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Can Two Trees Kill “Condoburg”?

Might we finally see an alternative to endless waterfront condos?

 

Can Two Trees Kill “Condoburg”?

The Potential of Mixed-Use Development at Domino Sugar

 

In December, Two Trees held a round of community meetings in Williamsburg to help inform their new development proposal for Domino Sugar.

 

Two Trees recently released a summary of their findings (http://www.scribd.com/doc/119980448/Community-Input-for-Domino-Site) from these meetings and the results are quite intriguing.

 

Much of the community’s feedback is a direct critique of the “condoburg” type of monotonous development that has dominated in the neighborhood since the 2005 rezoning (i.e. luxury condos/apartments with retail space at street level, typically occupied by Duane Reade, CVS, or a pan-Asian restaurant, or no retail space at all).

 

Participants in Two Trees’ workshop bemoaned the lack of commercial spaces for “new creative economy business or light manufacturing.” They lamented that monotonous residential construction is transforming Williamsburg into a “commuter suburb” and destroying the neighborhood’s dynamic mixed-use character.

 

On the subject of potential commercial space at Domino, community residents called for a minimum of 500,000 square feet to establish a successful economic cluster of “new creative economy” and light manufacturing businesses. A mixture of many different sizes of space should be available to facilitate the ability of local businesses to grow in place. Some participants suggested that the Chelsea Market – with food businesses at ground level and office/light manufacturing above – might be a good model to follow. Others suggested that some kind of educational cooperative like 3rd Ward or General Assembly would be a good fit. Participants agreed that big box and chain stores should have no place in any development at Domino.

 

Two Trees’ Workshop Summary Echoes the Old 197-a Community Plan

 

Intriguingly, these recommendations closely align with those made by the community during the 1990′s and early 2000′s as expressed in the Williamsburg Waterfront 197-a Plan (http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/pub/197will.shtml). As development pressures on Williamsburg began to increase in the 1990’s, the community decided to take the initiative and lay out a vision for how development could complement, rather than overwhelm, the existing neighborhood.

 

The community board secured the services of the Pratt Center for Community and Environmental Development and the Municipal Arts Society for professional assistance and held dozens of community meetings and visioning workshops over the next year, submitting the completed 197-a for approval by the city in 1998. Williamsburg’s community plan for the waterfront emphasized two main themes: the need for more public recreational space and the desire for contextual, mixed light industrial and residential development to complement the existing economic and social diversity of the neighborhood.

 

Rather than propose a continuous Battery Park City style stretch of esplanade-tower development,  Williamsburg’s 197-a  calls for the development of light industry and affordable housing on the waterfront to preserve and enhance the existing community:

 

“develop well designed, high quality industrial buildings that are compatible with housing and open space…[like the] hotels industriels of Paris—mixed use, multi-tenanted industrial facilities…Capitalize on development opportunities along the Williamsburg waterfront to create a mixed-use community…Particular attention should be paid to rezoning to encourage high performance light manufacturing and job retention.”

 

If Two Trees is at all serious about incorporating the suggestions that emerged from its Domino planning workshops then we may be on the cusp of a new model of waterfront development, one much closer to the mixed-use vision proposed by the Williamsburg community before the age of Condoburg began with the 2005 rezoning.

 

Is Two Trees Serious?

 

Is it really possible that a private, for-profit developer like Two Trees could want to re-establish mixed use on the waterfront? After the 2005 rezoning was expressly designed by the Bloomberg administration’s Department of City Planning to cater to developers? After paying $185 million for the Domino Sugar site?

 

I believe the answer is yes, with an asterisk. First, the asterisk is that Two Trees will likely want to build at least one very, very tall tower of luxury residential. Perhaps as tall as 60 stories.  It should be noted that this kind of height would be completely antithetical to the vision of the 197-a community plan, which always called for strictly contextual building heights.

 

Yet such a tower of mammon could be the key that unlocks the rest of the parcel to much more diverse mixed-use development. I feel the need to note here that this hypothetical tower of mammon would be totally unnecessary if not for CPCR and Isaac Katan’s incompetence and greed in flipping Domino from a $55 million land cost to a $185 million without a dime of improvement to the site. City government should have never agreed to the rezoning of Domino without a viable financial plan for development. As a result, Two Trees is forced to overcome this sunk cost that could have been much lower.

 

Keeping this potential 60 story tower of plutocratic penthouses in the back of our minds, I believe Two Trees is indeed serious about developing a significant portion of the site as mixed-use. As I wrote when Two Trees first acquired Domino, the firm is a believer in what I call “Jane Jacobs Gentrification” – deliberately subsidizing a variety of independent local businesses that it believes enhance the long-term livability (and hence value) of the neighborhood. Unlike most real estate developers in New York – especially the fly-by-night LLCs that have built many of the shoddy Condoburg projects– Two Trees understands that the mindless pursuit of the highest possible short-term return is not good for anyone, even developers. If short-term profit is the priority in real estate, this leads to the “self-destruction of diversity” that we see with the Condoburg model. In the long term, much of the New York’s historic economic productivity is based on the creativity and innovation engendered by an eclectic mix of peoples and activities.

 

Two Trees is no saint. In DUMBO the firm has been dogged by accusations that they have “used” artists and small entrepreneurs to create an attractive neighborhood environment, only to eventually replace them with higher paying residential tenants. I am also concerned that Two Trees will choose to emphasize tech startups over much needed light industrial and artisan spaces.

 

Nevertheless, it is highly encouraging that the firm is seriously exploring mixed-use plans for Domino Sugar and taking the time to listen to the local community perspective.

 

How ironic it would be if a mixed-use development model for the waterfront  – the vision of the community’s original 197-a plan — emerges from a private for-profit developer instead of from the City government, the entity that is supposed to represent the public interest.

 

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