As she strode to the front of the Polish and Slavic Center auditorium in Brooklyn, Amanda Burden, chairwoman of the City Planning Commission, faced a daunting task. This tall blonde, wearing a sleek cream-colored suit and elegant two-tone pumps, had to present the Bloomberg administration’s ambitious plans to rezone and redevelop parts of Williamsburg and Greenpoint to an eclectic mix of Slavic and Latino immigrants, Orthodox Jews, pierced hipsters and long-time social activists who live in the neighborhoods. If it had been a movie, the scene would have ended with her audience railing against City Hall and driving its representative back to her wood-paneled office in tears.
But on this Tuesday evening in late June, there was no yelling and there were no tears. The residents quietly sat through a 90-minute presentation on City Hall’s plan to overhaul 1.6 miles of waterfront in Williamsburg and Greenpoint-a proposal that will drastically alter the landscape of these two communities. As many politicians and public officials have learned, local residents do not always react well to big government plans to change their neighborhoods.
Ms. Burden, however, is apparently rewriting the rules of engagement. As she explained how acres of barren industrial wasteland would be replaced with up to 7,000 new apartments and a waterfront esplanade, residents appeared to give her the benefit of the doubt. Ms. Burden’s first large test as the face of city planning appears to be going smoother than many might have expected.
When Mayor Bloomberg appointed Ms. Burden to chair the City Planning Commission in January 2002, more than a few eyebrows were raised, even though she had been a commissioner for 12 years. Some politicos whispered that Ms. Burden, an heiress to the Standard Oil fortune, the stepdaughter of CBS’s famous chief, William Paley, and a long-time A-list socialite, didn’t have the gravitas or the political skills for such a vital post. Real-estate developers fretted that she would focus on arts and urban design over economics, and neighborhood groups wondered about the cultural chasm between their workaday constituents and her lap-of-luxury life.
Ms. Burden’s approach to the Brooklyn waterfront rezoning suggests that those fears may have been misplaced. Her ability to foster strong partnerships with Williamsburg and Greenpoint residents suggests that other projects-from the rebuilding of lower Manhattan to the redevelopment of the far West Side-may be less contentious than usual.
“From Amanda Burden and the Bloomberg administration, there is a different kind of control from the top,” said Cathy Herman, who works with a nonprofit housing organization in Williamsburg. “They really want to understand how the city should be rebuilt. I believe they will listen to us.”
It’s no small feat for a planning commissioner to receive kudos from local activists, particularly those in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, who have been saddled with waste-transfer stations and pollutant-belching manufacturing plants. Although the area has attracted young artists in recent years, nearly 40 percent of the land remains zoned for industry, and the waterfront is inaccessible. “This is now a growing residential community, but it was burdened with toxic environmental industries for many years,” said Christopher Olechowski, chairman of Brooklyn Community Board 1′s rezoning task force. “Those have been not only points of contention with the city, but created a great deal of mistrust toward the city’s ability to help us recover.”
Ms. Burden worked closely with local residents and staff members who knew the area as they formulated the rezoning proposal. And she made another important overture: She strapped on her Prada loafers and hit the streets.
“Last spring, I would spend weekends walking,” Ms. Burden said. “I would just go out on my own and walk around the neighborhoods to get a sense of the scale. When people ask me where I’ll be spending this summer, I say, ‘In Greenpoint and Williamsburg.’ It’s important that we get a lot of feedback from the community, because it is a very complicated plan.”
Essentially, the plan was developed over 18 months and calls for mixed-use zoning that will allow major new residential development-including the construction of 150-foot to 350-foot privately owned buildings along the waterfront-in exchange for a preserved shoreline, park space, an esplanade and economic stimulus. Although the plan still has to wend its way through the bureaucracy over the next year, it has already been praised by residents, civic groups, legislators and the business community.
Christine Holowacz, a Greenpoint resident who has worked on various waterfront proposal for nearly 15 years, said that the first time she saw the final proposal at a meeting in City Hall in early June, all she could think of were the long nights that she and the other volunteers had worked. “When I saw the plan, I thought to myself, ‘It’s all been worth it, Christine. The waterfront is really going to be something that you’ve always imagined.’”
Even Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, a Democrat not known for giving the administration much positive feedback, declared, “We’re on the right track. We have a confluence of the administration, City Council, community boards, borough offices, and we’re all on the same page. We can differ about the specifics, but we all recognize it’s time for the resource to be preserved without allowing small disagreements to derail the process.”
Ms. Burden’s effort to win the community’s support got a valuable boost in May, when the Mayor decided not to support a plan to build a new power plant on the Williamsburg waterfront and, instead, suggested that the site be incorporated into the city’s bid for the 2012 Olympics. “The suggestion that the power-plant site should be used for open space was critical,” said Adam Perlmutter, a board member of the Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning, which opposed the plant. “I think the whole process might have come to a resounding crash without that step.”
The thorniest issue that remains is what percentage of the new waterfront housing will be affordable housing. Indeed, how does one generate adequate private investment to build a public greenway, river access and quality housing without eventually pricing longtime residents out of the neighborhood and changing the community’s character? “That’s what I looked at again and again,” Ms. Burden acknowledged.
According to David Kramer, the vice president of Hudson Companies, a Brooklyn-based residential developer, there is a real danger that rezoning may bring other unwelcome changes. “As rezoning happens, land speculation occurs,” he said. “I can see many of these areas become quite high-income. With rezoning, the land is going to be too valuable to do anything but market-rate housing.” He added that the real-estate community generally supports rezoning because it opens up dormant areas and generates new economic activity.
Community activists like Rich Mazur, who heads the North Brooklyn Development Corporation, are pushing to make sure that roughly two-thirds of the new housing units are mid- to low-income. “We’ve got a huge demand for affordable housing, and so we are fighting for our fair share,” he said. “You will lose some of the flavor of the neighborhood if you turn it into a luxury area.”
Even as civic groups prepare to challenge the planning office about affordability, they have nothing but praise for Ms. Burden herself. “It’s Amanda’s baby, to a certain degree,” said Julie Lawrence, a community task force participant. “She comes from a different social reality than the rest of us, but she is doing her best to address our concerns. I see that and I feel it. It is very different from previous administrations I have worked with.”
Ms. Burden’s leadership style is winning similar accolades across the city.
“Contrasting the experience we’ve had in the past year with the prior administration, it’s like night and day,” said Anna Levin, co-chair of the land-use committee of Manhattan’s Community Board 4. “We’ve had access to city planning and a genuine back-and-forth. Of course there are aspects of the proposal we are not in agreement on, but it has been a refreshingly civil and straightforward disagreement.”
These are promising signs for Ms. Burden and a city on the verge of a redevelopment extravaganza. Heated debates over land use, gentrification, fiscal priorities and aesthetics certainly lie ahead, but thus far Ms. Burden has managed to keep such discussions from boiling over.