The Denizen Bushwick, an eight-story luxury rental building on the site of the former Rheingold Brewery, has finally opened one of its buildings, consisting of 444 units ranging from $2,000 studios to two-bedrooms exceeding $4,000. The inspiration for the controversial project reportedly stemmed from the idea of a European village, but in reality, the Denizen Bushwick resembles more of a glitzy, almost overwhelming megalopolis that is unlike anything else in the neighborhood.
During a community mixer at 54 Noll Street last week, Bedford + Bowery toured the ground-floor facilities and saw adult swings cascading from the ceiling, backgammon tables, a communal kitchen counter with built-in beer taps, a co-working room with leafy green chairs, a common-area art gallery with an old-school typewriter, and wall paintings that included Rheingold beer in an homage to the site’s former occupants.
Giant purple bunny-like sculptures dotted the inner courtyard and grounds, which included a waterfall and a zen garden. A pool is also forthcoming when completion of the second building, at 123 Melrose, brings the total number of units to 900 by the end of the year. The rentals will produce a million square feet of housing in Bushwick—20 percent of which will be affordable—bisected by a nearly 18,000-square-foot park public park, which is expected to be completed by the spring of 2019. The development will also bring a grocery store to the neighborhood. Further perks include a library, private art studio, and a dog spa.
Last week, the real party was on the rooftop, a vast space that included a hydroponic garden, a faux lawn area to walk pets, and mini-golf sets. Seated on one of the swinging, banana-yellow chairs were Carmine and J.D D’amore, bank managers who had recently moved into a $3,000 one-bedroom. Asked whether he was aware of their new building’s contentious history or potential impact on the neighboring community, Carmine D’amore said, “Not at all, really.”
For those who could use a recap: Over the years, these twin developments on the former Rheingold site sparked a tug-of-war between developers and the local community, including numerous protests during the rezoning process in 2013 and again in 2015 regarding the number of affordable housing units allocated. Three developers, including Princeton Holdings and Read Property Group, All Year Management, and Rabsky Group—which also courted controversy over the rezoning of the Pfizer facility—all own various slices of the former Rheingold pie.
Entities affiliated with the Denizen Bushwick are certainly targeting hipsters with disposable income. (The words “SCROLL TO LIVE A LIFE LESS BASIC” pop up on its colorful site.) But in the past six months, they’ve also made a concerted effort to reach out to the community, including local residents, businesses and artists. Primarily, the architect of the Denizen Bushwick, ODA New York, has set up a nonprofit, OPEN, as its public engagement arm to reach out to the local communities in Williamsburg and Bushwick. One of OPEN’s projects has been to work with local organizations like Art Bridge and the Bushwick Collective to find local artists to design and paint murals for the Denizen Bushwick. Beyond the scope of the Denizen Bushwick, OPEN also works with local community boards to determine how best to distribute funds to nonprofits who have applied to their grant program. OPEN hopes their efforts can spur other developers and architects to similarly include neighboring communities in their projects.
One of those Denizen artists is Bushwick resident Rah Crawford, who created a vertical mural spanning six floors of the building. The mural is entitled “Somos Oro” or “We Are Golden” in Spanish (65% of Bushwick’s residents are Hispanic, per NYC’s 2015 Community Health Profiles). At night, the metallic gold of the mural took on almost effervescent glow, which illuminated the silhouettes of native Bushwick residents such as a mother pushing her baby in a stroller. Crawford created the mural with the intent of bringing the new tenants of this sprawling complex into closer proximity with their neighbors. He wanted to “include the silhouettes of the people in the community as opposed to making aesthetically beautiful art.”
MySpace NYC, the leasing company for the Denizen Bushwick, also hosted the party to welcome local business owners and community residents to the building last week. In a press release for the party, where guests dined on free food and booze catered by local businesses like Momo Sushi Shack and Braven Brewery, MySpace NYC invited neighbors to experience this “community within a community.” The release further stated that “Bushwick is an ever changing microcosm of creativity and culture that continues to evolve. New development is a touchy subject here as it is in all parts of the city, and particularly Brooklyn, Myspace NYC is aware of this and we want to take steps to support and be a resource to Bushwick.”
A representative of MySpace NYC, who declined to state their name for the article, acknowledged that “there’s going to be an economic shift in the neighborhood with the impact of 900 apartments. It’s a natural progression.” But they also stated that “people meet people and they understand that there are great businesses here. Hopefully the businesses will benefit from being supported by tenants who are not wary of, you know, reaching out, going into the neighborhood, going into the bars, restaurants, supporting the retail they already have here.”
Bushwick resident Joelle Sedlmeyer, who attended the rooftop mixer, said that MySpace NYC’s efforts to embrace the neighborhood amounted to “a targeted approach. I don’t think it’s a community function.” Her friends Karin Persah and Chantal Savaresse, both longtime residents and business owners in Bushwick, questioned whether tenants of the Denizen would really venture out into the surrounding community when they had so many amenities at their disposal.
The group of women also raised questions about how the building plans to mitigate the impacts of the L-train shutdown, and whether tenants would be paying additional taxes to entities like the MTA to compensate. When I followed up with MySpace NYC, the aforementioned representative said by email that “the building is in a very close proximity to the JMZ so that isn’t an anticipated issue.” And yet, the NYC Department of Transportation estimates that 70 percent of L-train riders will offload to other subway routes—primarily the JMZ—so needless to say, there will likely be even more congestion on the JMZ with these new tenants joining current residents shunted by the L-pocalypse.
However, the building is paying considerable property taxes that could benefit public services in the community. There were concerns in 2015 that the developers were merely including affordable housing to get a 25-year-tax break under the then-new 421A tax abatement program. But according to public records obtained from the NYC Department of Finance’s website, neither of the two buildings on the site are 421A tax exempt properties for this fiscal year, meaning that they would still be subject to pay property taxes that could contribute to local government services—possibly the MTA—and Brooklyn schools, given the hefty 12.71 petcent tax rate on the buildings. But it’s worth noting that the taxable property value of 54 Noll was reduced from $7,322,292 in January 2018 to $1,981,692 in April of this year, significantly cutting down additional property taxes that could have benefited Bushwick and the surrounding communities.
And what about local advocates? Despite their previous fervor, they don’t seem to have much to say these days. Many of the protests in earlier years stemmed from the number of affordable housing units allocated and developers supposedly backing out of agreements to offer more units, but that seems to be a moot point now. Ultimately, developers agreed to an allocation of 20 percent of units for affordable housing per legal requirements. An affordable housing lottery for 183 apartments at the site opened earlier this year, with options like studios starting at $947 per month for individuals that earn 60 percent of the area’s median income.
And the organizations involved in the Rheingold Construction Committee—which worked with then-Council Member Diana Reyna to propose community benefits for the site during the rezoning process—have been hard to reach. Bedford + Bowery reached out to Churches United for Fair Housing and the North West Bushwick Community Group—also part of the Rheingold Construction Committee—but didn’t hear back by the time of publication. And one of the foremost tenant organizers involved with the former Rheingold site at the Bushwick Housing Independence Project, Yolanda Luz Coca, died in 2016. Staff of New York City Council Member Antonio Reynoso—who previously served as an aide to Reyna and worked on an affordable housing plan for the site years ago, according to the Village Voice—also declined to comment for this article.
Los Sures, a South Williamsburg nonprofit that works to develop and advocate for affordable housing, was also part of the committee. As part of community negotiations during the rezoning process, Los Sures received a parcel of land from one of the developers to build affordable residences for low-income seniors. Katie Kreifels, Director of Housing Development of Los Sures, who joined the organization after the rezoning process, spoke with Bedford + Bowery briefly. While it didn’t seem like the former Rheingold development was on their radar anymore, she noted that they were in the process of constructing 95 affordable housing units for seniors at a site across the street from the Denizen Bushwick. “As more market rate units come online, it’s important for more affordable units to come online. We’re happy to contribute these units that we’re building. And working with developers [on affordable housing],” said Kreifels.