Fear of Heights
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 Squarea proposal to transform a block of small factory buildings in North Williamsburg into the site of four skyscraping residential towers.
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 waymeaning a new structureof 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 parkand 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.
(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.
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 Squarebetween 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 documentsmore 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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.