Parking and density have been two of the biggest issues surrounding the redevelopment of the 11-acre former Domino Sugar refinery on the Williamsburg waterfront. Today, the City Planning Commission extracted two minor concessions for both on the way to granting the New Domino project unanimous approval. The changes, though, were far from those being demanded by the local City Council representative, who will have the final say on the project in the next few weeks.
The Rafael Viñoly–designed, 2.8 million-square-foot complex has been in the works for four years now, first winning Landmarks approval for transforming the refinery into community space and apartments and now, the developer hopes, surrounding it with 11 towers, some rising as high as 40 stories, with about 2,200 apartments, 30 percent of which would be affordable, one of the project’s hallmark features.
Before today’s vote, Brooklyn planning director Purnima Kapur announced that the city had reached a deal to reduce the number of parking spaces from 1,694 to 1,428 by eliminating spaces in excess of zoning allowances on one of the five development lots. The height of a commercial building on the northernmost lot has also been reduced from 300 feet to 250 feet, though there had initially been talk of lowering it to 200 feet. Susan Pollock, the project manager for developer CPC Resources, said the reduced height would not necessarily mean a reduction in density.
For her part, commission chair Amanda Burden warmly endorsed the current scheme. “This project will bring high-quality design and architecture, much-needed affordable housing, significant community facilities, and open space on the waterfront to a Williamsburg community in need of all these things,” she said. She stressed, however, that a restrictive declaration would be put in place to ensure the designs of the final project resembled those presented to the community, a particular concern for the commission of late.
Though all 13 commission members voted in favor of the project, some still expressed concerns that it remained too dense as well as underserved by public transit. “I’ve had to wait for three or four packed trains to get on sometimes,” commissioner Angela Battaglia said. “I certainly hope New York City Transit and the developer can come up with a solution to this issue.” She also mentioned that she thought 40-story towers were inappropriate on the waterfront.
Still, most of the comments were praiseworthy and most were directed at the affordable housing, which is in excess of the 20 percent usually mandated by the city for such projects. “It reminds me of the old Sinatra song, ‘Love and Marriage,’” commissioner Irwin Cantor said. “Affordability and density is love and marriage. You can’t have one without the other.”
Commissioners were also pleased with the 4 acres of open space, much of it on the water, that will be accessible through four neighboring streets that will be extended into the site. Even commissioner Shirley McRae, an occasional development skeptic, spoke favorably of the project. “I grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and I am so very happy to see this development taking place on the waterfront,” McRae said. “I’m very happy to see Domino used for something good on the waterfront.”
It was some of the first positive sentiment for the project in a while, as earlier this year it had been lambasted at the local community board and only warily supported by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. Again, the chief concerns have been density and infrastructure, though there is now talk of adding a school and supermarket, which have assuaged some concerns.
Councilmember Stephen Levin has expressed continued concerns about the project throughout the public review process, saying he wants shorter towers with fewer apartments, but the same number of affordable units. After today’s vote, the developer said that there was little it could do to change the configuration of the project and still remain profitable. “We have been looking for years at the balance of affordability on this project,” Pollock said. “And we’ve been saying for years that this is the balance we need.”
UPDATE: Levin just emailed over the following statement, which shows that he remains as opposed to the project as ever:
"Assemblyman [Vito] Lopez and I still firmly oppose the New Domino project as it is currently proposed. While I am pleased that the applicant withdrew the special permit for extra parking spaces and that the City Planning Commission reduced the height of the northernmost tower, the plan is still deeply flawed. The applicant has not adequately addressed the transportation and congestion problems associated with the project. The overall plan is simply too big. The height and density of the Domino plan will have a negative impact on the community."
The statement is telling not only in outlining what Levin sees as the continued issues plaguing the project but also for the invocation of his old boss in the first sentence. This suggests that Levin could be willing to play hardball and spend the necessary political capital to shape the project as he sees fit, even in the face of opposition from the Bloomberg administration and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.