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Editorial> More Commerce, Not Condos
Alan G. Brake calls for strengthening the commercial core of New York City's most populous borough.
The Brooklyner apartment tower under construction in Downtown Brooklyn in 2009.
Sean_Marshall / Flickr

A recent census data report on commuting by the New York Times found an unsurprising result: More people commute to Manhattan to work than any other county in the country. The magnitude of the numbers and some of their implications are important, however, suggesting a real need to rethink comprehensive city and regional planning strategies. One-point-six million people commute daily to Manhattan, twice the number of the island’s residents (830,000). Just over a million of those commuters travel from the five boroughs. The largest number (391,000) comes from Brooklyn.

This mass of Brooklynites—primarily straphangers, I assume—suggests the need to question the rapid transformation of Downtown Brooklyn into a forest of high-rise apartments and the conversion of old office buildings into condos and hotels. Developers are all too willing to supply the insatiable demand for housing with more market-rate units (sprinkled with affordable units to mollify community groups), but is that best for the city? With nearly 400,000 people commuting to Manhattan from Brooklyn daily for work, the vast majority of who pass through Downtown Brooklyn on the myriad of bus, subway, and commuter rail lines, the city should reemphasize and support the area as a commercial and office district. According to the NYC EDC, Downtown Brooklyn has a total of 17.3 million square feet of office space, with a total of 26,000 additional square feet of new office space currently under construction. That’s not much.

According to Crain’s, the 2004 plan for Downtown Brooklyn by the Department of City Planning estimated 4.5 million square feet of new office space would be added, but by 2011 only 1.3 million were built. Meanwhile residential and hotel construction has exploded, with new towers cropping up across the neighborhood. The latest wave will come at Atlantic Yards (which is being called Downtown Brooklyn by way of some rather creative geographic rebranding). The development’s website states that the project will include 6 million square feet of residential construction (market rate and affordable) along with a scant 336,000 square feet of office space. Much of the success of the Barclays Center has been based in large part on its location over a warren of train lines. It shows the area’s potential, as well as that of true Downtown Brooklyn, to absorb large influxes of people. Too bad the city hasn’t made 9:00-to-5:00ers more of a priority. Boosting the number of workers in Downtown Brooklyn would reflect smarter planning and bring shorter commutes for thousands of Brooklynites, as well as improve quality of life for the city at large.

Manhattan’s corporate magnetism is undeniable. But Brooklyn’s dynamism should also be put to work.

Alan G. Brake