The sign seems innocuous enough: white, boldface letters; a black background; a frame of marquee lights that catch the eye. The only green visible at first is below, in the plastic straw poking out of a see-through lid, seemingly bobbing along to the click-clack of the high-heeled woman coming out through the doors. But then it’s there, on the side of the sign. That hair, that crown. That staple — the green and white Starbucks logo — that has become ubiquitous around not only suburban strip malls but here in New York City and here, too, on Manhattan Avenue. For Greenpoint, Starbucks signals big bucks.
After the economy crashed, in 2008, Heather Troy, a Greenpoint resident since 2004, heard about landlords in other parts of Brooklyn freezing the rent or scaling it back, encouraging people to stay put. So she approached her landlord with the same idea.
“You know, Heather, there’s a Starbucks in the neighborhood,” she recalls him saying. “There’s no need for me to keep your rent.”
Troy, an advocate for tenants’ rights, was shocked.
The arrival of the coffee franchise, in 2007, wasn’t the first sign of change around Greenpoint. That came a few years earlier, when the Bloomberg administration’s rezoning plan for the North Brooklyn waterfront was approved. Since then, neighborhood tensions have been on the rise. As months became years, developers’ visions became tangible annoyances: blocked-off sidewalks, unreturned complaints to 311, and electrical shortages, meaning no streetlights for some. These changes have divided neighbors, sparked conspiracy theories, and incited at least one verbal spat at a local Mexican restaurant.
It all began in 2005.
In May of that year, the City Council approved the Department of City Planning’s rezoning proposal for nearly 200 blocks in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. The plan called for the creation of more than 50 acres of new parkland along the waterfront, and touted a “groundbreaking” Inclusionary Housing Program that purportedly incentivized the development and preservation of affordable housing. Afterward, the city Parks Department solicited input from Community Board 1, local stakeholders, the Open Space Alliance for North Brooklyn, and the Department of City Planning to create a waterfront master plan designed to compliment the Bloomberg administration’s rezoning proposal. Dubbed the “Greenpoint-Williamsburg Waterfront Open Space Master Plan,” the document outlines six long-term goals for the area: to create a publicly accessible waterfront, to add recreation opportunities, to allow interaction with the river, to promote a healthy East River environment, to develop design guidelines that will unify the waterfront, and to reflect the culture of the community in the development of open spaces.
The plan, 78 pages with its index, also contains renderings of the features planned for the waterfront, including a garden, a park, and a playground containing a ball field, handball and basketball facilities. There are also colorful photos depicting a picturesque skyline; in one, a woman serenely peers out over the East River, the bright blue sky above her cloudless. There’s a futuristic-looking trashcan, a bike rack, and a drinking fountain, all black and silver steel, darkened by shadows. On the trees, the leaves — some red, some golden, most green — give the impression of perpetual warmth and languorous afternoons. The flowers are pink, lavender, yellow.
But what looks idyllic on paper has turned irritating — and in some cases, dangerous — for many Greenpoint residents.
“I welcome having more conveniences,” says Carolyn Bednarski, a Greenpoint resident for five years. "I’m happy for that. But it’s a very narrow area and I think that they’re overbuilding. And you do kind of feel a little cheated because why don’t they repair our sidewalks, why don’t they shovel, why don’t we have a safe pedestrian walkway?”
Those conveniences of urban life, often taken for granted, are being forgotten as development proceeds in Greenpoint. So Bednarski gets from place to place by walking in the middle of the road. She expects conditions to improve, but that only makes the choice to stay or go more paradoxical for residents like her who have been granted Loft Law protection.
Loft Law, established by the state of New York in 1982, protects Troy, Bednarski, and other residents, whose applications are approved by the Loft Board, from the rent increases that are often synonymous with gentrification. The law ensures rent-controlled leases for life, and allows the lease to be passed on to current or future children.
Though there is no official count on the number of illegal loft buildings throughout New York City, Troy reasons that a disproportionate amount are in Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Bushwick.
“It’s the golden handcuffs,” Bednarski says. “So someone could look at us and go, ‘If you don’t like it, leave.’ First of all, why would we ever do that? There’s no reason to leave. Our neighborhood will be improving around us, but first we’re going to go through five years of some scary stuff."
One of Bednarski’s main concerns is how the redevelopment in the neighborhood will impact the environment. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has identified various toxic plumes, which are gaseous and potentially carcinogenic discharges from contaminants that have accumulated as a result of decades of chemical dumping in Newtown Creek. Collectively referred to as the “Meeker Ave. Plume” by the Department of Environmental Conservation, these contaminants seep into the soil and groundwater in parts of Greenpoint and East Williamsburg. Construction may exhume the toxins, exposing Greenpoint residents to them.
According to the Newtown Creek Alliance, the contaminants that raise the most concern are perchloroethylene and tricholoroethylene, compounds typically used in dry cleaning businesses and for removing grease from metal. These hazardous vapors, without proper management, pose a substantial treat to human health, says the EPA. The DEC offers free testing for homes and business fearing vapor intrusion.
“If I’m walking by on a hot, sticky July day, and I see workers wearing hazmat suits and masks, that’s a little scary, because I’m not being provided with that,” Bednarski says. “We don’t have air purifiers that the city’s giving us or anything.”
The 2005 rezoning brought a magnifying glass to a number of environmental concerns in Greenpoint. Newtown Creek, whose contaminated water often seeps over to Greenpoint after rainstorms, was declared a Superfund site in 2010. Large influxes of people moved into North Brooklyn, overwhelming once-underutilized train lines. And Superstorm Sandy caused havoc, raising questions about flood zones, especially considering that much of the Greenpoint waterfront was once part of the city’s waterway.
“The question is, how long do they want these buildings to last?” says Malcolm Bowman, a professor at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. “If they want them to last for 100 years, then they have to be built so they will survive. By the end of the century, we expect to see the water go up on the East Coast between three and six feet. That's a lot.”
At a City Council meeting last December, some residents shared similar fears.
“We have to stop building in flood zones,” Greenpoint resident Darren Lipman said at the meeting. “No set of guidelines is going to protect us. The Fukushima nuclear plant was built to withstand a tsunami. Eighteen-feet-high concrete walls, four back-up systems all failed. New Orleans: the levees were built to withstand a category five hurricane and they failed. No amount of planning can ready us for nature’s wrath. Sandy hit us as a tropical storm with very little rain. … What happens when we get hit by a real Category 5 hurricane with 20 inches of rain?” Stephen Levin, the City Council representative for the district encompassing Greenpoint, did not respond to requests for comment about constructing in flood zones.
And there are more than just environmental concerns. The Greenpoint Landing project, proposed by the developer Greenpoint Landing Associates, an affiliate of Park Tower Group, will contain more than 5,000 residential units in ten towers. The first two buildings, at 21 Commercial Street and 33 Eagle Street, consist of 191 units of affordable housing. If everything goes according to plan, eventually Greenpoint Landing will feature 1,400 affordable units, over four acres of open space, and a 640-seat public elementary school.
“Once completed, Greenpoint Landing will reconnect New Yorkers with the waterfront and provide four acres of public open space in addition to Newtown Barge and Box Street parks, which are being built by the city,” a Greenpoint Landing Associates spokesperson says. Everything “will be built according to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s standards and fully comply with Enterprise Green Communities criteria.”
Many Greenpoint residents disagree. Some of them have come together to form Save Greenpoint, an organization whose aim is to alert the community about the often ignored, intricate complications — from health risks to flooding zones — that accompany rapid urban redevelopment like the kind underway in Greenpoint.
Save Greenpoint’s message is simple enough: keep the neighborhood great. Its members worry about flooding and toxicity as well as rent and infrastructure, but for them, their mission primarily means keeping the neighborhood peaceful and independent. It means preserving small businesses, like the restaurant with draping curtains in the door frame. It means keeping Greenpoint affordable enough for artists. It means seeing the sky.
The group’s fears haven't gone unnoticed. There has been plenty of media coverage of Save Greenpoint and of other activists — some with health problems, potentially brought on from the underground carcinogens; some shy, shaking their heads; and some loud, shaking their fingers. Sometimes their fears are whispers — conspiracy theories over breakfast burritos on weekend mornings — and sometimes their fears are shouts: discussions that have turned into arguments. The turnouts at community board meetings have been sizable. In September, Community Board 1 voted to “disapprove with modifications” the Uniform Land Use Review Procedures submitted for Greenpoint Landing and 77 Commercial Street, another high-rise development proposed for the waterfront. (In October, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz went the opposite way, recommending to the City Planning Commission that both projects be approved, with modifications.)
In December, the ULURP requests went to City Hall for final approval. A gathering of protesters, including actor Kevin Corrigan, who tweeted his opposition to Greenpoint Landing, and council member Levin were present. Many of them were from Save Greenpoint and other like-minded organizations in the neighborhood. Some waited all day just for a chance to speak.
“We have myriad of environmental concerns,” Levin told a Greenpoint Landing Associates representative. “This area, as well as the 77 Commercial area, have been used for many years as an industrial work site. The people of the community have concerns about the location of the public school being so close to this toxicity.”
But a portion of Greenpoint Landing was approved, following modifications to the site plan implemented after negotiations between Greenpoint Landing Associates and Levin. The modifications include an additional $3 million in funding for Newtown Barge Park (bringing the total park budget to $10 million), an agreement that GLA price 431 affordable housing units between 40 and 120 percent of the area’s median income, a $25,000 annual donation from the GLA to the future school on site, a comprehensive safety examination of the entire site by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation before the ground is broken for the new school, and a GLA-funded free shuttle bus from Greenpoint Landing to the 7 train and the G train.
No section of 77 Commercial was addressed by the vote. But the approval cleared the way for Greenpoint Landing Associates to move ahead with its development, beginning with the two towers of affordable units at 21 Commercial Street and 33 Eagle Street.
Neighbors Allied for Good Growth and the Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning, two area community organizations, issued statements in support of the new funding for parkland and affordable housing. But many residents expressed anger at the approval; one even described the developer’s concessions as “pennies to the millions.”
“The 2005 rezoning of Greenpoint-Williamsburg promised open space, affordable housing, and other mitigations that would offset the high-rise residential development,” Levin said in a statement following the vote. “Luxury housing has been built, but until today, many of these commitments have gone unfulfilled. Now, after negotiations with GLA and the City, we have a clear plan and real commitments in place that will benefit our community long into the future.”
Despite the neighborhood resistance, Greenpoint Landing appears to have set a precedent. In late December, the developers of the 77 Commercial Street project, Clipper Equity LLC, also won City Council approval for two high-rise luxury developments. In exchange, Clipper Equity will provide $9.5 million to fund the park on Box Street.
Notably, construction on the park has been delayed because of environmental concerns and testing measures. The park was taken off the agenda at a February community board meeting. “I guess the project team is in the process of doing investigative work,” says Ed Janoff, North Brooklyn administrator for the city’s Parks Department, and the executive director of the Open Space Alliance for North Brooklyn. “They’re figuring out if there’s anything in the ground with the soil.” He hopes to present a conceptual rendering for the park sometime in the spring.
Bess Long is one of the residents heavily involved with Save Greenpoint.
Long, who has lived in Greenpoint since 1998, was initially drawn to the area by its isolation.
Then known as a relatively vacant manufacturing neighborhood with an open, airy view of the city, Greenpoint still retains some of that initial appeal. The streets are quiet; the graffiti is loud. Cardboard boxes, unfolded and orderly stacked, lie waiting for pick up. Taxidermied animals are scattered nonchalantly in the wide windows of a tattoo parlor. Locked bikes, their seats covered by crinkly white plastic bags, face each other outside of a bar, where a comedian, a politician and an actor all mingle a few feet away from a skee-ball machine. A dog barks — just one — and it’s quiet enough to hear him on the other end of the sidewalk.
“There’s still a lot of the original soul here,” Long says.
Still, signs of change are coming, and Long, like many residents, questions if the neighborhood will ever resemble what it was — especially since the coming wave of new residents will be renting the waterfront property rather than owning, stoking fears that they will be transient and non-committal, without a stake in the community. That’s a stark contrast to the women and men, many from Save Greenpoint, who have banded together and put their lives on hold while they peruse documents, attend community board meetings, and hold up handmade signs.
Some Greenpoint residents look to Williamsburg as a prototype of what’s to come.
“The neighborhood is a total foreign land compared to before,” says Long, about Williamsburg. “Very few of the neighborhoods are affordable mom-and-pop businesses, and the rents skyrocketed.”
Long’s not against change — just the rate at which it’s happening in Williamsburg.
“It’s the extremity and speed of Williamsburg’s transformation that has been most alarming,” she says. “There has been no effort to monitor these changes, though Greenpoint has this prototype next door which it should be able to use as a reference point.”
One can glimpse the actualization of these fears on the L train at Bedford Avenue. A cramped train is one visible effect of the explosion of people in an neighborhood that, like Greenpoint, was once known as an industrial area. Now, with the rent increases in North Brooklyn matching and even surpassing rents in Manhattan, what was once an affordable, working class neighborhood has turned into a place of capital and cachet.
Early evening on the L train means waiting — usually one train, sometimes three — for an open space. A man stoops down, squinting inside the automatic doors for a split second before they open, scrutinizing for his place: there’s one, if he moves sideways just an inch and she scoots her feet here...
Backs rest against other backs, chests, arms, heads. Babies are on laps. Only sometimes is there enough elbow room to read a book. Someone’s talking about Europe; someone’s talking about pizza. Most people are closing their eyes, drifting in and out of exhaustion.
“Greenpoint is historically a little enclave that’s been a little remote,” says Kim Masson, a resident who is involved with Save Greenpoint. “I think that added to its charm. That’s also one of the reasons why there hasn’t been major development here: because we can’t handle the amount of people.”
And the options to manage the influx often add more concern than comfort.
“They were going to add only one more turnstile at the G station and then private shuttle buses, which, I think kind of perpetuates this ‘Tale of Two Cities,’” Masson adds, noting that Greenpoint’s infrastructure differs from Williamsburg’s and Long Island City’s, and is ill-equipped to handle a huge influx of people.
Though transportation is one of her concerns, Masson’s main focus has been on the neighborhood’s environment, especially its toxicity levels. The proposed school at Greenpoint Landing was originally going be across from a Superfund site, contaminated with toxic byproducts from the former Nuhart Plastics plant.
“I’m sort of the Erin Brockovich of Greenpoint,” Masson says, with a laugh.
It’s not a title Masson set out to claim, but she feels remediation in the area has been a weak point.
“Since finding out about what was going on with Greenpoint Landing and discovering how really filthy everything really was,” Masson says, “I’ve started to meet a lot of people in the neighborhood that had either had some kind of breast cancer, brain cancer, or autoimmune diseases. Over this stretch of 22 acres there’s something like 58,000 gallons of petroleum. And that's just what we know.”
“When you’re talking about construction on such a massive scale and there are people — like myself — that live here and have to breathe in this air, it doesn't seem like there has been much regard in terms of how they’re going to ensure people are safe,” Masson says.
Mason, who lives within 400 feet from the construction site, is considered to be in the impact zone.
“I asked the city to provide us with hospital-grade air purifiers,” Masson says. “Kind of like the ones that Red Cross gave to people at 9/11.”
Her request was denied, and though she’s doing what she can to keep her air clean, she’s going to continue to ask.
“I can only put so many plants in my house,” she says.
While much of Greenpoint is waiting — for answers, for the inevitable, for a downsize — one resident is just trying to take it as it comes.
“Greenpoint is the coolest neighborhood in New York City,” says Nick Rizzo, a neighborhood activist who is a candidate for Greenpoint’s Democratic district leadership. “How do I know that? Well, does Prince’s saxophonist hang out in a bar in your neighborhood? No, I know for a fact he doesn’t, because he hangs out at my bar.”
Though Rizzo has noticed more and more swanky places popping up, he says Greenpoint still has the small details that give it charm: the alphabetized street names, from Ash to Oak; the familiar faces — “Hi!” “Hi!” — that make up the community; the mix of characters in the local bars. “Neighborhoods change,” Rizzo says. “Period. In New York, they always have.” He thinks this change could be a good thing, as long as the people moving in are doing it “because they’re excited about the neighborhood, and not just because it’s any other place to have a condo with a view of Manhattan.” While Rizzo is nervous about what the thousands of people will do to the sewer mains that are already operating at capacity, he thinks the limitations of the notoriously off-schedule G train will prevent Greenpoint from morphing into a full-fledged Williamsburg. “I think there is a way that this can be managed such that it’s a good thing for the neighborhood,” Rizzo says. He pauses, adding, “Maybe. I hope.”