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City Planning is holding their ULURP hearing on Domino today, without a new Chair to replace Amanda Burden. Kenneth Knuckles is acting chair. I am not able to make the hearing, but I submitted this testimony via fax yesterday. Most of it is drawn from previous blogs and writing.

Almost four years ago, in February 2010, I was at Brooklyn Community Board 1 when the Community Preservation Corporation held their first ULURP presentation on the Domino project. I was there as a graduate student in urban planning on the first shoot of a film project called “The Domino Effect” that would go on to document every one of those hearings. Now, nearly four years later, I am offering testimony on Two Trees’ proposal as an urban planner who has studied and worked on New York City land use issues in great detail, and as a local resident of Williamsburg with first-hand experience of how this neighborhood is being rapidly transformed by out-of-control development.

I continue to believe that 3 million+ square feet is far too much density for this site, and in an ideal world at Domino we would be considering creative alternatives that would find greater synergy with the local economy and community such as an industrial/creative business incubator, a new university branch, or a combination of such developments with 1,000 units of mixed-income housing. But for the purposes of this review process, let’s aside the issues of density and whether or not development dominated by high-density residential is the best use of this site.

If we 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 short of truly benefitting the public and local community. If Two Trees and the City Planning Commission are truly interested in fostering development that benefits the long-term interest of Williamsburg and New York City as a whole, the proposed public benefits must be more clearly defined, strengthened, and locked into a binding restrictive deed.


In Brooklyn Community Board 1, the Area Median Income is only $41,540. Therefore, in order to have “affordable housing” that is actually 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.

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. 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.  Community Preservation Corporation was also promising a diverse mix of apartment sizes with significant numbers of larger 2 and 3 bedroom apartments.

In contrast, Two Trees has been noncommittal and extremely vague about both the affordability levels and the distribution of units sizes. Each of these factors has a critical impact on the degree to which the proposed “affordable housing” will actually benefit the public interest and justify the additional density and government subsidy. The City Planning Commission cannot adequately asses this project while lacking full understanding of the affordable housing program.

Additionally, 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. Compared to the 2010 plan, Two Trees’ proposal reduces the residential square footage by 160,639 feet. Therefore, in regard to what is actually proposed to be locked in to the zoning, Two Trees is proposing less square footage of affordable housing than required under the existing zoning.

I strongly agree with the recommendation of the Brooklyn Borough President that the promise of 660 units (30% of the total units) of affordable housing – with enough square footage for reasonably sized two and three bedroom units — must be legally locked into the property. Such a promise should be a bedrock commitment of development at Domino and not be held hostage to additional subsidy or dependent on the status of the 421a tax break.


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.” According to the technical memorandum, 1.31 acres of the claimed additional 1.98 acres is taken up by the additional street and sidewalks. Taking this into account, the Two Trees plan would do almost 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 has been noncommittal on 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.


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? Without a concerted effort at job training and local hiring, 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.

Community Preservation Corporation had committed to job training programs in the 2010 plan. According to the Borough President’s report, Two Trees is considering working with St. Nick’s Alliance on a job training program. This is a welcome improvement from earlier in the process when there was no mention of job training, but we are once again lacking a concrete proposal. I agree with the Borough President’s recommendation that Two Trees outline and submit its job-training and local-hiring proposals in writing and that they be memorialized in a legally-binding mechanism.

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.

Two Trees has also emphasized that they will look to provide commercial and retail space for local businesses at Domino, including businesses engaged in light manufacturing and the arts. But the developer’s record in DUMBO raises concerns that many local businesses and artists will be cast aside for higher profile commercial tenants once the market permits.

The Brooklyn Borough President’s suggestion for a “a lease protection mechanism that provides for the continued use of such retail for artisans and start-up office space, in order to provide protection from future market based rents, which may include the achievement of stabilized rents by providing leases through a designated not-for-profit or some equivalent entity” is an excellent idea.


The redevelopment of Williamsburg spurred by the 2005 rezoning has had profound effects on the character and composition of the neighborhood. As a local resident who has studied land use in the area for many years, I am convinced that rapid re-development dominated by luxury residential is killing the dynamic mixed-use, mixed-income, mixed-ethnicity character of Williamsbur

  • According to American Community Survey data, from 2000 to 2010 Community Board 1 lost nearly 16,000 affordable apartments that had rents less than $1,000 a month. In 2000, there was hardly a single apartment that cost over $2,000 a month; in 2010 there were over 6,000 such apartments in Community Board 1
  • From 2000 to 2010, the Hispanic population in CB1 dropped 24%
  • From 2000 to 2010, the 11211 zip code lost nearly two thirds of its industrial jobs.
  • No doubt all of these figures have gotten much worse since 2010.

The density of the proposed Domino project is immense – it will double the population of the waterfront area of the Southside (bounded by Kent Ave, Grant St, Driggs Ave, and South 5th St.), adding thousands of wealthy residents and workers. If community benefits and mitigation measures are not smartly done, this project is a displacement time-bomb. Two Trees and other major developers in Williamsburg should commit to funding local community organization to engage in anti-displacement work. This is by far the most cost-effective way to preserve existing affordable (rent-stabilized) housing units.

As for industrial jobs, earlier this month, Crain’s New York Business reported on skyrocketing rents and bidding wars for industrial properties throughout the five boroughs, but especially in North Brooklyn and the Long Island City area of Queens. One of the primary reasons?The “rampant erosion of industrial locations in recent years, owing to residential rezonings and growth in competing uses such as retailing and hotels.”

In contrast to tech and media jobs, the workforce for industrial jobs is majority people of color and foreign born, and industrial jobs pay nearly twice as much on average as retail work in New York City. By Two Trees’ own data in the technical memorandum, there are still 24 manufacturing and 30 wholesale trade firms amounting to nearly 900 jobs within a quarter-mile of the Domino site. But without concerted action by Two Trees and the City, it is hard to envision these businesses continuing once the proposed Domino development is built. Two Trees should commit to preserving a portion of the commercial space at Domino for light industrial businesses, and the City should seek to protect the existing lots directly north and inland from Domino that remain zoned M-3 for industrial uses. The vacant properties north of the Con Ed substation on the waterfront, currently zoned M-3, offer a particularly rich opportunity for creative industrial development, but this will never happen unless the City sends a firm signal that the land will not be rezoned for residential.

Looking at how Williamsburg has transformed since the 2005 rezoning, it is abundantly clear that a course correction is necessary to facilitate development that lives up to a higher standard of “good growth” that encourages broadly-shared long-term prosperity.

Although more creative alternatives with a greater emphasis on industrial and commercial space would be ideal in a perfect world, I nevertheless believe Two Trees’ Domino project has the potential to improve on previous waterfront development in Williamsburg – but only if the public benefits are more clearly defined, strengthened, and locked into a binding restrictive deed, and if the developer and City take additional measures to prepare for and mitigate secondary impacts as outlined above.


Here’s a post that I’ve been meaning to add for a while — a quick analysis of the development that’s occurred in Williamsburg-Greenpoint’s waterfront “condo corridor” since the 2005 rezoning and a look at what the future holds. I’ll be writing my thoughts on the election results shortly.

I’m defining the “condo corridor” as the area bounded by Division St on the south, Driggs Ave/McGuinness Blvd on the East, the East River on the west, and Newtown Creek on the north.

Census 2010 population of the “condo corridor” is 41,099.

Data on development comes from Department of City Planning’s 2013 PLUTO files. These files used to cost $600 per borough to acquire but they were recently made free and publicly available by the Bloomberg administration. Open Data from city agencies is one area of policy where Bloomberg has actually been very strong.

Development in the “Condo Corridor” Since 2005

Since 2005, 174 new buildings have been constructed in this area, adding 5,284 new residential units. As expected, most of the development is in Williamsburg where dozens of industrial properties were replaced by condominiums. Overall, 6.45 million square feet of development has been constructed in this area since 2005 and 85% of this space has gone to residential uses.

5,284 new residential units implies a population increase of roughly 13,000 (assuming 2.5 people per unit). But Census 2010 measured only a population increase of only 4,000 from 2000 to 2010 in the condo corridor, to a total of 41,099. Many of these developments finished after 2010, and it is widely understood that Census 2010 under-counted many neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, so it’s safe to assume that the current 2013 population of the condo corridor may be significantly higher than measured in Census 2010, perhaps around 46,000 to 50,000.

As we learned from longtime local residents during interviews for The Domino Effect, the presence of the additional population that the neighborhood has gained since 2000 is very noticeable in the crowding on the neighborhood infrastructure, its streets, sidewalks, transit, and parks.

The median household income of the condo corridor, as measured by the most recent American Community Survey Data, is $57,537. Although median income has been steadily increasing in this area, this figure suggests that despite the addition of many new affluent households, many moderate and low-income households remain in the area. This is significant because it means that if “affordable housing” is targeted at a level above 60% AMI (area median income) such housing is essentially contributing to gentrification rather than helping to offset it. “Affordable housing” that targets 80% AMI is unaffordable to the majority of households in the “condo corridor” that has been most impacted by gentrification.

Also according to the most recent ACS data, roughly two thirds of “condo corridor” workers use public transit to commute. As I detailed in my last blog, Two Trees is asserting that less than half of the workers at the Domino site will arrive by subway, an assertion based on small surveys with local office workers.









What’s in store for the “Condo Corridor”?

More and more people in the neighborhood are beginning to discuss the potential impact of new waterfront development as Greenpoint Landing. 77 Commercial St, and soon Two Trees’ Domino move through the ULURP process. The immense scale of these projects has prompted concern about lack of planning and basic infrastructure to handle the population increase. Many are calling for more significant contributions to public infrastructure and amenities from the developers. Discussion of “rezoning the rezoning” to reduce the density and increase the mixture of uses on the waterfront is percolating.

Beyond Greenpoint Landing and Domino, just how many new units and residents might all the potential waterfront developments bring?



Rose Plaza — 800 units

Two Trees Domino — 2,284 units

New Tower at Northside Piers — 500 units

Additional  future tower in front of the Edge — 500 units

Greenpoint Landing — 5,500 units

77 Commercial Street — 720 units

Other Greenpoint waterfront south of Greenpoint Landing — additional 5,000 units (estimate)

All told, there’s potential for over 15,000 units to be added on the waterfront if it is built out under the 2005 zoning and other proposed projects go forward.

These waterfront developments would add roughly 38,000 population, almost doubling the Census 2010 population of the “Condo Corridor”

If two thirds of area residents continue to use public transit to commute as is the current pattern, the waterfront developments will add upwards of 14,000 new public transit commuters.

It’s been eight years since the 2005 rezoning, with only three towers at Northside Piers and the Edge completed. The vast bulk of the development allowed by 2005 has yet to be built, yet the impact of new population and construction is already being felt throughout the condo corridor.

To those who were not here in 2005, or those who paid little attention (i.e. the vast majority of everyday residents) it’s a shock to suddenly realize that an entire new neighborhood has the potential to be built literally on top of the existing one.

The imminent development of the waterfront megaprojects has sparked new grassroots organizing efforts under the banners of “Save Greenpoint” ( and “Save Domino” ( as more local residents begin to question the impact of these projects.

The addition of 30,000+ new highly affluent residents to this area will greatly accelerate the gentrification of the inland neighborhoods, especially when it comes to the commercial/industrial spaces. Without additional protection, creative and light manufacturing businesses will be pushed out and the North Brooklyn Industrial Business Zone, already under pressure by creeping bars hotels and clubs (which should not be allowed in manufacturing zoning to begin with), will be decimated. Williamsburg-Greenpoint will become entirely a bedroom and consumption district for the affluent, unrecognizable to those who have lived here for decades and have invested their lives contributing to the value of the neighborhood.












THE WARM EMBRACE OF DENSITY: Two Trees and SHoP Pitch New Plan to the Public

What is this, luxury waterfront housing for ants!?

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.

Another fan of scale models (Robert Moses)

 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.

Ryan Kounen of NAG introduces Two Trees’ Jed Walentas and ShoP’s Vishaan Chakrabarti to the neigborhood.

 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 ( 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.

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 ( 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 ( 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 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 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 land cost that could have been much lower.


Keeping this potential 60 story tower  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.


Domino Suit Thrown Out, Paving The Way For Factory’s $180 Million Sale

The State Appellate Court has thrown out a lawsuit seeking to block the sale of the Domino Sugar factory, paving the way for the real estate firm Two Trees to close on a $180 million acquisition of the property later this month.

The Katan Group, which owns the site in a joint venture with the Community Preservation Corporation Resources, launched the suit during the summer, alleging CPCR had ignored higher bids for the 11-acre parcel and therefore had not acted in the best interest of the partnership to try to maximize profits in a sale.

Read more at Commercial Observer →

Knocking Over Domino: Two Trees Mulls Overhauling Massive Williamsburg Development, Including Reducing Affordable Units

Exactly two years ago tomorrow, the City Council approved a sweeping $1.4 billion redevelopment plan for the Domino Sugar refinery on the Williamsburg waterfront. One of the biggest concerns at the time (of which there were many) was that the grand promise made by developer CPC Resources to make 30 percent of the project’s 2,200 units would never be realized.

Read more on New York Observer →

Sneak Peek

Please click here to watch the trailer on Vimeo or here to watch it on YouTube.

A TDE “Sneek Peek” is also available above.

The Domino Effect is a documentary film that explores the process of real estate development in New York City. The film digs deep to uncover the complex networks of banks, developers, politicians, and non-profit organizations that shape our cities. During the last decade, the North Brooklyn communities of Williamsburg & Greenpoint, have experienced the negative impacts of excessive luxury development and gentrification, more than any other neighborhood in NYC. Told through the voices of longtime residents, this film conveys the personal impact of real estate development in their community while shedding light on issues encountered by residents of cities across the country.

Will your neighborhood be the next to fall?

Full release Summer 2012. For information on setting up screenings in your community or classroom please contact Megan Sperry at

Stay connected with the progress of our film! Follow us on Twitter.

The Domino Effect Movie


The Domino Effect filmmakers with three of the films main characters at a screening earlier this year. Left to right: Manuel Zuniga, Daniel Phelps, Dianne Jackson, Brian Paul, Megan Sperry and Ryan Kuonen in the front.


Breaking news! CPC in talks to sell the Domino Sugar site to Two Trees Development for $160M

Nearly two full years after winning City Council approval for “The New Domino,” the Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) appears to be finally giving up on ever building the project. Reports emerged today that CPC is in advanced talks to sell the site to Two Trees Development for $160 million. CPC’s silent investment partner, the Katan Group, is opposed to the sale and is threatening to fight in court to win the right to procure a better deal.  CPC and Katan, who teamed up to fund the $55 million purchase of the Domino site in 2004, have been at odds ever since reports emerged earlier this year that CPC was attempting to sell the property due to mounting losses at other speculative luxury projects throughout the tri-state region.

CPC’s lending in Brooklyn was a subject I investigated back in the winter of 2010-2011. We all heard CPC claim to be a benevolent affordable housing developer during the Domino hearings yet the majority of their funding goes to speculative luxury real estate developments, including some of the most notorious and unethical developers in the City.  CPC was rather inept in choosing profitable luxury projects to fund. They nearly filed for bankruptcy in January. And they must now sell the Domino site in order to bail out their losses elsewhere. CPC’s marriage of “affordable housing” and luxury real estate has failed for all parties involved.

So now we meet the new character in the drama, Two Trees Development, a very successfully luxury developer that has thus far only dabbled in the world of “affordable housing.” Two Trees is the firm of the Walentas family, one that would be considered “new money” in the world of New York real estate dynasties. Founder David Walentasgrew up poor in upstate New York and arrived in the City in in 1966 determined to make in the real estate business. His timing placed him in the perfect position to take advantage of the cycle of disinvestment that peaked in the 1980’s, when Walentas’ Two Trees bought nearly all of the old industrial buildings in the DUMBO neighborhood for only $12 million in total. The firm has spent the last three decades shepherding the transformation of DUMBO from a gritty industrial area home to industry and artist lofts to one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the City.

The Walentas family and Two Trees are a different breed from most of the condo and apartment developers Williamsburg has seen. Most Williamsburg developers have built quick and cheap and prefer to rent their commercial spaces to the highest bidding Duane Reade and Chase branches (if there is any retail space at all) and get out while the getting is good. In DUMBO, Two Trees has followed a very different path of long term investment and what I call “Jane Jacobs Gentrification.” Rather than rent every space to the highest bidding chain store, Two Trees often lowers rents in pursuit of character and “authenticity” (as Sharon Zukin would put it). Two Trees deliberately subsidizes a variety of art galleries and small independent restaurants and shops. It was Two Trees played White Knight to Williamsburg’s own Galapagos Art Space by offering an affordable refuge. But it is not an act of charity – the underlying belief is that these kind of cultural consumption spaces will greatly enhance the value of the residential real estate in the long term. So a Two Trees version of “The New Domino” may offer much more in the way of dedicated spaces for cultural capital like art galleries and performance spaces

But what about affordable housing? As we’ve shown in detail in our film, the Community Preservation Corporation’s plans were never the panacea that the company presented them as. Only 100 of the “660” units would have actually been affordable to the majority of Williamsburg households. And more importantly for Two Trees, CPC’s presented plan for affordable housing is not locked in to the zoning – only 20% affordable housing will be legally required. Since Two Trees has yet to respond publically, it is an open question whether or not they will pursue CPC’s promised 30% or the legally required 20%, or what mix of affordability levels will be included. Two Trees has a very mixed record of community relations in DUMBO.  Two Trees has developed “affordable housing” before – such as in the 20% affordable housing building at 125 Court Street in Downtown Brooklyn – but it has not been a major part of their business thus far.

With regards to affordable housing, the largest threat from Two Trees may come from an aggressive push to redevelop the surrounding neighborhood of Southside Williamsburg. Consider the current leader of Two Trees, David Walentas’ son Jed’s comments to the New York Times earlier this year”

“Unlike someone on Wall Street, who can make a lot of money in New York and then move on,” he said, “we are in it for the long term…for it to be successful, the neighborhood needs to be successful.”

If we go by the standard of “successful” Walentas has pursued in DUMBO, this means the displacement of working class residents, artists, and industrial spaces and their replacement by high-end residences and cultural consumption spaces like art galleries and expensive boutiques. Of course this is already happening in Williamsburg, but the neighborhood has never experienced a developer like the Walentas who will engage on the neighborhood level rather than site by site.

How will Williamsburg respond to a single-minded developer investing long term in the transformation of the entire area? This is a different beast than Williamsburg has encountered before, a new challenge but perhaps a new opportunity as well.

Lured by Visions of Real Estate Profits, Nonprofit Group Stumbled

At the height of the housing boom, a luxury development arose here that was carved out of a 19th-century brick-and-brownstone factory building, with 14-foot ceilings, oversize windows and granite countertops.

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