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Affordable housing the focus at the New Domino hearing

In the post-Atlantic Yards world, will every megaproject be justified because it provides affordable housing? That’s one conclusion after yesterday’s hearing at the Department of City Planning (DCP) regarding the New Domino development proposed for the former Domino sugar factory site in Williamsburg, five blocks along the waterfront north of the Williamsburg Bridge, plus one square block across Kent Avenue.

Some longtime neighborhood residents decried the project’s size and density, while community and church groups endorsed the project precisely because it would be big enough (2200 units) that a 30% commitment could deliver a substantial 660 affordable units. And that affordability is aimed at a lower-income cohort than the AY plan.

Of course, the managing partner of the development, Community Preservation Corporation Resources (CPCR) has as its mission to build affordable housing, so the justification was hardly unexpected.

[Update: note Lumi Rolley's observation on NoLandGrab about Brooklyn Matters, Julia Vitullo-Martin, and megaprojects.]

Less controversy than AY

Though the New Domino may be half the footprint (11.2 acres) and about one-quarter the cost ($1 billion-plus) of the Atlantic Yards project, for now it’s generated far less controversy. I had questioned whether DCP’s meeting hall would be sufficient to house the scoping hearing—to develop a scope of work for the coming environmental impact statement.

(Yes, the ubiquitous developer-friendly consultant AKRF will be the author. Flashback to the October 2005 AY scoping hearing.)

The hall was indeed sufficient and the debate, as with the Atlantic Yards project, often bypassed the actual request to analyze the scope of environmental review. For the afternoon segment of the hearing, 79 people showed up, according to the sign-in sheet. In the evening segment, barely 30 people showed up, and their testimony took less than an hour, less than one-third of the allotted time.

Given DCP’s commitment to hold the hearing open to accommodate latecomers, the sparse turnout left ample time for breaks, which involved cordial but sometimes intense exchanges between advocates and critics.

I missed the afternoon hearing, which included City Council Member Diana Reyna and a representative of Assemblyman (and Brooklyn Democratic boss) Vito Lopez, as well as representatives from several city and state agencies. Perhaps because it was after hours, no elected officials, Community Board reps, or government agency officials testified in the evening. So far, no pro-project unions or organized opposition groups have emerged.

So this report is necessarily incomplete and, indeed, interested parties have another ten days to comment. But the evening session was essentially a rhetorical battle between middle-class white folks, many with decades in a neighborhood they helped stabilize before its later furious gentrification, and church/community group reps, advocating for the poor, many of them are people of color who also endured the bad old days and fought off depredations like a planned incinerator.

No one spoke for the large majority of New Domino residents, the folks who’d buy the 1540 (perhaps) million-dollar condos. The market will take care of that.

Opponents

“The greatest tragedy is that this is putting Williamsburg residents against each other,” lamented Bea Hanson, a 20-year resident. “Surely we have the ability to build affordable housing and preserve neighborhood character.”

Perhaps we do, but, in Williamsburg, the response has been way late.

“I am greatly disappointed, declared Nancy Buivid, a 24-year resident, noting that the city had promised that the site would remained zoned for manufacturing, and did not include it in the 2005 rezoning of Greenpoint-Williamsburg, even though developer Isaac Katan and CPCR had purchased the site.

She suggested, as have some others, that the 1883 refinery building, slated for preservation and renovation, could make an art museum like Mass MOCA or London’s Tate Modern--a plan that would take much more civic investment. “Our neighborhood is going to be in total darkness at sunset,” she said, in what was surely an exaggeration, “and it’s just not right.”

Planning and density

Other critics questioned whether the neighborhood could handle the new density. On the one hand, proponents could argue that the proposed density of the project and the planned height of the buildings—except for one block east of Kent Avenue—is not inconsistent with the 2005 rezoning. However, opponents might counter, the cumulative effect of such development was never considered.

In other words, the New Domino may be another example of zoning without planning. The site design, by architect Rafael Viñoly, indeed might be artfully planned. But it will not have been planned in conjunction with an overall look at the neighborhood, its infrastructure capacity, and its expressed values. The public aspect of that planning comes after the project proposal, massaged by AKRF.

Nearly a decade ago, those community values were expressed in the 197-a plan prepared for the Waterfront Committee of Community Board 1, titled "A Matter of Balance: Housing, Industry, Open Space." Last night, neighborhood architect and writer Leah Kreger urged DCP to consider the 197-a plan as an alternative.

But that plan was developed in 1998, eons ago in Williamsburg time, before the explosion of market-rate housing and attendant pressure on affordability. For example, it stated, “While the need for housing may warrant development to maximum allowable bulk and density under current zoning, we recommend in general that new residential development conform to the scale and density of surrounding buildings.”

The 2005 rezoning took care of that. Some similar community battles played out; residents concerned about neighborhood character were in opposition to Churches United, which prioritized affordable housing.

Proponents

Proponent Luis Garden Acosta, founder of El Puente, a neighborhood group that helped turn the Southside around, invoked another aspect of the 197-a plan--which El Puente helped developed--to praise the New Domino. The project, he noted, would help achieve the community goal of waterfront access.

In the ideal world, Garden Acosta acknowledged, the delivery of basic necessities such as health, safety, and housing would be motivated by the common good, not profit.

“Sadly, that is not the reality of our policymakers,” he said. So if a market-rate development is necessary to deliver affordable housing, “we’d be hard put to find a better ally than CPC,” the parent of CPCR.

(What’s the difference between the non-profit CPC and its for-profit CPCR subsidiary? They have the same mission, but only CPCR can own property. Despite the for-profit status, “we are not bottom-line driven,” CPCR Senior VP Susan Pollock told me during a break.

Some CPCR partners do have profit goals, so “we are bottom-line conscious,” she said. Given that the New Domino is a partnership with Isaac Katan, known for out-of-context buildings in the South Slope, CPCR’s statement that the decisions are theirs doesn’t necessarily obviate an obligation to deliver certain returns to Katan--which may impact the project scale.)

The churches unite

Anita Dunbar, a housing project resident and a member of the group Churches United, which represents congregations from Bed-Stuy to Greenpoint in North Brooklyn, gave testimony reminiscent of some offered at the Atlantic Yards public hearing in August 2006. “I’m for the housing that’s going up,” she said, “because it will give us affordable housing, which we need desperately.” Her adult daughter, she said, would like to move out the family apartment.

Father Jim O’Shea, director of Churches United, spoke almost as if the New Domino would be public housing rather than a mixed-income development with a better-than-required slice of affordable housing: “We have no need of this project unless the principal focus is affordable housing.” In fact, he said, “If there are modifications to be made, make them on the side of a larger project.”

“The quality of life of a community is how it treats those in need,” he said.

That’s hard to dispute, but the hearing raised questions about how to steer such quality of life: a spot rezoning, as with the New Domino, or a more comprehensive plan to deal with neighborhood issues and also affordable housing?

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