How do you make a building smaller without actually making it smaller? That was essentially what negotiations came down to for the redevelopment of the old Domino Sugar refinery on the Williamsburg waterfront, which was unanimously approved by the City Council today.
Affordable housing developer CPC Resources wants to turn the six blocks around the refinery into the New Domino, a $1.4 billion mixed-income community of 2,200 apartments in 5 towers designed by Rafael Viñoly. The project would include the refinery itself, now being retrofitted by Beyer Blinder Belle for an as-yet undetermined set of uses. Of the 2,200 units, 30 percent will be set aside for affordable housing, well in excess of the 20 percent typically mandated for such large-scale projects.
Steve Levin, the local councilmember, has been fighting the project since even before he took office in January, when he was chief of staff to Assemblyman Vito Lopez. Both have been calling for a smaller project with fewer units, though more affordable ones, and lower towers, which range in height from 14 to 40 stories. Levin, as well as two-thirds of the community board, which voted against the project in March, argue that all those new residents will overwhelm local infrastructure and overshadow the waterfront.
While Levin fell short on a number of his goals today, he did strike a deal to reduce the height of the two tallest towers to 34 stories from 40. In exchange, a previous agreement made at the City Planning Commission to reduce the height of a commercial building on the northernmost lot to 25 stories has been reversed, and it will rise once again to 30 stories. “We don’t want to see a gold coast,” Levin said in an interview. “We weren’t happy about seeing these supertall luxury towers on the waterfront.”
Levin said that given zoning constraints, it was still possible that the number of units in the project could be reduced, but Susan Pollock, the project manager for CPC Resources, said a design similar to the current one, with the full complement of units, could be expected from the architects soon. “The zoning envelope remains the zoning envelope, so the project will continue to look much the way it is,” Pollock said. “Obviously it will have to change some with the heights coming down, but not much from our current plan.”
Pollock would not say whether the densities would be achieved through bulkier, wider buildings or smaller apartments. “There’s enough room to make that possible,” she said. The developer has held firm to its numbers throughout negotiations, arguing that it could not afford the project with anything less. “As we’ve always said, we need to keep those numbers to bring the community all of the benefits we promised,” Pollock said.
The developer also agreed to provide shuttle bus service to a nearby JMZ subway station to alleviate congestion on the L train (a much better option, now that the M runs to Midtown instead of downtown), as well as a possible extension into Manhattan. There was also a requirement that any changes of use to the 140,000 square feet of community facilities in the refinery go through the public review process, which could prevent the construction of a hotel, among some of the uses the community has raised concerns about.
The Bloomberg administration, which has been a firm supporter of the project, made a number of concessions to Levin on behalf of Williamsburg. There will be a Community Advisory Council overseeing Domino’s impacts on the community; upgrades to sewers and other infrastructure; additional funding for open space, tenant anti-harassment efforts, and a cultural center; and a comprehensive transportation study to address crowding on the streets and subways.
These may have been the biggest windfall from today’s vote. “As we do these very big developments, it’s important the infrastructure in the neighborhood keep pace,” Levin said, adding, “We’re going to constantly need to address these issues, address them and continue to address them.”
Levin was applauded for his efforts by his colleagues in the council, even if the concessions were not commensurate with his previous victories. Councilwoman Diana Reyna, who represents the district adjacent to Levin’s, had been a strong supporter of the project despite her colleague’s opposition, an unusual move at the council, where deference is generally paid. She argued that the affordable housing it provides was worth the density. “I’m happy to say this land will be reinvigorated and happy this project has reached a level of satisfaction for all parties,” Reyna said.
Even Councilman Charles Barron, a development skeptic and frequent no-vote, voted in favor of the project, saying it would be a boon for the community, though he also used the opportunity to rail against the state of affordable housing in the city. “We’re talking about 70 percent luxury housing and that can change the complexion of a neighborhood,” Barron said. “We need to be careful when we think about affordability. I don’t see why we have to be on the short end every time.”
The community was less enthusiastic about the results. "We were clearly hoping for more—or less, as the case may be," Ward Dennis, co-chair of advocacy group Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, said in email. "NAG's position was never to stop the Domino project, just to make it better. We look forward to the affordable housing, new open space, and supermarkets that this project will bring to our community. But we also need a sustainable model for growth going forward, and that is what we feel is still missing from the project."
And yet few hold Levin to blame for the final results. "Steve worked really hard on this," one local activist said. "The Bloomberg administration and the [council] speaker just didn't give him any room to negotiate. There was little that could be done."