TWO TREES AT THE COMMUNITY BOARD
Last week, on Wednesday November 13, the Two Trees Domino roadshow hit Community Board 1 for the first required public hearing of the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP).
Despite their official role in the ULURP, Community Boards are not provided with the funding necessary to hire their own planners to objectively analyze and evaluate proposals. So unless there are planners who are board members and have the time to engage, or local non-profits with staff or volunteers able to, there is no one to objectively scrutinize proposals and hold developers accountable.
Since I’m a planner who’s been following the Domino development for many years, I feel compelled to engage in the process and offer a counter-analysis to the skewed self-interested version presented by the developer. I have no personal grudge against Two Trees and in certain ways – namely the inclusion of significant commercial space and commitment to non-chain “neighborhood” retail – I actually think the Two Trees plan is superior to the Community Preservation Corporation’s.
I continue to believe that 3 million+ square feet is far too much for this site, and in an ideal world at Domino we would be considering creative alternatives that would find greater synergy with the existing local economy and community…an industrial/creative business incubator, a new university branch (there’s clearly demand – see the Roosevelt Island tech campus), a combination of such developments with 1,000 units of mixed-income housing – the possibilities are limitless if we stop insisting on shoehorning 3 million square feet of development into this site.
But let’s for a moment concede that Two Trees is likely to proceed with a plan that generally follows their proposed framework. If we set aside the issues of density for the moment and simply evaluate the Two Trees proposal on the basis of its touted public benefits of “affordable housing” “jobs” and “open space,” it becomes clear that these measures fall far short of truly benefitting the public and local community. If Two Trees is truly interested in building for the long-term benefit of this community, the public benefits should be defined, strengthened, and locked into a binding restrictive deed.
In the following, I’ll outline precisely how the Two Trees’ current proposal is failing the public and how it could be strengthened to actually live up to the promises the developer is proclaiming.
Has the plan changed since its debut last Spring?
As a result of the extended back-and-forth with City Planning, the Two Trees plan has undergone certain modifications from the version that was presented to the community last spring.
Two Trees Proposal 3/13
Two Trees Proposal 11/13
|Commercial Office SF||
|Additional Total SF from 2010 Plan||
|Height of Site A (northernmost site)||
|Height of Site B (large “donut” building)||
|Height of Site D (southernmost site)||
538 and 598
435 and 535
|Height of Site E (inland site)||
While the residential square footage remained almost the same, the proposed commercial office square footage dropped by about 20% from over 630,000 to just over 500,000. Retail square footage dropped slightly and community facility square footage increased by about 15%. Overall, Two Trees is now asking for 236,515 additional square feet compared to the 2010 plan. The number of proposed parking spaces was further reduced to 1,050.
Compared to the initial proposal, the maximum height of the southernmost towers next to the Williamsburg Bridge is reduced from 598 feet to 535 feet, so the development now tops off at the southern towers and the large “donut building” at roughly 53 stories. The height of the inland building was also significantly reduced from 230 feet to 170 feet.
The overall programming and scope of the development is pretty much the same however, and the Community Board was presented with a very similar slideshow to the one first presented back in March and April, presented by Jed Walentas and Vishaan Chakrabarti of SHOP Architects.
What is the value of the requested action?
One of the first things that anyone evaluating a ULURP proposal should consider is “what is the value of the action?” How much does the developer stand to gain from the zoning change?
This is a critical piece of information when thinking about the public benefits that should be included in the proposal. Yet under the current ULURP regime, it is almost never asked.
Two Trees is asking for additional height and density to be added to a zoning that is already significantly more dense than the rest of the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront. Even after the negotiations with City Planning, the plan requests an additional 236,515 square feet – essentially equivalent to added another 20 story building to the site – and an additional 19 stories into the sky.
The 236,515 square feet Two Trees is requesting is commercial space projected to rent at $25 a square foot (per year). This translates into an extra $5.9 million annually. Then there is the value of the additional height in the building. Higher floors in a high-rise luxury residential building are clearly valued at a premium over lower floor. Most estimate this premium to be about 1% each floor. The additional height will clearly add significant value to the apartments, at least $5 million+ annually (consider just a 10% boost in value to 1,000 apartments that would have rented at $5,000 a month but rent at an average of $5,500 a month instead due to the height premiums means $6 million extra in rent)
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.
How can developers sell the public on granting additional development rights without also increasing the public benefits?
As Phil DePaolo explained so well in his WG News column last month, developers in New York have grown accustomed to selling their plans to the public with deceptive practices akin to those employed by cereal companies like Kellogg’s when marketing sugary cereals like Honey Smacks or Cocoa Krispies.
Promises of affordable housing” “open space” and “jobs” are proclaimed over and over again and reinforced by glossy renderings and official-looking tables of numbers supposedly representing the benefits. At public hearings, the developer always presents first and is allowed unlimited time to set the tone, establish the parameters of discussion, and sell the audience on the project. This is a depressingly familiar script to anyone who has attended a ULURP hearing and the story was once again the same last week at Community Board 1.
Let’s take a look at Two Trees’ golden promises of “affordable housing” “open space” and “jobs” and see how they stack up to reality:
“Affordable housing” was of course the primary selling point of the original 2010 Community Preservation Corporation “New Domino” plan. Community Preservation Corporation won the support of numerous Southside churches and community organizations including Los Sures and El Puente by promising that “660 units, 30% of the total.”
The exact definition of “affordable” is established by targeting the units for the incomes of households making a certain percentage of the “area median income” (AMI), which is unfortunately established by looking at all the households in New York City and its suburbs and picking out the exact middle of the distribution – which in 2013 is currently $85,900 for a family of four. If an affordable housing unit is targeted at households making “60% AMI”, the rent levels will be affordable for a family of four with income of 60% of the AMI of $85,900, or $51,540. “Affordable” is considered 30% of income, so one can get to the average monthly rent by multiplying the income of $51,540 by 0.3 and dividing that by the 12 months in the year, leaving us with rents of $1,288 a month.
The gaping flaw in this system of establishing “affordable housing” is that for gentrifying neighborhoods in New York City, the area median income is far lower than it is for the entire region.
In Brooklyn Community Board 1, the AMI is only $41,540. In plain English, that means that half of all community households make less than $41,540. This means that in order to get the “affordable housing” to actually be affordable to the majority of community households in Community Board 1, it has to be targeted at 30% to 50% AMI. 60% AMI will be helpful to some in the community under pressure from displacement, but anything higher than 60% AMI and we really can’t consider it “affordable housing” for Community Board 1 in any meaningful sense of the term. Just like those Honey Smacks in reality can never be considered “part of a balanced breakfast.”
Back in 2010, the Community Preservation Corporation was promising 660 units broken down as follows: 100 apartments at 30% AMI, 100 senior housing units at 50% AMI, 310 apartments at 60% AMI, and 120 “affordable home ownership” units at 120% AMI. So while only the 100 apartments at 30% AMI would reach the majority of those in need, at least 510 of the 660 units were for 60% AMI or lower. Not ideal, but markedly better than most other development proposals in Community Board 1. Community Preservation Corporation was also promising a diverse mix of apartment sizes with significant numbers of larger 2 and 3 bedroom apartments.
We must remember that the promise of this affordable housing, this specific offering of affordable housing at lower income levels and large sizes, was what brought out community organizations in support of the 2010 plan. Community Preservation Corporation would have never won the rezoning of Domino Sugar at such density if it was not for the political support of Southside community organizations and Councilmember Diana Reyna. It is that simple. But unfortunately, Community Preservation Corporation’s promises were formalized by a non-binding “memorandum of understanding” that Two Trees has said it will not follow.
Nevertheless, Two Trees, the inheritor of the Domino site and its lucrative zoning with the promise of hundreds of millions if not billions of profit, has a lot to owe those Southside groups.
As a result, Two Trees is “promising” to fulfill the oft-repeated pledge of “660 units of affordable housing.” But the developer is banking that the Williamsburg community is complacent, distracted, or ignorant enough to accept that at face value.
Here’s the reality check of Two Trees’ “affordable housing” pledge
- Since Two Trees is proposing over 2,200 units, “660” affordable units now represents less than the promised “30% of the total”
- Two Trees is requesting that only the residential floor area of the development be counted towards its allocation of affordable housing and is committing to allocate only 20% of it.
- Since the Two Trees proposal reduces the residential square footage compared to the 2010 plan by 160,639 feet, Two Trees is actually proposing less affordable housing than is locked in under the existing zoning.
- Do the simple math on the square footage Two Trees wants to allocate to affordable housing and we find that Two Trees’ average affordable unit will be less than 700 square feet large. (2,281,666 of total residential square footage X 0.2 (20%) = 456,333 divided by 660 units = 691 square feet each unit)
- This was confirmed at last week’s meeting when we learned that Two Trees wants to build only a handful of two-bedroom units at Domino and no three-bedroom units at all.
- Two Trees is promising only a handful of apartments at 40% AMI and the rest will be significantly at higher incomes, leaving out those households that are under the most displacement pressure.
- One positive measure Two Trees is taking is the promise that all affordable units will be fully integrated and indistinguishable from market rate units.
- No commitment to fund the “Mobilization Against Displacement” collaborative to help alleviate secondary displacement that the project will undoubtedly accelerate.
In sum, the “affordable housing” plan has absolutely nothing to offer the low-income families of the Southside that are being pushed out of the neighborhood by gentrification. Families with children struggling to get by at incomes of $20,000 to $40,000 will have no relief from displacement pressure by anything proposed by Two Trees’ Domino. Affordable housing is supposed to be the golden promise to help counter gentrification and allow the existing community to share in the growth of the neighborhood, yet this plan shuts them out nearly entirely.
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.
With a new Mayor taking office who’s dedicated to changing the direction of the city to foster more inclusive growth and development, there’s no reason not to expect that the City could contribute more resources to ensure that the Domino affordable housing is actually affordable. If Two Trees’ has to lose a few million in profit in order to accomplish this, that should be part of doing business in this City, especially when the developer is poised to make huge profits off a rezoning that would have never gone through if not for the efforts of affordable housing advocates.
“Open Space” is the second major selling point of the plan, and Two Trees is proudly proclaiming that their plan provides an additional 2 acres of open space compared to the 2010 plan.
But looking at the details, the majority of this additional space would be taken up by the proposed extension of River Street through the site as a “private drive.” 1.31 acres of the claimed additional 1.98 acres is taken up by the additional streets and sidewalks. Taking this into account, the Two Trees plan would do nothing to improve the abysmally low open space ratio on the Southside.
Then there are concerning issues of just how public the open space will be. Two Trees is noncommittal to transferring the new River Street over to the City and is opposed to turning over the other public spaces at Domino to City Parks. This raises the question, why would the community prefer a slightly larger piece of private open space to the public open space promised by the 2010 CPC plan?
Moreover, renderings and diagrams Two Trees has created to illustrate uses at the proposed “Domino Square” (the large open parcel that is the company’s justification for building taller) depict flea markets, banquets, and cocktail parties where public access would clearly be restricted and curtailed. The constant occupation of East River Park by these private uses is spurring considerable controversy in Northside Williamsburg.
It is completely unclear how often the proposed “Domino Square” will be occupied by this kind of event programing, how curtailed the public access will be when these events are taking place, and what kind of access local community organizations will have to hold events. And if the “public” spaces are privately owned and operated by Two Trees, will they have the right to establish their own rules and regulations governing access and uses? Will Two Trees have its own private security patrolling the “public space”?
Maintaining the public spaces in private hands is a dangerous precedent to set on the waterfront where public access and ownership has been a core promise of City government for decades. Two Trees should commit to turning over the public spaces to the City and be very clear in establishing how access to “Domino Square” will be decided and regulated.
Other actions that Two Trees could take in support of open space in Williamsburg include making a financial contribution to the development of “Williamsburg Bridge Park” on the city-owned lots under and adjacent to the bridge. Two Trees has already claimed they will “support” such efforts but they have not committed to financially contributing. Two Trees could also make a financial contribution to the further development of Bushwick Inlet Park just up Kent Avenue from Domino. Both of these actions would be true “win wins” – increasing Two Trees’ property value at Domino while contribution to meaningfully expanding open space in Williamsburg.
JOBS AT DOMINO
The final aspect of the holy trinity of promised community benefits is “Jobs.”
One of Two Trees major selling points is the provision of an additional 405,570 square feet of commercial office space in the development that will help create“3,000 new jobs.” But just as we must ask “affordable housing for whom?” we must also ask “jobs for whom?”
All of the public comments Two Trees has made about the proposed office space indicates that it is intended for companies in the tech and new media sectors. The developer holds up Vice Media as an example of the kind of company it’s office space will be geared for.
So who will be holding these promised 3,000 new jobs? The answer is mostly young white men. American Community Survey data tells us that more than two thirds of workers in the tech and media sectors in the New York City area are white. Only 8% are Hispanic/Latino.
Yet Two Trees has not proposed any programs or efforts to try to improve the access of communities of color to career opportunities in the tech sector. Community Preservation Corporation had committed to job training programs in the 2010 plan but there has been total silence from Two Trees on this issue. In addition to job training, access to affordable broadband access is a major issue for working class-communities. Two Trees could make a valuable contribution by offering free- wi-fi access throughout Domino’s public spaces and community facilities.
In contrast to tech and media jobs, the workforce for industrial jobs is majority people of color and foreign born. Two Trees could commit to preserving a portion of the commercial space at Domino for light industrial businesses. There is also the issue of the numerous lots directly north and inland from Domino that remain zoned M-3 for industrial uses. Will Two Trees support maintaining the industrial zoning or will it seek to rezone these areas for more residential and retail?
Beyond making sure the advertised community benefits of “affordable housing,” “open space,” and “jobs,” are actually meaningful, there is also the issue of the development’s impact on local infrastructure.
In hundreds of other cities across the country, it is common practice to assess developers “impact fees” to help pay for new and improved infrastructure.
According to Two Trees, the proposed development is expected to generate roughly 2,000 additional subway trips during weekday rush hours, roughly 650 more than the 2010 CPC development. These numbers assume only 55% of trips to the site will be by subway or bus, while in Community Board 1 as a whole, over two thirds of trips are made by subway or bus, so the additional subway trips may be considerably higher than Two Trees is projecting
While Community Preservation Corporation pledged to create a shuttle bus to the Marcy JMZ stop to reduce pressure on the Bedford L, Two Trees is proposing shuttle buses to both the Marcy JMZ and Bedford L. The Bedford L station is already dangerously overcrowded. If Two Trees is going to run a shuttle to the Bedford L, the developer should commit to help fund improvements to the station to alleviate the dangerous overcrowding that already occurs at rush hours. The work that would make the greatest immediate impact would be the construction of additional stairwells to the station from the street at Bedford Avenue. Two Trees could also help lobby for the City to undertake a comprehensive transportation study of North Brooklyn.
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. The rezoning of Midtown East that was being pushed by the Real Estate Board of New York, another proposal with very vague and unclear public benefits, was just killed by the City Council last week. The status quo is already changing.
Unless Two Trees starts lay out specific substantive community benefits that will be legally locked-in to this project, the Community Board should send a message and vote NO.