The Brooklyn Waterfront

A fascinating place to explore issues of urban authenticity is the Brooklyn waterfront. The New York City Planning Department is actively planning for the future of this rapidly changing area through initiatives like PlanYC and Vision 2020, the Comprehensive Waterfront Plan.

These plans seem comprehensive and sustainably oriented, but there are some underlying frameworks and assumptions that are questionable. According to Tom Angotti, director of Community Development Planning at Hunter College, despite recent efforts, the mayor still depends on zoning and numerical targets to produce more housing rather than focusing on preserving neighborhoods as a whole. Furthermore, PlanYC counts the affordable housing added to the city without accounting for the ones that have been lost to accommodate new construction. Inclusionary zoning has provided 2,000 additional units over the past decade, while 200,000 affordable units have been lost.

One aspect of New York’s waterfront planning initiatives of particular interest to me is the designation of Industrial Business Zones (IBZs) and Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas (SMIAs), which protect existing industrial zoning and foster the growth of new business. Although these designations have revitalized industry in spots along the waterfront, their existence is isolating, preventing strong connections to their surroundings and leaving their neighborhoods subject to drastic economic and physical dichotomies due to their presence. According to Steinberg writing for the Gotham Gazette, 20% of the city’s industrial land outside IBZs and SMIAs has already been turned over to nonindustrial operations such as hotels and big box stores. Support services are offered to the blocks surrounding the IBZs, yet there are no tax breaks or zoning guarantees offered in these areas. They are therefore vulnerable to environmental injustices that occur due to divisive zoning.

The kinds of things that might pop up in these unprotected fringe zones might resemble what happened after the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Land Use and Waterfront Plan of 2005. By increasing the supply of market-rate homes, the Land Use and Waterfront Plan pushed residents out of their neighborhood to make way for isolating, residential high-rises. “Permanently changing the urban fabric and the associated demographics raises concerns about affordability, the endangerment of historic buildings and the creation of privatized enclaves,” says Sapna Advani, a New York-based planner and researcher. Giving housing and commercial operations priority over everything else will allow New York to continue down the path to becoming a lifestyle island, dependent on outside resources and therefore less sustainable.

Advani points to successful projects in other cities that combine diverse operations to create vibrant, transitional spaces. Oakland houses a park within a port, and Ithaca holds a farmer’s market next to a sewage treatment plant, to name a few. Integrating these vastly different programs creates vibrancy and industrial accountability, compared to industries located on the outskirts of society.

Advani talks about using mixed-use zoning to create authentic urban experiences. What I’ve drawn from my research is a strong connection between this idea of urban authenticity and concepts of integration, sustainability, and accountability. I suppose the obsession with integration stems from the fact that New York neighborhoods are historically integrated. A recent RadioLab episode on WNYC described a single Brooklyn street that housed Carribbean auto body shops, Hassidic Jew residences, and a mosque, among other things. This sense of vibrancy at the street-level is a key aspect of New York’s identity, and fear of residential high-rises and isolated industry stokes the fire of advocates for authenticity. Integration is also tightly associated with concepts of sustainability, in terms of mixed-use development. By living in such close quarters with a diverse array of amenities, people will rely less on transportation to acquire their daily necessities. Furthermore, by incorporating industry into residential and public space, those industries are held more accountable for their practices.

A common trend along the Brooklyn waterfront these days is local, artisanal, specialized production, in the name of sustainability (or sometimes just hipsterdom). Recently New York residents, especially those in Brooklyn, have been developing small-scale industries to produce quality or lifestyle goods. Mast Brothers Chocolate is a perfect example. Located in the heart of Williamsburg, a pair of mustachioed brothers sail their cocoa beans from Madagascar and wrap their $8 dollar, delectable bars in the most charming wallpaper-like wrapping I’ve ever come across. Their business feels authentic, maybe with a hint of trying-to-hard, but otherwise praiseworthy. This is because Mast Brothers fits perfectly into the three-part recipe for authenticity I’ve devised: integration, sustainability, and accountability.

Does this mean that as New York inevitably becomes more globalized, it will simultaneously become less integrated, less sustainable, and less accountable? Or is there a way these two seemingly disparate concepts can coexist?