirable to live in plays a part, and there are others - but it is a significant factor. You lose these people that have shared their lives with an area - perhaps an over sentimentalised and romantic way of looking at it, but true nonetheless. These people have contributed to the area in which they live, they have created communities where their lives and the area are interlinked. You break up this but first changing the area in which they live, and then slowly moving them out. Unless you are Margaret Thatcher and believe there is no such thing as society. In which case, develop away, because what over development destroys is people's heritage, people's lives, and the commercialisation of everything unfortunately creates a place where everybody looks out for themselves, there is no community. The people that move into these costly new developments are not always interested in creating links with the area, they may not be there full time, or they may just not feel the need. So you definitely lose something. I cannot really put my finger on what, but something valuable has been traded in, in order for some people to make a lot of money.

Growing up in London now, I can honestly say that looking in picture books is one of the only ways that I can even hope to identify what, for example, the east end looked like just in the 1970's, let alone the 1940's and 50's. Although there one does have to remember that small thing the east end suffered called the blitz, but y'know, who really remembers that :) In all seriousness, however, one needs to focus on one's priorities when addressing the specific town or city. What are you willing to sacrifice to keep people satisfied with what they are getting. Are you willing to lose cultural sites, which has indeed been done in London again and again, in order to create this much needed housing and possibly revolutionise and revitalise the area in which you live. Of course, London hasn't pulled down Tower Bridge, or the Houses of parliament, but small sites of interest that were perhaps best known by the communities and areas in which they are in, have been lost. You need to make a decision about how important these places are to you and the people in your area. Although with your problem it is concerning more of a removal of business which could keep the area alive, rather than loss of old buildings and such, but the evaluation process is still much the same. You need to think what will happen in twenty or thirty years, who will benefit from it then, not just now. And whether what you are replacing the area with is indeed more valuable than the original.

Beautiful housing, and fantastic areas are the benefit - your filthy river will no longer remain filthy if the affluent move in. They will not put up with their penthouses overlooking a lot of mud and brown. Looking at the Thames today, it may be brown, but apparently there are now freshwater fish there - something you definitely wouldn't have found twenty or thirty years ago. And yes, the houses will look fantastic, there are some beautiful places now built alongside the river and within the rest of London, however, these will not house the majority of the people living in London, these house the minority who can afford the prices - thus defeating the whole purpose of building in that area in the first place. The areas where these people live will be well maintained, the gardens will look beautiful, and there is no denying that in that sense, it does benefit an area. But it doesn't necessarily pump money into the areas that need it most.

The bad is that you will lose some valuable cultural heritage - churches, if they haven't already, will become flats - beautiful yes - do they contain that same valuable history whether you worshipped there or not - no. Sites which were designated for community projects will be swallowed up, if not completely, than almost so - money is a much greater force than any of us would like to admit. From personal experience, I can refer to an entire area which was designated to become a memorial park by the river. The area nearby was developed into flats, than the developers bought off some of the land that had been put aside for the park, and then, after the flats had been built, the residents decided that they really didn't want a memorial park there at all. So, in another compromise, it became a park with a very small, nondescript statue - it became a pretty place to sit, but not necessarily what was intended originally.

I am not saying London is now the most horrific place in the world. In fact I still firmly believe it is the most wonderful because of it's cosmopolitan population. It is utterly diverse, from it's people to it's architecture - one of the most wonderful things about London is the way in which you can walk down a street and come across a thoroughly modern high rise building, and then across this tiny 1800's house. There must be a creation of the new, for now, some things must change, that is undeniable, otherwise society wouldn't exist, but you have to decide what has become superfluous, and whether in 50 years it will remain so. What can we still learn from?

Unfortunately, one must remember that property developers aren't out for the social and community good, they are in business solely to make money, despite what they try and make you think. Horrific and cynical it may seem, but money will win out, no matter what one tries to do. When, many years down the line, people realise what they have done, they will desperately try to reverse the situation. The only problem then, is that things like this have a horrible way of being irreversible.

I hope that you manage to come to a conclusion that may not please all, but at least satisfies some of their demands. I am afraid that this comment wasn't really what you were looking for, but now I've spent so long typing it out, I don't think my sore hands would let me delete it :)

7:52 AM, January 27, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Quite the contrary, Katherine's eloquent comment was exactly what I had in mind. The situation in London is the same as in New York. Perhaps we can learn something from each other.

In New York, the Fort Greene neighbourhood in Brooklyn is the most extreme case. In 2004 alone, average sale prices rose 35 percent. (New York Times, January 3, 2005.) What's drawing everyone to Fort Greene? The Brooklyn Academy of Music, the opening in 2001 of a new building by the Mark Morris Dance Group, and the planned construction of a new home for Theatre for a New Audience, designed by Frank Gehry, and a new performing arts library, designed by Enrique Norten. Those are all great things, but they're also driving people out.

Communities need to prioritize their goals. The chaos of real life (and real estate) will never be tamed, but one stands a better chance of a more tolerable outcome if one sticks to clear goals.

What will probably happen here is that affluent areas will be downzoned (i.e., lower building sizes will be codified), other areas will be upzoned and re-zoned for housing, and government incentives will be offered to developers to include below-market rental units in their buildings.

Property is not like other commodities, nor should it be. Nowhere is it governed solely by free market conditions. I don't know how things work in London, but you might want to look at NYC's 421-a program, revised just last month. I can add more detail if readers are interested. Basically, it's a tax break for new buildings that include affordable units, but the new reform makes it finely tailored to achieve the desired results.

5:21 PM, January 28, 2007


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