Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Re-zoning of Downtown Brooklyn: Ten Years Later.

“Downtown Brooklyn presents a layered, seemingly impenetrable wall when viewed from Brooklyn Heights. The composition, especially with the oblique view of Borough Hall, seems designed as a purposeful representation of the city while it simultaneously denies continuity and the expansiveness to the neighborhoods beyond.” Photo and caption by Jason Montgomery.

Last Tuesday we put on a session at the Brooklyn Historical Society, the topic the rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn. “Downtown Brooklyn is evolving and changing rapidly with a surge of new development. But will these changes give us the downtown we all desire?” we asked. So, we explored the future of Downtown Brooklyn with the 2004 Special Purpose District Zoning Resolution,  reviewing the goals of the rezoning and assessing the results so far, turning to a panel of experts on planning, community advocacy, government affairs, and development for a discussion on key issues critical to Downtown Brooklyn’s future, including public space, pedestrian experience and safety, public and private development, transportation, and connectivity to surrounding neighborhoods.  Participants included myself, moderating the panel discussion, Bethany Bowyer (Downtown Brooklyn Partnership), Hilda Cohen (Make Brooklyn Safer), Ali Esmaeilzadeh (Forest City), and Kevin Hom (City Tech).  Offered at Brooklyn Historical Society in partnership with the Downtown Rising Working Group.

Jason Montgomery, Assistant Professor Department of Architectural Technology City Tech, introduced our session, reviewing the aims of the rezoning that displaced historic businesses to make way for skyscrapers, luxury towers, and a more polished view of urban life.  The point of the rezoning was to establish a comprehensive plan for strong and diverse commercial markets, bringing business to downtown. (And while, there certainly were already businesses in the area, along Fulton, these were not sufficient for the Bloomberg administration).  Through the re zoning, Downtown was promoted as a third business district in New York, after Lower and Midtown Manhattan.  Then and now, the planning challenges for the space, poor streetscape and an isolated downtown core, were many. Still, the city moved a zoning plan for a business district. Ten years later, many would scratch their heads and wonder what had happened to Brooklyn, starting in downtown.

Professor Michael Duddy reviewed the horizontal changes to the landscape, including a swath of residential buildings that have gone up in the last decade, skyscraper after skyscraper, as Downtown Brooklyn evolved with a developer friendly agenda, without complimentary public infrastructure of schools or transportation.  

“Today, you can’t count the cranes on a view of Flatbush,” Duddy explained.  The redevelopment of the neighborhood has gone through several stages.  1985-2005 witnessed the Forest City’s MetroTech, the first significant development in the area since the 1930’s. This is the sort of dead of isolated space, repelling bodies from a space few use or enjoy.  2004 ushered a new phase of development, new towers, City Tech and NYU anchoring this as a student space.  Today, downtown Brooklyn is integrating educational, residential, and cultural resources, as well as the neighborhoods, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, and Fort Green, each of these neighborhoods disconnected and separate. Over the years, this downtown has a hard time relating to these other neighborhoods.  The most natural integration moves from South to North, from Boerum Hill to Atlantic, yet the others are less smooth.  The challenge involves connecting the isolated  core out to the rest of the city.  The barriers, double parked cars, and demarcating lines create any number of challenges.  “Getting from Fulton to Jay Street one sees no smiling faces,” confessed Duddly.

Comparing glossy photos of plans for glitzy streets without cars to images of gridlock along Flatbush, Hilda Cohen, a transportation advocate with Make Brooklyn Safer and Families for Safe Streets, offered a telling observation. “In between planning and construction is 15 years of change.  Within it remains a vast gap between the ‘bold new ideas’ and the reality.  Where are the bold new ideas for streets asked Cohen. “Our streets are for us, not for cars.  What are the ways to improve and report a problem?”  So, how can we market streets for people to linger, to share space? How can we re imagine Jay Street, making this street usable for multiple users, while doing away with barriers, such as rows of double parked cars blocking bus lanes, clogging up traffic.  If Brooklyn wants to be a cutting edge space, our streets must reflect this, it must realize that shared space is necessary.  We need bold new designs.  What makes these streets feel comfortable?

I followed by posing a question to our panel, noting Downtown Brooklyn is the third largest "business district" in New York City after the Financial District and Midtown Manhattan. The 2004 Develop Plan promotes Downtown Brooklyn as a key location for back office space. With Brooklyn's evolution over the past decade and the technology boom in Brooklyn, the planning for Downtown Brooklyn likely now needs to achieve different goals. What should be changed in the planning for Downtown Brooklyn to adapt to these new conditions?  Is there a model urban "character" that should guide the development of Downtown Brooklyn? 

Kevin Hom, a dean and architect with City Tech, suggested that Brooklyn, itself, could be a source for insight into its future. “Brooklyn was once one of the great cities in the US,” he explained.  Ocean Parkway is a great model of a street, as an open thoroughfare, rapid transit, and great design.  Downtown Brooklyn surrounded by water and industrial sites could be an ideal.  Further, Manhattan is saturated, no room for further development.  Brooklyn has been a model for design for 100 years. Today, the challenge includes exchanging high-rises for residential prototypes.  It’s a unique space with a history to address its challenges as one of the great cities.

Ali Esmaeilzadeh, of Forest City, suggested that the city needs to create incentives so we can get the city where we want it too be.

Bethany Bowyer, of Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, pointed out that projects such as the Brooklyn Strand are in the works.  And today, the office vacancy is just 3%.

Yet, Hilda Cohen pointed out, the social impacts of this development must be accounted for.

Kevin Hom noted that with economic vitality, there was less inclusiveness.  He pointed to the example of an Armani now on Atlantic Ave. That’s going to cater to a new kind of Brooklyn, one that has not always been there.  Yet, city planning can guide this; government can plan this, opening a social and political dialogue.

For this to work, we have to rethink the streets here as other cities have, noted Cohen. She pointed to the example of Portland, Oregon where buses run for free downtown.  So people use the buses, instead of cars, with gridlock reduced. We have to rethink how we get around.

Bethany finished with a question, can downtown be connected with the Navy Yards, Dumbo and the Brooklyn Strand? 

How do you enhance the changes that have already happened noted Hom.  The area needs connection.

While it has brand appeal, the area is going to need to balance the rush to develop itself with the past 100 years of good planning here. 

I asked the crowd who of us go to downtown to eat?  Who remembers the old Gage and Tullner restaurant down here?  Few rose their hands.

Downtown Brooklyn, especially Jay Street, is home to a large population of college students.  How can the uses, public spaces, and streets of Downtown Brooklyn better provide a sense of place for these students while leveraging the students' energy to help activate Downtown Brooklyn?  How can community spaces in Downtown Brooklyn help foster community, integration, and interaction? What kind of spaces need to be developed? 

 Hom pointed out that some of the good planning that makes BAM thrive, an active theater and restaurants, open streetscape, could be extended downtown so people want to stay after work.

The realization that we need a vibe on the ground is becoming more prescient acknowledged Ali.

While downtown Brooklyn is an economic hub, it is missing needed infrastructure, noted several of the audience members, with frustration in their voices.  While 10,000 new residential units have been created, supporting schools, libraries, and hospitals have not been developed.

It is the responsibility of government and governance to create these things, Hom pointed out. Only community pressure can create the impetus to create these things.  People have to organize.

People want to live here.  This is one of the great cities, along with Shanhai, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and London.  The people want to make it great.  Yet, from the 1950’s when the Dodgers left until 2004, the borough was sinking.  And now its turning around with new tides of buildings and people.

Several called for halting the residential development until attendant needs are addressed.

“Its like an ocean liner with no rutting moving onto the coast,” noted one audience member.  We need new infrastructure to accompany what has happened in downtown Brooklyn. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Save New York, Save the Garden: Community Gardens in Danger Ride 2015

There’s a fence outside of Roger That Community Garden on 98 Rogers Avenue at Park Place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that declares: Save New York, Save the Garden.  The sign says it all. 

“We gotta save the soul of New York,” noted my friend JC, as we rode visiting gardens under threat Saturday.

This is a city connected between people and ideas, streets and green spaces, bike lanes and sidewalks, spaces for cars, and pedestrians, as well as those who yearn for public spaces, where they can actually put their hands in the dirt – everyone sharing a delicate community ecology, worth preserving and honoring.  Earlier in the day, a truck had crashed into a wall where we were making a memorial for people killed by automobiles in New York in 2014, with life imitating art, demonstrating what happens when we fail to look out for each other.  When we lose a green space, this balance is threatened in a similar way. We lose our sense of community or self. The private invades the public.  Everything is interconnected in this naked city.

That was the sign I looked at for a climate change workshop outside the Brooklyn Commons, after a morning painting the vast memorial for pedestrians lost to traffic violence.  All winter long, we have pointed out that green housing is not built on green gardens, that community gardens help offer a solution to a city facing the threats of flooding, climate extremes, congestion, and rippling threats to the sustainability of the city.

Right of Way Street Memorial for Cyclists Killed in 2014.

Saturday, we would ride bikes to visit gardens under threat all over New York City.   Partnering with 596 Acres, we planned to ride from Prospect Park to Prospect-Lefferts, Crown Heights and Bushwick, out to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Soho, visiting gardens under threat.  
The invite for the ride declared:

Join Public Space Party and 596 Acres to ride to small gardens and community parks that add essential depth to New York City’s open space network and are in danger of losing their land to private development: Maple Street, Roger That, Eldert Street, Children's Magical, Siempre Verde, and Elizabeth Street. These gardens need community support in asking the city to move their land from the private market into the public inventory where they belong. They are small, community spaces that serve as multi-purpose community living rooms year round.

Amazing Endangered Garden Bike Route created by 596 Acres.

We met at Grand Army Plaza, cyclists from New York Bike Dance, as well as Public Space Party, and 596 Acres.   The ride would be a time to thank the gardeners for all they’ve done to create something better of this city and its fabric of 500 neighborhoods.  

The sun shining on the first warm of Spring, it seemed the whole city was out on the streets.
Our first stop was Maple Street Garden.  Kids were playing in a tree.  It felt as though the whole neighborhood was on hand.

Maple Street garden was formed in 2012 by the Maple 3 Block Association and community members who transformed a trash-strewn vacant lot into a multipurpose garden and community space. The lot had been vacant and collecting trash for over a decade since its most recent resident and owner passed away and her home burned down. 

As Ali Jacobs, 31, an active member who lives on Sterling Street stated, “Our neighborhood is beautiful, but very short on public land.  Our garden has no gate nor lock, it is accessible by the entire neighborhood, and is used heavily by children and adults as a common outdoor space.”
Paula Segal, of 596 Acres who serves as an attorney for several the gardens under threat from private developers, noted they see land as worth more than our lives. They want to scheme to get our gardens.  For two years this was  a garden that increased the property values for the neighborhood. Before that, it was a trash heap.  And no one took notice of the space.   We want the convince the city to protect it.  We want to keep the sheriff from coming.  This land was never the city’s.  It was  family’s.  We want to point out crucial spaces that are going to disappear, unless we are as creative as they are, we will lose it. If we keep it, it will be easier to say this is worth keeping.

The Maple Street Community Garden is being threatened with demolition by Housing Urban Development LLC, a private development corporation with a history of subprime lending and irregular title transfers. Gardeners are resisting eviction by appearing in Housing Court and urging the City to condemn the property and transfer it to the Parks Department (next court appearance is May 4, 2015 at 10:30am at 141 Livingston Street, Brooklyn in room 603).

We zipped up and down around the neighborhood on our way Roger That Garden, everyone enjoying the lovely day and our ever connecting story of gardens and people, real estate and community interests, greed and gratitude.

Roget That community garden was our next stop.  Several of us stopped for photos outside the space. 
David Vigil told the story of the space.  

Grown from a crumbling building, this is a community space in Crown Heights, Brooklyn that stewards native plants, grows edibles, and maintains community compost. Roger That garden is currently under threat of development by a real estate developer who purchased the deed to the land, subject to hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax debt liens, for $10 from the man who used to own and operate a hardware store on this lot before abandoning the buildings. The developers have attempted to illegally evict the garden through a lock-out.  It had been an abandoned space, but now someone wants to make money with it. But we want to preserve it, noted Vigil. We want to save it, preserve it and have it secured.  The paper for the property needs to move to a land trust of the Parks department.

Roger That can be saved if the City invokes eminent domain and buys the property to preserve it as a Parks Department garden. Eminent domain has been used to create New York’s parks and open spaces dating at least back to 1807. Prospect Park, Central Park, the Ocean Parkway Greenway and Astor place are just a few of the over 350 condemnations for the creation or preservation of parks and open spaces that have been recorded in New York’s county courts. 

The next stop for the ride was Eldert Street Garden in Bushwick.  To get there, we rode through the lovely Brooklyn day, from Crown Heights to Bushwick. Elder Street offers vegetable plots, educational programming for kids and adults, composting, and a welcoming public space where folks can relax and connect with the natural world.  We stood for a photo in front of the majestic mural inside the garden.  Developers tried to move in on the space the day before our ride.

Kim Anderson welcomed up and told the story of the space.  Let’s start from the beginning, she explained.  Originally this space was a pile of rubble from a building in the 1970’s.  The land was donated to non-profit with the expectation that it would become a garden.  In 2009, we approached the two owners of the space and told them we’d like to make a garden here.  So we got started.  They said that was always the intent of the space, to be a garden. This September,  we saw folks  in the lot saying it had been sold.  We checked it out and were told nothing had been sold. But it was.  We’re still trying to figure out what happened there.  In January, we learned out it had been sold for $300,000.00.  Yesterday, we were trying to have a work day and workers showed up saying they were here to start work on a vacant lot.  They were confused.  If you want us to move you have to go through due process, or you are trespassing noted Kim. With those words, we had a standoff, she recalled.  Yet, the garden had community support. We’re hoping to keep the lot.  The Attorney General’s office has not been contacted by the owners who are required to notify them when selling land in a non profit.  There are restrictions on dispositions for non profits, noted one of the lawyers, Yet, there is no information on the deed for the garden.  It was an illegal sale.

As for now, the recent transfer of the garden to a private for-profit corporation is under investigation by the New York State Office of the Attorney General. The gardeners are asserting their rights as tenants under New York City law and continuing to grow in the face of bullying by the developer. They are asking that the City halt all construction permits to the property and acquire it for transfer to the Parks Department.

Anderson explained what the fight was about, “For those of us without a private garden to grow in, or a forest to walk in, community gardens are all we have. When we work in our community gardens, we take back our fundamental right to work the land, and call a piece of earth our own, no matter how small. And we do it together.” 

From Bushwick riders we rode over to the Williamsberg Bridge and into Manhattan to visit Siempre Verde garden, 2 small parcels of public land on Attorney and Stanton Streets that were reinvigorated by neighbors in 2012 who responded to signs posted by 596 Acres. Yenta Laureate, Anne Less and other gardeners welcomed everyone into the garden and told the story of the struggle to save the space for community use.  The garden parcels are divided by an 18-foot parcel owned by a private developer who has put forward a proposal to purchase the City-owned properties and use all three as primarily luxury housing. The gardeners are asking that the City transfer the existing garden lots to the Parks Department for preservation and acquire the private parcel to make the garden whole. 

"We are essentially animals so having access to nature provides creature comforts, soothes the savage soul and regenerates the weary spirit,” says Ann Lee, of Siempre Verde Community Garden. “Gardens are a place to pause and respite from the grind of concrete cities. Gardens are the future for urban people."

The fifth stop on the ride was scheduled to be Children’s Magical garden, founded in 1982 by community activists with the mission to create a safe space for the neighborhood’s children to play in and learn about nature. They have been tirelessly serving their community for 30 years, and have been fighting development since May 2013, when a portion of their garden was destroyed by a developer who claims to own the land despite doing nothing with the property for decades.

Finally, riders visited Elizabeth Street Garden, located on city-owned land on Little Italy’s Elizabeth Street. The Garden, open to the public by local volunteers, provides a sanctuary for residents in an otherwise dense and tightly packed neighborhood. The site has a long history as a public school, gathering place, and playground, before it was transformed into a garden by Elizabeth Street Gallery in 1991. In June 2013, neighbors started a campaign to  permanently preserve the Garden as a New York City park but the City has not yet transferred the land or indicated that preservation is a priority. The garden continues to operate with a revocable lease and has been suggested by elected officials as a site for private housing development.
“As cities become more dense and our economy shifts toward sharing, gardens serve as 21st century community centers where neighbors get to know each other the old-fashioned way while enjoying shared backyards,” says Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden President Jeannine Kiely. “Neighborhood green spaces have great value and make cities livable.”

Lined with statues and daffodils, the space feels like an Italian sculpture garden. I have ridden by it for years, but never stepped inside.  Supporters hope the garden can remain open for all, providing a green space in SOHO/ Little Italy, where very little of the space is unpaved.
We hung out talking and enjoy beauty of the space and what it meant to all of us to have some green space, where neighbors can meet without an entrance fee.

Paula gave a summary of where we have been and we talked about ways to keep on supporting these precious spaces.

 “The City needs to take a more active interest in the fates of these properties and affirmatively act to preserve the institutions that New Yorkers love,” she concluded. “This isn't about housing versus gardens. This is about living in a City that places the needs of people who live in neighborhoods above the potential for others to make money off those neighborhoods.”

The social rate of return for community gardens takes place in countless forms. We call for the city to support open space, recognizing the multiple benefits of green space in world facing increasing temperatures and climate chaos.

Thanks to 596 Acres, the other riders,  and the gardeners for all you do.  You are creating a sustainable future for our city.  Hopefully, we can support you and the delicate ecology you help preserve. Afterall, when we save the garden, we save NYC. 

Save the garden, save NYC and other photos by Erik McGregor