Greenpoint’s northernmost waterfront is beginning to see the first visible signs of its impending transformation into a real-life Sim City rendering, replete with skyline-altering luxury condo buildings and next-generation parks plucked straight from Seurat’s futurist dreams.
Ever since the rezoning proposal that made it all possible was approved back in 2005, the internet has been quietly grumbling that Greenpoint is the “new Williamsburg.” Predictably, the New York Times latched on to this concept several years later in its typical Brooklyn trend-spotting fashion: “the patchouli oil of Gen Y gentrification is scenting the air,” it confirmed.
From a bird’s-eye view, things are certainly happening: besides the notorious and expansive Greenpoint Landing project, there are also the adjacent 30- and 40-story towers coming to 77 Commercial Street, the near-complete 1133 Manhattan Avenue (whose 105 affordable units brought in nearly 60,000 applications), a 39-story building at West and India Streets, and various smaller (but equally fancy) outcroppings scattered throughout northwest Greenpoint.
With the ground now broken at 21 Commercial Street — the first of 10 towers that will eventually comprise Greenpoint Landing — it’s probably safe to say that the worst is yet to come as far as claims of Billyburgification go. That’s some of the bad news. The other bad news is that at this stage in the game, the neighborhood won’t be spared in any of the usual senses of gentrification. The good news is that it will likely proceed along that path in its own Greenpointy way.
What makes us say that?
1. The G train is not the L train.
Perhaps the number one reason why Greenpoint won’t become identical to its southern counterpart: it’s branded with the scarlet letter of MTA lore. Unlike Williamsburg, Greenpoint has no direct subway lines connecting it to Manhattan, and its relative isolation will be a likely deterrent for a good deal of the professional types who crowd on to the L train at the Bedford stop each morning. It’s true that when Citi Bike rolls out in Greenpoint, bikers will be able to zip right down to the L. But the bike share program comes with headaches of its own — not to mention a yearly fee that will soon rise to $149.
If there’s anything worse than the G train during rush hour, it’s the G train during off-peak hours, when riders can be stranded on the platform for up to 30 minutes during late-night shifts. So it’s reasonable to hold out hope that Williamsburg will retain its status as Party Central Prime, even if Greenpoint does expand its dance floor offerings.
Local District Leader Nick Rizzo has seen neighborhoods follow in each other’s footsteps, but he maintains faith in the trusty G’s ability to help Greenpoint “keep on doing Greenpoint.”
“I moved to Greenpoint in 2008 after several years on the Lower East Side,” he said. “And in 2008, I figured that the next five years of Williamsburg were going to look like the last five years of the LES. Looking back, I think I was exactly right, but I counted on the shittiness of the G train to cause Greenpoint to only gentrify about 80 percent of the way there, and I think that I was right in that prediction as well. So the main thing that will prevent Greenpoint‘s waterfront development from looking exactly like Williamsburg’s is the relative crappiness of our transit links.”
Of course, given the impending influx of new residents to the already overburdened transit system, the city may soon be forced to improve the local infrastructure (indeed, the developers for Greenpoint Landing and 77 Commercial Street agreed during the City Council vote last December to provide free shuttle buses to the G and 7 trains). As it stands, the G only runs four cars at a time, and the severely underutilized subway platform could soon be working at full capacity.
Ironically, many residents that I personally spoke with during the five-week shutdown of the G this summer thought the free replacement shuttles worked better than the train itself. In this sense, Greenpoint still has a long ways to go before it gains mass-market appeal.
2. National chains are nothing new in Greenpoint — but its newest retail tenants are predominantly mom-and-pops.
Whereas Williamsburg put up a good fight against Starbucks before finally caving to the Urban Outfitters and American Apparels of the world, Greenpoint has been a host to venti soy lattes since 2007. Currently, there’s a Starbucks, Duane Reade, Rite Aid, CVS, Sleepy’s, RadioShack and Citibank dotting the upscaling stretch of Manhattan Avenue by the Greenpoint Avenue train stop.
If you’re interested in getting a better sense of what’s to come, check out Franklin Street, a block away. Granted, designer clothing boutiques and antique shops with a three-dollar-sign rating cater to a very specific type of consumer, but it’s all smaller-scale, independently operated retail.
“Franklin Street is a very different retail environment than I think you have anywhere in Williamsburg or elsewhere in Greenpoint, and hopefully that smaller-scale retail continues to thrive there and not start to price out,” said Ward Dennis, co-chair of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG) and founding member of the Waterfront Preservation Alliance of Greenpoint & Williamsburg.
It’s not that overpriced potting soil is hard to come by in Williamsburg, either, but the difference is that a lot of those shops can’t afford to operate there anymore. And yes, a lot of them are migrating to Greenpoint, but many are trading up for larger spaces, which can accommodate different kinds of tenants, too. Broadway Stages, for example, is a full-service film, television and music video production facility that’s home to New York City’s first organic rooftop farm and solar-powered sound stage.
Also, at least one developer claims to be leasing space in a collaborative fashion with existing businesses. Matthew Schwartz, a principal at Domain Companies (which is responsible for the in-progress 1133 Manhattan Avenue development) says the company has received plenty of interest from neighborhood businesses that wish to expand or open new concepts.
“While we aren’t ready to make specific announcements, nearly everyone we are working with in our development fits this description,” he said. “I think local business owners have watched the development in surrounding areas and want to grow in anticipation of similar opportunities in Greenpoint. What I think this means is that we’ll see more of what makes Greenpoint unique, from many of the people responsible for what is today.”
There may well be a J.Crew in Greenpoint‘s ultimate future, but for now, the neighborhood is still willing to support smaller, independent retailers. If or when that trend reverses, residents can hang their hopes on their isolation from Manhattan and its influx of shoppers.
3. At the very least, Greenpoint’s ethnic population is facing a much slower turnover rate.
Greenpoint — home to a prominent Polish and somewhat smaller Hispanic community — is likely to retain its character to a greater degree than Williamsburg, where the Hispanic population has declined dramatically and only Orthodox Jews seem to have maintained their original foothold south of Broadway.
Chris Karwowski, a real estate agent with local family-owned Proper Real Estate, thinks this has to do with the fact that Greenpoint was always the more residential of the two neighborhoods, which led to a greater stock of rent-stabilized apartments. “I think there’s a slower process in Greenpoint compared to Northside because it was a smaller community — the neighborhood itself was more commercial,” he said.
Greenpoint is already looking less Polish than it did eight or nine years ago: between 2007-2011, 14.9 percent of neighborhood residents identified Poland as their country of birth, versus 15.3 percent in the prior five-year period, according to American Community Survey data cited by Brooklyn Ink. But those who are leaving aren’t necessarily being pushed out by yuppies — many of the older folks are moving back to Poland since it gained acceptance into the European Union, Karwowski says. Moreso, many Polish landowners are holding on — the homes being sold are usually by their children or grandchildren.
“It will probably look more [like Williamsburg] than it does now, but it’s still going to be the more affordable neighborhood.” Plus, he added, “the actual owners who own in Greenpoint are staying. Most of them don’t have any plans to sell. This is their home and they continue to live here.”
4. The Greenpoint developments have had a chance to percolate.
Both Greenpoint and Williamsburg are subject to the same new set of zoning laws that were passed in 2005, but a key difference is that only one of those neighborhoods really exploded before the recession hit. Being closer to the L train, the buildings that cropped up in Williamsburg were more profitable from a developer’s perspective, and the economic downturn stalled the wave of transformation even more.
Now, the time is ripe to break ground up north, but president and founder of aptsandlofts.com David Maundrell thinks we’re a little older and wiser these days.
Compare Kent Avenue to West Street: the former is a mishmash of old industrial buildings, smaller residential properties from before, and new condos. Maundrell thinks the mix of architecture — which sprang up shortly after the 2005 rezoning — created a disjointed waterfront, whereas West Street is currently being developed along a cohesive stretch on its waterfront side.
“The Greenpoint developments have been a long time in the making,” he said. “I think they’ll have the opportunity to learn from what happened along the Williamsburg waterfront. I’d expect more of a community approach to how West Street is developed — I think it’ll be a little more thoughtful.”
Maundrell pointed to the school being built as part of the Greenpoint Landing project, as well as waterfront access that will eventually connect all the way through. Retail will be “a bit more scaled-back, mom-and-poppish.” The industrial component on West Street? Also not as overpowering as Williamsburg’s, with a better mix of old and new buildings.
Of course, not everyone agrees that the new development will have the community’s best interests at heart. “I’m not a fan of the 2005 rezoning, never have been,” said City Council Member Stephen Levin, who represents Greenpoint. “I think it missed a real opportunity to have creative, mixed-use, new-economy development, that the residential is way too dense, and the buildings are too tall.” With the De Blasio administration now backing taller buildings in the interest of affordable housing, we may not have seen the last of those dense towers.
But Schwartz pointed to Domain’s do-gooder status: its interior design firm employs furniture manufacturers, lighting designers and artists from Greenpoint and beyond, including the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center on Commercial Street. Additionally, its MyCommunity Program allows residents to have a say in how the firm supports local non-profits that are working to change the community for the better.
The extent to which the program will meet its stated goals, or to which other developers are “giving back” — in Greenpoint or in Williamsburg — is unclear.
5. They weren’t the same to begin with.
As both Maundrell and Levin pointed out, Greenpoint was a much more established residential neighborhood before Williamsburg began to gentrify. Both areas were zoned for industrial uses, but Williamsburg had a lot more empty land and formerly manufacturing-zone property.
In other words, today’s Brooklyn Bowls and Rough Trades were built on land that was formerly empty or zoned for manufacturing. That type of property certainly exists in Greenpoint, but to a much lesser degree.
Moreover, unlike Williamsburg, Greenpoint is home to a formally landmarked historic district, which adds to its likelihood to resist change.
Still, Dennis thinks the end result will be more or less the same: “It’s the same development model; the same zoning paradigm. They were all approved at the same time, and it will be very similar to the Williamsburg waterfront in terms of height and massing,” he said. “The waterfront will look different because they’ll have different architects and designers, but the basic model you see at the edge of the Northside Piers is going to be more or less replicated.”
6. There’s a bigger spotlight on environmental concerns.
And that’s somewhat out of necessity. Newtown Creek has seen more oil spillage than the Exxon Valdez site, and it’s considered one of the most polluted waterways in the country.
Despite the fact that the contamination has been the product of decades of neglect, local activism has helped turn things around in recent years. A lawsuit was filed in 2007 over the oil spill, and the estuary became a designated Superfund site in 2010.
Levin has been pushing hard for cleanup initiatives and green spaces. His office has been meeting quarterly with the local community advisory group, and they invite the public, city agencies, and developers to join the discussion.
One potential source of alarm: the proposed Greenpoint Landing public school is supposed to go up steps away from the former Nuhart and Company site, where various sorts of plastic products were once manufactured. Back in May, The Real Deal reported that local developer Bo Jin Zhu bought the property in a purchase of 10 parcels of land along Dupont Street — plans for the spot, as Zhu told TRD, involved a mix of affordable and market-rate apartments that would sit, height-wise, somewhere in between the waterfront high-rises and the existing smaller homes farther inland. At the moment, there’s a very dense, large pthalate plume underneath the site, and it will have to go through a thorough remediation before ground is broken there.
During last year’s negotiations, Levin also managed to wrangle in an additional $3 million to fund Newtown Barge Park from Greenpoint Landing Associates. Additionally, the city secured a deal with Clipper Equity LLC last December, granting the firm approval to build the two luxury high rises at 77 Commercial Street in exchange for $9.5 million to fully fund the Box Street Park.
He’s the first to acknowledge, however, that promises for green space don’t always come to fruition. “The 2005 rezoning promised a lot of park and open space, and the city has been struggling to honor those commitments,” said Levin. “Bushwick Inlet Park was supposed to be a 28-acre park. The city made a commitment for a world-class park, and they’ve struggled to acquire it.”
Assuming everything goes as planned, Greenpoint Landing will bring a waterfront park to the neighborhood’s northern shores that doubles as a not-so-ugly storm barrier.
7. The population boom might be even more overwhelming (yep, in a bad way).
The G train might stave off a Williamsburg-caliber explosion in Greenpoint, but the population growth relative to its neighborhood might tax its existing infrastructure even more than what we saw around the Bedford stop.
According to 2010 Census Data, Greenpoint‘s population rested at just under 35,000 — which is more than its larger (and better-serviced) neighbor to the south. With the addition of the new developments — 5,000 new homes courtesy of Greenpoint Landing, as Bloomberg said in his 2013 State of The City address — Greenpoint could see a population increase to the tune of 10,000 new residents, assuming an average of two people per household. The ultimate paradox of Greenpoint is not that it might manage to gentrify and remain unique all the same. It’s that it’ll do so on a smaller scale, but feel every change more acutely.