FULL SPEED AHEAD AT DOMINO AS COMMUNITY BOARD HOPS ABOARD THE TWO TREES EXPRESS
Reynoso comes out in support, Levin pulls a disappearing act, and Domino developers succeed in winning Community Board approval with weak “conditions” attached
Last Tuesday, December 10th 2013, Brooklyn Community Board 1 voted overwhelmingly in favor of approving a “Yes with conditions” vote on Two Trees’ Domino project. The vote was roughly 20 to 25 in favor, 4 against. Councilmember-elect Antonio Reynoso announced his official support of the project for the first time and Two Trees’ Jed Walentas and David Lombino celebrated immediately after the vote by distributing a press release announcing the project’s continued progress.
Although I was optimistic that the Board might take a stronger stance against Two Trees after the Domino public hearing held on 11/21/13, the development is once again shaping up to be a prime example of the pitfalls of the New York City land use process.
The Land Use Committee’s resolution was developed by committee chair Del Teague (affiliated with local non-profit People’s Firehouse) and Rob Solano of Churches United for Fair Housing. According to those present at the land use committee hearing, which was held 11/25/13, Solano was the driving force behind the resolution and decision to vote “Yes” with conditions.
The “conditions” accompanying the “yes” vote are as follows (my paraphrasing):
- Mandate that Two Trees include 660 units of affordable housing as at least 500,000 square feet of floor area
- Lock in the shape and size of the buildings as presented by ShoP architects
- Two Trees must partner with local non-profits, as soon as the project is approved, to assure adequate local recruitment and education of local residents and commercial tenants
- Two Trees must offer incentives and “reasonable preferences” to local businesses for the commercial spaces
- Affordable housing will include three bedroom apartments and breakdown by units as follows:10% studios, 25% one bedrooms, 50% two bedrooms, 15% three bedrooms
- Affordable housing AMI’s shall range as follows: 30% less than 40% AMI, 25% less than 60% AMI, 25% less than 80% AMI, 20% less than 125% AMI.
Compare to the comprehensive community benefits I testified for and those advocated for by El Puente (which included assuring the open space would be publicly owned, that Two Trees pay a into a Southside Parks Fund Endowment, incorporate renewable energy and on-site recycling, incorporate real community-run facilities, and memorialize all of this in a binding community benefits agreement with oversight) and this list of “conditions” is rather meager indeed.
Requesting that 660 units of affordable housing be locked in through a restrictive deed is a good step but 500,000 square feet is only slightly more than the 456,333 square feet (20% residential floor area) proposed by Two Trees in their technical memorandum. 500,000 square feet of affordable housing would represent less than 17% of the total built square footage of the project and only 22% of the residential square footage. If Two Trees were to build the range of units proposed by Community Board 1 this would result in fairly small apartments – the average affordable apartment would be 757 square feet, making it difficult to fit in 65% of the 660 units as two and three bedroom apartments.
And under the Land Use Committee’s proposed AMI levels, only 55% of the affordable housing units would be affordable to the majority of Community Board 1 households.
Other than the conditions for affordable housing, there is nothing solid in the Land Use Committee’s report on the crucial issues of open space, job training, and infrastructure. And despite any conditions that are attached, a “Yes” vote by the community board will be interpreted as support for the plan and will be reported as such in the media. At the future steps of the ULURP process, the “Yes” vote will be constantly invoked by Two Trees as evidence of local support for their proposal. The nuance of voting “Yes” with conditions will be lost.
I was under the impression that both Councilmember Levin and the soon-to-be Councilmember Reynoso wanted to achieve a better deal for affordable housing and community benefits than Two Trees is currently proposing. It would stand to reason that a “NO” vote on this project would give the Council Members greater leverage in negotiating for better public benefits.
Yet before the vote was taken, Reynoso announced his support for the Land Use Committee’s resolution and for Two Trees’ project overall. But he noted that “in saying that, it doesn’t mean we are’ not going to hold them accountable to our requests.” How Reynoso plans to “hold them accountable” after seemingly surrendering the vote in the City Council, his only bargaining chip, remains to be seen.
At least Reynoso was present at the meeting however, which could not be said of Councilmember Steve Levin. Levin was apparently not involved in the Land Use Committee’s drafting of its resolution, where he could have had a considerable influence working with Del Teague and other members of the board to produce a much stronger committee report. By failing to influence the Land Use Committee’s report on Domino, Levin appears to have abdicated his role in the approval process.
Before the Community Board vote was finally taken, board member Esteban Duran spoke against the Land Use Committee’s resolution, lamenting the lack of more specific commitments to the community and urging the board to learn from its past experience with developers like the Community Preservation Corporation, who made many promises but then failed to deliver. He specifically noted the lack of a binding community benefits agreement and community oversight board. After Esteban spoke, Rob Solano addressed the board, once again urging a vote in favor because of the dire need for affordable housing.
The vote was taken and only Esteban Duran, Tom Burrows, and two others (it happened so fast I couldn’t see who they were) voted against the resolution. Certain other members of the board who may have been inclined to vote “no” told me that although they were disappointed with the Land Use Committee’s report, they saw no purpose in voting “no” because voting “no” would not allow an opportunity for the Board to reconsider and draft stronger recommendations.
After the vote, Antonio Reynoso left the room, stopping to give Two Trees’ Jed Walentas and David Lombino a handshake and pat on the back on his way out.
In the end, as is usually the case with New York City development, the public process at the Community Board level was theater with the closing act prearranged. Two Trees met with the Southside’s most prominent “affordable housing” advocates– Los Sures Southside United HDFC (led by Ramon Pigeuro) and Churches United for Fair Housing (led by Rob Solano) in early 2013 and apparently won their support by promising to maintain “660 units”. Solano in particular has been quoted as supportive of Two Trees in nearly every article that has been written on it.
This pattern of local non-profit organizations working out deals with developers in advance of the ULURP process has been a constant at Community Board 1 for many years and is not unique to either Los Sures or Rob Solano.
As another longtime observer of Community Board 1, Heather Letzkus of “New York Shitty” described it recently after observing the process on Greenpoint’s 77 Commercial Street project:
“A great many of the community organizations here, while certainly founded for laudable reasons, seem use these proceedings not so much to reflect the sentiments/interests/needs of the community they represent. Rather, they are a means of getting a “cut” of the action. Thus time is spent debating how many angels can sit on the head of a pin instead of examining “the larger picture” in any meaningful fashion.”
New York City developers have become highly skilled at dividing communities by promising relationships with certain community organizations in exchange for their support. They take advantage of these organizations’ constant struggle for resources and keep them focused on reactive short term dealmaking instead of long term community planning.
It is worth pointing out that El Puente, with its Greenlight District Initiative and its extensive suggestions for improving community benefits in the Domino plan, is a promising exception to this pattern.
But overall, the City is in desperate need of an overhaul of the land use review process. Specifically, the new administration must develop an open and transparent process for negotiating community benefits agreements and must ensure that all such agreements are always legally binding and enforceable. One intriguing notion discussed at a recent meeting of Participatory Budgeting NYC was the notion of using participatory budgeting to develop community benefits agreements. What an incredible improvement that would be over these backroom negotiations between nonprofits, developers, and Councilmembers.