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Piers, Parks and Why White People Suck

There's a saying...

"There's nothing worse than rich white people living in luxury housing in a park than the rich white people living in luxury housing protesting against them."

Ok, well, there wasn't a saying, but there should be.  

Maybe you've heard about "The Battle of Brooklyn Bridge Park."  It's a long and winding tale that basically amounts to this:

There once were some unused commercial piers.  Someone decided they should become a waterfront park.  Parks are expensive to build, so it was decided to cleave off a little bit of the park for waterfront housing to pay for the park.  The plan worked and now the park is beautiful and extremely popular.  Like, ridiculously popular.  

Everyday, tens of thousands of people visit the park's many amenities--beach volleyball, picnic grills, a pop-up pool, kayaking, standup paddleboarding, roller skating, and sure, hills, trees, grass, and spectacular waterfront views.

This pisses people off.

Come again?

Actually, there is a small but vocal group of folks who never liked this version of the park--who wanted something more akin to a lawn for their Brooklyn waterfront property.  They want quiet people to tiptoe silently past their brownstones on the way to the park, and only during daytime hours.

These local folks are suing the park itself because of plans to build luxury housing in the park.  

At first glance, you'd think with everything I just said, I'd be on their side.  Doesn't the idea of luxury housing go against all this cool park activity?

No.  Actually, we wouldn't have any of that stuff if it wasn't for the housing plan.  

You see, building a park is a very expensive proposition--especially a waterfront park.  The piers, vacant for years, had to be repaired.  The cost for the park totals in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  The city doesn't have the taxpayer dollars laying around to pay for such a thing, so it was decided to leverage the value of waterfront NYC real estate to create a self-sustaining economic plan.  Housing on the ends of the park will be created in order to pay for the park in the middle.  

The result, as you can see if you've ever been in the park, has been a tremendous success.  People use the park and people love it.  

Well, most people.  

Some of the people who live near the park who believe they're owed a quiet street in New York City aren't so thrilled.

Who are these people?

Mostly rich white people in Brooklyn Heights.  As of the 2010 census, it checked in at 77% white, as opposed to the rest of the city, which comes in around 45%.  The average household income is about $115,000, compared to $44,000 for Brooklyn as a whole.  The streets are tree-lined and the neighborhood was a bucolic sea of tranquility for long before anyone ever wanted to come to Brooklyn.  

And here's where it kind of gets ugly.  The underlying sentiment here isn't simply about luxury housing.

It's really about their issues with what kind of a park it is and who visits it.  The park as it is currently designed is serving the wider community of Brooklyn, not necessarily the people who live right next door who may have, at one time, thought of it as "theirs".  

Take a stroll through Brooklyn Bridge Park on a weekend.  It is teeming with activity and people.  What's really obvious is that this isn't a just quiet, trees, and grass kinda park...

...or as I think about it, a boring white people park.  

The vibe feels a lot more like Riverside Park in the North 100's--a cross between a non-stop 8 year old Dominican girl's family birthday picnic slash Dyckman streetball tourney with a little Crown Heights block party mixed in.  It has a diversity way more reflective of the borough of Brooklyn as a whole than it's immediately adjacent neighborhood overlooking from the promenade.  

I run the free kayaking program in the park--and it's the most ethnically and socioeconomically diverse thing in my life.  

That's why I love it.  

As an investor in tech startup companies, I wind up in a lot of situations with well off white dudes.  While I'm not necessarily at the same income level as my colleagues (my dad was FDNY and my mom was a para in the public school system) it remains a pretty vanilla professional existence.  

Spending time with the 5,000-6,000 paddlers we put on the water each summer is a breath of fresh air, to be honest.  I'd guess that a full 50% of the people who partake of our paddling program come from minority backgrounds, maybe more--and our volunteer base reflects a lot of that diversity as well.  It makes me feel like I'm actually in a park in New York City--versus a gated oasis for local rich people like Grammercy Park.  

So what does all this have to do with the Pier 6 housing controversy?

The complaints about the housing reek of a kind of protectionism.  "I found this spot and now it's for me and people like me."  Many of the protestors actually live in One Brooklyn Bridge Park--an old warehouse in the park that was converted to housing.

So, now that they're in, they don't want anyone else to partake--especially if the new housing blocks their view. 

The bigger issue and they don't want to be so obvious about it, is that some of the new housing is earmarked to go to "workforce housing", which, for a four-person household, means available to those with income of $67,100 to $138,440. 

This is where it gets ugly.

Locals started complaining that affordable housing would bring down property values and that the park economic plan shouldn't have to pay for "the ills of the city".  

How would you like it if your neighbor called you "the ills of the city"?  

The lead plantiff in the lawsuit is a local resident whose private equity fund manager boyfriend bought a $7+ million apartment near the park.  They want their waterfront view preserved--at the expense of the park's main funding source.  They don't want to live near moderately priced housing.  They only want to live near other rich people.

To recap:

Rich white people who live near a park frequented by a great socioeconomic and ethnic diversity of people want to block the main funding sources of said park, which include moderate income housing that won't go to rich white people, in order to preserve their quiet, isolated, mostly rich white waterfront neighborhood.

You might think I'm grasping at straw, but just listen to some of the people behind the lawsuit:

“There will be those maybe pointing at us, saying, ‘Aha, you don’t want low-income housing,’ ” Mr. Merz said from his sunken living room overlooking a Zen garden.

“That’s an old game because you know very well we do prefer low-income housing,” Mr. Merz continued. “But we don’t want it in the wrong place, meaning there’s a right way to build it.”

This is an actual quote taken from a recent NY Times article on the situation.  I wish I was kidding.

"In the wrong place."

What is this?  1958?

Oh, but everyone knows they love low-income housing.  This guy Merz defended himself by saying he developed some low income housing in Buffalo, far far away from where they live now.  

Kind of sounds like "I'm not racist... look how many black people I know." 

Look, we're all prejudiced in some way.  Some of us are just more self-aware and aspire to be more open-minded, more tolerant, and more accepting of change.

The way I see it, on one side you have people who expect a tax-payer subsidized backyard lawn for their rich white neighborhood--one that is less likely to attract a diverse population from other neighborhoods--and on the other hand, you've got the diverse population of people who flock to the park day in and day out who depend on an economically sustainable park.  

You don't see them complaining that One Brooklyn Bridge Park is housing or that there's a hotel going up.  They're just happy they have a place to play and come and enjoy the waterfront.  

The good thing is, despite all the protests, the idea of housing as a way to fund the park is a train that left the station a long time ago.  In a city facing a huge pension and benefit crunch, there's no other place that the money to fix the piers and build the rest of the park is going to come from.  

If these people don't like the park and the people that it welcomes, they're more than welcome to move to Connecticut.  I'm sure they'll have no problem affording something nice if they sell, given how high property values near the park have skyrocketed since ground was broken a few years ago.  

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