March 24, 2010 -
Brighton Beach is a bustling oceanside neighborhood on the southern edge of Brooklyn. Most visitors to Little Odessa - as the neighborhood is known - come for its Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian stores and restaurants. Few realize that in the last decade, Brighton Beach has been transformed by New York's real estate boom and bust. For many years, according to Gowanus Lounge, it was "a neighborhood where overdevelopment has been ignored by virtually everyone."
Today, Brighton Beach has come to resemble Far Rockaway, another beachfront community scarred by developers. Both neighborhoods are pockmarked with abandoned construction sites, huge empty lots, and boarded up buildings. Arsonists, squatters and drug dealers have moved in to these unclaimed spaces. And in both neighborhoods, a few remaining summer bungalows have born the brunt of the damage.
Brighton Beach's development boom began in 2001, according to City Limits, as "developers raced to buy up properties in the district in order to build lucrative condos and medical offices. Construction sites appeared on every block throughout the district. The booming neighborhood was on the fast track to becoming a 'condo paradise.'" However, like neighborhoods throughout the city, "the market did not evolve as expected, and demand for the expensive condos never materialized in the numbers that developers were counting on... leaving the district strewn with empty lots and aborted buildings."
Clustered into a 7-block-long area and surrounded by several major avenues, most of these bungalows are only accessible via a grid of narrow footpaths. Some of these walkways are barely wide enough to walk through. Along these passages can be found well-kept homes with private gardens, picket fences, and children's toys in the front yard.
Brighton Beach's development boom was partially the result of loose zoning restrictions that placed no cap on building heights. In 2009, the NY Daily News reported that "in the last eight years, scores of bungalows have been torn down to make way for soaring luxury condo towers - some up to 15 stories high." As one bungalow resident bluntly told this photographer, "thats a f---ing skyscraper for Brighton Beach."
The affect on the bungalow area was "construction that is both out of scale with the existing built context, and has the effect of isolating properties located along pedestrian lanes on the interiors of the blocks," according to the NYC Department of City Planning. Today, many bungalows are hemmed in by condo towers. Some face blank walls that rise 100 feet, blocking out the sun. Others have abandoned, half-built towers in their backyards, which one resident said was like "living next to a haunted house for four years."
A 2009 article on Your Nabe reported that "Brighton Beach residents have pleaded for downzoning for the past six years... During that time, modest one-family homes were replaced with multistory residential towers that residents say are out of character with the neighborhood."
By 2009, dispirited bungalow residents had given up hope for preserving their neighborhood. In a surprising reversal, many fought against a city plan to finally downzone their neighborhood. The plan, according to the NYC Department of City Planning, sought to "protect the character of the neighborhood" and to "prevent future out-of-scale development" by putting a cap on building heights in the bungalow area. Residents believed it was too little, too late.
"After a long fight to save the historic bungalows of Brighton Beach, local leaders now say they don't want to preserve the old-time vacation cottages." reported the NY Daily News, quoting the head of the Brighton Beach Business Improvement District as saying "when you talk about downzoning, it's to preserve the area... There's nothing to preserve." As one bungalow owner told Your Nabe, "they’re about 10 years too late because the whole neighborhood has been ripped apart already.”
Many of the remaining Brighton Beach bungalows are now for sale. Some have been abandoned, sealed with flimsy plywood or left open to the elements. Neighbors report that drug dealers have taken over empty homes, while signs of arson are common. This problem dates back to at least 2007, when the NY Times reported on a wave of arson terrorizing the community. "At least 13 fires have been reported in eight vacant buildings... Brighton Beach has an unusually high number of vacant buildings, as a consequence of its changing real estate fortunes... The vacant houses still standing are prime targets for vandals and squatters."
New York City's rezoning plan for Brighton Beach was formally withdrawn in June of 2009. There is currently no protection in place to ensure that overdevelopment does not return to the area. These photos document what the NY Daily News has called "the last days of the bungalow."
For more photo essays from New York City's endangered bungalow communities, please visit New Dorp Bungalows (2010), Hammels Wye (2010), The North Edgemere Shore (2010) and Far Rockaway: Abandoned Bungalows (2009).