THE WARM EMBRACE OF DENSITY: Two Trees and SHoP Pitch New Plan to the Public
Last Thursday evening, Two Trees’ Jed Walentas and ShoP Architects’ Vishaan Chakrabarti came down to The Woods in Southside Williamsburg to present and discuss their new plan for Domino Sugar.
This event offered Two Trees their first opportunity to gauge the community’s reaction and gain some understanding of potential opposition and support as the plan heads towards the public approval process. Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG) sponsored the meeting and Ryan Kounen acted as an informal MC.
Two Trees brought the inevitable tabletop model, along with some renderings and schematics, for folks to examine before their presentation. I have to note that there’s something about this scale model that makes the plan appear far more benign than it does in the renderings.
I think it has to do with the way that the surrounding blocks are modeled without detail in simple white cubes, making the neighborhood look like a blank slate for the imposition of the new vision.
There is something very insidious and dehumanizing about visualizing cities and neighborhoods through scale models. They are an effective tool for narrowing the focus to the proposed built design and reducing our consideration of the existing context of the new development.
But enough with this tangent on scale models.
After an introduction from Ryan, Jed Walentas took the stage to present and explain his motives and vision in Two Trees’ purchase of Domino Sugar. He repeatedly emphasized Two Trees’ superiority to other waterfront developers. Unlike the other guys, Two Trees is not interested in throwing up quick and cheap condominium buildings for the greatest possible short term return – “We want to own as much of this real estate long term as a we can, we want to build a prosperous long-term neighborhood here that’s integrated with existing parts of this community.
Walentas repeatedly criticized the model of waterfront development seen in the CPC plan or at Northside Piers and the Edge as “sterile” and “not a great urban plan.”
In contrast to the “privatized front lawns” of other developments, Walentas claimed that the Two Trees plan will bring people down to the waterfront through a diversity of open spaces uses and creating a new street down by the water. Its commercial space will “fill it [the development] up with energetic, smart, young creative people…some will be subsidized art studios and galleries like DUMBO but not all”
What Walentas seems to be doing here is attempting to sell his plan as an authentic outgrowth of the Bedford Avenue gentrification culture in opposition to the “sterile” towers and Duane Reade-Starbucks corporatism of the other waterfront developments. “What we can achieve here is something socially contextual…bars like this…while the density of the buildings won’t reflect it, their content will.” This is also seen in how Walentas presents himself, always dressing casual and carrying himself with little pretension, portraying himself as one who would fit right in with the young upwardly mobile creative professionals of the neighborhood rather than a stiff corporate suit.
He went into some detail describing the location of a “large scale recreational facility” (possibly a YMCA) in the Site E building (the parking lot across Kent Ave) and a school (but not an elementary school) in the base of the site B “donut building.
And Walentas reiterated the commitment to 660 units of affordable housing, stating that most of them would be “in the 60% to 80% AMI band.” This translates into affordable housing targeted roughly at the $45,000 to $65,000 household income range, a range that would entirely miss the bottom half of Community Board 1 households, most of whom make between $20,000 and $40,000 a year. But since this project will be all rentals, the 150 home ownership units of the CPC Plan which would have been targeted at 120% AMI ($100,000 incomes) will be out of the plan and replaced by more 60%-80% AMI rentals. There was no mention of whether lower AMI units might be included. For all its faults, the CPC plan at least had 100 units for 30% AMI ($25,000) which would be affordable for the majority of residents in the area, especially those most affected by displacement. The affordable housing issue will be one to watch as we’ve seen it make and break development proposals in the past.
Vishaan Chakrabarti then spoke about the site’s design and architecture and repeated many of the themes of Walentas’ presentation. Regarding the old CPC plan and Brooklyn waterfront development in general he said “We at SHoP basically view this as a crisis. We think it’s really deeply problematic what’s been built along this waterfront. I mean I supposed it’s good that housing is being built but architecturally we just fundamentally believe that this is a creative community, it’s part of New York City and it deserves better…We decided that it was important to try to break up that wall and do something different…If you take the same 3 million square feet, and that was the brief we were given that that 3 million square feet is a fait accompli, if you build on less land, that’s more height.” Chakrabarti described his plan as “embracing” the density.
This theme of the “fait accompli of density” was also repeated by Walentas when he was pressed by community questioning. “At the end of the day, either this project will make it through the process, or it will not and we will go ahead and build the CPC plan…We spent $185 million on the site and we are going to make a return.”
This attitude is what makes Walentas, as I said in our last blog, “the mutant child of Jane Jacobs and Donald Trump.” For all his talk of “great urban places with a mixture of uses and mom and pop stores,” he is equally committed to maximizing his profits by building huge, so huge that the proposed development threatens to completely overwhelm and transform the surrounding area.
Two Trees paid $185 million for the Domino site, which works out to $55 per buildable square foot considering their proposal for 3.37 million square feet. TerraCRG reports that the average cost for residential zoned land in Williamsburg in 2012 is $160 per build-able square foot (http://www.terracrg.com/reports/TerraCRG_Brooklyn_12_Market_Report.pdf). There are extra costs involved with the Domino site, including demolition and remediation, building a new bulkhead and esplanade, and renovating the Refinery. But much of this will undoubtedly be paid for by public subsidies. These facts lead one to conclude that a project of 2 million square feet, or perhaps even less, would be quite viable and profitable — just less so than 3 million square feet.
Most credible city planners or urban designers will admit that 3 million square feet is really a stretch for this site and its surrounding infrastructure, and 2 million or even 1 million would be much more appropriate. At a presentation I attended at Hunter College last year, one of CPC’s leading land use consultants agreed that the New Domino project was far too dense for its context.
Those who attended the 2010 public hearing at the City Planning Commission might remember Chair Amanda Burden cutting off discussion of the first “New Domino” plan’s profit margin stating “we don’t consider financials.” This is a terrible policy that precludes real understanding of land use and development possibilities. A developer cannot build without sound financials (see “Community Preservation Corporation”), and policy makers should be able to discuss and weigh the relative size of the development’s profit margin with the public impacts of additional density.
If Walentas is going to continue to proclaim that he wants to help build a prosperous long-term community, he must answer why he is insisting on building 3.3 million square feet and sixty story Dubai architecture, why he is insisting on building on a scale that will radically change the entire surrounding neighborhood that he claims to admire. If it’s not just a matter of greed, let’s see a credible set of financial projections for the cost of development, incorporating expected subsidies, that shows that 3 million square feet is necessary.
We’ve all seen how well things go when we let developers frame the debate and we “just trust them” to do what’s right for the community. Two Trees has thus far expertly framed the debate as one of their new plan versus the CPC plan and other “boring” waterfront projects. Let’s make sure not to get trapped in that box and to continue to base our judgment on sound urban planning and community impacts.