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Greenpoint-Williamsburg Rezoning

In the late 1990's, led by community organizations and Community Board 1, Greenpoint developed a 197-a plan and Williamsburg developed a Waterfront 197-a plan as blueprints for future development. Though both plans derived from concern for the neighborhoods’ connections to, and use of, the waterfront, Greenpoint’s emerged largely from community activism opposing haphazard siting of facilities (such as waste transfer stations) on Newtown Creek whereas Williamsburg’s plan emerged largely as a response to increasing development and changing demographics. The plans stressed a few key goals for the area: more open space, better access to the waterfront, a waterfront promenade connecting the two neighborhoods, low-rise affordable housing, and the preservation of side-by-side residential and manufacturing uses that define the neighborhoods. City Council adopted both community 197-a plans in the beginning of 2002. In June 2002, the New York City Chapter of the American Planning Association bestowed both plans with the William H. Whyte Award for creativity in planning. However, there was little follow-up on the plans by city agencies after the City Council’s adoption.

In 2003, the Department of City Planning (DCP) proposed the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning, which would rezone 175 blocks and transform 350 acres of industrial zoning to mixed-use. The proposal intended to attract 10,000 new housing units to the area and give developers and incentive to voluntarily designate 15-25% of the new housing as affordable for low- and middle-income families. The proposed rezoning limited buildings to contextual heights in inland areas but allowed for towers as high as 350 feet along the waterfront if developers utilized Inclusionary Zoning incentives, which required percentages of affordable housing. The proposed rezoning also included provisions for the creation of 49 acres of new open space. Mayor Bloomberg touted the plan as an engine of economic growth that would bring 11,000 construction jobs and 600 permanent positions over the next decade.

Many critics of the plan, including City Councilmember David Yassky (D-Brooklyn 33rd District), argued that 49 acres of additional open space was inadequate, claiming that the neighborhoods were already starved for green areas and the population influx that would follow the rezoning would quickly absorb the benefits of the 49 acres. In 2003, the Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning (GWAPP) and the Trust for Public Land (TPL) produced a plan calling for an additional 29.5 acres of open space. Other critics and community members expressed concern that allowing towers along the waterfront would effectively wall-off the inland areas from the East River.

Industrial advocates, including Peter Gillespie of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, argued that the rezoning threatened at least 1,000 manufacturing jobs and that more than 50 industrial blocks should be protected to preserve job clusters. According to the Center for an Urban Future, enabling property owners to convert manufacturing uses to residential would force area manufacturing businesses to leave because the residential rental market is much more lucrative.

Affordable housing advocates and community coalitions such as the North Brooklyn Alliance discounted the City’s affordable housing incentives as too limited, arguing that affordable units should comprise a mandatory 40% of new development.

As the proposed rezoning underwent the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), some of these criticisms were considered and adopted as modifications. Despite rejection by both Brooklyn Community Board 1 (CB 1) and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz (D), the City Council approved the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning on May 11, 2005. The approved plan included modifications such as 54 acres of open space (including a waterfront esplanade), assistance for businesses forced to relocate, and Inclusionary Zoning provisions to incentivize developers to designate 30% of new units as affordable (in exchange for a density bonus). In addition, the plan promised to lease publicly owned sites to private developers in exchange for building 650 affordable units. Also, 13 industrial blocks were removed from the rezoning to protect the manufacturing concentrated in the area.

Following the 2005 rezoning, two large supplemental rezoning plans have been proposed. The first, which sought to limit building heights within a 13-block stretch of Williamsburg (adjacent to but not within the bounds of the 2005 rezoning), was proposed by CB 1 and approved by City Council in March 2008. The second, called the Greenpoint-Williamsburg contextual rezoning, seeks to cap the height of new development at 50-feet along narrow streets and 70-feet along wider thoroughfares. Proposed by the DCP, it was approved by CB 1 in April of 2009 but must still undergo the remaining 8-month ULURP process. Both plans are seen as necessary by many community members who want to prevent the spread of tall buildings which sprung up following the 2005 rezoning, though some property owners have opposed the proposals citing decreases in their property values.

The impact of the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning has been mixed. Construction boomed for the first two years, bringing on new housing units but also bothering many residents; by the end of 2006, the Department of Buildings had received twice as many complaints about construction sites in the area than any other high-activity zone. Residents repeatedly voiced their concerns that construction was bringing mostly luxury units to the neighborhoods, particularly in the inland areas where affordable housing incentives were not applied. By March of 2007, the City reported that affordable housing incentives had resulted in 459 affordable units along the waterfront, though hundreds had been delayed by a variety of unforeseen circumstances. Additionally, city programs have reportedly assisted at least 25 industrial businesses move from the rezoned area, however a article reported that the East Williamsburg Valley Industrial Development Corporation (EWVIDCO) believed more than 50 business operators have closed or relocated since 2005.

The economic downturn has had a significant affect on the area, resulting in many stalled half-finished construction projects. In July of 2009, the New York Post reported that Williamsburg had more halted or vacant construction lots than any other place in the City. Around the same time, the Bloomberg administration reported that 1,800 housing units were complete or under construction in the rezoning area (less than a quarter of original projections), with about a third of these qualifying as affordable. It is unclear how many affordable units have actually been created and how many are occupied.

By May 2009, the North 5th Street Pier (a 400-foot pier transformed into public space by private developer Toll Brothers as part of a City agreement for a multi-tower deal) was the only addition of open space to result from the 2005 rezoning. However, in early-July of 2009, the City broke ground on Bushwick Inlet Park, a 28-acre waterfront recreation area connecting Greenpoint and Williamsburg along the East River (between N 9th to Quay Streets along Kent Street). The launch of the park marked a long-fought victory over the site. TransGas Energy Systems had battled the City to use 8 acres of the site for a cogeneration power plant. The community fought the energy company’s proposal vigorously until the State of New York officially denied TransGas’s long-standing proposal in March of 2008. At an estimated cost of $7.2 million, phase one of Bushwick Inlet Park will include athletic fields and frisbee golf and is expected to open in 2010. Phase two, which includes a 2-mile waterfront esplanade and a community building, is expected to cost $22.6 million and be complete by 2011. There are no explicit construction schedules or funding arrangements in place for the remaining open space promised by the 2005 rezoning. The North 5th Street Pier, Bushwick Inlet Park, and other proposed waterfront spaces in the area are to be integrated into the larger Brooklyn Greenway project which will connect North and South Brooklyn along the water.

Last Updated: September 14, 2009

This development is closely interlinked with:
Brooklyn Greenway