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As revamped New Domino plan (from SHoP and Two Trees) proceeds, planner suggests closer look at housing, open space, and jobs

It's time for another look at the New Domino development in Williamsburg, partly because it's the second-largest project in Brooklyn after Atlantic Yards, and partly because the changing plans, promises, and players (and journalistic inattention) in some way follow the AY template.

Consider the 10/17/13 New York Times article At Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Site, Waning Opposition to Prospect of Luxury Towers, which essentially called for resignation:
It is the consummate landmark for 2013 Williamsburg: a monument of the Brooklyn neighborhood’s industrial past that a developer has decided to transform into luxury high-rise buildings, knowing that people will pay to live in them for the unmatched views, the industrial-chic glamour and the neighborhood, the most up-and-coming of them all.
The Domino Sugar refinery, whose colossal machinery fell silent for good in 2004, is known across the East River in Manhattan for the neon “Domino Sugar” sign that presides over its sooty brick walls. Now the factory, which opened in the 1880s, is seen as a turning point for a neighborhood that has drifted far from its working-class roots. Some neighborhood advocates say the development plan, which the New York City Planning Commission is expected to certify next week to begin the public review process, could become a model for socially responsible development; others believe it could be the final stroke for the gritty, intimate Williamsburg they have known.
Many residents are simply resigned to the march of glass-and-metal luxury towers down the East River. If the Domino site must be developed, the thinking seems to go, the latest plan, a $1.5 billion Two Trees Management project, may be the best that can be hoped for.
“The fact of the matter is, this neighborhood’s changed so much in the last 10 years, and I don’t necessarily see it stopping,” said Matthew Viragh, the owner of Nitehawk Cinema, a popular independent movie theater a few blocks from the factory. “If Two Trees doesn’t develop this, somebody else will, is sort of my mentality, unfortunately.”
And ended with a quote from Jed Walentas of Two Trees:
Besides, there may not be much of a choice. Though the public review process will most likely begin early next year, Mr. Walentas emphasized that if his plan was not approved, Two Trees had a right to build the previous design.

“There are lots and lots of folks that think there’s too much density on the site,” he said. “Some of them are realistic about the fact that that debate is over.”
What's the debate?

That's a remarkable framing, which suggests there's no difference between the 2010 plan by Community Preservation Corporation Resources and Rafael Viñoly Architects and the proposed version from Two Trees and SHoP Architects, which designed not only the revamped Barclays Center but is also designing the first Atlantic Yards towers.

The new design has "more parkland, more office and retail space" and, while the proposed towers are taller than the earlier proposal, "they are also thinner, with giant cutouts that Two Trees says will allow views and light, preserving a sense of continuity with the neighborhood."

Two Trees will not segregate the 660 planned affordable units in separate building, though nearly one-third will be in the first, inland tower. The Times reports:
A small but vocal protest group, Save Domino, has tried to harness the affection for the building among younger residents with social media and eye-catching protests... The group has an ambitious alternative plan: buy the site and turn it into art galleries, a science center and affordable housing. Its leaders say they have at least one committed investor, but it is unclear whether they will have enough money or whether they can persuade Two Trees to sell. (Mr. Walentas says the site is not for sale.)
Looking at the numbers

But it took a post yesterday by urban planner Brian Paul, a producer of the Domino Effect movie, to break down what he calls "TWO TREES’ HOLLOW PROMISES."

Paul praised the commercial space and commitment to non-chain “neighborhood” retail and, though he thinks the plan is too big, he focused in this case on evaluating housing, jobs, and open space. Firest, he explains how the plan has changed, with Two Trees now asking for 236,515 additional square feet.

What does that mean to the developer? Paul calculates an extra $5.9 million in commercial rent annually, while the height premium on residential should be at least $5 million+ annually.

Thus, "It is conservative to estimate that the additional height and density proposed by Two Trees at Domino would net the firm at least an additional $100 million in revenue over 10 years."

Maybe Two Trees disagrees, but these numbers must be part of the conversation, rather than "the debate is over."

Affordable housing, open space, and jobs

Paul points out that there's a huge mismatch between the official measure for affordable housing, Area Median Income (AMI), and the actual income in Brooklyn Community Board 1. He notes that the 2010 proposal had 510 of the 660 units were for 60% AMI or lower, with significant numbers of two- and three-bedroom units.

Those "promises were formalized by a non-binding 'memorandum of understanding' that Two Trees has said it will not follow." Remember, the Atlantic Yards promises were also in a non-binding MOU.

While Two Trees promises “660 units of affordable housing,” Paul points out that that number is less than the originally promised 30%, the floor area is less, there'd be "only a handful of two-bedroom units" and zero three-bedroom units, and few units at 40% AMI, with the rest at higher income.

He writes:
If Two Trees wanted to build with the local community in mind, they would keep all AMI’s at 60% and lower, and build fully 30% of the floor area as affordable housing to allow for more two bedroom apartments and the inclusion of three bedroom apartments for families.
While there would be two more acres of open space, most "would be taken up by the proposed extension of River Street through the site as a 'private drive.'" Also, though the Times described it as "more parkland," most would be privately managed.

Also, while the commercial space would help create “3,000 new jobs,” Paul notes that it's "intended for companies in the tech and new media sectors," jobs held mostly by "young white men," not the working class residents of Williamsburg, many people of color and foreign born, who've relied on factory jobs.

Impact fees and the future

Paul warns that a shuttle bus to the L train--the previous plan only had a shuttle to the J--means an increased burden on an already overcrowded station. His message:
New York City is so far behind best practices in development and planning. We need to start undertaking comprehensive urban planning in order to make sure that growth is equitable, sustainable, and rational in relation to the greater public interest. If developers like Two Trees want to build thousands of units on the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront, the cost of the improved infrastructure should not rest wholly on the regular New York City taxpayers. It’s not a radical proposition.
The Bloomberg era is over. This project will be the first ULURP to greet our new Borough President, City Planning Chair, Council Speaker, and Mayor. This project will be their first opportunity to send a message that the old Bloomberg way of doing business, of huge giveaways to the real estate industry at public expense, is over. 


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