Already ground zero for some of the city’s most dramatic rezonings, Williamsburg is facing yet another contentious development: an eight-story, 480,000-square-foot office complex known as the Brooklyn Generator. On Tuesday, Community Board 1 met to vote on whether or not to support the creation of a special mixed-use zone that would allow developers to move forward with the massive project. And they didn’t take the matter lightly. “This is going to affect us for the rest of our lives,” CB1 chairperson Dealice Fuller said of the board’s decision.
The Brooklyn Generator is another proposed project from Toby Moskovits of Heritage Equity, the same developer who was originally behind the ginormous, incoming William Vale luxury hotel on North 12th Street before it was acquired by Riverside Developers. Moskovits and the Department of City Planning (DCP) are proposing a rezoning (in the form of an amendment to the current plan) across 14 city blocks near Bushwick Inlet Park that would take a large bite out of the neighborhood’s already tiny Industrial Business Zone (IBZ).
At Tuesday’s Community Board 1 meeting, there was a flurry of outrage, tiptoeing, and ass-covering ahead of the vote to determine whether the board would support the special mixed-use zone comprised of North 9th through 15th Streets, running between Kent and Wythe. The rezoning would free developers to build more office complexes in the area (even before approval, some prospectors are now at the ready), so long as they reserve a portion of the space for light manufacturing– the kind of “industry” that has made Brooklyn a punchline and generated pushback from a number of community boards and elected officials who decry the conversion of industrial spaces into hipster bow-tie bazaars and restaurants where the only thing “handmade” are the pastas.
Within this specially designated manufacturing zone lies 25 Kent, which Toby Moskovits and her firm Heritage Equity bought for $31.75 million in 2013 with plans to build the Generator. The developer’s attorney has said that 80 percent of the complex would be dedicated to commercial and retail space, while less than 20 percent will be reserved for light manufacturing. The Generator’s website beckons “dreamers, innovators, artists, entrepreneurs, makers, doers, explorers” to “stake your claim” at this “fully integrated collaborative workspace and town center.” The language recalls lofty, head-in-the-clouds tech speak, which isn’t surprising given the fact that Heritage has touted the future office complex as a “technology and maker hub.” Repeatedly, Moskovits has emphasized that the site will lead to job creation and new business incubation.
Moskovits also happens to be the same developer behind another ambitious effort in North Brooklyn, the similarly named Bushwick Generator, a complex that includes a 144-room hotel and offices that Heritage Equity says will house “new economy industries, including tech, creative arts, and food production.” (B+B reached out to Moskovits several times last month regarding the Bushwick Generator, but she declined to comment.)
Across the street from the Generator site in Williamsburg is a chunk of land that once housed CitiStorage, a massive storage warehouse that burned down in January 2015 and has since become embroiled in a tug of war. A group known as Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park have garnered the backing of CB1 in their push to get the city to commit to extending the park along the waterfront property. Their claims to the CitiStorage site stem from a promise made by the city in exchange for the last rezoning to occur in Williamsburg in 2005. The park’s construction has grown increasingly uncertain since the fire, and meanwhile advocates have accused the mayor of ignoring their pleas to secure the parkland while at the same time backing the City Planning Commission’s proposal for a zoning change “right across the street” from the CitiStorage site.
Not surprisingly, park advocates have expressed their sense that, in this matter at least, the de Blasio administration has demonstrated its preference for developers over residents. “Remarkably, this zoning change includes no mention of Bushwick Inlet Park,” the group wrote in a blog post. “Leading Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park to question the Mayor’s priorities.”
The sense of betrayal is all the more acute since the Mayor ran his campaign on a progressive platform that included restoration of industry and building affordable housing. And yet his administration’s plans to address these concerns (both of which are inextricably linked to low-income communities having a place in this city or not) have included contentious rezoning plans. Residents of places like East New York are fearful that what happened after the 2005 North Brooklyn waterfront rezoning– namely rampant development, the proliferation of luxury high rises and hotels, and dramatic increases in rent– could happen to them if promises to the community are once again broken. Nevertheless, City Planning has once again approached Williamsburg with a push for rezoning.
At the Tuesday night CB1 meeting, two park advocates were given a moment to present their opinion on the rezoning amendment to board, and took the opportunity to reiterate that a “moratorium” should be placed on all city planning changes in the area until the park land is delivered as promised. “The City shouldn’t break the public trust in this matter,” one rep said.
Other local groups have voiced their support for the park and their opposition to the zoning amendment that would allow for the Brooklyn Generator project to move forward. The Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning (GWAPP) released a statement in February calling out City Planning for its use of “impenetrably complex and technical language” in their plan for the rezoning and pointed to a number of shortcomings in the proposal including a lack of stipulations for affordability, enforcement, and community benefits. “Building office space doesn’t create jobs. Businesses provide jobs and there’s no guarantee that, especially given the skyrocketing rates, businesses that could offer local residents employment would be able to afford to locate in this Enhanced Business District,” GWAPP wrote.
Increasingly, it’s looking like developers are moving in on the promised parkland area, even in light of the park advocates receiving unanimous support from their local representatives, including City Council member Stephen Levin. The North Brooklyn CM was just one signatory on a letter addressed to the City that declared: “The CitiStorage site was always intended to be parkland and we, as elected officials, will not support any effort to use it for any other purpose.”
However, Levin also voiced his support for the 25 Kent Avenue project, calling the rezoning proposal an “opportunity” for job creation. He admitted that it’s not as ideal as what industrial designations would allow for, but one that presents a better outcome than what the last decade of rampant residential, hotel, and nightclub development in the area has left us with.
Some critics of the plan have called BS on both the inevitability of out-of-control prospecting and rezoning as a viable solution. “There’s this assumption that rezoning is just done, that [developers] can just go ahead and convert,” argued CB1 member Martin S. Needelman. “We need to send a statement that these rezonings are not automatic.”
During CB1’s land use committee hearing last week, Adam Friedman, executive director of the Center for Community Development at Pratt University and an expert on urban planning and the manufacturing sector, argued that if passed the zoning amendment “will be precedent setting, with significant implications for manufacturing businesses and jobs in the majority of the Greenpoint Williamsburg IBZ and in other IBZs citywide.”
Industrial Business Zones, established under Bloomberg’s tenure, are areas where existing industrial and manufacturing businesses receive tax credits and other incentives to basically stay where they are, and where new entities are encouraged to open up shop by way of tax incentives and other help from the city. The idea behind IBZs was to preserve existing manufacturing and facilitate a revival of this declining economic sector as well as to put a damper on willy-nilly real estate prospecting.
Though the city has been bleeding industrial jobs for years, they’re an important part of the local economy, in that they provide relatively high-paying positions with low barriers to entry that offer more opportunity for advancement and security than both retail and food service positions.
The IBZ program gradually lost funding under Bloomberg and continued to wane over 2014. In late 2015, the De Blasio administration teamed up with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to present the Industrial Action Plan, an effort to “modernize” the city’s industrial economy as well as its workforce by investing in new business, maintaining IBZs by limiting hotel and mini-storage development, and providing job training. Some areas will be pegged for a mix of “light industrial, commercial, and limited residential development,” however that won’t be determined until the completion of the North Brooklyn IBZ study launched by the Department of City Planning last November.
And yet, City Planning seems to be making an exception in proposing to move forward with the Williamsburg zoning amendment before they complete the study, as projected, in late 2016. During his testimony to the CB1 land use committee, Friedman called this move “at best premature” because of the city’s failure to “strengthen the IBZs.” He also ticked off the various problems with the proposal, including an “overly generous” ratio of office space to industrial space and the lack of provisions for enforcement, meaning that developers would likely get away with including no manufacturing space at all in their designs.
Friedman was careful to acknowledge that his testimony was not meant to reflect poorly on the developer, “who has been an engaged member of the community for years.” (Interestingly enough, Moskovits was appointed as a Community Board 1 member last June by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. She sat as a board member Tuesday night, and remained a visible presence when the board voted on its decision to pass the rezoning initiative, something that was permitted because she wasn’t chairing and opted out of voting.) Friedman argued instead that “the zoning has to work regardless of who the developer is […] as we all know only too well, a developer can sell anytime.”
At the Tuesday meeting, some members wondered aloud: Why not wait to approve the zoning amendment until the results come in from the city’s North Brooklyn IBZ study, which covers Moskovits’s Bushwick Generator site. Instead, as other board members pointed out, the Department of City Planning had made a cringe-worthy reference to the 14-block plan as an “experiment.”
Dell Teague, CB1’s Chair of Land Use (who, like Moskovits, was also compelled to opt out of voting for the zoning amendment, though for unspecified reasons) reviewed the committee’s recommendations. “The goal is to provide more creative, light-industrial, and tech spaces,” she said. “DCP did confirm the city is committed to maintaining industry in the area.” But she cited a number of issues with the current plan as expressed in the testimony. “We’re very concerned about maintaining affordability within the IBZ,” she said. As such, the committee decided to recommend that the board support the amendment, so long as it meets several conditions including guaranteed decent wages for people who work on site and appointing local non-profits to manage oversight.
Board member Thomas Burrows interrupted the proceedings to argue that the whole process for the amendment presented some serious issues of transparency, including a lack of proper notice to the community. “I’m asking for a written report,” he said. “There are a lot of problems with this whole rezoning thing.” He pointed out that without the amendment, a special permit for Moskovits’s project could not go through. Instead, he proposed that Moskovits’s Generator project be allowed by way of a special variance. “Toby’s plan is great, but this 14-block IBZ thing […] other people who might not be as generous and who aren’t from the neighborhood won’t do the same things,” he argued. “I think we’re giving away too much, a one-block ‘experiment’ is one thing, but a 14-block ‘experiment’ is way too much for us.”
Martin Needelman agreed: “The reality is always different,” he said, referring to rezoning efforts. “It’s a destruction of an important part of our community.”
The board eventually moved to vote to determine whether or not they supported the rezoning plan (yes) or disapproved of the current plan (no). The motion failed narrowly (16-14), nixing the support of the plan as is, and the board moved to amend the existing rezoning proposal to include a number of conditions previously recommended by the committee and, most significantly, downsizing the 14-block area to encompass just a small fraction of DCP’s proposal: the one city block that 25 Kent Avenue is set to occupy.
Dell Teague reminded the board that, in the event they reject the rezoning as a whole and the IBZ plan went on to fail in City Council, Moskovits’s development would be threatened. “The City made it clear that if this doesn’t go forward, then 25 Kent is dead,” she said.
Another board member took issue with this. “Voting ‘no’ isn’t the death nail,” she said. “It’s our chance to push the City Council to make it right.”
The motion to support the amended plan for a special permit passed by an overwhelming majority (22-4). But even with CB1’s move to push the Generator project forward, counting it as an exception to a rezoning plan that most board members have serious doubts about, 25 Kent and the rezoning proposal have a long way to go before they’re either approved or blocked. First, the plan has to pass the public review process known as ULURP, and then it must be approved by City Council. Nevertheless, the Generator’s website still promises: “Coming in 2016.”
Many public officials, including Borough President Eric Adams, have sided with struggling manufacturing businesses and low-income families in this matter, at least in lip service. In a January op-ed for Crain’s Adams wrote that the 2005 North Brooklyn rezoning, in addition to many others in the borough over the course of the last decade, have “left a bitter taste in the mouths of residents, who felt they were steamrolled in the pursuit of progress.”
It remains to be seen whether this new Williamsburg rezoning– which, given its widespread support amongst area elected officials, seems all too likely to pass– will benefit the community in some way, even if it quashes residents’ vehement demands for a park that was promised to them. High-paying jobs with an opportunity for advancement is possible, but then there’s the issue of barrier to entry. The important questions remain: What kind of jobs will the Generator attract to Williamsburg? And whose jobs are they? But one thing is certain– if all goes as planned, two massive boutique hotels will loom large over both of those “technology and maker hubs.”
Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Heritage Equity is still behind the William Vale hotel project with a water-tower bar. The hotel has since been acquired by Riverside Developers, whose reps informed us the hotel “will not have a water-tower bar but will feature a public outdoor space, The Vale Park, as well as the longest hotel pool in NYC.”
Correction: plans for the Brooklyn Generator include an eight-story building, not nine stories, as previously indicated.