Fear of Heights

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

(Quadriad's prospectus identifies Richard W. Eaddy, a member of the City Planning Commission, as the project manager. But Eaddy tells the Voice he only participated in preliminary discussions, received no compensation, and advised Quadriad that before he did anything more he'd have to get a ruling from the Conflicts of Interest Board. "Once I was made aware that, prematurely, documents were being circulated for other purposes, I withdrew from any further involvement," Eaddy writes in an e-mail.)

The quid pro quo approach is standard bargaining technique. But some critics of the plan think that Quadriad is offering less than meets the eye. The affordable-housing scheme, for example, is based on a median annual family income of $70,000, but in the Williamsburg area the relevant figure is about $30,000; based on that, the units wouldn't be affordable to people who live in the neighborhood. The promised charter school depends on the state's approving a new allotment of those facilities. And critics also pooh-pooh the semi-public park (which will be privately maintained and open to the public at "designated areas") as doing little to offset the influx of new people.

Quadriad has said that it will press ahead for a zoning allowance one way or another. So people like Gillespie and DiPaolo seem to face a choice: Join 'em, or maybe get beat by 'em anyway.

illustration: Jorge Colombo

It's a little more complicated than that, however. Quadriad's prospectus mentions interest not just in Williamsburgh Square but also in "a series of upland sites" extending to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, with even more potential projects across the BQE into East Williamsburg. Wollman says there are no concrete plans yet, "but if Williamsburgh Square does work out in some way, it's certainly an idea that should be applied to other parts of the north side [of Williamsburg] and other parts of the city as well."

Local residents, however, wonder what they might be getting into. "What kind of Pandora's box are we opening," says Community Board 1 land use committee chairman Michael Kriegh, "if we allow more than what the zoning permits?"

The question isn't whether Williamsburg will change. It already is changing, inexorably so. On Bedford Avenue there are now chains like Tasty D-Lite and Subway. A former factory building on Berry Street is adorned with banners promising "luxury lofts . . . fitness center, penthouses, rooftop garden, doorman, designer kitchens." And then there's the block targeted for Williamsburgh Square—between Bedford and Berry, North 3rd and 4th.

One part of the block is owned by Yehuda "Jay" Backer, a businessman with a limited interest in the Williamsburgh Square project. As soon as a court fight over environmental remediation is resolved, he expects to own another piece of the block (for the price of $4 million, according to court documents—more than five times what city tax records say the parcel is worth, indicating the skyrocketing value of Williamsburg earth). Backer used to operate an importing business on the block, but moved it elsewhere in Brooklyn more than three years ago. Besides his own company, Backer also tossed out Gerlach Frames, which made custom mountings for art museums and was there for 10 years. (Gerlach moved to Greenpoint.) "Originally we were going to develop it on our own, and then Henry Wollman came along and we decided to go to into the new building," says Samuel Backer, a son of Yehuda Backer who is handling the deal.

Another business on the block, Flame Cut Steel, operated there from the early 1980s until this past February when another landlord ended its lease. The company relocated to New Jersey with its five employees, who use high-tech cutting equipment to shape steel for sculptures. "Our workers have to commute from Brooklyn. That's sort of a hassle," says worker Chip Bobba. "We would like to have stayed in the neighborhood. We gave up a lot of Brooklyn business when we moved."

Real estate documents indicate that in 1984, Flame Cut Steel and its landlord received $350,000 in state Industrial Development Revenue Bonds to build a new facility and "discourage [the firm] from removing its operations . . . to a location outside the state." That was back when firms had to be encouraged to stay in Williamsburg. Now some are finding they can't even if they want to.

Wollman says the Quadriad development will merely reflect those changes, not cause them. "The sense of disparity of scale between what we proposed and what is there now is something that will not be true in 10 years," he says. "You are going to have on the waterfront thousands of units built that will include some affordable housing but will change the nature of the neighborhood. That is going to reflect an inevitable change of market position."

But not necessarily the zoning laws: Changing those isn't inevitable; it takes a deliberate step. "The community spent a decade hashing out the plan that was supposed to govern the rezoning. We spent years on the rezoning. No less than a year later, there's a developer asking for special rezoning," says Stephanie Thayer, who was active in the waterfront fight. "We just want our elected officials and city agencies to enforce the rules that they enacted just a year ago. Our community shouldn't be forced to fight individual development plans one by one by one."

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