Grand Street Rezoning, March 26 2008 Courtesy of the Department of City Planning.
Williamsburg has historically been a mixed-use, live-work community. However, as manufacturing declined in New York City starting in the 1970s, many of Williamsburg's industrial spaces became underutilized. As gentrification increased in the neighborhood, residents saw the need to increase affordable housing opportunities in the area. In the early 1990s, Brooklyn Community Board 1 and a number of community groups in the area began a 10-year process to create a 197-a plan (named after the section of the City Charter that allows communities to undertake proactive planning). This plan outlined the community's vision for the future of the neighborhood. The main objectives of the 197-a plan were:
• Create new opportunities for residential and commercial development while preserving
the community’s low-density, mixed-income, and mixed-use character;
• Support and strengthen existing diversity and historic mixed-used character by reusing
vacant buildings with a mixture of residential, commercial, workshops, high performance
businesses, studios and parks and open spaces;
• Significantly improve public waterfront access and increase the amount of public open
space, both along the waterfront and in upland areas;
• Promote a clean and safe living and working environment; and
• Promote local economic development.
The Department of City Planning passed the the Williamsburg 197-a Plan (and another also created by CB1 that focused on Greenpoint to the north) in 2002. However, 197-a plans are only advisory, and the Department of City Planning had its own agenda for the Williamsburg waterfront. In 2002, DCP proposed a rezoning of approximately 175 blocks of the Williamsburg waterfront and surrounding neighborhood.
On March 11, 2005, the City Council approved the final rezoning plan. This plan “transform(ed) 350 acres of industrial zoning to mixed-use” and “attract(ed) 10,000 new housing units to the area.” It also resulted in the creation of massive luxury condo towers along the waterfront, against the community's wishes. However, these new condo towers provided an opportunity to implement inclusionary zoning, which gave developers “an incentive to voluntarily designate 15-25% of the new housing as affordable for low- and middle-income families" in exchange for permission to build a larger structure than normally permitted" (PlanNYC 2009). The 2005 rezoning had a mixed impact on Williamsburg. Residential construction in the area picked up for the first two years, and in the study area alone, approximately 13 new multi-family residential projects were built between 2005 and 2010. However, the construction surge came in the form of luxury condos rather than affordable housing, and often resulted in an increase in taller buildings. The City received complaints about both the development of luxury condos that made the community unaffordable, as well as the heights of some of the newer buildings because they were altering the built fabric of the community. Community Board 1 and other community groups felt that the city needed to respond to the issues created through the 2005 rezoning. Within the study area specifically, Community Board 1 created a 197-C Plan for the Grand Street commercial corridor that addressed these issues through new zoning legislation.
On March 26, 2008, the City Council approved a 197-C rezoning plan for Grand Street and surrounding blocks. In response to issues created by the 2005 Rezoning, "The rezoning aim(ed) to preserve neighborhood character and scale by establishing contextual zoning districts that have height limits.” The community wanted inclusionary zoning as part of the revised zoning area, but the City did not adopt this recommendation.
In conjunction with the 2005 Rezoning, the 2008 rezoning also brought changes to the study area. This change included a spur of new residential development along Grand Street, which conformed to the existing neighborhood fabric due to revised height restrictions. The economic collapse of 2008 has also had a dramatic effect on the neighborhood. As reported in the New York Post, “Williamsburg is ground zero in the growing scourge of stalled construction that has left the neighborhood littered with 18 vacant lots and rusting steel building frames.” In the study area, there are two vacant lots and two additional projects that were stalled mid-construction. Still, much of the new construction that has been completed has come in the form of luxury rentals, which remain unaffordable for current residents, adding to housing pressures and displacement issues within the community.