In 2005, when then-mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed rezoning parts of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods, famed urbanist Jane Jacobs penned him a warning. In one of her last notes before her death, Jacobs predicted that the rezoning would “maybe enrich a few heedless and ignorant developers, but at the cost of an ugly and intractable mistake.”
In subsequent years, Jacobs’s warning seemed like a prophecy. As rents rose alongside the borough’s new skyline, critics decried the cost of the boom. Today, neighborhoods like Williamsburg are synonymous with gentrification. Last November, median rents reached a record-high $3,675 a month—a 27 percent increase from the year before—and they go for much more along the waterfront. Recent attempts by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to preserve neighborhoods in her Queens district recall the pre-Great Recession fears of Williamsburg activists, who declared that “further market-rate development is a threat to the local low-income population.”
But a new study by New York City’s Department of City Planning (DCP) shows that these claims were—and are—overblown. The story of rezoning in Williamsburg and Greenpoint shows how growth need not lead to the displacement of poor and minority residents. Instead, gentrification can serve as a vehicle for integration and socioeconomic mobility.
In North Brooklyn, for example, the waterfront—once a site of heavily polluting industry—has added new parkland, schools, and more than 12,000 homes since 2007. As a result of the 2005 rezoning, developers have built denser, mixed-use developments along 175 blocks adjacent to the East River, in addition to 2,000 affordable units and the preservation of another 1,000 units. By contrast, New York City collectively developed fewer housing units in the 2010s than it did during the Great Depression. In Williamsburg and Greenpoint, however, plans are underway to construct 4,900 units along the waterfront, plus another 2,600 in an adjacent, recently rezoned area.
Williamsburg and Greenpoint built, and the people came. Between 2007 and 2017, when the number of New Yorkers grew by 6 percent, the population of Williamsburg’s rezoned waterfront ballooned by 41 percent to more than 45,000. These new entrants were generally younger, and many started families. Approximately 160,000 people, kids and all, now live in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. So much for “grimy authenticity,” lamented the New York Times.
The waterfront grew while maintaining its diversity, too. Some 30,000 more white residents called Williamsburg and Greenpoint home from 2000 to 2015. But the denser, up-zoned parts of the borough’s waterfront saw an increase in nonwhite residents as well. In fact, the area reversed its more than 15-year-long decline in Hispanic residents.
And while Williamsburg and Greenpoint grew richer, many poorer households remained. Median household incomes in the rezoned waterfront of Brooklyn grew by $33,000 a year, to $97,000. The share of residents making more than $50,000 a year also expanded. And yet, the number of households earning less than $50,000, or even less than $25,000, saw no appreciable decrease.
Since the Great Recession, the up-zoned areas of Williamsburg and Greenpoint added more than 11,000 new jobs, resulting in employment that grew at a 50 percent faster rate than the rest of New York City. The neighborhoods added positions at all income levels, in sectors including hospitality and food service, retail, light industry, and office work. This job growth reversed an earlier decline in positions available to low-income and low-skilled workers. While Jacobs once decried the pending destruction of “hundreds of manufacturing jobs,” up-zoned Williamsburg and Brooklyn saw their previous decline in this sector reversed. And while manufacturing jobs fell in New York as a whole, their ranks stabilized across Brooklyn, thanks to the rise of cleaner, small-scale industries and the blossoming of Brooklyn’s Navy Yard and Industry City.
Looking ahead, Williamsburg and Greenpoint should continue adding more people, housing, and jobs. An area once known for the “Greenpoint blob”—a subterranean black lagoon of toxic waste resulting from the largest oil spill in American history—has invested tens of millions of dollars in environmental restoration and created more than four acres of waterfront parkland. The city may wind up spending $500 million acquiring and refurbishing Bushwick Inlet Park, an already-popular greenspace that was once a heavily polluted fuel-oil dump and feral cat haven.
Massive investment projects, combined with newcomers, have long made Williamsburg and Greenpoint the gentrification capitals of New York. Such rapid rent growth in these formerly low-income neighborhoods has led, as the city notes in its recently published “Where We Live” report, to the “growing sentiment that neighborhoods cannot accommodate additional residents and concerns that new housing development will displace current residents.” Renters in these neighborhoods behave more like homeowners in opposing new development, Baruch College’s Michael Hankinson found, because they fear that new housing developments will attract demand and drive up rents, increasing the likelihood of displacement.
But additional housing supply absorbs rising demand and alleviates the impact of high-income renters outbidding others. The result, as Evan Mast and his coauthors at Upjohn Institute recently demonstrated, is that new market-rate rentals drive down nearby rents and help changing neighborhoods remain economically integrated. This new housing has a ripple effect—additional, more affordable units open as renters vacate older units for new ones, and inclusionary-housing policies often piggyback additional units in these developments that are set aside for lower-income renters. This means more neighbors staying to welcome new neighbors, and both likelier being better off.
Gentrification as a phenomenon of displacement is rarer than commonly believed. Allowing more housing and jobs to meet demand forestalls the rise of zero-sum cities. Neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn demonstrate that inclusive growth is possible.