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Vito Lopez invokes Jane Jacobs, says New Domino should be scaled down

So this is a day late, because I missed the first segment of Tuesday's Department of City Planning (DCP) hearing on the New Domino plan, and no one else bothered to report on it for a daily publication: Assemblyman Vito Lopez, invoking Jane Jacobs and the recognition of neighborhood complexity, called for a smaller plan.

A Lopez rep, reading the testimony, praised the Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) for its commitment to affordable housing, an issue dear to the Assemblyman's heart. But housing is just one element in the balance. So the battle isn't merely "class conflict," as hinted in the evening segment of the hearing and as summarized by Brownstoner.

The project--either 2400 units, as stated in the testimony, quoting the Draft Scope, or 2200 units as announced by the developer--would contribute to population growth sure to put a great strain on the already overburdened resources in the community such as sanitation, garbage collection, and transportation.

And the transit system would suffer:
With the L train already severely overcrowded, and the J and G trains overflowing during rush hour, drastic population increase can have only one of two results: a greater number of people driving through Williamsburg, or a significant increase in rider-ship on public transit lines. This coupled with Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed “congestion pricing” plan does not bode well for Williamsburg residents.

Questions of zoning

Lopez, the leader of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, is a savvy pol who's no stranger to backroom deals, as with the 421-a revision that includes the carve-out--the resolution of which has not been announced--for Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project.

So his stance on the New Domino should carry some weight. He does not assume that the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning should hold sway, noting that the City Planning Commission can limit height and call for lower density. Community Board 1 "has always supported contextual zoning both on the waterfront and upland sites," he stated, adding, "Commitment to moderate density and low-rise development is key to maintaining Williamsburg’s identity."

The Schaefer Landing project built on the former Schaefer Brewery site, according to testimony, includes nearly 40% affordable housing, while maintaining "a more reasonable height" of 25 stories. (Unmentioned: that was city land, so the costs were lower.)

The testimony continued:
Though much of the zoning allows for taller buildings along the waterfront, 40 story building should not considered the norm on the Brooklyn waterfront. Allowing for a drastic increase in height that blatantly ignores the contextual zoning of the neighborhood creates a dangerous precedent for inland Brooklyn neighborhoods that are committed to a low-rise, close-knit identity.

Paging Jane Jacobs

The testimony became Jacobsian, an implicit response to affordable housing advocates who prioritize one thing:
The tension between height, density, and affordability has persisted throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. It is the Assemblyman’s view that there should be a dialogue between the old, modernist sensibility and more organic urban theory espoused by planners such as Jane Jacobs. As much as affordability, space and the effect it has on place must be considered as we move forward. If there is anything that Jane Jacobs has taught us about cities, it is that we cannot simply solve problems through prescriptive measures but that neighborhoods behave like complex systems that communicate spatially, economically, culturally, and socially. We must ask ourselves if affordability must also come at the expensive of low-rise communities and if affordable housing must always be unusually high and dense to exist. While it is progressive and hopeful to imagine a new, economically integrated Domino, it may also be na├»ve to imagine that this can occur in extremely dense, spatially isolated ‘towers in the sky.’

Jacobs would not have called herself a planner--she attacked the profession in The Death and Life of Great American Cities--but she certainly has been an enormous influence on them since the book's publication in 1961. In the fall, the Municipal Art Society opens an exhibition on her legacy.

Make it smaller

Lopez called for "a major reduction in height to gain political and community support," saying the four planned towers, two at 300 feet and two at 400 feet, should each be reduced by ten stories, or 100 feet.

The testimony, however, didn't specify cuts in density--and shorter towers might redistribute, rather than reduce, buildable space--though the implication was that too large a population increase would strain services.

According to the testimony:
Until concerns regarding density, zoning, and neighborhood identity are addressed alongside affordability, Assemblyman Lopez cannot lend his support to CPC’s development of Domino Sugar.

More support

The New Domino plan has support not only from local activists concerned about affordable housing but some institutional heavyweights. Jerilyn Perine, Executive Director Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC) and former Commissioner of the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), backed the project.

She said:
First the transformation of our derelict industrial landscape must be a priority for zoning and land use decisions. Areas originally created to meet the needs of our old industrial economy, are now critical to meet the needs for housing and jobs in the 21st century and to create access to a waterfront that most New Yorkers have rarely seen.

She pointed to her role, as HPD Commissioner, in which the city transformed and demolished the Schaefer Brewery site so it could become Schaefer Landing:
At that time, the City had to incur the costs of the demolition of the old derelict buildings, initiate the environmental assessment and investigation ourselves, prepare the site for development, and prepare and obtain approval for all zoning changes that the project would require. Only after eliminating all of that risk could we attract a developer willing to undertake the project.

More housing needed

Perine also spoke of the overall housing market:
The second reason to support this project is that it will increase the overall supply of housing along with a significant component of affordable units. Please note that the development of market rate housing is critical to our city’s future. Not only is housing construction a key economic driver, providing direct jobs and significant local spending, the demand for housing in NYC is extreme and shows little signs of abatement, despite troubling indicators in the country’s housing market. The higher ends of the housing market will find a place somewhere. It can bypass the City altogether or push further into the older and more fragile housing stock. High rise market rate new construction doesn’t create housing demand, it fulfills it.

Yes, but that's also an argument for more systematic assessments of density, rather than spot rezonings for specific projects.

Rezoning redux

Perine pointed to some precedent:
The inclusion of 660 affordable units is obviously a unique opportunity that is rarely seen in a single project in NYC. Most notably it is important to understand that had this site been included in the Williamsburg rezoning it would not have been required to provide housing affordable to so many lower income households and at such low income levels....
And if the proposed changes to 421-a passed by the State Legislature are signed into law by the Governor, this project again would not only meet the requirement but would exceed it by providing not only the required affordable units, but additional affordable units, for low income senior citizens and homeownership opportunities for moderate income New Yorkers.

Historic preservation costs

Perine suggested a tradeoff between historic preservation and cost--and thus affordability:
I would further note that had the project not been required to incur the significant cost burden of retaining the existing sugar refinery building, there would have been even greater flexibility to either provide more affordable units or reach more households at even lower income levels. In addition if this portion of the site were to be included for new construction, the bulk could have been distributed in buildings with a lower height.

Pointing to 2030

While Lopez's testimony pointed to the importance of sustainability in achieving growth, Perine's focused on the need to accommodate that growth, a population increase of nearly 1 million people by 2030:
How will we make room for them?
Only by increasing density that actually expands the entire inventory of housing and by government using its land-use powers to increase the availability of buildable sites for a range of housing options can we hope to house our growing population.


  1. Is it just me or should someone be *really* embarassed that they mis-labeled Jane freaking Jacobs as an urban planner? I mean...come on.


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