When the New Kids Come to Town

What fears does Prospect Heights face as Pacific Park becomes a reality?

Prospect Heights: Existing neighborhood. Spread over 20 blocks with two main avenues, three-story brownstones, shops, restaurants and seven coffee shops. Home to 20,228 people.

Pacific Park: Planned neighborhood. 22 redeveloped acres, 15 high-rises. By 2025, home to an expected 13,500 people.

Prospect Heights will see its population increase by 67%.

And that is making people nervous.

Vanderbilt Avenue, Prospect Heights. Photos: Olivia Dillingham

When I first began exploring Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, I was intrigued by the number of coffee shops that managed to coexist in this tiny neighborhood. On Vanderbilt Avenue, I counted five coffee shops in three blocks. Just two blocks away, on Washington Avenue, there are two more. This does not include all of the other places that serve coffee — the delis, bagel shops, and even a pie shop, all contained in the same two avenues.

I stopped into each place to ask how business was: was competition a problem? Was this the Hunger Games of coffee shops?

The answer was no. I understood why when the woman working the counter at Joyce Bakeshop showed me the hundreds of tabs that regular customers held there. Each coffee shop had local, loyal clientele that came in almost every single day. They were, each in their own way, a Prospect Heights extension of home. They were people’s livings rooms beyond their living rooms, or their offices, or kitchens.

But what happens when home gets crowded with strangers? Can it still be home?

What happens when the high rises of Pacific Park begin to fill up and all those new people descend on Vanderbilt and Washington avenues?

The beginnings of Pacific Park. Photos: Olivia Dillingham

This worries people who live in Prospect Heights:

Fear 1: I can’t (or soon won’t be able to) afford to live here

Prospect Heights, once an over-looked and little known neighborhood, is now one of the it-locations for people looking to move to Brooklyn. Prices, especially in the last ten years, have risen to reflect that. Now, streeteasy.com shows that a basic studio apartment in the neighborhood rents for at least $1,600 a month, and usually much more. This contrasts dramatically the prices published in the New York Times in 2011, which states that a one-bedroom went for, at most, $1,800. Not at least but as much as. Now one-bedrooms go for at least around $1,900 a month. As developers buy up rent-stabilized buildings and as non-controlled rent steadily increases, people are forced to move out.

“When we moved here, we didn’t have kids yet but we bought a pretty good-sized house for a price that wouldn’t buy you a studio apartment here now, and we knew that we were doing it to raise a family,” says Gib Veconi, chair of the Prospect Heights Development Council, which has been monitoring developments in Pacific Park since it began under its original, controversial name, Atlantic Yards.

“Today,” he adds, “if a couple moves to Prospect Heights, starts a family, pretty soon they discover they need more space, but in the meantime if they’ve been here for four, five, or eight years, the rent and purchase price of apartments has really increased and that next move up is really, really hard. So that fuels a lot of anxiety, and people who want to stay in the neighborhood just don’t perceive themselves as having a lot of options.”

Old houses in Prospect Heights. Photos: Olivia Dillingham

Fear 2: I can’t (or soon won’t be able to) afford to have my business here

Perhaps more concerning than the rising price of housing is the dramatically increasing price of retail space. With the coming of Pacific Park, retail spaces have seen rents double in some cases, Veconi says. As a result, business owners, such as the coffee shop owners, say they will have to raise their prices to hang on, if they can hang on at all.

“Rent reflects in what coffee shops have to charge,” says Michael Salinas, who works at Vanderbilt Avenue’s R&D Foods, “and that needs to be proportional to the service you get.”

That rise in prices, in turn, can affect who can afford coffee, and whether the small charms of the neighborhood are still affordable.

Public School 9, Prospect Heights. Photos: Olivia Dillingham

Fear 3: Schools won’t have enough space

With 13,000 new residents come their children and the children will need to have places in the local schools. In a survey done by Inter-section — a project undertaken to expose the change taking place in Prospect Heights in collaboration with the Brooklyn Public Library and Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC) — residents listed public education as a concern for the neighborhood. Specifically, as the chair of PHNDC, Gib Veconi, told me, overcrowding — once these new Pacific Park residents come in — is a worry.

That worry, however, may be overblown, says Maggie Spillane, a Prospect Heights mother and a member of Community Education Council 13.

“A piece of why I’m not worried about it,” Spillane says, referring to pressures on local elementary schools in the next five years, “is because there are four really good schools right around [Pacific Park], and if people want to move into the area and want a great elementary school, there should be enough seats for them. Now, if for some reason in ten years if all of those 6,000 units [in Pacific Park] are built and every one of them contains four kids whose parents want a public school for them, then, yeah, there would have needed to be some kind of greater discussion along the way”

Prospect Heights is a part of Community School District 13, which includes several public and charter schools. The area where Pacific Park is located is currently zoned for two existing public elementary schools. A new middle school is also being built within Pacific Park, a welcome addition to the neighborhood, which has been without its own stand-alone public middle school. Spillane emphasized that although it is not clear that the methods the Department of Education (DOE) currently uses to project future enrollment needs are accurate, she expects the DOE to work with the community to ensure that there are enough seats for future and existing residents of Prospect Heights.

Vanderbilt Avenue, Prospect Heights. Photos: Olivia Dillingham

Fear 4: This will be the end of diversity in the neighborhood

In the Inter-section survey, most local residents identified diversity and a sense of community as Prospect Heights’ greatest strengths.

“A lot of what they answered would be things that you would expect, it was physical things that were sort of permanent — the proximity to Prospect Park, proximity to mass transit, architectural character — things that really aren’t likely to change much,” Veconi says. ”But you can see from our census that diversity has changed. And it’s not only changed, it’s perceived to have changed.”

The Inter-section study (linked here) found that the white population in Prospect Heights has gone from 31% of the total neighborhood population in 2000 to 56% in 2014. The African American population was has gone from 53% to 28% in that time. In other words, those percentages have flipped. It also appears that the percentage of residents with an annual income of at least $100,000 almost tripled (16% to 41%) between 1999 and 2012, while the number of residents making under $50,000 per year shrank from 56% to 31%.

Fear 5: The “new people” won’t care about the neighborhood, or me

There are rumors. Rumors, for example, that Pacific Park is being marketed to Chinese investors; Greenland, after all, is a Chinese state-owned company whose subsidiary, Greenland USA, holds 70% stake in Pacific Park, which it shares with developer Forest City Ratner. Rumor has it that the investors will not live there, but buy solely as an investment.

These are only rumors. Forest City Ratner’s representatives did not reply when I asked about them.

Pacific Park will be, by design, diverse. Thirty-five percent of its units are designated for affordable housing, with rents of $548 per month for a studio up to $3,716 a month for a three-bedroom apartment. But buying there will be expensive; condos at 550 Vanderbilt, one of the development’s first buildings, will range from $550,000 for studios to $6.8 million for its penthouse.

Maggie Spillane has concerns that as the area increases in scale and density, it will feel less neighborly.

“When more people come in and more buildings are built, is it going to feel more like the Upper East Side?” she asks, “There are some parts of that neighborhood with townhouses, but when you walk by you don’t think, ‘this is somebody’s house.’ But then, there are people who live there. But you just don’t have that same kind of respect that you’re walking through where someone is raising their kids.”

But do all of these fears, taken together, represent a threat to Prospect Heights as it now exists?

I spoke with Professor Robert Beauregard of Columbia University, an expert on urban planning, about the potential consequences of Pacific Park on its surrounding community. He was not concerned.

“When you think about it in terms of numbers against the size of the borough and the density of the borough in that area, it is not a big number,” he said.

For a city as populous and accustomed to change as New York, he said, 13,000 new people is not really a big number. The city, and especially a borough as populous as Brooklyn, will absorb those new residents.

But the impact on the ground level — on already crowded subways, on traffic, on schools, on local businesses, on public space — is more difficult to calculate. Certainly, change will occur. “Everything’s going to be more crowded,” he said, “the bookstores, the coffee shops, the restaurants…”

The coffee shops. Will they still feel like home?

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