by Charles V Bagli for The New York Times
June 22, 2010
By some standards, a developer’s plan to transform the defunct Domino Sugar refinery north of the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn is a good deal, offering 660 of its planned 2,200 apartments to poor and working-class New Yorkers, shops to animate the streets and a public esplanade along the East River.
“We’re taking this narrow, vacant industrial site and turning it into an incredibly powerful economic engine for the neighborhood,” said the developer, Michael Lappin, president of the Community Preservation Corporation.
But as the $1.4 billion project nears the end of the city’s often unpredictable approval process, its fate is subject to Brooklyn’s fractious politics, a weak economy and a once working-class community exhausted by the pace of luxury development during the real estate boom. Critics say the benefit of moderate-income housing would be outweighed by the project’s tall buildings, densely packed on 11 acres, and its impact on a crowded subway station nearby.
The proposal calls for the preservation of the main refinery building and its 40-foot-high Domino Sugar sign and the construction of four towers between Kent Avenue and the river, between South Third and South Fourth Streets. Two of the towers would be 40 stories tall, the others 25 and 30 stories tall.
Although the City Planning Commission has approved the project, known as New Domino, it is unclear how much political muscle the Bloomberg administration is exerting on its behalf as the City Council debates the merits of developing the site. The Council and the mayor have the final say on the plan.
The opposing sides were in full view on the steps of City Hall on Monday, as the Council’s first hearing on the project began.
“We are here today to support the Domino project because we need affordable housing,” said Yolanda Coco, a tenant advocate for the group East Brooklyn Churches, who, like two dozen other supporters, wore a T-shirt with the slogan DomiYes.
“We’re facing a lot of evictions,” she said, “because people cannot afford the rents.”
Diana Reyna, a councilwoman, and Representative Nydia M. Velázquez spoke to the crowd in favor of the project.
Then the opposition mounted the City Hall steps, led by Councilman Steve Levin, who exclaimed, “We have had it with overdevelopment in our neighborhood.”
Mr. Levin, whose district includes the site, was backed by his mentor, Vito J. Lopez, the powerful Brooklyn assemblyman who plays a critical role in state and city housing development. Mr. Lopez said he wanted more lower-cost housing and a smaller project.
“We want 800 units of affordable housing,” Mr. Lopez said. “They can cut the 40-story tower to 28.”
Mr. Lopez, Mr. Levin and Ms. Reyna, who was once a supporter of Mr. Lopez and now openly feuds with him, have clashed repeatedly over the same issues involving other projects, including Rose Plaza, a planned waterfront condominium project in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Mr. Lopez, Mr. Levin and a faction of the Satmar Hasidic sect refused to support the project until the developer promised that 30 percent of the units would be moderately priced. Ms. Reyna, as well as a different faction of Satmars, generally backed the project from the beginning.
Ms. Reyna, who represents a district adjacent to the Domino site, said the developer had designed a “good plan,” a result of four years of negotiations and revisions: it includes space for a school, public recreation, rental apartments and subsidized condominiums for working families. She said she would prefer that the project moved forward, saying additional burdens could undermine its financial viability. There are 51 stalled residential projects in her district, she said.
At the Domino site, the developer has promised that 30 percent of the units would be moderately priced, more than the 20 percent that has become standard. Like many other residential projects, it would require substantial subsidies from the city’s housing programs.
Christine C. Quinn, speaker of the City Council, is trying to negotiate a compromise between the two sides. But the Community Preservation Corporation, which is involved in midpriced housing projects, may have little room to negotiate, because its costs have soared since it bought the property six years ago.
The city designated the refinery building a landmark last year. Its preservation will cost more than $40 million; the shell will have to be preserved, with a new building constructed inside it. At the same time, the corporation’s plan to cross-subsidize the lower-cost housing by selling condominiums has been undermined, at least temporarily, by a soft economy and an abundance of unsold apartments in the area.
The Rev. Mariano Cisco, of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Bushwick, Brooklyn, supports the Domino project. It “ responds to the needs of the community,” he said.
But Christopher H. Olechowski, chairman of Community Board 1, which includes the site, disagrees. “People are pretty much fed up,” he said. “Our neighborhood is inundated.”