Sunset Park

Board fights for public review of new mega-project planned for Sunset Park site

May 10, 2023 Helen Klein
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SUNSET PARK – A new mega-development appears to be moving forward on an expansive site in Sunset Park, at Eighth Avenue and 62nd Street. And, this time, the city is saying that the developers do not need a special permit, virtually eliminating public review of a project that is sure to have a major impact on the area.

Indeed, the Department of Buildings has already issued a permit for the foundation of the massive structure, which, if it moves forward as planned, would rise 27 stories and contain 497 apartments as well as commercial space, in an area characterized by relatively low-rise buildings where traffic congestion is already a major concern.

But, Community Board 10 – in whose catchment area the project lies – is saying not so fast. The board, at its April 17 meeting, voted to request that the Department of City Planning revisit its recent determination that a special permit, and the attendant review process, are not needed for the site, citing previous DCP determinations, in 2007 and 2016, that they were necessary because the site incorporates an old railyard. The board’s votes are advisory only.

“Developers one and two had to do a special permit and now we’re being told by the Brooklyn office of the Department of City Planning that developer three notified them that they were not required under the zoning text to submit a special permit application because the railyard was not active post-1962,” explained Josephine Beckmann, district manager of CB 10.

But, Beckmann continued, this does not square with evidence amassed by the board. This includes the City Planning Commission’s previous description of the site as “a railroad yard discontinued in 1966,” according to the resolution passed by the board, as well as several pictures, among them an aerial photo from 1966 that shows rail cars on the site and photos of rail cars on the site belonging to Penn Central, which was founded in 1968. “There is no doubt this site was operating as a yard till 1970,” Beckmann said.

The project only came to the attention of the board, said Beckmann, because it was notified by the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Remediation that mandated remediation would be taking place at the site, which is a brownfield.

The project planned by Williamsburg-based Watermark Capital is by far the largest proposed for the location so far, but had not initially been flagged by CB 10 as being of note because, for some reason that has not been clarified, the developer is using a different address, 6128 Eighth Avenue instead of 6200 or 6208 Eighth Avenue, the addresses used by the prior projects. 6128 Eighth Avenue was originally identified in city records as being located in neighboring CB 7, even though the project site is wholly within CB 10. All three addresses reference the same block and lot.

The first project planned for the site, for which CB 10 supported a zoning change and special permit in 2007 after an extended review process which included alterations that shrank the proposal, was for an 11-story residential building atop two levels of retail, plus 60,000 square feet of offices and three parking levels. The developer, MSK Properties, never advanced the plan, although the special permit was renewed in 2011 and 2014.

While the zoning changes were permanent, the special permit granted to the original project was “limited to the project and renewable every three years,” stressed Beckmann.

In 2016, the property was sold to a second developer, 6208 Realty LLC, which released a more ambitious plan in 2018. It comprised three separate structures: a 12-story residential tower with 250 apartments, a 12-story office tower and an 11-story hotel.

But, that plan – which also required a special permit, as well as a zoning map amendment and a full Environmental Impact Statement — also ran into headwinds, and eventually the developer sold the property in several increments to Watermark and Maguire Capital for between $75 and $80 million, including the cost of the prior developer’s debt, according to The Real Deal.

Among CB 10’s current concerns is that DOB allowed the developer’s architect to self-certify the plans that were submitted. With a development this large, said Beckmann, that is extremely unusual. “We have architects on the board who said they’ve not seen that,” she told this paper, adding, “For buildings that size, you have to go through a plan examiner.”

In addition, said Beckmann, board members are concerned that, instead of being spread out across the entire site, the current project is concentrated in one section, towering above the surrounding streetscape. Without a public review process, she said, the community – which has already raised concerns – has no official way of reviewing the process, which could lead to changes that could make the project “more contextual.”

Wolfe Landau, a founding partner of Watermark, said at a joint meeting of CB 10’s Zoning and Land Use and Environmental Committees held with representatives of OER via Zoom on April 4, “We’re planning to build apartments for a community that has demand for it. It’s sorely needed.” In addition, he said, there would be a Chinese supermarket in the complex.

During the meeting, Landau disputed some of the board’s claims. He said that the address was “not changed. You make it sound like someone is playing a trick. That’s the same address we’ve had all the time.”

The project, he asserted, was “as of right,” based on a determination made by DCP. “We did what we were supposed to do,” he said. “City Planning verified there were never any passenger trains or other trains,” claiming also, “The pictures you’re showing is the neighboring lot.” He said that his company “didn’t decide” no special permit was needed. “It’s something the city decided.”

Doris Cruz, chair of the CB 10’s Zoning Committee, questions why a special permit was not necessary. “There was a need for a special permit in the first application and the second application,” she told this paper. “Why not for the third application? Why is this development different? It’s the same space. How can it be so different?”

Contacted for comment, DCP provided a letter sent to Watermark’s attorneys on Dec. 16, 2022. In it, DCP counsel Dominick Answini explained that the agency’s decision was based on “documentation” provided by Watermark “establishing that the special permit is not required because the site has not been used as a railroad or transit space after September 27, 1962,” and also noting that “the documentation provided by your client was not presented to DCP staff in relation to either previous application and these previous applications do not alter our conclusion here.”

“Most persuasive,” according to Answini, “was a drawing of the site entitled ‘Bay Ridge Engine House (closed-12/31/1957)’ that indicated which facilities were removed and when, showing all of the facilities removed between 1938 and 1958.”

However, DCP spokesperson Casey Berkovitz said, in an email, that the agency had “received new documents from Brooklyn Community Board 10 last week… and are reviewing them.”

Members of the public who joined the Zoom zeroed in on the size and scope of the project.

John Santore, a community member of CB 7’s Housing Committee, said that affordable housing is very needed in Sunset Park. However, he added, “I’m extremely concerned that another enormous housing development is coming to the neighborhood that will overwhelmingly provide housing for high income individuals who are not the people who live in CB 7 and likely not the people who live in CB 10 as well.”

Paul Mak, the executive director of the Brooklyn Chinese American Association, noted, “Major, major construction is coming in. We want people to know about the negative impact. I’m pretty sure many know the traffic on Seventh and Eighth Avenues. I am very concerned on behalf of the Asian community. We need to find a way that the project will be a benefit to the community. At this point, it is not.”

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