Fear of Heights

Skyscrapers, fronted by tantalizing promises, set to invade Williamsburg's interior

Fire is on the brain in Williamsburg these days. First there's the real thing, like that suspicious waterfront warehouse fire on May 2. Then there's the metaphor, as when community activist Phil DiPaolo says, "This would be like pouring gas on the fire."

The fire he's talking about is the blazing pace of development in the area. Under a rezoning scheme approved last year, there are plans for residential towers all along the waterfront that will force the area to absorb thousands of new residents. But the heat is not confined to the water's edge. Even in the upland areas, there are signs of a hot real estate market. Shoddy demolition work on some parcels is forcing tenants out of adjacent buildings. Small factories are relocating. Retail stores are bracing for major rent increases. Skeletons of new high-rises are piercing the sky around McCarren Park.

But the gasoline in DiPaolo's metaphor is Williamsburgh Square—a proposal to transform a block of small factory buildings in North Williamsburg into the site of four skyscraping residential towers.

illustration: Jorge Colombo

The idea comes from Quadriad Realty Partners, an entity formed last year with some big players on its bench. At the top is Henry Wollman, the head of the Newman Institute, a real estate think tank at Baruch College that has advised city officials on how to restructure the city's zoning. Also on board is Maurice Regan (whose construction firm recently finished a new headquarters for the mayor's Bloomberg LP) and Brooklyn real estate figure William Ross. The prestigious financiers at Ackman-Ziff are on hand to line up investors. And Herman Badillo, the Latino political pioneer who moves in top Republican circles, is also on the team.

Quadriad's plans are at a very early stage, but group members are already quietly trying to assemble support from community leaders. Their talking points are intriguing. The development, they claim, would feature 30 percent affordable housing, with all the units owned rather than rented so that even moderate-income residents could ride the real estate market. Underground parking, a semi-public park, a charter school, and space for neighborhood retail stores are among the other sweeteners Quadriad has thrown in. There's even talk of a fund to keep the low-priced units affordable after the first generation of owners sells out.

It's an interesting idea. But it's not one that's allowed under the zoning enacted last year, when locals swallowed the bitter pill of bigger buildings on the waterfront in exchange for rules protecting the small-scale feel of Williamsburg's interior. At the time, Mayor Bloomberg said the plan "protects the fabric of the inland neighborhoods" by preventing "further out-of-scale development."

Now Quadriad is shopping a proposal that, at its high end, calls for 675,000 square feet of space; buildings of 12, 20, 36, and 38 stories; and 600 units of housing. Peter Gillespie, executive director of Neighbors Against Garbage, pledges an open mind, but he voices a common frustration among local activists. "The ink's barely dry on that [zoning] agreement," he says, "and now a well-connected developer comes along proposing upzoning the area and a project whose density and height is completely out of character."

Quadriad's prospectus describes Williamsburgh Square as "the 21st century reconstruction of an historic 19th century now outmoded Brooklyn neighborhood" and "a new standard of comprehensive urban planning and urban design." Quadriad says it won't seek public financing, although the project might use the automatic tax breaks that residential builders get in the outer boroughs.

"What attracted me is, first of all, there's no city money involved. That makes it very unique in itself," Badillo tells the Voice. "And the percentage of affordable housing that we're having, it'll be 70/30. Most of the projects historically have been 80/20." The affordable income units will be divided into three tiers based on income, with the lowest category making no down payment. The developers pledge to secure mortgages for the affordable units, and to integrate the market-rate and affordable housing within the complex.

These are the elements, Wollman says, of a new vision for meeting the city's housing crisis. "It starts with a group of social goals. It looks at the reality of the way the real estate market is, without asking whether it's fair or not and tries to meet that set of issues," he says. "We need to create a new way—meaning a new structure—of development for the city which would incentivize the private market to build enough moderate-income housing," because, he says, the amount of public money available is simply not enough.

Wollman insists he will have no financial interest in the deal and that his partners will hold only limited stakes. He hopes the bulk of the financing will come from public pension funds. But the first step is to obtain a zoning allowance, and that's why Quadriad is pitching its plan to selected community members, highlighting the affordable housing, the school, the park—and the fact that these goodies are linked directly to the size of the buildings.

No zoning allowance? We'll still build something, Quadriad says, but there'll be no affordable housing. If the zoning is relaxed only somewhat, the community gets the park, but not the charter school. A slightly larger development gets the school, but not a day care center. The more bulk and height the community accepts, the more facilities it gets. For the whole package of sweeteners, Williamsburg must accept the tallest towers.

Next Page »