With the rise of brands like Brooklyn Brewery and the recently minted Brooklyn Nets, the borough’s newfound prominence may obscure the very practical origin of the borough’s resurgence, observed participants on the panel titled “Brooklyn Renaissance: Transformation of an Outer Borough” at the Urban Land Institute’s October 21–23 Fall Meeting. As Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, commented, its cachet has been sudden, but the “roots have been decades in the making.”
Related: Brooklyn Rebound
Brooklyn, the largest borough in New York City, has, since experiencing a prolonged decline throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, hitting a panoply of the low points of the American urban experience, enjoyed a meteoric reversal of fortunes in residential, commercial, and even industrial growth in recent decades. Wylde noted that the borough, which still contains only 14 percent of New York City’s employment, has accounted for 36 percent of the job growth in the city since 2008.
Brooklyn’s wealth of transportation assets was universally acclaimed for its significance in the borough’s turnaround. Regina Myer, president of Brooklyn Bridge Park and former director of the Brooklyn office of the New York City Department of City Planning, recalled the incredulity of municipal officials at initial signs there were “over 100 illegally converted buildings in Brooklyn along the L train.” Such assets proved a continued attraction to immigrants even through lean years: a “great influx of immigration kept our neighborhoods safe and growing at a point when many areas of the city were not.”
Government action proved a decisive spur to regeneration once the city took notice, but a reduction in crime was essential. Wylde said, “Until we got a handle on crime and introduced CompStat, nothing could take off; it was still very local still very hand to mouth. The market took off when people felt they were safe in the city.”
Timely rezoning and additional neighborhood infrastructure spending also proved to be a substantial spur. The city’s successive upzoning of downtown Brooklyn and cultivation of the MetroTech office development harnessed and expanded civic, education, and business assets to provide a spark to job and particularly residential development in the borough. Mary Anne Gilmartin, president of Forest City Ratner, which developed MetroTech during the 1990s and Atlantic Yards (now rebranded as Pacific Park) in recent years, pointed to the consequence of local educational and cultural groups to revival, noting that Brooklyn relied on “business, culture, and community to rebuild itself.”
The borough’s main success has been as a supremely dynamic bedroom community; Myer noted that “historically, most areas we zoned for mixed use have become mainly residential due to the strength of the residential market.” But that’s not all. Brooklyn has become a brand of sufficient note to attract a very diverse range of newcomers: “The Brooklyn real estate community realizes that the place making that comes with attracting people on the ground floor can put them fundamentally at an advantage.”
Manufacturing employment has been rebounding along the formerly industrial waterfront, with Industry City and the Brooklyn Navy Yard serving as two profound incubators for growth. The old waterfront of Domino Sugar, the Rheingold Brewery, and Rheingold Steel gave way long ago, but the borough’s 1990s reputation as a center for back offices has also since yielded to the primacy of the “maker culture.” Andrew H. Kimball, chief executive officer of Industry City (who formerly worked with the Brooklyn Navy Yard), noted that “film, digital media, and gaming helped to drive this innovation economy,” not to mention brewing distilling and a wide range of other homegrown enterprises. “Massive multistory industrial buildings” again became useful assets.
The city, which owned the Navy Yard, committed $250 million, and private sources provided an additional $100 million to get the facility back to viability and an increasingly active future. This provided an invaluable early impetus, but to Kimball the real “turning point was when other entrepreneurs started buying privately owned assets like the Pfizer building, because they knew that they could fill it up with the creative class of makers.”
Growth does, however, bring challenges—namely, escalating rents and prices and the risk of displacement of long-term residents. Myer regretted “the idea that Brooklyn is becoming a homogenized location; we’re working to ensure that it does not.” Several panelists extolled Mayor DeBlasio’s press for more affordable housing; others, the need to ensure that employment is available to the borough’s lower-income residents. Kimball noted that the Navy Yard has achieved employment of “25 percent NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] residents, 12 percent formerly incarcerated, and 12 percent vets.” More sustained solutions to housing and employing the borough’s lower-income residents remain a pressing concern.
The borough’s success is a marvel, however, and for some this is a due recentering of the universe. As the irrepressible Marty Markowitz, former Brooklyn borough president and vice president of Borough Promotion and Engagement, NYC & Company, commented, the idea of Brooklyn as a borough that’s “outer” in any sense is simply dated.
“We are not an outer borough because that implies somehow that Manhattan is the center of the world, and that’s not true,” he said. “The only inner borough is Brooklyn, and why? It is the only borough you cannot leave NYC directly from.”