With the line to get in stretching out the door, the Swinging Sixties Senior Center in Williamsburg looked more like a concert venue than the site of the first public hearing of a Uniform Land Review Process to evaluate plans to develop the Domino Sugar refinery on the East River waterfront.
Presenting to the council of Community Board 1 and the standing-room-only crowd, Jed Walentas, principal at Two Trees Management, highlighted the major differences between his company’s plan for the Domino site and the existing Community Preservation Corporation’s (CPC) plan, which was approved by the community board in 2010.
Central to the Two Trees proposal is the goal of connecting the development to the existing neighborhood and making good on its promise of providing 660 units of affordable housing — a promise the CPC was ultimately unable to deliver on.
In terms of integration, Walentas explained that the CPC plan essentially created a wall along the waterfront to “keep people out, not necessarily legally, but psychologically.” He indicated that in the old plan the east-west roads to waterfront dead-ended in cul-de-sacs behind a row of towers, creating what could be viewed as a private enclave with little access to the water. Alternatively, the Two Trees plan calls for a north-south road along a quarter mile of riverfront parkland designated for recreational purposes.
Vishaan Chakrabarti, a representative from SHoP, the architectural firm responsible for designing the Two Tree proposal, added that artifacts from the old refinery such as cranes and sugar tanks will be refurbished and set along the waterfront, so that “this can’t just be anywhere, it can’t just be in Dubai or Hong Kong or wherever, its very much of Williamsburg. It’s of this place.”
Another important element of integrating with the neighborhood, and a major component of the plan to be assessed by the Community Board during the ULURP, is the mixed-use of buildings for commercial and residential purposes. Walentas pointed out that much of the development in North Williamsburg has been residential and this was something they wanted to address with their new plan. He said that it was his experience that “when you build residential only communities…they become very sterile places, they get a suburban feel to them and they do not become integrated with their surrounding communities.”
According to the Two Trees plan, the Domino refinery will be renovated specifically for commercial purposes and the building at Site A at the bottom of Grand Street will house local retail and entrepreneurial businesses below residential units. Walentas assured the board and the audience that Two Trees does not rent to big-box retailers or international chains.
On the issue of affordable housing, Walentas addressed the concern of some community and board members regarding Two Trees’ commitment to build all 660 proposed units. He acknowledge that the while the CPC plan called for the same number of units, their agreement was non-binding and financial difficulties ultimately prevented them from making good on the deal. He said Two Trees is trying to “live up to all the commitments that were technically not binding” and “come through and deliver on those commitments and make them binding.”
Walentas was careful to point out, however, that because the 660 units exceed the amount of affordable housing required under current zoning by 10 percent, government subsides would be necessary to make the project financially feasible and that this was not “purely a philanthropic effort by [Two Trees].” He added that Two Trees has built affordable housing into all of its last major projects and that all of the affordable units will have the same style, finish, and amenities as the market rate units. He concluded by telling the board that he would be happy to have their approval predicated on Two Trees Management’s commitment to this issue.
After the presentation, a number of community members read from prepared statements.
Carla Villa from Brooklyn Brewery read a letter from brewery president Steve Hindy praising Two Trees’ new vision, particularly in its efforts to bring start-up culture and light manufacturing back to Williamsburg. The letter urged the board to approve the plan.
A spokesperson from the affordable housing advocate group Los Sures commended Two Trees for working with the community and pointed to the developer’s willingness to attend and answer questions at a meeting of 500 community members organized by Los Sures. The spokesperson also asked the board to approve.
A handful of opponents of the plan also spoke, most notably Colin Miles, from Save Domino, and Brian Paul, an urban planner and one of the filmmakers of The Domino Effect (both were part of a panel discussion at the B+B Newsroom last month). Paul’s statement appeared to receive the most support from the audience, especially his concerns over the development’s impact on local infrastructure. He said that while Two Trees has offered to provide shuttle service to the L train, that train is already overtaxed and that he has seen no evidence that the developer will help alleviate the increased stress on transit.
When B + B asked Walentas about Paul’s concerns, he responded: “We’re a small private enterprise, we’re not government. It’s far beyond my capabilities in every way to build transit infrastructure. We can advocate. We can do lots of philanthropic things like we do in Dumbo on more moderate scales. We support schools, we support parks, we support cultural activities, but it’s not in our abilities and it’s not our responsibility to rebuild the L train or to build new subways or rebuild bus routes. That’s not a reasonable expectation.”
Stephanie Eisenberg, co-founder of Save Domino and a vocal critic of the Two Trees plan, spoke with B+B after the hearing. She is working with a coalition of the plan’s opponents to lay the groundwork for a new proposal designed by local architect Leah Kreger, who also spoke at the meeting. The group calls themselves The Friends of Domino and early renderings of their plan shared with B+B include 600,000 square feet of gallery space for the arts located in the Domino Refinery, 100% affordable housing, and a hotel roughly the height of the Williamsburg Bridge. The Group foresees purchasing the Domino property as part of a community buyout, yet it remains a mystery how they intend to do so since Two Trees has said it has no intention to sell.
“The process isn’t over,” Eisenberg told us.
The Friends of Domino are looking ahead to the new de Blasio administration and point out that the Two Trees project will be the first for the new Borough President, City Planning Chair, Council Speaker, and Mayor.
When B+B asked about any concerns over the new administration, Walentas said, “We’re certainly going into an unknown environment, but I always assume people will be rational and I think on almost any metric this plan is superior to the alternative.”
With lots still to be discussed, the Community Board voted unanimously to continue the hearing on November 21at PS 84.
Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct an error. Brian Paul identifies himself as a neighborhood resident trying to hold Two Trees accountable to reality and not a part of Friends of Domino.