Harbour Village revisited

“A large number of angry residents from nearby neighborhoods came to oppose the plan and the city’s methods, and their message for the commission was similar to the ones that Ebbets Field bleacherites used to reserve for visiting outfielders.”

– The Times, September 10, 1970

Perhaps Mayor John Lindsay had a thing for the British.

My research on Paerdegat led me to the true name of that rival to Georgetowne Greens: Harbour Village. (Why the “u” is in the name is unclear, but it’s not without company: there are similarly named places in FloridaNorth CarolinaWashington, and Wisconsin, and that’s just on the first page of a Google search.) Its central role in derailing Georgetowne Greens – not to mention my initial difficulty finding information on it – makes it worthy of its own post.

Harbour Village was first proposed in 1962. It was to be built under the Mitchell-Lama program, a 1955 State initiative to build lower- and middle-class housing. Mitchell-Lama developers would receive tax breaks and a portion of future revenues as compensation for their reduced profits. The site was chosen as it was one of the last available in the city (outside of Staten Island) for such an undertaking.

The area of the proposed Harbour Village is in blue. Note that it contains both present-day Georgetown parks. (Georgetown is in green, Paerdegat in pink)

Harbour Village was to be a 904-unit development on 41 acres of mostly city-owned land. The 27 three- and four-story buildings would face enclosed, private “gardens”, which would be off-limits to non-residents. Local 365 of the United Auto Workers served as sponsors to the design, which had already won an award from the American Institute of Architects.

When the proposal resurfaced in the news in 1970, local residents and civic associations were up in arms. They decried the project as “looking like a prison compound”, and argued that the schools were already overcrowded. Another issue: the surrounding area had no public parks.

The debate had tones reminiscent of more-recent NIMBY backlashes. The president of one civic association complained of her members being called “bigots” and of threats by the city to substitute low-income housing if the proposal fell flat. Opponents – “mainly white housewives from the well-off” Bergen Beach and Mill Basin neighborhoods – claimed the city’s math on rents was off by over 50%. They showed up to meetings wearing pink labels reading “Kill Harbour Village”, claimed Mayor Lindsay had flip-flopped on the issue, and called the proposal a “slum”.

Supporters had a few choice words as well. The UAW’s counsel contended that opponents – “these people” – were not against the proposal, but “against the people who are going to live there.” The union refused to incorporate any changes, citing increased costs. “I am for Better Housing” buttons were seen.

Despite the fervent opposition, the Board of Estimate approved the measure, 18-0, on March 25, 1971. Such was the uproar in the room from the defeated residents – “hoots, shouts, and boos” – that the Board had to adjourn for an hour, and called in police to remove some of the protestors. (“Why don’t you characters build it in your own backyard,” shouted one person; “Stand up like a man,” shouted another at a Board-member who had abstained after siding with the protestors.)

The public outcry was such that the Board of Estimate re-heard the case in September 1972. Despite warnings that a reversal would shake the housing industry’s confidence in city contracts and would place the interests of loud-mouthed residents above those of people lacking decent homes, the Board struck down the plan by a vote of 12-10.

Mayor Lindsay, who had failed to persuade the swing vote, Bronx President Robert Abrams, called the result “appalling”; “screams of delight” came from the victorious side. The UAW and developers had their lawsuit against the city shot down.

Since then, this “vacant, debris-strewn land” has been filled with housing, culminating with the u-less Harbor Village development. Particularly important to note are the two parks (Hickman and Bergen Beach Playgrounds) and two schools (Roy Mann M.S. and P.S. 312) contained within the proposal’s boundary. It seems that local residents got all of what they wanted in the end.

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