An analysis by: Brian Paul, Writer for The Domino Effect
Last month, after reading Two Trees’ summary of their community meetings, I wrote a hopeful piece on the future of the Domino site called “Can Two Trees Kill Condoburg?” Community input was highly critical of monotonous sterile condominium developments. Participants in the meetings asked for space for “new creative economy business or light manufacturing.” This echoed the call of the 2002 “197-a” community plan that envisioned high performance light manufacturing within high quality mixed-use buildings.
I was optimistic that Two Trees might come up with an innovative plan including one or two tall towers for profit-generating condominiums, devoting the rest of the site to relatively human scale mixed-use development, but I worried that light industrial/artists spaces might be left out in favor of office/tech space. Thinking of what Two Trees has done in DUMBO, I was expecting the plan to integrate into the existing Southside neighborhood in a more appropriate way than CPC’s plan proposed to do.
Was I ever wrong about that. On Monday, March 4, Two Trees unveiled a proposal for Domino including four audacious towers approaching 60 stories in height. It is a shocking transformation of the site, and by extension of the entire neighborhood, into a Battery Park City on Beijing-Dubai steroids. On its northern end adjacent to Grand Ferry Park, the plan envisions a commercial office tower with a residential tower abutting it. The next building is the most radical of the bunch, a 60 story “donut building” that will be all residential. While the stated explanation for this design is to help open the neighborhood to light and air, the “donut” will allow for some truly spectacular condominiums completely encircled by windows and those million dollar views. The landmark Refinery building, looking almost identical to the CPC design, will be entirely office space, supposedly geared “toward the creative and tech industries.” More questions need to be asked about the price of these spaces and whether or not light industrial firms, artist studios, and other less lucrative types of uses that are desperate for space in the neighborhood will be welcome here.
To the south of the Refinery is now a public plaza where CPC would have placed one of its 34 story towers. This plaza is the selling point for allowing Two Trees to build up to 60 stories instead of just 34 or 40. Putting more square footage in the other buildings allow this area of the site to open up. To the east of the plaza, another “donut” type building that appears to be 15-20 stories high will be built at the site across Kent Avenue that used to the be plant’s parking lot. Finally, at the south end of the site adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge will be two slender 60 story residential towers. The rendering cleverly disguises the presence of the second of these towers hiding behind the first, making the plan appear less dense than it actually is.
Before we get to a more detailed discussion of the design, lets look at the nuts and bolts of what’s proposed to go inside these buildings.
This is the comparative table released by Two Trees. One thing I immediately find strange is that CPC’s plan is identified as proposing “2400” units while I was under the impression, as was the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/22/nyregion/developer-to-take-over-domino-waterfront-project-in-williamsburg.html) that the CPC plan called for 2,200 units. In The Domino Effect, Susan Pollock is on screen at Community Board 1 stating “we are proposing to build 2,200 units, of which 660, fully 30%, will be affordable to a spectrum of incomes.” So it appears to me that the Two Trees proposal actually calls for 84 additional residential units while losing 158,583 square-feet of residential space – meaning there will be a lot more studios and 1 bedrooms than in the CPC plan. And 660 of 2,284 units is 28.9%, not 30%. If the Two Trees plan was proposing 30% affordable housing, there would actually be an additional 25 units, for a total of 685.
The new plan proposes 631,000 square feet of commercial space while CPC’s plan called for 98,000. This is certainly an improvement but we need much more detail on the nature of these spaces – jobs for whom? Will the longtime residents of Williamsburg be included in the economic rebirth of Domino Sugar or will the spaces be purely for a new generation of tech venture capital? Two Trees has stated that rents for commercial space will likely average $25 per square foot, which is too high for many light industrial business who typically pay around $15 per square foot. Two Trees has also claimed they will be subsidizing rents for a certain number of businesses — as they do in DUMBO — but again, we do not know any details about how extensive this program will be.
The new plan increases open space by over 50% but the tradeoff is not only the height of the proposed buildings. The 631,000 of commercial space will attract 3,000 to 5,000 more occupants to the site daily, so this additional open space may be something of a wash.
The table lacks the details on affordable housing but Walentas has stated that Two Trees will abide by the promise of “660 units.” Even without the details on the affordability of these apartments (what income levels they will actually be targeted to, the mix of apartment sizes, etc), comments from Rob Solano and Jason Otano to the Daily News indicate that the promise of “660” seems enough to again win the support of the Southside Hispanic organizations and churches that supported CPC’s Domino Plan (http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/brooklyn/sweet-domino-sugar-factory-massive-makeover-techie-offices-2-000-apartments-article-1.1277452)
It’s important to point out, though, that whatever affordable housing Two Trees will include in the project will not be a gift. In exchange for incorporating 660 units of affordable housing, Two Trees will likely receive over $100 million combined in Federal Section 8 subsidies and low income housing tax credits, direct funding and low interest loans from New York City HPD/HDC, and 421a property tax breaks from New York City. With the commercial space, Walentas could also be eligible for commercial subsidies from the ICAP program, and for the esplanade Two Trees will likely receive additional monies from the waterfront infrastructure grants. “The Edge” – a much smaller development, received roughly $87 million in total subsidies so it’s quite fair to estimate a figure in the $150 million range for this proposed plan. This needs to be repeated and repeated whenever you can because the press never gets it. These waterfront plans are paid for by your tax dollars.
DUBAI ON THE EAST RIVER
Vishaan Chakrabarti of SHoP Architects, a tireless booster of mega-development, says the project “has the opportunity to be what the new Brooklyn says to the world.” SHoP (best known for redesigning the Barclay’s Center) and Two Trees apparently believe that the “new Brooklyn” should say “Asian totalitarianism.” The mega-scale futuristic donut construction immediately brings to mind such wonderful democratic architecture as the Chinese communist party’s Beijing TV station and the “Dubai Pearl” development.
Dubai Pearl (http://dubaipearl.com/info/inspired-masterplan)
“An integrated urban community, Dubai Pearl will be anchored by a dramatic tower, a new global landmark on Dubai’s skyline that redefines simplicity of design and efficient use of space. Column free rectangular space and forms will allow complete flexibility of use and capture unobstructed views. At street level, a low rise city centre will interact harmoniously with the symbolic tower and landscape to create a unique character and sense of place. An enjoyable and truly ‘walkable’ city.”
Can’t you imagine Susan Pollock of CPC delivering the same speech during the 2010 “New Domino” hearings? Real-estate fluffspeak is the new lingua franca.
FOXES GUARDING THE HENHOUSE
Vishaan Chakrabarti apparently also stated to a reporter that “Contextualism is an opiate of the masses.” Norman Oder of Atlantic Yards Report (http://atlanticyardsreport.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-new-new-domino-is-bold-new-plan.html) did a good job digging up a very different quote from Chakrabarti’s 1993 masters thesis, back when he was still one of the “masses”: “Physical intervention should be sensitive to the existing scale of the city, with an emphasis on regulating height, streetwall, and block structure…proponents of large scale urban redevelopment have yet to prove that such projects “trickle down” wealth.”
Since those days, Chakrabarti has learned that kind of talk is far less lucrative than being a cheerleading legitimizer for mega-development. His career in the last decade is an illustrative example of our City government’s control by the real estate industry. Chakrabarti was an urban designer for Skidmore Owings & Merril before running the Manhattan Office of the Department of City Planning during Bloomberg’s first term. He then became Executive Vice President of the Related Companies, one of the closest firms to City Hall and a recipient of hundreds of millions in subsidies and a constant winner of rights to develop public land. Now its ShoP and running the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University — a generously funded megaphone for the real estate magnates. Even his title as the “Marc Holliday Associate Professor” is named after the CEO of one of the city’s largest luxury developers, SL Green.
Many of the crew of Bloomberg operatives behind the 2005 rezoning of Williamsburg have merrily rotated through the revolving door between city agencies and elite real estate firms just like Chakrabarti (http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20130308/ECONOMY/130309882). Two Trees’ lead spokesman and public liaison David Lombino has done the same, (http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20120125/REAL_ESTATE/120129935) moving from working on the Bloomberg rezonings of Willets Point and Coney Island to his new gig working for Walentas. Considering that their cash flow is dependent on pleasing the brahmins of real estate, Chakrabarti, Lombino and their ilk should really be regarded as shills rather than “respected experts” of any kind.
The line between public and private is gone in Bloomberg’s New York where the developers are clearly in charge of land use policy at all levels. The fox is in the hen house.
THE MUTANT SON OF DONALD TRUMP AND JANE JACOBS
I suppose we should not be entirely surprised that Two Trees is pleased with SHoP’s Dubai-esque design for Domino. While David Walentas focused on re-purposing existing industrial architecture, the younger Walentas has shown much greater interest in modernist mega-construction. The Mercedes House on the far west side, with its audacious futuristic architecture, is a direct predecessor to the Two Trees Domino plan.
Jed Walentas’ ideology appears to be a mutant combination of Donald Trump mega-construction and Jane Jacobs appreciation for street life and disdain for commercial monoculture. Jed Walentas worked with Donald Trump right after college (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/01/realestate/jed-walentas-has-dumbo-on-his-mind.html) and the Trumpian taste for the megaproject seems to have rubbed off on him. Like his father and Jane Jacobs, he believes in the idea of neighborhoods and hates chain stores, but seems equally infused with the Trumpian ethos “If you’re thinking already, you might as well think big” and the Robert Moses’ mantra “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
Another bold young developer fond of mega-towers
Two Tree’s Domino proposal is certainly different than the bland imitations of Battery Park City that have prevailed on the rest of the Williamsburg waterfront and in CPC’s plan. And since the site was already rezoned for CPC’s plan, Walentas is now forcing us into a choice between his Dubai inspired design and the CPC design.
What a terrible failure of policy that we are left with a choice between transforming Domino Sugar into a either a bland facsimile of Battery Park City or a Dubai Sci-Fi version of Battery Park City. While Walentas’ plan is an improvement from CPC’s plan in offering a much greater amount of commercial space, it is grossly out of scale and out of context with Williamsburg and will completely flip the surrounding neighborhood into a luxury satellite of Planet Domino.
The popularity of neighborhoods like Williamsburg is due to their dynamic, mixed-use, human scale environments — the mega-scale, fascistic futurism of this proposal is anathema to everything Brooklyn stands for.
This epic failure is a direct result of the fact that the Department of “City Planning” does no actual “planning” and instead run by revolving door yes-men like Vishaan Chakrabarti at the behest of mega-developers like Walentas.
New Yorkers will continue to suffer the consequences of these mistakes until we wake up and demand better from our leaders.