Bloomie Zones: A Social History of NYC Architecture

by Ann Carroll

New York City waterfronts were centers of shipping and industry for much of its history, but as trucking and air transport began to rival shipping, manufacturers abandoned waterfront neighborhoods for cheap and convenient suburban, or foreign, locales.  Seen as “seedy no-man’s land,” the waterfront was long ignored by city officials and developers alike. Some waterfront neighborhoods, like north Brooklyn’s Greenpoint, maintained enclaves of light industry along with a thriving upland residential community, but did not escape the waterfront decay that came with industrial exodus. Sorely lacking in parks and public space, neighbors fought for access to the large tracts of underutilized waterfront land. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the Greenpoint waterfront was hotly contested, with Greenpointers fighting to secure the space for community use, and rallying against proposed plans for a power plant and other noxious uses.

Assuming office in 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration launched ambitious plans for waterfront revitalization. The plans largely imagined the waterfront as a site for luxury high rises and public parks. In order to facilitate the radical shift in waterfront use, rezoning was necessary. The seemingly benign objective of the project was the repurposing of long fallow land into thriving residential and commercial zones. Critics of the massive project argued that the rezoning would displace existing low-income communities and threaten light manufacturing. Neighborhoods, like Greenpoint, resisted rezoning, countering the mayor’s vision with community generated 197a plans that outlined strategies for growth while prioritizing existing communities and industry. For Greenpoint, the local efforts were largely unsuccessful; in 2005 the neighborhood was rezoned. Large tracts that were once zoned for manufacturing were shifted to residential or mixed use.

Using the history and evolution of Greenpoint, I will contextualize and explore the way the Bloomberg administration has consistently undermined manufacturing through the use of rezoning and weak zoning, recognizing their waterfront initiatives as a strategy to bolster their realization of a postindustrial city. While Bloomberg presents himself as a pragmatist, whose common sense policies eschew ideology for practicality, Julian Brash, among others, challenges the innocence of the “Bloomberg Way,” arguing that it is “ideological, class-based, and deeply political (Brash 16).”

With this in mind, I will begin my study by examining the mayor’s waterfront vision and his aggressive support of redevelopment. Narrowing the lens, I will situate the Greenpoint waterfront within the larger narrative, giving particular attention to the impact of rezoning on the neighborhood’s native industry. Coming under fire from advocates concerned about the future of manufacturing in New York City, the mayor has implemented measures, including the creation of Industrial Business Zones, purporting to protect industry. I will examine the durability and effectiveness of such measures. Throughout, addressing

 

 

 

the effects of Bloomberg’s policies in Greenpoint, and the city at large, I will argue, along with Brash, that far from being apolitical, such an approach is “deeply political, in that it represents an effort on the part of a specific social grouping to bring urban governance and the physical shape of the city into accord with its interests and desires (Brash 3).”

 

Bloomberg’s Development Agenda

Winning election with a campaign that highlighted his persona as a no-nonsense CEO, Michael Bloomberg lost no time identifying what he saw as the city’s inefficiencies. During his inaugural state of the city address in January 2002, the mayor lamented the “inaccessible and neglected” waterfront, calling for “legislation that will allow old industrial waterfront sites to be converted into housing, parks and other developments.” The inclusion points to the central role of the waterfront in a development strategy that advances sectors in finance, real estate and tourism while turning away from industry.

Much of Bloomberg’s early waterfront strategy galvanized around an ambitious 2012 Summer Olympics bid. Engendered in the private sector, NYC 2012 was the pet project of Dan Doctoroff, who brought the plan to the Mayor’s office when he was appointed Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding. A number of new large-scale projects were incorporated into NYC 2012, many of which had been on the wish lists of developers for years. By tying them to the time sensitive Olympics bid, Doctoroff and the elite coalition who shared his enthusiasm, hoped to jumpstart “an array of stalled or wished for urban development projects that had as their raison d’etre the increase of property values in certain areas of the city (Brash 144).” Some inland, some on the waterfront, these projects had in common their scope and the image of the city they projected—a new New York: competitive, postindustrial, and global.

While the Olympic bid was unsuccessful, the swiftness, scope and ethos of the project define Bloomberg’s approach to development. His projects imagine the city as a luxury brand, meant to draw “the best and brightest” with state of the art entertainment complexes, well-designed parks and public spaces, plentiful well-located office space, and luxury apartments. His policies give cohesion to years of ad hoc efforts on the part of elite developers, bankers and other powerful stakeholders to reshape the city into a wealthy bastion of privilege. This strategy distances itself from the city’s industrial past, and in the process, from the middle and working class New Yorkers who were able to survive and succeed because of relatively well paying manufacturing jobs.

Recognizing a city-wide decline in manufacturing is unavoidable, but it is bad policy to ignore the small, yet thriving, manufacturing that remains. Such an approach is fueled by a “philosophy that holds that the city’s future prosperity lies in the expansion of pricey residential enclaves and office districts, and that many mixed-use neighborhoods…are undergoing an inevitable, unstoppable transformation that entails the dispersal or disappearance of their industrial land uses (Wolf-Powers 1).” This philosophy is at the heart of the mayor’s massive rezoning of the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront, except that rather than reflecting this inevitability, it insures it.

The administration’s approach to industry, especially around the period of the Brooklyn rezoning, imagined manufacturing of any kind to be incompatible with the city they were shaping and marketing to the world. The city was either to be a decaying relic of industry, or a shining entirely postindustrial beacon. City planning advocates at the Pratt Center for Community Development take issue with this assumption, arguing “in a city of the size and diversity of New York, economic development need not be seen as a zero sum game where the ability to take advantage of growth opportunities in one sector is inevitably tied to the demise of other viable sectors (Pratt xi).” Rather than threatening new sectors of the economy, local manufacturing is convenient, and sometimes necessary, for their operations. Light manufacturing thrives in Greenpoint-Williamsburg partly because its goods are easily accessible to clients in Manhattan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greenpoint’s Industrial History

Serving as a home for decades to heavy industry, Greenpoint has a long and dirty history. The neighborhood manufactured plastics, built ships and was a center of porcelain and glass production. Over the years, the city burdened the north Brooklyn neighborhood with more than its fair share of service facilities, including a sewage treatment plant, multiple waste transfer stations, and a garbage incinerator. Add to that an underground oil spill that ranks among the worst in history, and Greenpoint has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the most toxic areas of New York City. Residents of the neighborhood have struggled for years against toxic uses, fighting to remediate polluted land and improve the quality of life for its residents. Neighbors built grassroots alliances to successfully challenge a proposed power plant and to insure that the garbage incinerator, shuttered during an accident, remained closed.

Though residents fought to be free of the noise and pollution that came from heavy industry, they embraced light manufacturing. Small, successful manufacturers including specialty food, fashion, and furniture producers increased steadily in the area throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Serving as models of creative, design-oriented manufacturing and providing local jobs, these businesses illustrated that “Greenpoint-Williamsburg is just the type of neighborhood in which light, clean, specialized industry can thrive—helping to make the city’s economy more diverse and competitive overall (Wolf-Powers 1).” The area showed that, protected by zoning and supported by the community, a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood was possible.

Working off of the solidarity and momentum generated during the power plant opposition, neighbors came together to create a 197a plan. The 197a process, added to the city charter in 1989, allows communities, through their community boards, to submit locally generated plans outlining their priorities and vision for the future of their neighborhoods (Angotti 154). Submitted to the City Council for approval, the plans are meant to “serve as a policy to guide subsequent actions by city agencies (Angotti 156).”

Approved by the City Council in 2001, the Greenpoint 197a plan identifies as “major objectives:” the revitalization of Greenpoint’s historic waterfront, including accessibility to the public, and the need to build upon Greenpoint’s historic mixed-use character. The plan highlighted environmental concerns and included the interests of the most vulnerable in the community, stressing the importance of affordable housing.  Job retention was emphasized, especially through “encouraging clean, non-polluting industry to remain in the neighborhood…by identifying areas as industrial sanctuaries and continued designation as M zones (CB1 41).” The plan explicitly sought to “lay the groundwork for rezoning…in Greenpoint (CB1 2).”

Unfortunately, two years later, when the Department of City Planning began to outline their proposal for rezoning the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront it was clear that there were no real provisions to preserve light manufacturing or ensure affordable housing. The rezoning was prompted by Doctoroff’s Olympic bid, which included a major aquatic park on the Williamsburg waterfront. Once again, the community joined forces to resist the proposed plan, arguing that it would end local manufacturing, and displace low-income residents. The community board forcefully opposed the proposal, contending “the question that the city fails to address is how to protect the existing community, comprised predominantly of working class families…and small businesses, from development that encourages displacement and threatens to reduce rather than improve the quality of people’s lives…” (CB 1 2)

The board took aim at the city’s proposal to designate some areas where existing manufacturing remained as “mixed use” or MX zones. This new designation creates neighborhoods that can include both light industrial and residential uses. MX zoning allows the property owner to determine land use, giving them the opportunity to convert former manufacturing spaces into higher rent residential and commercial spaces. The community board argued that MX zoning “favors residential development over industrial…development,” and so “is not effective for maintaining a mixed-use neighborhood (CB 1 7).” Rather than acting to protect industry, the designation is “more accurately seen as a transitional area out of which industrial users are gradually being priced (Wolf-Power 21).” To counteract the negative impact of MX zoning, they recommended a modified MX district that would include detailed provisions intent on protecting light industry. After months of struggle and negotiation, the community was able to gain minor concessions, but overall, the 2005 rezoning of Greenpoint-Williamsburg resembled the city’s original proposal. Vast tracts of M zoned land were converted to residential and commercial use.

Illustrating the Bloomberg administration’s disregard for community based planning, the rezoning “sent a message to communities that even after more than a decade of community meetings and a couple of years of negotiating changes to the plan with DCP, the principles of the community plan could be abridged. DCP would be free to use its zoning powers as it saw fit and disregard community plans (Angotti 168).” By neglecting to incorporate the interests of the community into the overhaul of their neighborhoods, Bloomberg’s administration clearly signaled whose interests they serve-the consortium of elite stakeholders who stand to profit from development of waterfront land, and those who can afford to live, play, and operate businesses there. Community Board 1 recognized they were not alone, seeing Bloomberg’s strategy employed throughout the city, they characterized their apprehension as “a concern that not only focuses on this rezoning proposal but exposes the overarching problem that is slowly creeping into many communities throughout New York City, namely, that communities are being disproportionately reorganized rather than equitably revitalized (CB1 2).”

Weak Zoning

The vibrant mixed-use quality of Greenpoint-Williamsburg throughout the eighties and nineties was due in part to a type of mixed zoning enacted in the late 1970s. The City Planning Commission designated Special Districts in which manufacturers and residences were allowed to coexist, but encroachment on the part of both was limited. This was the type of detail-oriented zoning that the community sought during their pre-zoning negotiations. Instead, the administration insisted that an unregulated, market driven approach would determine the “best use” of the city’s land. The policy demonstrates the mayor’s neo-liberal philosophy, which essentially defines “”good” governance at the municipal level…by the ability of formal government to assist, collaborate with, or function like the corporate community (Hackworth 11).”

Critics of the mayor’s postindustrial policies did finally elicit response from the administration when the Mayor’s Office of Industrial and Manufacturing Businesses was created in 2005. The office created Industrial Business Zones (IBZ), areas designated to protect clusters of existing manufacturers. Incentives like tax credits were offered to encourage manufacturers to relocate within these districts, and grants and training assistance were offered to promote and protect businesses. Sixteen IBZs were established throughout the city, including two in the rezoned Greenpoint-Williamsburg. Seen as concessions to manufacturing advocates, the IBZs cover 22 of the approximately 180 formerly M-zoned blocks (Angotti).

Supporters of manufacturing fear the mayor’s actions are basically “too little, too late.” The administration pushed through several huge rezoning projects before engaging in any substantial studies of the affected areas. IBZs are seen as a step in the right direction, but they have several weaknesses. Most importantly, because they are not protected by legislation, they are vulnerable to alteration or elimination by future administrations. Without robust legal protection, the zones lack the kind of security needed to attract businesses.

In addition, the designation allows for the development of several non-manufacturing uses in the zones, including hotel, office buildings, and “big-box” stores. Problematic for multiple reasons, these uses often garner higher rents, making them more attractive to land owners. Studies show that ““Big-Box” retail establishments have adversely impacted manufacturing activity because they increase competition for space, pay marginally higher rents, and increase traffic. At the same time, they leverage far fewer jobs (Pratt 1).” Hotels present a particular problem because “they create…a quasi residential use which starts mitigating against manufacturing because people complain and there’s conflict, and that can take an area down the road to where it becomes less useful to manufacturing (Lander).” This kind of conflict arises in the new MX zones, as well, with the same kind of pressures put on manufacturers.

With the MX zoning designation and the implementation of IBZs, the Bloomberg administration gives the appearance of protecting industry, but the measures lack real muscle and are impermanent policy moves. Seven years later, some of the promise that manufacturers saw at the inception of the IBZ model has diminished. Funding and staff for both the MOIMB and IBZs have been slashed and little attention is given to manufacturing as the Mayor continues to push forward with his waterfront initiatives. It is clear the Bloomberg administration is not as dedicated to preserving manufacturing as it is to promoting his own pro-development agenda.
Conclusion

Brash argues that “the city’s Olympic bid was driven by a class-bound imagining of the city as a place of ambition, meritocracy, competition, and internationalism (Brash 53).” Bloomberg may have lost his Olympic bid, but he did not allow that to slow the momentum of his development strategy. In a relatively short period of time, the CEO mayor has transformed neighborhoods, altering their physical and cultural fabric. In a city the size and density of New York, even small changes in land use can have profound impacts on communities. In order to create the kind of luxury city that would attract Bloomberg’s “best and brightest,” he launched “ an aggressive transformation of (New York’s) physical form in order to produce an environment appropriate to the needs and desires of well-educated professionals and those businesses in the financial, media, and business services sectors that employed them (Brash 121).” In the process he effectively closed the door on manufacturing, and the blue-collar middle class jobs it provided New Yorkers.

Bloomberg’s sweeping rezoning and development agenda consistently disregards the voices of existing communities, in favor of drawing potential new elites to the city. In lieu of community-based plans, the administration allows developers and bankers to determine land use, prioritizing profit over the needs and wishes of long time residents. Cloaked as common sense, his approach asserts a neoliberal agenda that serves the interests of an elite minority, and chips away at the regulations and institutions that protect the poor and middle class. The result is a politicized restructuring of New York into a less vibrant and inclusive city.

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