Just a few short weeks ago, we hosted a community forum on the new proposed development plan for the Domino Sugar Factory property by the current owners, Two Trees. We have been engaged in a lot of thought, a lot of discourse, and a lot of good conversations with forces both in favor and against the new plan. A lot of people have been asking our opinion and while it is too early to put out an official statement since we tend to do that during the hearings that are a part of the official ULURP process, we would like to share our thoughts on the plan so far.
NAG calls on the City to work with Two Trees and bring the new new Domino plan forward for formal public review. We believe that the Two Trees proposal is an improvement on the existing approval in many ways, and we encourage Two Trees to continue to work with the community to make further improvements. The City should pursue these changes, working with the developer and the Williamsburg community to ensure that all promises to the community are enforceable and transferable to any future owners.
In 2010, NAG opposed the Domino rezoning because the proposed density was an unsustainable burden on our community and because the developer’s promises were not backed by sufficient guarantees. The density proposed in 2010 was higher than that approved for the 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg Waterfront Rezoning and could cause a series of unmitigated community impacts, including a reduction in per capita open space, year-round shadow impacts on our local park, excessive waivers to provide additional parking, large-footprint neighborhood-unfriendly retail, and added burdens to our already over-taxed public transit system.
Despite our opposition, the rezoning was approved. The primary community benefit, 660 units of affordable housing, was not guaranteed – a fact that became sadly relevant when the previous developer ran into financial trouble and was forced to sell the property.
Now, a new developer – Two Trees Management – has acquired the property and proposes to change the zoning. The choice presented to the community is the previous flawed zoning with its unenforceable promises, or a new plan that, in our view, addresses some of the flaws of the previous zoning. The Two Trees plan does not correct the central flaw of the density of the 2010 approval, and it does add considerable height to the development as a trade-off for improvements in other areas. However, based on what we have heard to date, these trade-offs could lead to a better plan for the community. In our view, the Two Trees proposal appears to make significant improvements over the existing zoning in the following areas:
Commercial use: Two Trees proposes eliminating 116 residential units from the approved zoning, in favor of creating more than 530,000 additional square feet of commercial space. This includes using the landmarked refinery building entirely for commercial (and possibly community facility) purposes. This proposal is consistent with Community Board 1’s position on the 2005 rezoning; at that time, they envisioned North Brooklyn as a vibrant, mixed-use community. As the rezoning has reshaped the neighborhood, we’ve seen a dramatic decline in commercial space, and the accompanying decline in opportunities for local employment. Although Two Trees’ proposal will bring in an entirely different kind of work opportunity than was previously available in this space, we are encouraged that Two Trees shares the community’s position that a mix of uses creates a more dynamic and interesting neighborhood.
Retail: The new construction on Kent Avenue built since the 2005 rezoning has generally provided large retail footprints, attracting corporate, big-box retail outlets to the neighborhood. NAG’s and CB1’s recommendations in 2005 included the promotion of locally owned small businesses, as job creators, entrepreneurial opportunities, and a strategy for keeping money in the local economy. Two Trees has verbally expressed its support for small retail footprints to encourage local businesses. We hope to see this guaranteed through their revised zoning proposal, and encourage Two Trees to go a step further by subsidizing the location of locally owned small businesses within the development if necessary.
Open Space: One of the main pieces of feedback generated in the community meetings that NAG hosted about the Domino redevelopment was that open space is a priority for North Brooklyn, especially for the Southside, which is the most underserved portion of an underserved community when it comes to public green space. The trade-off of taller buildings allows for an interesting open space plan that not only provides more than two additional acres of open space to the neighborhood, but also creates an improved per capita open space ratio as opposed to that proposed by CPCR. Reintroducing the street grid to the site will make this open space feel like a true community benefit, rather than just a large backyard for the development’s tenants. In addition, the planned reconfiguration of the buildings on the site creates a less direct shadow impact on Grand Ferry Park, and Two Trees has verbally committed to working with the community to advocate for the creation of a new Williamsburg Bridge Park on the waterfront south of their site. Both contribute to CB1’s vision of a continuous, publicly accessible waterfront.
Affordable Housing: The most dire need in community district 1 today is affordable housing. We appreciate Two Trees’ verbal commitment to building the 660 affordable units promised by CPCR, although we stress the community’s need to see the numbers, including affordability levels, committed to in writing. We are pleased that Two Trees is integrating all the affordable housing into its developments, with no difference between the affordable and market rate units. (The separation, shoddy construction, and lack of access to amenities for affordable housing tenants in the new waterfront developments has frankly been an embarrassment to the neighborhood). We also applaud Two Trees’ verbal commitment to front-load the development of 300 affordable units in the upland site, which will be built first.
Shift in Height: In 2010, NAG was concerned with the precedent that the large-scale upland site would set for future development on the neighborhood’s low-rise side streets. Two Trees’ proposed tiered design of the upland site (“Site E”) addresses this concern by shifting height away from Wythe Avenue toward Kent.
Parking and Transportation: Traffic is a major issue in North Brooklyn, and so we are pleased to see that Two Trees has proposed only the minimum amount of required parking in the new development, to be included in two of the new buildings. Our 2010 concerns about transportation have been alleviated somewhat by the proposed introduction of the new Kent Avenue bus line, which will connect the site with the J, 7, E, and M trains. Still, we remain concerned about the impact of density on our transit systems, and hope that Two Trees will explore alternative solutions, such as a new ferry terminal on site, and maintenance and support of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway.
In conclusion, this is not an endorsement of the Two Trees plan – that plan is still in formation, and there are many details yet to be worked out. An endorsement of the plan itself is something that can only come with more information and a clear idea of the commitments behind their plan. However, we do recognize that Two Trees has proposed significant and meaningful changes to the existing approval, changes that we believe the City and the community should give full and careful consideration to.
We encourage our neighbors to continue to engage in the process and make their voices heard.