June 22, 2010

City Council Land Use Subcommittee Hears Testimony on Domino Sugar Factory

The City Council “land use subcommittee on zoning and franchises” heard testimony yesterday at a daylong hearing on the proposed development of the Domino Sugar Factory site on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg. The developers have been putting this idea together for five years, and it showed. An impressive array of community and church leaders, architects, real estate people, and assorted beneficiaries of the largesse of CPCR (the developers) came out to support the plan. So too did a representative for Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez; and executives from the two key Latino community organizations in Williamsburg, Los Sures and El Puente. And filing into the chamber were scores of people in bright yellow t-shirts emblazoned with “Domi-YES!”

Opponents of the “New Domino” plan held a rally on the steps of City Hall just before the hearing, and assemblyman Vito Lopez fumed against the “paid t-shirts.”

“It’s outrageous," said Lopez. "No one I know here has any paid t-shirts, and no one I know here stands to make 400 million dollars on this project.”

The costume party did seem to disrespect the hearing and therefore to work against CPCR, exposing a hint of cynicism. As the hearing got underway, you could almost see the gates slamming down over the eyes of the council members seated along the dais. It was no fashion show.

What is was, and what it is shaping up to be, is a face-off between Vito Lopez and his protégé councilman Stephen Levin on the one side, and Velasquez and councilwoman Diana Reyna on the other. Reyna and Levin both represent Williamsburg, although the Domino site is in Levin’s district. Reyna supports it, Levin wants to send it back for revision.

The developers want to build 2,200 units in a complex of towers rising as high as 40-storeys on both sides of the old Domino refinery, with 30% of those units being low-income. A key point of contention is that the developers are claiming the site is exempt from restrictions imposed by the 2005 waterfront rezoning; because the Domino factory was still in operation at that time and had not been rezoned. One opposition group holds that the “New Domino” plan exceeds by 21% those restrictions on size.

Councilman Levin says the site should comply with the limitations imposed by the 2005 rezoning, and he is clearly aiming for a scale-down of the project. He does not, at this point anyway, seem to be considering any kind of a “new vision” for the site. However, in view of what the councilman is up against, I commend him for standing his ground yesterday against “business as usual.”

Levin grilled CPCR executives on the density and size of the project, and he snagged one proponent after another on a simple question — “Would you support this plan if it could be scaled down, but still retain its 660 low-income units and the other community benefits promised in the plan?”

The question was intended to smoke out the fact that CPCR really has no interest in bargaining or compromising on the plan. It worked. Most people he asked were stumped. Only one person said “sure” without blinking. It looked as if the developer’s tactic had been simply to come heavily armed and make a forced march through the hearing.

To be sure, the proponents of the plan made some valid arguments, notably that the plan does address affordable housing, and that it does so forthrightly to the Latino community that has suffered most from displacement on account of gentrification. Diane Reyna cited a decline of more than 14,000 Latinos in Williamsburg in the past 20 years, from a Latino population of over 67,000 in 1990. This decline is a difficult figure to verify, but it is probably conservative.

Assemblyman Lopez underscored Reyna's point in impassioned language. “Six-hundred units! Are you kidding? We need three thousand. I get calls every day at my office from people who’ve been here all their lives and they are being forced out of their homes. We are creating a gold coast here.”

Finally, this reporter’s name was called, and I testified for the plan that Stephen Zacks has articulated on behalf of that loose consortium of urbanists who circulate around, well, Stephen Zacks. His letter and proposal on the Domino site is worth a read:

During the hearing, councilman Levin and many others repeatedly talked about density in the neighborhood, especially overcrowding on the L train in Williamsburg, a situation they say would be exacerbated by the proposed Domino development. I argued that the way to alleviate stress on the subway is to create jobs in Williamsburg so people don’t have to get on the subway. And the way to preserve communities is by creating high quality jobs and industries for those communities. And the way to create those jobs and industries is by starting a high-tech “green” industrial center and business incubator at the site in question … Domino University!

Public speaking is hard. Some people are too shy, some are too theatrical. As I came off the podium, Zacks said my delivery was suitably “dramatic.” But I knew it was a backhanded compliment. (Disclosure: Zacks and I were in vaudeville together years ago.)

It was the testimony of Stephen Zacks that got Levin’s attention and had the councilman pursuing him with questions. Zacks rather surprised the room by saying he has no problem with the height of the towers, no problem with the density, no real problem with the plan in general … except that it is “boring.” It is simply not visionary enough, it does not do justice to the legacy and the grandeur of the location.

This broke with the repetitive theme of real estate and housing that had dominated the hearing, and indeed which dominates most discussions of development in Williamsburg. To be sure, my own group at facebook Urbanum Tremendum has talked about education and business incubation. Another opposition group in Williamsburg has talked about museums and cultural tourism at the Domino site. But the urbanism of Stephen Zacks was a new voice, full of informed ideas.

Zacks talks about a “downtown Williamsburg” with a reconfigured transportation infrastructure, easing congestion on the existing system, flowing commerce and investment “to the east,” rescuing the “hapless” intersection of the BQE and the JMZ and "inclining" it all toward the new landscape design currently underway for the "BQE trench." Zacks dares even to look over the ancient wall of Flushing Avenue into “Brooklyn proper” of all places. All this in view of the potential economic reach of the Domino site, which he compares to the High Line in Chelsea.

And when it comes to leveraging the “creative economy” of Williamsburg, there’s no stopping Stephen Zacks:

“It is a community filled with entrepreneurs busy inventing software, designing spaces, opening shops, crafting objects, making clothing, producing magazines and newspapers and websites, working in and starting some of the best restaurants, fashion houses, and design firms in the city. They’re college graduates turning rooftops into farms, and kitchens into start-up companies selling organic food and creating beautiful and unheard of fusions of ethnic cuisines. They’re milling the interiors and industrial designed products and modeling the high-design spaces of Manhattan and the rest of the city and country. They’re teaching in the city’s expanding universities, creating new musical genres, writing movies, books, and dramas for television. They’re performing scientific and medical research, curing diseases, and transforming our ability to live healthy lives.”

Who, the hipsters? Precisely. But not only them:

“A part of the [Domino] facility would be specifically programmed by stakeholders from the Eastern European, Puerto Rican, Italian, and Jewish communities that have made the area their home, along with the West Indian communities to the southeast whose historical relationship to sugar plantations and Domino sugar is particularly important.”

Finally, the “Zacks Paper” was the only testimony at yesterday’s City Hall hearing that used positive language to address the matter of the Domino Sugar site:

“Don't just vote no. Let's start a process by which we can make this project great. Let's form a working group within the city's department of design and construction in cooperation with the NYC Economic Development Corporation that actively develops sites like these in neighborhoods everywhere around the city. Let's create special places that we LOVE and think of with affection.”

Let us hope our elected officials have that much love in their hearts for Williamsburg. See Zacks' paper — A Call for New Vision for Urban Development at the Domino Sugar Site.