Analysis: Domino Approved

The City Council approved the New Domino rezoning yesterday, making some modifications along the way. The final rezoning can now be summed up in three words:

It’s still big.

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).

In short, the New Domino continues to employ a new math – one that says that 5,000 to 6,000 market-rate (i.e., luxury) tenants somehow won’t permanently change the character of a working class Latino neighborhood (prediction – it will). At 2,200 units (minimum), Domino will increase the local population by about 20%. And that assumes that all 330 of the affordable housing units set aside for residents of Community Board 1 go to residents of the immediate neighborhood (prediction – less than half that number will).

There are some truly positive changes that came out of the Council negotiations, all of them courtesy of the city (and your tax dollars).

First off, there is the city’s commitment to continue funding the Tenant Anti-harassment Fund. One of the effects of the gentrification of Greenpoint and Williamsburg has been increased harassment of tenants, particularly those in rent stabilized or rent controlled apartments. The addition of 1,540 new market-rate units is only going to make the problem worse on the Southside. A consortium of community groups has been fighting this trend – with very tangible results – for a few years now. Now that initiative will continue. The question is, will the initiative continue through the development of the entire Domino project (a ten-year horizon), or is the City just going add a year or two onto the project?

The other big win for the community is the funding of a district-wide transportation study. Again, pretty dry stuff, but this is something the community has been asking for for over 7 years (since well before the 2005 rezoning). We’ve seen the results of ad hoc transportation planning, and they aren’t pretty. Done right, a district-wide transportation study might even lead to a comprehensive transportation and transit plan that will address some of the burdens that projects like Domino (and many, many others) will bring to this transit-poor neighborhood.

There are other benefits for the community at large, including additional capital funding for parks and a capital contribution to a community cultural center (Northside Town Hall, I believe). Of course these promises get added to the long list of promises from the 2005 rezoning (many of which remain unfulfilled). And the big thing that the City could have done to mitigate the reduction in open space Domino is bringing to the neighborhood – creating new parkland – remains a dream.