Transformative development on the Williamsburg waterfront: Snapshot of the approval process
Two Trees Management’s plan to build slender high-rise apartment towers and a park with a beach and breakwaters on Williamsburg’s East River shoreline drew both support and opposition at a Community Board 1 meeting on Wednesday night.
The Walentas family’s company is seeking to rezone the River Street site, which it bought from Con Edison for $150 million, in order to construct two towers.
Those in favor of the plan expressed their excitement about what would be a wholly new type of waterfront access for the city, while those against the plan mostly cited concerns about displacement and affordability.
Two Trees Principal Bonnie Campbell and landscape architect Lisa Switkin of James Corner Field Operations gave meeting attendees a rundown on the details of the proposed development, which was unveiled in December. It consists of a 600-foot-tall tower and a 650-foot tall tower designed by high-profile architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group. The towers will contain 1,000 apartments, 250 of which will be affordable for low-income tenants, and a YMCA with a swimming pool in the base of one of the buildings.
Wednesday night’s meeting was a follow-up to a Jan. 6 Community Board 1 meeting about the project that was held in a room too small to accommodate everyone who turned out. (This time around, the board picked a larger space, and it was still packed with people.)
The River Street property is currently zoned for manufacturing uses. Two Trees will go for R8 zoning, which allows high-density residential construction, when it begins a Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, many months from now.
The River Street development will have 57,000 square feet of office space and 30,000 square feet of space for small retailers. The towers will have small footprints to allow more space for an innovative park that will have a protected cove for boating and natural habitats such as a salt marsh, freshwater wetland and tidal pools that will allow visitors to engage with the East River.
“I’m for the positive sides of the project,” Rich Mazur, executive director of the North Brooklyn Development Corp., a resident since 1950, said at the hearing. “For me, it’s about doing the right thing for the kids, doing the right thing for people who need housing and open space. I actually had no access to the waterfront when I grew up here. We used to sneak onto the river.”
Another man said the development would bring “increased business, increased education, increased revenue, increased housing, increased ecological impact in terms of the positive,” which is preferable to “having just an empty lot sitting there staring at everybody in perpetuity.”
Zora Anderson said she opposes the River Street plan because of already crowded mass transit.
“There’s 1,000 apartments. And that doesn’t mean one person per apartment. That’s a lot of people for a tiny, tiny park. And as far as I’m concerned, for a tiny, tiny park, that kayaking gets me excited. No, it doesn’t get me excited when I’ll be getting on the L train,” she said.
“A beautiful presentation. I’m totally against it,” long-time neighborhood resident Roberto Rodriguez said. “Rezoning equates displacement. It’s happening all over. We need a moratorium. This is what we need. All this rezoning needs to be stopped.”
Some residents expressed support for the River Street project because they love Domino Park, which the developer constructed as part of the mammoth mixed-use Domino Sugar Refinery development, right near the River Street project.
“I think that this is a team that seems to be really invested in the community to meet the needs and also deliver something that’s game-changing. So thank you for that,” said a man named Dillon, who said Domino Park has turned out really well.
Other supporters of the River Street plan have worked with Two Trees at Domino Park.
“I’m just here to kind of promote for it,” Will Nieves of Will Nieves Latin Dance Studio said of the River Street project. He said he has done events at Domino Park that drew more than 600 people.
Craig Heitczman of NYC Social said his organization gets space at Domino Park to provide free sports programs for kids.
“We’ve been very impressed with their focus on building community along the waterfront and just their support for small businesses like ours,” said Andrew Mullins of Oddfellows Ice Cream, a Two Trees tenant in DUMBO that’s opening a shop this summer at One South First, a new apartment building in the Domino Sugar Refinery development.
One woman said the project’s affordable housing wouldn’t be sufficiently affordable for neighborhood residents.
“As someone who used to go to community board meetings for years and years and years and quit, I understand that there is no truth in rezoning. We’ve been sold a bill of goods for the last fifteen years,” she said.
Long-time Williamsburg resident Bea Hanson said the greatest need for affordable housing is among extremely low-income and very low-income residents.
Campbell, the Two Trees principal, said during a question-and-answer period that the River Street project’s affordability levels under the city’s mandatory inclusionary housing program will range between 40 percent to 80 percent of area median income. Individuals earn $29,880 per year at 40 percent AMI and $59,760 at 80 percent AMI.
Stu Sherman, who runs a legal clinic at Woodhull Hospital, said CB1 should not approve the development plan.
“There are a lot of benefits to this building. The benefits don’t go to people that live here. They will go to people moving in. The park is not for us. It is for people that will be moving to this building,” Sherman said.
“Let’s make sure that the value that we’re giving if we offer a rezoning is consonant with what we’re getting in return,” said a man named Matt, who said the River Street plan has “a lot of blind spots in it and it pays no attention and no heed to the impact on the community.”
Rob Buchanan, a founder of the New York City Watershed Association, supports the planned development, which will give kayakers and rowers a new landing spot.
“I understand the derision that’s felt for kayakers as elitist people who are playing in the harbor. But I think you have to look at it as the harbor is the city’s biggest open space. And the more access points that we have, the better off we are and the more that we’ll use it and keep it public,” Buchanan said.
Pete Malinowski of the Billion Oyster Project applauded the eco-friendly design of the proposed River Street park. His organization spearheads public education initiatives that restore oyster reefs in New York Harbor.
“Connecting people to the water is a key part of proactive planning for global climate change. Throughout the city, that work is hobbled by vertical bulkheads and fences. So it’s really exciting for someone in my position to see a plan speaking specifically about the land, a plan that actually incorporates water into the park and provides ways for young people and people interested in restoring the environment to actually get down into the water and participate,” Malinowski said.
In addition to the voluntary Jan. 6 Community Board 1 meeting, Two Trees held design charrettes with community residents while River Street’s plans were being drawn up. Two Trees Principal Jed Walentas said during Wednesday night’s question-and-answer period he is willing to continue to meet with the community and get their input.
“We think that dialogue is really helpful and respectful, and leads to better projects,” he said.
The 3.5-acre River Street development site is the former home of Con Edison North First Street Terminal’s decommissioned No. 6 fuel oil storage complex. The fuel tanks have been removed.
The property includes lots at 87 River St. and 105 River St., which are located on either side of Metropolitan Avenue, and a strip of land whose address is 4 North 1st St.
The park will consist of 2.9 acres of dry land plus a 3-acre area in the water that will be protected by three breakwaters. The park will fill the gap in a string of waterfront spaces that extends from Domino Park to Bushwick Inlet Park.
In a statement to the Brooklyn Eagle, a Two Trees spokesperson thanked people for turning out and expressing their opinions on Wednesday.
“We are committed to a transparent public review process, conducting productive meetings with the community and tailoring the plan based on community input,” the spokesperson said. “The plan we’ve put forward brings a robust package of public benefits to the Williamsburg community including 250 units of affordable housing, a beautiful park that will connect residents to the waterfront and reinstate local habitat and forward-thinking resiliency measures that will protect the shoreline and surrounding neighborhood from rising sea levels and the effects of climate change.”
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