OP/ED: Blade Runner Williamsburg

By Albert Goldson

One of Mayor Bloomberg’s last political salvos before he leaves office next year is the design competition for micro-units. This insidious pilot program will test the viability of hyper-population density by increasing the residential units in existing buildings by thin-slicing them into micro-units measuring a claustrophobic 300 square feet (sf). The baffling question is why would anyone want MORE people to live in Manhattan?

The developers are pre-positioning themselves by digging under the [legal] foundation by circumventing those pesky zoning changes, height limitations and the local CB gauntlet to re-purpose existing buildings into whatever the market demands. This pilot-program is the Trojan horse to legally overturn the 1987 law requiring a minimum of 400 sf for residential units.

Though their official purpose is for residential use for young professionals, other potential micro-unit functions include detention centers, housing for recovering addicts or homeless shelters  This concept is chameleon construction—the function can vary but the unit remains unchanged.

There are two recent nightmarish examples: The first is the Brooklyn House of Detention in Boerum Hill on Atlantic Avenue, closed in 2003 then re-opened in spring 2012. According to a February 3, 2012 New York Times article, during its vacancy, buyers purchased units in six newly constructed nearby condos based on real-estate agents informing them that the detention center was probably going to be converted to condos.

The second was the August 11, 2012 New York Times article about NYC utilizing (on very short notice) two city-owned properties as homeless shelters in the Upper West Side to accommodate the burgeoning homeless population much to the chagrin of the neighborhood.

The existence of micro-units in Williamsburg will result in the explosion of an ultra short-term transient population in a nabe whose infrastructure is already at the breaking point. It will destabilize the community and jeopardize the quality of life. For property owners these factors will significantly reduce real-estate values. Just imagine a residential skyscraper with hundreds of regular size units converted into micro-units resulting in a super-sized, 21st century Hooverville.

Even the economics don’t make sense. At 34 Berry Street, half the units at a 142-unit rental building are studios. One tenant lives in a 466 sf unit and pays $2200/month which is $4.73/sf.

The micro-unit pilot program in the Kips Bay nabe seeks a rent of $2000/month for a 300 sf unit which is $6.67/sf. The square foot rent is 41% greater than the larger Williamsburg unit for a unit that’s 36% smaller. Where’s the value?

According to the real estate industry, one measurement of financial qualification states that the tenant’s gross annual income divided by 52 (weeks) is the monthly rent s/he can afford. To qualify a $2000 monthly rent requires the household to pull in $104,000.  How many young professionals pull in that kind of money to live in a glorified prison cell?  Is this the New York of the future for young people?

Real-estate trends and changes are inevitably considered and applied to Williamsburg because it has more land for development that makes it a prime target for such pilot programs. Micro-units are bad for the community and bad for business. For this reason one must apply the utmost vigilance to the “progress” of this pilot program and vigorously oppose any proposal to introduce it in Williamsburg.


Albert Goldson is an Architectural & Engineering Contract Manager specializing in transportation mega-projects, energy matters and urban planning.  Mr. Goldson is a 10 year Williamsburg resident, internationalist and avid jazz aficionado.