Friday, November 02, 2007

Is the New Domino AY the sequel? Not with ULURP, but...

So, would the $1 billion, 11.2-acre New Domino project in Williamsburg really be an echo of Atlantic Yards? On the one hand, as I wrote, the fundamental issue is whether a developer can get a zoning change (ND) or zoning override (AY) to increase the value of development rights. And affordable housing is being used to justify the scale of the development and generate support from some neighborhood groups.

On the other, the New Domino will go through the city's land use review process, which involves much more public scrutiny than the Empire State Development Corporation's fast-track process. Also, there would be deeper affordability, the preservation of a historic structure, and the open space plan, offering connections to the Williamsburg waterfront, likely wouldn't seem like the private enclave feared at the Atlantic Yards site.

[updated] But there's one crucial consistency: in both cases we're asked to take on faith that the project should be as big as proposed, without seeing the developer's expected return.

A pre-ULURP meeting

Given the greater need for community input and approval, that's why representatives of affordable housing developer CPC Resources (CPCR, the for-profit arm of the nonprofit Community Preservation Corporation, or CPC), the controlling partner that owns the former Domino Sugar factory site, appeared Tuesday night before Brooklyn Community Board 1's ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) Committee.

They answered--or, in some cases, not quite answered--some cordial but often challenging questions from community members. About 75 people attended the meeting, held at the Swinging Sixties Senior Center on Ainslie Street, in a more placid segment of the Williamsburg two stops east on the L train.

(The official New Domino web site so far offers renderings, as at top, with little context for the tallest buildings, two 300 feet and two 400 feet. A site set up by community members concerned about the project, DominoSugar.org, offers views with more context, such as this perspective from Grand Street, right. That's not to say that other views of the waterfront don't show large buildings. Northside Piers is pretty big, but the development on the northside waterfront is not nearly as extensive as that proposed for the New Domino, just north of the Williamsburg Bridge.)

The meeting Tuesday was preliminary to ULURP, which likely would begin next year and last some seven months, involving at least two public hearings, an advisory vote by the Community Board and the Borough President, and votes by the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

By contrast, Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner didn't have to answer questions before community boards, though an entourage made a one-night sweep of the three affected community boards to offer testimony in August 2006 during the period of environmental review, and point man Jim Stuckey did answer some written questions at a raucous (but allegedly packed and without city or state involvement) 11/29/04 informational meeting sponsored by the three CBs. And there was that highly contentious meeting, in March 2004, sponsored by the Park Slope Civic Council, the only time a representative of Frank Gehry's office participated.

Some constraints

On Tuesday, CPCR's project manager, VP Susan M. Pollock, was joined by project team members, including architects and a landscape architect, as well as in-house staffers, p.r. people, lobbyists, and a lawyer. (The p.r.firm Geto & de Milly has also worked for Forest City Ratner, as has the ubiquitous environmental consulting firm AKRF.)

She described the project as an effort to create the most affordable housing given the constraints of the site and other costs. The cost of preserving the 250' x 144' refinery building, which has been landmarked, is considerable; a new interior structure must be created, with a 60' x 100' courtyard carved out to supply light and air. The building also would offer community facility space, retail space on Kent Avenue, and parking below grade.

Also, because the income range of the promised affordable units (30% of the 2200 units) stretches lower than in many other projects, market-rate units would cross-subsidize the affordable ones, along with city subsidies.

And that's why the developer seeks significantly increased development rights for the "upland site," a nearly one-block parcel east of Kent Avenue in a former parking lot, creating buildings that could go up to 140 feet tall, at bottom in image (right) from New Domino site.

They want to transfer 190,000 square feet of development rights--a good-sized tower--from the waterfront site to the upland site. The site would have a floor area ratio (FAR) of 6.0, significantly higher than the 3.6 FAR allowed via the recent rezoning of other parts of the neighborhood and also the existing FAR of 2.0 for a heavy manufacturing district.

While residents in the audience expressed general sympathy with the goals of the project, some were sharply critical of the details. Steven Frankel questioned the density of the upland parcel, wondering if it would set a precedent for future requests for zoning variances.

(Image with building heights from DominoSugar.org. The web site for now does not identify the people responsible for it.)

Pollock said no. With the exception of "two towers that are taller," she said, the upland segment shouldn't feel out of scale. "I don't feel it sets a precedent," she said, because other upland projects likely would not offer the justification of affordable housing and thus not get a zoning variance. (Well, maybe. Quadriad is already asking for a density bonus in exchange for affordable housing on a project farther from the waterfront.)

What cost, what profit?

The size of the project relates to the costs of the project, and the ambitious goals, proponents said. "We think this density is necessary to make it work, on an economic basis," said Mark Levine, an attorney for the project.

That begged a fundamental question I got to ask: what does "make it work" mean in terms of expected profit? Does CPCR expect a 5%, 10%, or 20% return? Pollock wouldn't give a number, but said "we have been pushed to the limit," noting that CPCR typically runs through complicated financial models to figure out how much affordable housing it can develop.

As with other projects, she added, the project must work for investors and to gain financing. Therein lies the black box; unlike, say, with the stated (but unmet) requirement that Forest City Ratner provide a pro forma statement of expected profits when it bid for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard, the developer of the New Domino need not produce such estimates. [Updated] Only after approval were some ambiguous documents released regarding the projected rates of return, though they still didn't specify the developer's profits.]

And CPCR, for which this project is an ambitious stretch in terms of new construction (it has managed the large-scale revamp of the Parkchester development and has a significant track record in Williamsburg), is not working just for itself or another nonprofit entity. In the case of the New Domino, the silent partner is Isaac Katan, a Brooklyn developer known for aggressive, out-scale development in places like the South Slope.

So even if CPCR is not bound to maximize its own return, it still may be contractually required to deliver a profit beyond its usual return. (Katan gets very short shrift in publicity material for the project.)

AY redux?

Project critics point to the New Domino as the second largest project after Atlantic Yards, and the comparison came up on Tuesday. Stephanie Eisenberg, a vocal critic of the project, asked Pollock a leading question: "People are calling the New Domino 'Atlantic Yards the sequel;' how do you respond to that?"

"I don't think that's valid, but I don't want to be dragged into that," Pollock responded. Without making any reference to Atlantic Yards, she added that CPCR has made "a sincere, wholehearted effort" to work with the community.

Pollock, who has a longstanding background in affordable housing, comes off as less slick than former AY point man Stuckey in representing a giant project that mixes market-rate and affordable units; Stuckey's track record is more rooted in developing mega-projects and office space, and Forest City Ratner had previously not developed housing.

No one wants to be compared with Atlantic Yards, apparently. Still, CPCR has taken a page out of the mega-developer book; they recently ran an advertisement in local weeklies touting a poll in which Williamsburg residents said they supported increased density if it resulted in greater affordability.

That's not surprising, but the details would be intriguing. However, the questions and answers are not yet available; CPCR has promised an exclusive to one news outlet, which has not yet published its story.

Transportation questions

CPCR touts a new water taxi stop and shuttle bus to deal with new transportation demands posed by at least 4500 new residents, but Teresa Toro, chair of CB1's Transportation Committee, said she didn't think that was enough.

Toro suggested that the developer partner with a car-sharing service and would have to ensure that pathways to the water taxi stop, across the truck route of Kent Avenue, would be safe.

Pollock said CPCR would consider car-sharing and other improvements. "We are trying to do what we can," she said. "We can't solve the city's transportation problem."

She also said the developer has "a tremendous interest" in preserving the old Domino sign, but "we're not ready to make a full commitment; we don't know where it's going yet."

No crystal ball

Levine said the affordable housing would be made enforceable through contractual language known as restrictive declarations. However, he allowed that some details regarding the project could change.

"This is going to be built over eight years," he said. "Nobody's smart enough to know the market over time."

In that statement, he was a little more candid than those representing Atlantic Yards, who, though they express to investment analysts generic qualms about predicting the future, have persisted in insisting that the project would take ten years and the arena would open in 2009. (Well, on the latter, there's finally some movement.)

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