Last night at Brooklyn Borough Hall, Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna took aim at a 14-block rezoning proposal that would allow for the construction of Brooklyn Generator, an eight-story, 480,000-square-foot office complex slated for development in Williamsburg. The special permit being sought by developer Heritage Equity and the Department of City Planning would transform a majority of the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Industrial Business Zone and have major implications for the IBZ’s fast-shrinking homegrown industry as well as the city as a whole.
During a meeting last week, Community Board 1 declined to get behind the 14-block change-up and chose instead to support only the Generator, a self-described “collaborative workspace and town center” for “dreamers, innovators, artists, entrepreneurs, makers, doers, explorers” that’s being co-developed by board member Toby Moskovits. The board offered to support her request for a special permit only if several conditions were met, including a downsizing of the 14-block area to include just one block (where the Generator is located, at 25 Kent Avenue) and the enactment of affordability standards.
We’ll have to wait to hear whether or not the Borough President ultimately decided to support the rezoning effort and special permit before the plan moves to the City Council for a final review. In the meantime, here are nine important things to know about last night’s hearing and the rezoning plan.
1. By and large, community leaders have come out in support of the Brooklyn Generator project.
In theory, the project sounds great from the pro-business perspective. Anna Slatinsky of the Department of City Planning (DPC) called 25 Kent Avenue a “compelling” project that includes “maker spaces.” As the developers’ attorney argued, Moskovits has a history of hiring “local artisans.” “This project isn’t staffed yet, but we will try to hire local,” he said. Toby Moskovits herself approach the microphone, adding that she’s aiming to promote “woman-owned” businesses, and that in fact one of the project’s “lead candidates” for contracted work is a female-owned operation.
Richard Mazur, executive director of the North Brooklyn Development Corporation, hinted that 25 Kent could help bring about another “idyllic” live-work situation like the one of his childhood in the 1950s, when Greenpoint experienced an “accidental Utopia.” He recalled that his grandfather, mother, and father– all immigrants– worked within walking distance of their homes. “I’m for it– you build it and they will come,” he said of the Generator.
Alan Washington of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, which supports local “innovation firms,” said the Generator presents a solution to a growing problem. “We are facing a space crisis,” he said, citing “low vacancy rates,” and a “lack of sufficient new space being added.” Washington suggested that a lack of tech-specific office space threatens to hamper the economic boom that we’ve seen in places like the Brooklyn Tech Triangle. He also emphasized the importance of the “innovation economy” in the overall health of the city.
One fedora-wearing witness, Christopher Sojka, who runs an ad agency based in Bushwick, said that he wished the Generator had been around when he was shopping for a new office. “Everyone wants to be on Madison Avenue,” he said. Instead, it was Brooklyn that attracted Sojka, a place that he sees as the new tech frontier.
“Williamsburg came before Google,” Reyna reminded him. “You’re part of a community, you’re not separate.”
2. Reyna’s major concerns include retaining industrial jobs and incentivizing new ones by bringing in more industrial businesses, which has proven enormously difficult.
Diana Reyna, a Los Sures native and longtime supporter of affordable housing and the retention of industrial jobs and proper zoning for industry (her mother worked in a Brooklyn textile factory) was dogged in her questioning of the developer and City Planning. She recalled a time, long past, when many low-income Brooklynites could walk to their jobs, often from their homes in public housing. Now, these same residents are being pushed farther out, some have been forced to leave the city altogether.
Debra Mesloh of the Business Outreach Center Network, a non-profit that provides micro-loans to small businesses, testified that the city is “losing industrial companies to neighboring states,” and emphasized the need for more affordable industrial spaces in order to retain these businesses. Reyna agreed that this was “part of the untold story” of Brooklyn real estate, which often seems dictated by the logic that empty industrial spaces should be regarded as abandoned and therefore fair game for conversions that are often illegal.
Many witnesses at the hearing expressed high hopes about the Generator’s ability to create jobs (at least 1,000 of them in temporary construction, and 1,500 of them in permanent building administration positions) and attract lucrative tech industry to the neighborhood. Supporters of the project– the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, among them– pointed to the fact that the Generator will be the first privately-funded commercial office space building of its kind in years. Still, Reyna repeatedly had to remind people that the hearing was not confined to the 25 Kent Avenue development. “This is not one development, this is 14 blocks,” she said.
3. The 2005 Williamsburg waterfront rezoning was a disaster, and nobody wants that to happen again.
In a statement released in February, CB1 referred somewhat poetically to the 2005 rezoning as “the gift that keeps on giving,” which allowed for a “tsunami” of development and unleashed “not just a wave of destruction, but multiple waves of construction” that led to an “erosion of industrial businesses in the neighborhood, even from within the designated areas created by the rezoning to attract these enterprises.”
The problem with that scenario was the lack of oversight– something that has not been improved upon in the 14-block rezoning plan. While City Planning suggested at the hearing that the plan could include a clause wherein the Department of Buildings could revoke certificates of occupancy in the absence of compliance, CB1’s concerns about lack of oversight were echoed once again.
Deborah Mesloh characterized the Generator site as a test-case during her testimony, saying it “needs to be carefully monitored” to ensure compliance with the industrial business requirements.
Armando Chapelliquen of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) warned that the proposal’s lack of “new enforcement mechanisms that will ensure [proper use]” presents a “significant problem.”
4. There is support for mixed-use, but given the past, it’s best to tread lightly.
While the consensus was leaning toward a cautious acceptance of mixed-use zoning policies as a whole, Reyna and many witnesses pressed that it was important to tread lightly and fight developers (and City Planning) to reserve higher percentages of their sites for industrial space. (The Deputy Borough President is not opposed to all development– she came out in full support of the Domino development led by Two Trees, and called it “a true reflection of a collaborative process with the community.”)
Leah Archibald, the Executive Director of Evergreen, the organization that helps manage the Greenpoint-Williamsburg IBZ, testified: “We’re supportive of mixed-use, but the devil is in the details.” She pointed to this plan’s shortcomings in terms of ensuring affordability for industrial businesses. “I wouldn’t put us on record saying we support the 14-block plan,” she said. As for 25 Kent Avenue as a pilot program for this kind of mixed-use? “This is huge,” Archibald said.
5. But this rezoning plan calls for a very small ratio of industrial space to commercial– in the case of the Brooklyn Generator, just 17 percent is to be set aside for industrial businesses.
Armando Chapelliquen of ANHD argued that if the ratio (.08 out of a total 4.8 FAR, or Floor Area Ratio) is meant to promote and protect industrial businesses, “it doesn’t seem to do that.” He said that, if anything, the ratio “should be higher, considering it’s called a ‘Business Enhancement Area.'”
And yet that 17 percent isn’t even an accurate reflection of the actual amount of space that will be used for industrial purposes. Anna Slatinsky, deputy director of City Planning’s Brooklyn office, revealed that the set-aside space could be used for the retail arms of existing industrial tenants, meaning that in practice only a small fraction of the space could end up being dedicated to industrial.
When pressed about the source of the ratio, Slatinsky conceded that it was fielded by the Generator’s developers. “This was a back-and-forth, the applicant thought that this amount of space for industrial was feasible,” she said. After questioning, Slatinsky revealed that the 17 percent figure at the Generator would define the standard ratio for the rest of the neighborhood. “It’s a minimum, not a maximum,” she insisted, though she admitted, when pressed, that there was no incentive to go above that percentage.
Then again, “there’s no industrial incentive in the neighborhood” as is, Slatinsky pointed out. This finding is supported by simply taking a look around, but also through a number of studies, including one recently released by the Pratt Center for Community Development. “The City’s current manufacturing zones, even the Industrial Business Zones, encourage real estate speculation by allowing many non-industrial uses such as big-box retail, self-storage facilities, and hotels,” Pratt concluded. “These low-wage sectors typically pay more for real estate and often out-bid industrial businesses.”
However, Reyna wasn’t satisfied that the new proposal offered an ideal solution to this problem. “I’m glad you said that– industrial incentives are what we’ve wanted for years, and this 17 percent is what you’re giving us? To me, it doesn’t sound like there’s a partnership.”
6. We better like this plan, because the 14-block rezoning could be mapped on to other areas of the city.
Leah Archibald of Evergreen pointed out that, if passed, this plan could be replicated by the Department of City Planning elsewhere. “Once this zoning text amendment [goes through], it can be mapped anywhere else that meets these standards,” she said. “It will have ramifications citywide.” It’s hard to imagine that one industrial-to-floor-plan ratio deemed appropriate by and for one developer in Williamsburg would be ideal for places as disparate as Gowanus and the South Bronx.
At the same time, City Planning was careful to highlight the fact that, even so, this wouldn’t make for a complete free-for-all– developers would still be subject to the same ULURP public review process.
7. The current 14-block rezoning plan falls short in a number of ways.
City Planning has billed this 14-block rezoning as a way to address the lack of industrial incentives in the neighborhood, but Reyna challenged this repeatedly and early on suggested, “The applicant doesn’t need this 14 blocks.”
Many witnesses pointed to the Community Board’s issues with the plan as an excellent source for correcting it. Armando Chapelliquen of ANHD hailed CB1’s recommendations for adjusting the plan to benefit the community as “ingenious.” These include limiting the rezoning to 25 Kent Avenue; ensuring affordability by requiring special permit holders within the GP-Williamsburg IBZ to lease the space at 20 percent below market rate; selecting a local nonprofit to be in charge of implementation, enforcement, and oversight; enacting a reporting system to track “rental rates, tenants, and employment”; and “[requiring] the applicants to provide good, quality, family-sustaining service jobs with prevailing wages.”
Leah Archibald of Evergreen also supported the board’s recommendations. “We encourage you to take seriously CB1’s recommendations,” she said.
8. Some important actors were left out of the City Planning process for developing the 14-block plan.
Despite being an active manager in helping businesses navigate the nuances of the Greenpoint-Williamsburg IBZ, Leah Archibald revealed that Evergreen was not consulted about the plan. “We were never asked for input regarding businesses’ needs,” she said.
And it seems, neither were existing business owners in the area. As the owner of Broadway Stages, Anthony Argento operates his business in “over 1.5 million square feet of industrial space,” in the Greenpoint-Williamsburg area. “We would like to expand, but because of [the current zoning] we can’t,” he said. Argento also remarked that to his knowledge, City Planning made no effort to contact him or any other local ventures. “Why only this 14-block area?” he asked, wondering why the benefits of this special permit were not going to be extended throughout the IBZ nor to existing industrial business owners in the area.
“It’s the developers that are going to make out big before the small businesses,” he said. “It’s very unfair.”
Earlier, Reyna had pointed to the example of Acme Fish Company, which processes, packages, and sells their fish in Greenpoint, as “the kind of business we want in the neighborhood” and one that has a retail component as well. Argento explained that under the current arrangement and even with the new plan, Acme wouldn’t be allowed to expand their business, even if they wanted to. “They’d have to move to New Jersey,” he said.
9. The Generator and the 14-block plan “set the stage.”
“This action sets the stage, and I cannot emphasize that enough,” Reyna said– a refrain that was heard over and over again last night from multiple witnesses.
The City is still waiting to hear the results of the North Brooklyn IBZ Study, initiated by the Mayor’s Industrial Action Plan in 2015. A representative from the Pratt Center for Community Development said that City Planning should not move forward with the rezoning effort until the study is complete. Without it, there remains a serious lack of data that could speak to the viability of industry in Brooklyn without government subsidies, for example, and what sort of incentives actually work to bring in new industrial businesses and keep the ones we have.
“It’s potentially destabilizing,” the Pratt rep said. “And we oppose the plan unless it’s modified in critical ways.”
“We’re not truly embracing what’s an opportunity here for meaningful ways to protect industrial business,” Reyna concluded.