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Airing of Grievances

For those that missed it, a week ago Tuesday (14 September) Community Board #1 voted to approve the Two Trees’ River Ring with a host of conditions. The discussion at the Board meeting was entirely about the merits of voting “no with conditions” (as the Land Use Committee recommended) or “yes with conditions”. There was no discussion about the conditions or even the project itself. For what it’s worth, my experience is that “no with conditions” gets a lot more attention from the public, press and elected officials. “No with conditions” means “we can’t approve this project unless these changes are made”; “yes with conditions” means “we generally like this project, except for these things”. But – and here’s the key – whether or not the conditions actually get acted on depends a lot more on the quality of the conditions and whether or not they are actionable, and a lot less on whether you are saying “yes, but…” or “no, but…”. Presumably BP Adams and CM Levin are looking to the Community Board for guidance, but they gave none – just a list of conditions with no discussion of why, no discussion of Board priorities (open space, affordable housing, YMCA – what’s important to keep?), nothing that actually helps the elected officials understand the CB’s thinking.

I had seen the conditions put forth by the Committee at the September 7th meeting and assumed that these would be incorporated into an actual resolution that discussed the merits and drawbacks of the project. I figured it would be unfair to comment on just the conditions without the full committee resolution to put them into context. But the report (read it here – it was not a resolution) from the Land Use Committee was really just an airing of grievances followed by the list of demands. No discussion of which aspects of the project the Committee liked, what they didn’t like, and most significantly – why.

So, what about the conditions? Here’s my take:

Condition #1: Two Trees must rent all affordable housing units in their 1 South 1st Street development to honor prior community affordable housing commitments.

Two Trees should do this, but more importantly they also should just explain (clearly) what the hold up is. As I understand it from this article and others, this is a dispute between various housing agencies and Two Trees regarding AMIs, rent stabilization and other issues, but it isn’t about TT reneging on its commitment to build affordable housing. But it doesn’t help TT (or people who need affordable housing) to have these units vacant.

Condition #2: Reduce total number of apartment units in the project by 33%, to reduce the anticipated increased load on existing overcapacity on subway transit, vehicular traffic, pedestrian traffic, wastewater and with street sanitation storage and collection, and open space.

Absent any discussion or analysis, this number is incredibly arbitrary. I’ve already said that the density should be reduced to match the high-rise density on adjacent waterfront sites. This is a smaller site than Northside Piers, the Edge and all of the Greenpoint waterfront developments, so a blended FAR doesn’t make any sense. By the same token neither does a one-third reduction (which would be less density than on the surrounding blocks). Knocking out 300 units of housing doesn’t solve any of the problems it purports to, and probably makes the whole project unviable. It certainly would make a lot of the really nice things about the project (open space, affordable housing, the YMCA, small-scale retail, etc.) unviable.

Condition #3: Increase the number of total affordable units to 50% to support deeper diversity and affordable living in the neighborhood.

I’ve already said that this should happen – didn’t attach a number because this is not my expertise. 50% is a worthy goal, though probably unachievable without a substantial increase in government subsidies. I would be very interested in seeing an analysis of what an achievable level of affordability on a larger project of this type is. In other words, the developer cross subsidy should account for X%, tax abatement should account for Y% and direct government subsidies should top out the Z% – does that reasonable add up to 35%? 40%? 50%? The CB resolution doesn’t provide any rationale for seeking 50% – it also doesn’t take a stance at all on the levels of affordability, which seems really weird. Would the CB be OK with 50% affordable at 130% of AMI? That meets the letter of their condition.

Condition #4: 60% of affordable units must be 2 & 3-bedroom units to encourage long term family occupancy.

Family-sized units are always in short supply, but I think that this condition could only be met if 60% of ALL of the units in the development were 2 and 3-bedroom units. MIH requires that the developer provide the same mix of affordable and market-rate units. For better or worse, the market determines the unit-size mix of affordable units. (It is also not clear that studios and one-bedrooms don’t also provide long-term occupancy – again, what is the problem that the CB is trying to address here?)

Condition #5: Within all affordable units one bedroom must be a minimum of 128 square feet to comfortably accommodate bedroom furniture, a closet and efficient movement throughout the room.

Sounds good, but not sure what the issue is here (again, an actual Committee resolution laying out the issues would really help). Are apartment bedrooms in general too small? Is this an issue with affordable housing units? Why 128 sf?

There aren’t a ton of rentals in the waterfront towers (all condos), but seems as though most listings, especially the two bedrooms, do have at least one bedroom that is larger than 128 sf. Example here from 1N1 – but based on a broader perusal of listing, 125 sf seem to be about the minimum. Again, what is the issue you are trying to fix here?.

Condition #6: The City of New York must include funding for the full completion of Bushwick Inlet Park in their 10-year capital plan so the fully operational park can help mitigate the existing severe local open space deficiencies that will persist if this project is built out and the massive population increase from the quantity of current and future local waterfront housing developments.

100%. The City should have funded this 16 years ago. If the City wants to see projects like River Ring – not even this project, but projects like it that provide affordable housing – the City need to live up to their promises and build the parks and other community benefits that they promised to. The fact that we are still advocating just to have the City do what it promised to do in 2004 is just a damning indictment of “planning”. Sadly, this is not something that Two Trees has much control over. Perhaps some leverage, which they should exert.

Condition #7: The project must use a fossil-free energy source such as a geothermal heat loop system instead of a natural gas reliant system for heating, which will work to have the project more aggressively meet the challenging but critical goals of the New York City Climate Protection Act, Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act and those set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Also 100%. The project is already miles ahead of any other private development on the waterfront in terms of forward-thinking resiliency, energy efficiency, reducing carbon footprint, etc. (something that the CB resolution makes no mention of). Geothermal heating/cooling is not a new technology (I first saw it in 2000 on a project in Tribeca) – I’m sure there are scale issues on a project of this size, but if any developer has the money and will to make this happen, it is this one.

Condition #8: Redesign the towers so that they are significantly less obtrusive and oppressive in feel and fit more contextually with nearby structures and better connect with the historic fabric of the neighborhood.

What does this even mean? The context for this site is every other waterfront development, which is 40+ stories. I’m on record not being terribly concerned about height. For me, a well-designed 60-story building is far better than a generic 40-story building. And most of our waterfront is generic 40-story buildings modeled after Battery Park City – a 50-year-old paradigm! (which is most of our waterfront). Full-block developments that cut off the community from the waterfront and make crossing the street feel like you are entering into private enclave is not good urban design. 40’ waterfront esplanades with 10’ “buffer zones” in front of someone’s condo unit is not good urban design. None of this is contextual, stop trying to close the barn door. Sure, reduce the density and let the height follow, but cutting height for height’s sake (or because it is not “contextual”) is silly.

(I’m also already on the record as being underwhelmed by the architecture proposed for this development. I would love something better and more refined. But – the renderings are not determinative. The rezoning is to approve height, massing, open space, affordable housing and a lot of other things – but NOT design. TT could get an approval and change the design (or the architect) a week later. This is not a bad thing – they have done this to very good effect at Domino.)

Condition #9: Two Trees must negotiate in good faith with the New York City & Vicinity District Council of Carpenters to ensure the project adheres to the safest and best construction work practices.

I thought the unions were already on board? They testified in support of this project at both public meetings.

Condition #10: Two Trees must negotiate in good faith with local workforce organizations in order to provide service jobs for local job seekers.

Yes, another 100%. Pretty sure this was done at Domino.

Condition #11: Two Trees must provide funding in perpetuity for a local, independent agency or organization to oversee and enforce the rental fees and increases of affordable and market-rate apartments.

What does this mean? “Rental fees”? Does that mean rents? The rents at the affordable housing units are already heavily regulated, and under the new 421-a regulations the market rate units are part of the rent stabilization program. Who does the CB think should add onto these layers of regulation?

Condition #12: Two Trees and the City of New York must present and execute a plan to manage the steadily increasing volume of street trash that has come with the incredible volume of additional area residents that the project will exacerbate.

As a neighbor, this is a big quality of life issue. It is much worse along 184 Kent, Northside Piers, the Edge and MPJ/Bushwick Inlet Parks than further south, but nowhere is clean. The City in general and especially in the past year or two has just given up on sanitation, IMO (Ida was bad, but could have mitigated a bit if every storm sewer wasn’t full of trash). I hate to say it, but we need a BID –every development (condo board and developers) should be paying into trash pickup from Broadway to North 10th and the river to Wythe Avenue. The City has clearly just given up – at least until the next administration.

Condition #13: Before being granted any rezoning, Two Trees must present community facility architectural design plans which verify that the YMCA facility will serve the stated purpose and promise of serving both the Williamsburg and Greenpoint communities as well as 250 school children annually; it must show that the size and location of the facility elements including pool, locker rooms, saunas, facility/pool access including elevator, pool depth and lane width, lifeguard station, staging area and pool equipment, weight rooms, full gym arena, and exercise rooms are adequate as a full service facility for the communities. The community facility must be built out and in operation before the building can be occupied as a rental.

Sure, why not. The developer said at the public hearing that they had already developed test-fit plans. Make them public (not determinative (and not the Y’s plan), but something).

But what is the concern here? There is an underlying conspiracy theory (voiced by many neighbors) that the Y is just a big bait and switch. Somehow, TT is going to turn this YMCA into a tenant amenity for the oligarchs (and MIH residents) with no access for the public. Every community benefit/public amenity should be codified. But the way to do this is through the zoning (is the YMCA a required community facility space?) and through deed restrictions (X square footage of the space must be dedicated to a publicly-accessible physical culture facility in perpetuity).

If you don’t trust the developer to build the Y, demanding to see floorplans is a really ineffective way of holding them to account. Get it in the zoning, get it in the deed.

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Thoughts on River Ring

River Ring – the proposed rezoning by Two Trees of the former Con Ed site at Metropolitan and River Street – kicks off its ULURP review with a Community Board 1 Land Use committee meeting on Wednesday. Hopefully the CB recommends for changes but does not follow the lead of those who want to kill the project outright. This is a chance to rezone one of the last waterfront parcels on the East River, locking in a significant open space connector, affordable housing and more.

First off, this site should be residential. Period.

River Ring master plan

River Ring Master Plan
via FieldOps

There is no valid public policy reason to leave this zoned for heavy manufacturing. It should be smaller (floor area), which will make it shorter (not a big deal for me, but everyone else keys on the height). The open space is visionary and should be a model for future waterfront development – every developer should be held to this standard. It has everything community activists have been clamoring for and will connect the Southside waterfront and the rest of the neighborhood. There should be more affordable housing and it should be more affordable. 30% to 35% of the units, at a project-wide average AMI of 40%.

Hopefully CB1 supports the residential zoning *with* conditions. As they did for the 2010 Domino Rezoning (pre-Two Trees). In 2010 the CB did not say that residential use was inappropriate at Domino – rather that developer was trying to supersize the density. They should say the same thing here – support residential use, affordable housing and open space, but see it done better. (This would also be consistent with CB1’s District Needs statement, which lists affordable housing as the top TWO (of three) key issues for the community. It would also be in line with CB1 recommendations on other waterfront projects – Kedem Winery (420 Kent), Certified Lumber (Rose Plaza) and Shaefer Landing. Saying that this one parcel should be kept as M3 zoning doesn’t make sense in light of all these prior recommendations.)

There really is no valid public policy reason to leave the former Con Ed property zoned for M3 (heavy manufacturing). What kind of residential and how much can be debated, but if you are arguing to leave this as manufacturing you are not engaging in an honest debate. (The only other valid use I could see here is a public park. That would cost upwards of $300M for acquisition and construction – given the City’s track record at Bushwick Inlet, I’m not holding my breath. Not to mention that Parks would never build a build a waterfront park to the level of quality and design that Two Trees is proposing.)

This site should have been rezoned for residential years ago. In 2005 Domino was still in operation and it made sense to leave the area from Bway to N3 as manufacturing. But Domino closed shop just as that rezoning was going through, making the M zoning has been an anachronism. 11 years ago, when the first Domino Rezoning came through CB1, I asked why the City wasn’t developing a plan for the whole area – I still think that they should have. But instead, these parcels have been rezoned piecemeal – zoning, not planning, once again is the norm in NYC.

How much residential? I do think that the density being proposed is too much. Not a lot too much, but a bit too much. Back of the envelope, maybe 10% too much – the zoning should be straight R8, 6.5 FAR with the inclusionary bonus, same as the rest of the waterfront towers. (Yes, the waterfront sites from the 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront rezoning have a blended R6/R8 zoning, but on zoning lots that are 2 to 3 times the size of River St. and go all the way out to Kent/West. Blended zoning here would kill the affordable cross subsidy.)

Two Trees is also seeking a zoning waiver to reduce parking below what is required by zoning. Grant it. More parking means more cars, there is solid documentation for this. And more parking also means less affordable housing, there is solid documentation for that too.

In terms of the overall proposal, I love the waterfront access and open space. Field Ops design is truly transformative and is pretty much everything that open space advocates in the community have been asking for for years. It is resilient, both diurnally and annually. It is the first truly resilient open space on 4 miles of waterfront. It brings the public to the water without bulkheads, wharves or “get-downs”. It avoids the use of rip-rap and other unfriendly barriers between people and the water. The design reuses the pod wharves from the Con Ed site in creative ways to deal with the tides and currents of the East River. Most importantly, it CONNECTS the waterfront – the Northside esplanades to Grand Ferry Park, something that I and others have been advocating for years now. And it does so in a way that is a thousand times better than the waterfront esplanades of the 2005 rezoning. (Like at Domino, Two Trees promises to maintain the park rather than turning it over to Parks Department to manage – that is a very good thing too.)

(Also worth noting here for the proponents of leaving the M3 zoning intact – there is no requirement to provide waterfront access under the existing zoning – this property falls outside the Waterfront Access Plan, which requires public access to the waterfront. If an as-of-right development were to provide any waterfront access (and they don’t have to), it could be 100% private. No public access, not even an esplanade.)

As for the architecture, OK, meh. For me, BIG’s whole schtick is about, well, big ideas with no nuance. The massing here is fine – yeah, the towers are ginormous, but any reduction in FAR will quickly knock off a lot of those small floor plates. Cut back the FAR 10% and I bet the height drops by 25% or more. I‘ve never been an opponent of height on its own. Everything on the waterfront is out of context with the neighborhood, but the overall urban design here is so much better than the 2005 paradigm.

The buildings from the 2005 rezoning – 40 stories with large floor plates on blocks that 400’ deep to the river set in semi-private compounds – are more offensive in terms of urban design than what is proposed here. Take a walk down South 1st from Kent and compare that to a walk down North 5th from Kent. The Battery Park City model on which the 2005 rezoning was based is just not good urban design, especially on very deep blocks, and 1 South 1st is great proof that taller buildings on smaller floorplates are more pedestrian friendly.

On affordable housing, there should be more. 30% to 35% at an overall average 40% AMI. Maybe this is unrealistic with existing subsidies & inclusionary housing, but if the city, state and feds aren’t going to build affordable housing they should at least pay others to do so. (Keeping this site zoned M3 means no affordable housing at all. 200+ units won’t be built under an M3 (or M-anything) scenario.)

And please, change the name.

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9 August 2021

Lightstone Lands $77M Construction Loan for W’burg Moxy Hotel [✜]

Still getting used to the idea of a hotel on the Southside. I guess the lenders are good with it.

8 August 2021

Sunday Routine: How the Owner of a 24/7 Diner Spends Her Sundays [✜]

One of the best Sunday Routine Times' stories I've seen. I didn't know that Chris Siderakis - owner of Kellog's Diner - had died. His wife Irene took over the restaurant about three years ago. She seems to be doing pretty well at it, pandemic and all.

Mugs Ale House to Reopen as Meg's Ale House [✜]

The rebirth of a mother Northside classic. Here's hoping that this is a good thing.

4 August 2021

Greenpoint Ferry Riders May Be Stranded Until May 2022 [✜]

This is nuts. LendLease, the new owner of the India Street pier, likely won't be able make the Greenpoint ferry stop operational for a full year.

And this tidbit is just too rich - "A shuttle bus was offered from India Street to Hunters Point South, however citing low ridership, NYC Ferry discontinued it on June 9th."


Is Rockefeller Center Trying to Become the New Williamsburg?

First Rough Trade moves to Rockefeller Center, now Samesa?

Is Rockefeller Center trying to become the new Williamsburg?

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Acme Smoked Fish Expansion Approved by City Council [✜]

Speaking of the Bushwick Inlet IBZ and its rifeness with office space, City Council approved the rezoning of the Acme Fish site on Banker Street. Rubenstein Partners and Gensler architects - the same team that developed/designed 25 Kent Avenue - is behind this proposal. (25 Kent, by the way, is really a quite wonderful experience. Needs more people obviously, but the architecture and (in particular) urban design are quite nice.)

Cayuga Capital selling Williamsburg assemblage for $65M [✜]

I will always think of this as the Fast Ashley's building (on North 10th), or the movie truck building (on Wythe), or Tony's aquarium loft (on North 11th), which I guess became Beacon's Closet). Big assemblage - almost 1/3 of the block - in the Bushwick IBZ, which is already rife with hotels and commercial office space.

27 May 2021

Greenpoint Ferry Landing Closed “Until Further Notice” [✜]

So the East River ferry's only service to Brooklyn is at North 6th Street. This is working out great.