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‘Will this be more of the same forever?’ New Yorkers react to L train shutdown cancelation

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With the news that the L train shutdown may be no longer, Brooklynites are feeling frustrated, confused, and relieved—sometimes all at the same time

Max Touhey

With the news that the L train shutdown may be effectively dead—Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last week that the MTA could instead use a “new, innovative” design to implement repairs on the Canarsie Tunnel without closing the line as previously planned—many questions have arisen: Will this actually end up happening? (The MTA board still needs to sign off on the new plan.) If so, how exactly, will these “innovative” repairs will be carried out? And will MTA and DOT’s long-planned mitigation efforts be affected?

There’s confusion, too, particularly from those who’ve upended their lives—whether their living situations or their business decisions—based on the looming specter of the shutdown. In the past few years, real estate experts (this website included) have hyped the changes the shutdown would bring, leading many in neighborhoods off the L line to move elsewhere. Now, they’re left wondering why this happened, with just four months to go before the shutdown was due to begin.

“I was initially furious, but now I’m perplexed,” says Noah Pryor, the CTO of an online education startup who moved from East Williamsburg to Cobble Hill to avoid the shutdown’s side effects. “Why couldn’t this have been figured out two years ago?”

Pryor isn’t the only one left confused by Cuomo’s “last-minute Hail Mary idea,” as Riders Alliance’s John Raskin put it. City Council member Keith Powers, who represents part of Manhattan that would have been affected by the shutdown, called the proposal a “welcome upgrade,” but noted the lack of community involvement.

“The new recommendations are a swift and sudden change to the L train plan, which now need to be fully evaluated,” he said in a statement. “[The] announcement comes after individuals have made life-altering decisions about where to live, residents have been impacted by confusing parking changes, and New Yorkers have had taxpayer dollars spent on a design that has become obsolete.”

Here’s how some of those New Yorkers are feeling.

“I got a ‘name your price’ offer to stay.”

Pryor lived in East Williamsburg for six years, but the news of the shutdown made him reconsider; though he loved the neighborhood, the lack of L service would have made his commute over an hour. However, “When I told my Williamsburg landlord I was planning on moving, I got a ‘name your price’ offer to stay, which was surprising,” he says. Pryor still ended up moving, and his old apartment is now renting for $300 less than he was paying.

Even though Pryor says his new place is “admittedly nicer,” he’s still irritated. “Cuomo sweeping in at the last minute to call it off after wandering the tunnel mostly confirms my general sense he doesn’t pay attention to the subway at all and is a political opportunist scoring easy points,” he says. “This wouldn’t be nearly the story if they’d called it off a reasonable amount in advance.”

Bedford Avenue, the main thoroughfare through Williamsburg.
Shutterstock.com

Others who once lived off the L expressed similar frustrations, with several people who reached out to Curbed noting that they’ve since experienced longer commute times, are paying higher rents in their new neighborhoods, and have generally uprooted their lives over something that may never become a reality. “I feel really blind sided that myself and so many others took measures to ensure our homes and routines would be minimally affected by this change, only to be met with vague news about it potentially not even happening,” one former Greenpoint resident tells Curbed.

People are also wondering if this is just a Band-Aid on a larger problem. “At this point I’m wondering how long it will take to fix, not being shut down full-time,” says David Floyd, a reporter who moved from Bushwick to south Brooklyn. “When I lived in Bushwick the L was often down or running intermittently on nights and weekends due to repairs. Will this just be more of the same forever?”

That’s a concerning prospect for Damien Del Rio, co-owner of Loosie’s Kitchen and Cafe in Williamsburg. “We have one [guy on staff] who lives in the Bronx, and he already has an hour-and-a-half commute,” Del Rio explains. “I have no idea how he’s going to work it.”

“I’m honestly devastated to be losing my home.”

Brooklynites aren’t the only ones whose living situations have been upended by pre-shutdown real estate speculation. One Morningside Heights resident (who wishes to remain anonymous, as she’s still figuring out her living situation) is being kicked out of her apartment of three years; the current owners are selling the building to a couple moving to the neighborhood from Williamsburg. “We definitely would not be moving if the unit hadn’t been sold,” she says. “When we initially rented it we were very explicit in our desire to stay for a very long time and were led to believe that this was what the landlord wanted as well.” But that changed late last year, when the landlord expressed their desire to sell.

“I’m honestly devastated to be losing my home and being forced to scrounge up the exorbitant NYC moving costs on two artists’ salaries, and pretty angry to find out that I’m being displaced in favor of gentrifiers,” she says. “I met the couple who are moving in and they said they’d been in Williamsburg for many years but wanted to get out before the L train shutdown. They’re white, in their early 40s, and gave me a sympathetic tongue cluck when they asked if I was upset to be moving. Are you kidding me?”

“I just wish that we had known earlier.”

When Jennifer Hampton, the director of business development for Better World Advertising, first heard of the L train shutdown, she was worried—the firm’s office was located in Greenpoint, and the lack of L service between Brooklyn and Manhattan would have made things harder for its employees and their clients. The firm ultimately moved from Brooklyn to a new office in Midtown East. “We’re happy where we are now,” she explains. “But it was definitely an upheaval, and a lot of work involved in a move that likely would not have occurred if the news had not been blasted all over that the L was shutting down.”

Some companies benefited from the shutdown panic; BKLYN Commons, a coworking space with locations in Flatbush and Bushwick, offered a 50 percent, six-month membership discount at their 50,000-square-foot Bushwick location, in the shadow of the Flushing Avenue J/M/Z. Flyers distributed around Williamsburg read, “Don’t let the L shutdown hault [sic.] your productivity.” According to a spokesperson, new members rented 33 offices through the promotion, which ended December 31, boosting building capacity from 50 to 70 percent.

“It was like, [the] L train shutting down, everybody’s going crazy, and as an entrepreneur myself, it was, What solution can we provide?” says Johanne Brierre, its head of growth.

Shawn Wolf, the co-owner of bicycle shop King Kog, was pleased to get a 15 percent discount on his two-year lease on Grand Street in Williamsburg. He moved his shop to the busy cycling thoroughfare just over two weeks ago. “I would say we definitely got a bit of a deal on this location because of the looming shutdown,” he tells Curbed. However, Wolf also hoped to sell bikes to people seeking an alternative commute. “It does affect how we planned to do business in terms of how many people would be looking for their first bike in a long time,” he adds.

While Wolf is excited about Grand Street’s redesign—part of the shutdown mitigation plan—neighboring businesses are now hopeful they’ll have leverage to reverse a new dedicated bus lane that’s eliminated parking on one side of the street. “I’m willing to do anything it takes … because we need our parking back,” said Luis Palomo, co-owner of Bahia Restaurant. “My neighbors are asking me to start a petition.”

For other businesses, the news came as a welcome surprise, as the expected drop-off in foot traffic will likely be less steep. “We were very concerned about that shutting down. It really affects business,” says Lucy Reyes, who works at My Place Deli Grocery off the Bushwick-Aberdeen L stop. “I have a lot of customers that come at night and once in a blue moon I see them and I says, ‘What happened? I don’t see you anymore!’ And they say, ‘Oh you know, they’re going to shut down the train so we had to go to another place.’ Alternate on the weekends is still better than not having the train at all. You know, it’s a relief.”

Pricey Williamsburg rentals, such as the towers that line the waterfront, will likely see an uptick in rental prices now that the full shutdown may not happen.
Max Touhey

“It’s great news across the board.”

If any sector is unequivocally happy about the change in plans, it’s real estate. “It’s great news across the board for everyone: my clients, landlords, owners. They’re very happy,” says Andrew Barrocas, CEO of MNS, a real estate brokerage that has worked on hundreds of projects in Williamsburg. When the shutdown was first announced, he says, it was “just a mess,” with landlords and residents both affected by the uncertainty over what would happen. Prices in Williamsburg slipped, and landlords tried every trick in the book—offering months of free rent, slashing broker fees, and even giving credits for Uber—to lure or retain tenants.

But the mood in the real estate world elevated almost immediately after Cuomo’s plan to avert a full shutdown was announced. Barrocas says that interest in buildings MNS represents (including Level, on the Williamsburg waterfront) has already increased—but renters can kiss those incentives goodbye. “I’ve been getting those calls from owners, one owner called me and said, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t have done this.’ I said, ‘Listen, I wouldn’t look backward. I would look forward, and we’re going to now be able to increase pricing. We’re going to be able to decrease incentives. We’re going to be able to retain more people because of this.’”

“Obviously I would have rather this news come out from the beginning,” he adds, “but even if it did come out in the beginning, people would have used it as a tool to negotiate. I think now people are just so happy that it was almost like, maybe it was good that it happened this way, that at first it was a full shutdown.”

“The takeaway is that … these agencies are not to be trusted.”

Amanda Kludt, the editor-in-chief of Eater (which, like Curbed, is owned by Vox Media), sold her apartment on Grand Street this summer, moving with her husband and young son to Bed-Stuy “in anticipation of both the L train shutdown and the arrival of a new baby.”

“I don’t feel personally screwed over by Cuomo’s announcement because the impending shut down was actually a good push for me, a risk averse person, to try a new neighborhood and sell that apartment at an opportune time,” she says. But she says she is “incredibly frustrated,” given how much planning the city—and community members—have put into the shutdown plans, only to have them scuttled at the last minute.

“To make this announcement without public discussion, without getting buy-in from the City Council, without even having Andy Byford on the dais makes the move seem political, rushed, and disrespectful to everyone who has planned their lives around this,” Kludt says. “Where were Cuomo and his experts years ago when this all started?”

If there is one common thread among most of the people Curbed spoke to, it’s that sense of frustration—and bewilderment—over the lack of transparency surrounding Cuomo’s decision, and what this means for subway riders in the future.

“The takeaway is that for whatever reason, these agencies are not to be trusted,” says Juan Perez of Highbrid Media, which moved its offices out of Williamsburg into a BKLYN Commons co-working space. “The price of a MetroCard is going to go up, service is deteriorating. I feel it because my wife rides the train every day. And her coming home each and every day, it’s like she’s been through a fight. This really cements it, and should cement it for New Yorkers, that there is some shady business going on as it relates to the MTA in particular.”