Tuesday, July 20, 2010

New Domino plan passes key hurdle with no essential modification; is affordable housing subject to same loopholes as with Atlantic Yards?

When it comes to big developments, you always have to look behind the curtain. And when it comes to the controversial New Domino development in Williamsburg--the second-largest in Brooklyn, after Atlantic Yards--the land use process, the affordable housing, and the urban planning all deserve another look.

Notably, the project has been justified because of the promised affordable housing, but, as with Atlantic Yards, the developer won't commit to building the housing in the announced timetable.

So the likely loopholes should be part of the public discussion.

And here's a number you haven't seen in print: $2.5 million, which is (nearly) the total the New Domino developer spent on lobbying in the last five years (details below).

Council approval

On June 29, the City Council's Land Use Committee made a key approval of the project, with local Council Member Steve Levin no longer in opposition.

The Daily News reported, in an article headlined City Council committee approves new 2,200-apartment project where old Domino Sugar refinery sits:
Levin changed his mind after developer Community Preservation Corporation Resources agreed to chop its tallest towers to 34 stories from 40 - even though the total of 2,200 units, including 660 affordable to low- and middle-income families, will stay the same.
I don't think that's what changed Levin's mind--he and the local community board had called for a smaller project with fewer units, as had his mentor and former boss, Assemblyman Vito Lopez--but simply was offered as a face-saving seeming compromise.

(How do you make a building smaller without actually making it smaller?" asked Matt Chaban in the Architect's Newspaper.)

Given the backing of the city administration and Council leaders for the plan, and the developer's lobbying, Levin was going to lose anyway. So, even though Council members frequently have an effective veto in the land use process--a situation that's drawn criticism at a Charter Revision Commission hearing--that is hardly guaranteed.

The affordable housing

The New Domino project resembles Atlantic Yards in that both were presented as take-this-project-or-leave-it special zoning actions, in the case of AY a state override of zoning and in the case of the Williamsburg project a zoning change.

And the justification of the size of the latter project was the inclusion of 660 affordable units (30%), with a large majority of them--80% of the units--aimed at helping the truly needy, households earning up to 60% of Area Median Income (AMI).

That's a significant contrast with Atlantic Yards, where 40% of the affordable rentals would be up to 60% of AMI.

But that housing comes with a trade-off regarding scale and, I believe, a significant asterisk regarding financing.

Housing trumps local concerns

Sure, there's an argument for affordable housing, but, as Ward Dennis of Community Board 1 wrote, the developer got what it asked for:
For anyone who supports a progressive approach to land use and planning, yesterday's Domino vote was nothing short of a disappointment. (And judging by the large number of people who submitted testimony to the City Council and City Planning Commission against the Domino proposal - they easily outnumbered supporters - there are a lot of disappointed people in Williamsburg today.) Despite very strong community support for a better plan, the rezoning that the Council passed is essentially the rezoning that the developer asked for. There will still be at least 2,200 residential units, and there will still be hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail and office space. And yes, those impacts are still offset by the developer's pledge for 660 units of affordable housing (a maximum of 30% of the project) and a new 4-acre waterfront esplanade.

The changes that were made to the development side of the project really amount to rearranging deck chairs. They certainly don't address any of the core objections raised by Community Board 1 or Borough President Marty Markowitz (who still has issues with the project). The height of the two tallest towers are reduced by 60' each (to 34 stories), but that floor area is just reallocated within the development site. And one of the few changes made by City Planning - reducing the height of one of the office towers - is undone by the Council. The net effect is no reduction in density, no offsetting of the per capita reduction in open space for Williamsburg (a "statistical fractional decrease" in the words of the developer - an actual reduction in available open space to you and me), no mitigation of shadow impacts on Grand Ferry Park or neighboring row houses, and no improvements to an overburdened transit system (other than a shuttle bus to make it easier for Domino residents to get to the overburdened transit system).
Dennis did cite some city concessions, including a commitment to continue funding the Tenant Anti-Harassment Fund, the funding of a district-wide transportation study, and money for parks and a community cultural center.

Subsidies needed

What about the affordable housing? According to the Land Use, Zoning, and Public Policy chapter of the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the New Domino:
The proposed project would support City goals relating to the creation of affordable housing and waterfront revitalization by creating a substantial amount of affordable housing in accordance with the Mayor’s housing plan and PlaNYC.
So how to pay for it? The market-rate condos are supposed to cross-subsidize the project, and they do, but here's the rub: the project, like Atlantic Yards, needs subsidies, and will be competing with other projects.

And just as the Atlantic Yards Development Agreement allows delays for subsidy unavailability, I suspect so too there would be delays in Williamsburg.

The developer's fact sheet (from January 2010) seems pretty vague:
Developer will memorialize and commit to this affordable housing program with the City in a legal document to be prepared jointly by counsel for HPD, DCP and the developer.
That's where to look for the loopholes.

I posed several questions to the New Domino developers, including whether the 660 units had to be built in ten years, whether the timing or number of units is subject to subsidy availability, and whether the developer--as in some Community Benefit Agreements--was required to put money in an affordable housing fund up front.

"I apologize, but no one is available at CPC Resources to answer this inquiry," spokesman Richard Edmonds responded.

Markowitz on permanent affordability

Borough President Marty Markowitz offered some criticism amid overall praise:
In keeping with my recommendations, I am pleased that a request for additional parking has been removed, the ‘shadowing’ impact on Grand Ferry Park has been reduced, there were efforts made to locate a school at the site and affordable housing has been included as part of the final plan. However, it is disappointing that not all of the affordable housing is guaranteed to be permanent, and there is no legally binding commitment to build elderly housing or a supermarket.

Additionally, my recommendation for possible artisan and creative economy spaces was not included, and rather than cutting towers as was done by City Council, I had requested cuts on the upland block which were not adopted, including height reductions and more rear yard open space to provide better quality of living for what would likely be affordable apartments.
Thea affordable housing is not guaranteed? I followed up, and Markowitz spokesman Mark Zustovich said, 'To our knowledge, there is no legally binding document that guarantees permanent affordable housing above 20 percent."

Susan Pollock, the developer's point person, however, told Community Board 1 in March, "We realized that the 2005 waterfront rezoning requires permanent affordable housing.”

It's unclear, however, whether she meant that all of the affordable housing--30 percent of the housing--had to be permanent.

Parking issues

I've referred to the parking requirements in the Atlantic Yards project as PlaNYC 1950 and, while the New Domino would be better, it still looks backward.

Noah Kazis of Streetsblog wrote:
In terms of transportation, the developer has now promised to provide shuttle buses to nearby subway stations. With room for 1,428 cars, the project is far from a model of sustainable planning, but with the fight over New Domino now at a close, it's worth remembering that livable streets advocates won some real improvements during the land use review process: the shuttle buses and last month's reduction in off-street parking. The bottom line remains, however, that with 1,428 parking spaces, this is an auto-oriented development.
Who's the developer?

The Architect's Newspaper, Daily News, and Observer all referred to CPC Resources or Community Preservation Corporation Resources (CPCR).

The Times, which already published a correction regarding the number of affordable apartments and the reduction in tower heights, called it "the Community Preservation Corporation." Not quite.

The New York Post blog cited "the development team of Community Preservation Corporation and Isaac Kataan," getting the former's name wrong and misspelling Katan's name.

More precisely, CPCR is the for-profit subsidiary of the not-for-profit Community Preservation Corporation, and the managing partner of The Refinery LLC, a group that also includes the Katan Group. The latter does not have the greatest reputation, as I wrote 6/30/07.

Though CPCR states it has sole decision-making responsibility for the development, as I wrote, there may be pressure to build more units and build taller to deliver the return that Katan seeks, even if the decisions are being made by CPCR.

The lobbying totals

For details, go to NYC Lobbyist Search, maintained by the Office of the City Clerk and search on "The Refinery." The total over five years is $2,465,891.78, according to my calculations.

Most of the sum goes to the law firm of Herrick Feinstein; most of that goes less to classic lobbying than rewriting land use documents. Still, the lobbying total far outweighs the resources any community groups have had to question the project, especially since the city signed on.

2009 = $502,658.70
The Refinery staff lobbyists $5,821.90
Herrick Feinstein $308,416.80
Geto & de Milly $60,000
LoCicero & Tan $64,000
Kasirer Consulting $60,000
Patricia Zedalis $4420

2008 = $896,519.35
The Refinery staff lobbyists $27,227
Herrick Feinstein $598,792.35
Geto & de Milly $120,000
LoCicero & Tan $98,000
Kasirer Consulting $52,500

2007 = $488,921.43
The Refinery staff lobbyists $49,900
Herrick Feinstein $260,021.43
Geto & de Milly $120,000
LoCicero & Tan $59,000

2006 = $409,655.50
Herrick Feinstein $369,655.50
Geto & de Milly $40,000

2005 = $168,136.80
Herrick Feinstein $168,136.80

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