Condos Don’t Have To Be Inevitable

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Given the frequency and borderline hysteria with which every single New York media outlet talks about gentrification (us included), it can feel like sort of a drumbeat; the re-zonings, the hideous new condos,  the terrible Times style section pieces about the people who live in them, the commenters who barrage us with reminders that “hipsters should fucking die,” all coalescing as part of the same inexorable force pushing the city toward an expensive, bland future. And this weekend’s Daily News story on the insane disparity of the city’s property taxes is just another piece of it.

But, as our own Henry Stewart has pointed out, these things don’t “just happen,” just as tax laws don’t just magically shake down in such a way that middle class homeowners in Cypress Hills pay higher property taxes than the owners of multi-million dollar Park Slope brownstones. And even this disturbing new real estate story comes on the heels of two relatively encouraging ones last week; one, a re-zoning in Crown Heights that creates affordable housing and prevents pricey, high-rise condos from cropping up in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, the other a ruling against an illegally high condo that Marine Park residents have been fighting since 2006.

Which, on the one hand, is great. One Crown Heights community board member said the Department of City Planning “gave us everything we asked for,”  adding, “our primary goal was to prevent large scale development in the neighborhood and that happened.” Great. Totally ideal. But then, the idea that it’d take close to a decade just to stop a single building that flagrantly violates city law is… pretty exhausting.

And versions of the same story seem to be playing out in just about every Brooklyn neighborhood with even a hint of newfound desirability. There have been re-zonings in Bed-Stuy over the past few years, and, more recently, ongoing fights in Greenpoint, where residents are pushing back against massive new waterfront towers and demanding affordable housing, and Bushwick, where the local Community Board has attempted to curb changes to the neighborhood with arbitrary curfews on liquor sales, all while holding secret meetings to push through a hotly disputed re-zoning that would put condos in the old Rheingold factory. And, of course, there was the much-publicized losing battle for the soul of the Atlantic Yards near the Barclays Center.

Which, you know, isn’t exactly enough for anyone to get too Pollyanna-ish about. Even without brand new towers that come with crazy amenities and crazier prices, real estate values are still crushingly high (and getting higher by the day). And with developers willing to toss millions of dollars at relatively small potatoes political races in order to protect their interests, even maintaining a relative status quo seems to require years in the trenches, week after week of attending often-tedious meetings and drumming up petition signatures. Not exactly for the faint of heart (or, mostly likely, for freshly minted transplants, which may be the crux of the problem). Still, it’s at least a little bit comforting that sometimes, even in the tail end of the Bloomberg years, the small(er) guys really do get what they want. It’d just be nice if it wasn’t quite so hard.

 Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.


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