Monday, March 04, 2013

The new New Domino is a bold new plan everyone seems to like, but the devil's in the details

The old vision
The New Domino plan for the Williamsburg waterfront, taken over by DUMBO-famed developers Two Trees Management after CPC Resources faltered, has been transformed with several new benefits and, crucially, made a good bit larger.

As the second-largest development plan in Brooklyn after 22-acre Atlantic Yards, the 11-acre New Domino has even more similarities than it did when announced in 2007: the role of SHoP Architects, brought in to rescue/revive another plan, and the persistent public relations services of BerlinRosen. (At less than half the size of Atlantic Yards, it would take 15 years to build. Note that AY could take 25 years, despite many promises of ten years.)

The new vision, from even higher in the sky;
notice extended height of southernmost tower (r.)
and obscured sibling tower just behind it
What was once proposed as a fairly symmetrical ensemble of boxy residential towers that accentuated the restored 19th century factory (via Rafael Viñoly) would become a more dramatic collection of taller, thinner, more interestingly shaped buildings, including an office tower to accommodate workers in Williamsburg, increased open space, and perhaps the same amount of affordable housing.

The news coverage has been uniformly positive, with reporters even cheerleading.


The Daily News's headline was On the waterfront: Domino Sugar factory to get office makeover and more than 2,000 apartments 660 affordable apartments, parks - and a floating pool in the East River, citing 3,500 jobs in the 600,000 square feet of office space, as well as a commitment to independent retail.

“It meets all the community’s major needs — affordable housing, jobs and open space,”  Community Board 1’s Jason Otano told the paper. “I think it’s a winner. The open space--probably not actual park space--would grow from 3.29 acres to 5.25 acres, thanks in part by taking the space once proposed for a tower.

Presumably an even bigger set of buildings that provided similar results also would be a winner.

Looking more closely

OK, it's an interesting look. But when there's a spot rezoning, you have to keep your eye on the ball.

They're not just bringing jobs, housing, open space, waterfront access, and dramatic architecture. After their predecessors got a spot rezoning--permission to build way bigger than before--Two Trees is asking for even more buildable space. That means another trip through the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), crucially before the Bloomberg administration leaves office

Maybe that's justifiable, especially adding office space to a neighborhood starved for it. But it should be subject to scrutiny, and some math. (Williamsburg's Neighbors Allied for Good Growth opposed the original New Domino plan as too big. And it's still adding lots of density far from the subway.)

Also in question is the affordable housing. Two Trees claims a commitment to the 660 units promised, which would be slightly less than the 30% promised.

But I've seen no coverage yet of whether "affordable" would merely conform to city programs (and thus be unaffordable for many locals) or whether it would aim at a larger percentage of lower-income households, as initially proposed. If so, does that imply a city commitment for more subsidy per unit than for other projects?

And while SHoP's uber-confident partner Vishaan Chakrabarti admits the plan isn't contextual, he asserts, with more legitimacy than tact, "Contextualism is an opiate for the masses."

If so--and the waterfront is surely a place to push the envelope on contextualism--we'll need some street-scale renderings a little more comprehensive (and from the neighborhood to the east) than those distributed in the coordinated media push.

Also, as the Wall Street Journal's Eliot Brown pointed out, Chakrabarti in his earlier days was both more contextual and, at least regarding the areas studied for his 1993 master's thesis, less bottom-line oriented:
Land use planning should emphasize the social needs of the city, including the clear need for affordable housing. Physical intervention should be sensitive to the existing scale of the city, with an emphasis on regulating height, streetwall, and block structure rather than expression and materials. Land consolidation should be illegal after a specific threshold, which could easily be determined through analysis of a city's typical block size.
... Proponents of large-scale urban redevelopment have yet to prove that such projects "trickle down" wealth.
How much bigger? 

The plan involves only building a tower 598 feet, nearly 50% taller than the previous 40-story limit, plus, according to Crain's, two 590-foot towers linked by a bridge. There would be 2,284 apartments, up from 2,220 as passed (not necessarily down from 2,400, as one report says, though 2,400 was once proposed) and 630,000 square feet of office space, up from 100,000.

Below is the comparison chart produced by Two Trees, which says the approved plan *was* 2,400 units, and also adds open space in its calculations:

Given that it was announced at 2.86 million square feet and now would be 3.3 or 3.4 million square feet, my math says that's a gain of 440,000 or 540,000 sf, though the flacks, according to one reporter, say it's just 272,000 zoning sf or 230,000 gross square feet, the size of a medium-sized building. NY1 reported:
"The existing plan has about 3 million square feet of built space, and our plan is very much in the same ballpark," said Jed Walentas of Two Trees Management Company.
How much is that worth? TerraCRG says residentially-zoned Williamsburg development property goes for $160 per buildable square foot, which (using 272,000) adds up to a $43,520,000 value.

But Two Trees' Jed Walentas told the Brooklyn Paper that office space would rent for less than half that of residential space, though ultimately it would, in the Paper's paraphrase, "creat[e] a vibrant atmosphere that’s alive at all times of day, eventually making the project more profitable."

Then again, commercially zoned industrial buildings in Williamsburg went for $135/sf and in East Williamsburg for $252/sf, according to TerraCRG, so any numbers need an adjustment.

Beyond that, presumably the waterfront location and insta-iconic architecture also would add value.

The Domino Effect's take

Wrote Brian Paul 2/16/13 on the blog of The Domino Effect, the documentary about the project:
Is it really possible that a private, for-profit developer like Two Trees could want to re-establish mixed use on the waterfront? After the 2005 rezoning was expressly designed by the Bloomberg administration’s Department of City Planning to cater to developers? After paying $185 million for the Domino Sugar site?
I believe the answer is yes, with an asterisk. First, the asterisk is that Two Trees will likely want to build at least one very, very tall tower of luxury residential. Perhaps as tall as 60 stories. It should be noted that this kind of height would be completely antithetical to the vision of the 197-a community plan, which always called for strictly contextual building heights.
Yet such a tower of mammon could be the key that unlocks the rest of the parcel to much more diverse mixed-use development. I feel the need to note here that this hypothetical tower of mammon would be totally unnecessary if not for CPCR and Isaac Katan’s incompetence and greed in flipping Domino from a $55 million land cost to a $185 million without a dime of improvement to the site. City government should have never agreed to the rezoning of Domino without a viable financial plan for development. As a result, Two Trees is forced to overcome this sunk cost that could have been much lower.
Architecture trumps all?

New York Magazine critic Justin Davidson declared Oooh, Williamsburg: A so-what plan is trumped by daring:
It's hard to argue that [Walentas's] motivator is greed, since the new proposal whittles away some market-rate apartments, keeps all the affordable units, adds less-profitable offices, shuts out megaretailers in favor of small stores, and increases the open public space by almost 60 percent. Maybe Walentas really wants what he says he wants: a round-the-clock New Dumbo... Yes, the new Domino would mean more creeping Manhattanization, but that sure is better than the alternative: the New Jersification of Brooklyn.
It may not be greed: Two Trees is known for long-term thinking, and has some deep pockets. But his motivation surely isn't eleemosynary, either. The devil will be in the details. (Also, I'm not sure that O-shaped buildings signify Manhattan rather than Rem Koolhaas's Beijing.)

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