A Message to Greenpoint from Council Member Stephen Levin

A week or so ago we published an article titled The Conspiracy Against The People Opposed To Greenpoint Landing, after the painful and last public meeting about the high rise towers inevitably to rise on Greenpoint’s waterfront.

That evening while sipping on a beer at Brouwerij Lane, a call with a NJ area code appeared on my phone. It was Stephen Levin and he was pretty insulted by our decision to run that post. I stood outside in the cold while he explained to me (in many words) what I have invited him to share with you.

Yes we have been extremely critical of him and will continue to be as long as he makes decisions that we feel are not in the best interest of Greenpoint. I did offer him the opportunity to explain himself here. After, I invite readers to reply in the comment section. (Keep it classy.)

A letter from your Council Member Stephen Levin:

Dear Greenpoint Community,

Over the past two weeks, the City Council voted to pass two zoning actions in Greenpoint-1) an amendment to the Greenpoint Landing project, which was the largest single project in the 2005 Williamsburg-Greenpoint Waterfront rezoning and 2) an action that would allow the transfer of the “air rights” (aka development rights) from 65 Commercial Street (currently the MTA parking lot) over to the neighboring building site, 77 Commercial Street.  I want to address the legitimate concerns that I’ve been hearing from many local residents about the scale and size of these projects, as well as some of the confusion about what was actually on the table with these recent zoning actions.

I have heard from hundreds of Greenpoint residents about their opposition to these projects, about how the neighborhood infrastructure cannot handle the massive increased population, about the transportation needs of the community, about the environmental hazards in the community, about the need for affordable housing and open space, and how the advent of the 30- and 40-story towers threaten the identity and livability of our neighborhood.  All of these concerns are valid, compelling, and need to be addressed.  Why then, did I vote yes on these zoning actions?  Why not just turn them down?

First, I think it needs to be clearly stated–the 2005 Williamsburg-Greenpoint Waterfront rezoning happened in 2005.  Like it or not (and I don’t like it any more than you do), the 2005 rezoning carries the full force of law.  As a result, every property owner from North 5th Street to Greenpoint Landing along the waterfront (and there are 10 of them by my count) can build 30- and 40-story towers as-of-right.  I have yet to meet an attorney or land-use expert who thinks it is possible to “undo” the 2005 rezoning, and I’ve asked a lot of them.  The opportunity to challenge the 2005 rezoning in court, called an “article 78”, expired about 8 years ago.

Williamsburg-Greenpoint was a hallmark Bloomberg rezoning.  It was, in my opinion, deeply flawed, allowed profoundly too much density and height, did not properly plan for infrastructure improvement nor adequately set aside funding for open space, and neglected the future need for commercial development and the emerging economy of tech businesses and light manufacturing.  Instead, it implemented a vision of residential development akin to Long Island City or the west side of Manhattan, and it was entirely a Bloomberg administration vision.  It also very much belongs, in my opinion, to a bygone era, the housing bubble years before the recession in 2007.

During the 2005 rezoning, hundreds if not thousands of North Brooklyn residents fought tirelessly against the density of the rezoning, for more open space, more affordable housing, access to the waterfront, industrial retention, and many other forms of community benefits.  Although the rezoning ultimately passed, the strong community advocacy led to benefits in the form of commitments to many acres of open space, thousands of units of affordable housing, industrial retention through the IBZ program, an anti-tenant displacement fund and the establishment of an anti-tenant harassment area, and a new school for the Greenpoint community.  As anyone can see, we have achieved about one quarter of one of the promised parks (the Bushwick Inlet soccer field), dozens, not thousands, of units of affordable housing, and no school.  The zoning actions we took over the past two weeks addressed some of the unfulfilled promises that the Bloomberg administration made, not whether or not there would be large scale development here.

The choice I faced was this: if I voted in favor of the zoning actions, we would get the development with the open space, affordable housing, and school that were promised.  If I voted against the zoning actions, we would still get the development, just without the open space, affordable housing, and school.

Greenpoint Landing

Greenpoint Landing was, at 22 acres, the single largest project that was rezoned in 2005.  It has the as-of-right potential to build around 10 towers, 3,811 units of housing.  The developer is required to build around 950 units of affordable housing as part of the rezoning, but through a document called the 2005 rezoning “Points of Agreement” (https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/274355-greenpoint-williamsburg-points-of-agreement.html) they also agreed to build another 431 units of affordable housing and the City agreed to build additional parkland at Newtown Barge Park.  The recent zoning actions we approved did not readdress the 2005 zoning, nor could it-it simply allowed for the “Points of Agreement” commitments to be achieved.  Specifically, they did the following: 1) allow for the sale of adjacent City property (“Lot 32”) to ensure that Greenpoint Landing builds 431 additional units of affordable housing (40% of AMI to 125% of AMI, about half lower income and half “moderate income”) from the 950 that they are required by law to do 2) transfer property to the School Construction Authority (SCA) to site an approximately 650 seat K-8 school for the neighborhood and 3) increase open space at Newtown Barge Park.  To be clear, the sale of “Lot 32” and the transfer of the property to the School Construction Authority would allow Greenpoint Landing to build an additional 276 market rate units, from 3,811 to 4,087, or roughly 7%.

In addition, the City agreed to provide funding for a long-fought for complete Community District-wide transportation study and another $500,000 to reinstate the Tenant Anti-Harassment Fund for North Brooklyn.

I have also heard environmental concerns about the siting of the school on the corner of Dupont Street and Franklin Street because kitty-corner from the proposed school site is the former Nuhart factory, which is a New York State Superfund site.  In addition, we learned after the City Council hearing from New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) that the plume of Phthalates from the site has traveled underneath the street towards the school site.  Obviously, I share deep concerns about the potential health effects on children of such a siting and I assure the community that I would never do anything to put children’s health at risk.  That is why I insisted on stringent language that ensures that there is a thorough cleanup of the plume overseen by the NYS DEC before any ground is to be broken.  The language I insisted upon is more stringent than what NYS DEC and SCA may otherwise require.  If there is any environmental hazard underneath the street near the school site, that school cannot be built there.  And if the environmental hazard can’t be cleaned up, the School Construction Authority will have to site the school elsewhere.  Period.

To be absolutely clear, we never had the ability to approve or disapprove Greenpoint Landing in 2013.  It was approved in 2005.  We only had the ability to decide whether or not we would see the promised benefits of an additional 431 units of affordable housing, increased park space, and a new school in Greenpoint.

77 Commercial Street

I have also heard from many Greenpointers in opposition to the proposed project at 77 Commercial Street, and this a very difficult and complex decision that I made to approve this zoning action.  I think it is very important for everyone to understand exactly what was on the table with 77 Commercial Street and how we got there.  First, 77 Commercial Street was, like Greenpoint Landing, rezoned as part of the 2005 rezoning.  However, it was rezoned from manufacturing to an R6 designation (instead of the rest of the waterfront’s R6/R8 designation) which allows for two 15-story towers as-of-right.  In addition, 65 Commercial Street, the current City-owned MTA parking lot, was also zoned R6, meaning that it could also have similar residential towers on that site as-of-right.

The zoning action that we were considering was to allow for 77 Commercial Street to get “height and setback” requirement waivers to a maximum of 400 ft. (40 stories), which would allow for the merger of the zoning lots of 65 and 77 Commercial Street, thereby transferring all the development rights from 65 Commercial Street to 77 Commercial Street, so they can essentially stack whatever could be built as-of-right at 65 Commercial Street onto the pre-existing development rights at 77 Commercial Street. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_rights)  The sale of “air rights” is a fairly common practice which is generally done to maximize community benefits (open space, maintaining historic buildings, etc.) while allowing the full value of a piece of property to be realized.

The community fought hard in 2005 to make 65 Commercial Street, the MTA parking lot, a park for the Greenpoint community.  The Points of Agreement lays out a framework for a park to be achieved there (https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/274355-greenpoint-williamsburg-points-of-agreement.html, pages 1-2, 9).  In the Points of Agreement, the City is to sell the “air rights” or development rights to an adjacent property, which would then generate funds (then assumed to be $12 million) for the City to provide $2 million for the Greenpoint Williamsburg Tenant Legal Fund and $10 million for the “Waterfront Affordable Housing and Infrastructure Fund.” The City at the time also agreed to put $14 million of City capital funding in place “for the creation of this open space and the relocation of the current MTA facilities” at 65 Commercial Street.  In addition, the sale of the “air rights” also required the purchaser to build 200 units of affordable housing, according to AMI’s laid out in the Points of Agreement, page 9.  In subsequent years, the Williamsburg Tenant Legal Fund was funded without the sale of the “air rights” due to the immediate need for it and the “site specific infrastructure costs” (i.e. esplanade costs) referenced in the “Waterfront Affordable Housing and Infrastructure Fund” have been paid for by the developers themselves, instead of the City, as they build out the esplanade.  The City then decided to take that $10 million in savings, plus the $2 million already spent on the Legal Fund, and apply that to the $14 million it committed to Box Street Park, thereby tying the sale of the “air rights” to the funding of Box Street Park.

By the time I took office in 2010, we had hit two snags.  First, the $14 million that the City had committed to the park was taken out of the budget when the recession hit in 2007-2008.  Second, the MTA and the City could not agree on a location for the MTA’s Access-a-Ride and Emergency Vehicles to go to, and their discussions had reached a stand-still.  Meanwhile, the community was continuing to strongly advocate for the promised park at 65 Commercial Street (http://www.brooklynpaper.com/stories/33/33/wb_commercialstreet_2010_08_06_bk.html) and the promised affordable housing, and we were collectively able to get the City and MTA to resume discussions about viable relocation sites.

In 2012, the City put out the RFP for the sale of the “air rights” of 65 Commercial Street, as they had committed to doing in the Points of Agreement.  Since the sale of “air rights” can only go to an adjacent property owner, only Greenpoint Landing and 77 Commercial Street could bid on them.  Greenpoint Landing declined to bid, leaving 77 Commercial Street as the only bidder.  Eventually, the City got 77 Commercial Street to bid $8.2 million for the “air rights”, significantly less than the $12 million they initially predicted, but since nobody else bid on the “air rights” other than 77 Commercial Street, the price was less.

As you all know, the initial proposal from 77 Commercial Street was totally unacceptable.  They proposed that the 200 units of affordable housing range from 80%-175% of AMI, with the majority being at 125% of AMI (AMI in New York City for 2013 is $85,900 for a family of four), and included a provision to move the Access-a-Ride vehicles (which take up about 85% of the MTA site) but left the Emergency Vehicles in place (about 15% of the MTA site).

After weeks of discussions, I was able to get the developer of 77 Commercial Street and the City to agree to AMI levels that are much more in line with the community’s needs and very close to the AMI levels laid out in the Points of Agreement, page 9.  The AMI’s they committed to were: 10 units at 40% of AMI ($34,360 for a family of four), 10 units at 50% of AMI ($42,950 for a family of four), 80 units at 60% of AMI ($51,540 for a family of four), 26 units at 80% of AMI ($68,720 for a family of four), 34 units at 100% of AMI ($85,900 for a family of four) and 40 units at 125% of AMI ($107,375 for a family of four).  Also, the City agreed to put $14 million in the budget to relocate all of the MTA vehicles, and an additional $9.5 million for the build out of the park itself, with the potential to allocate an additional $4 million to the park if the affordable units are more heavily subsidized by City housing programs.

Therefore, I had a choice to make.

If I voted yes, the community would see another 30- and 40-story development, but we would also get the MTA vehicles finally gone from 65 Commercial Street at cost of $14 million, a fully-funded park that the community has fought for many years at a cost of $9.5-13.5 million, and 200 units of truly affordable housing, at a cost of $8-12 million, that is desperately needed in our community where the rents are pricing out many long-time residents right now.  All told, the public benefit provided by the City and the developer would be $35 million.

If I voted no, we would still get two 15-story towers of housing at 77 Commercial Street. The developer could apply for a 421-a tax break, which would produce some 80%-125% AMI affordable housing units, but there would be no guarantee of that.  We would lose the $14 million in funding to relocate the MTA vehicles and 65 Commercial Street would either stay an MTA parking lot for many years to come or the City would sell the property to a developer to make as-of-right housing (either affordable or market-rate) equal to the number of units transferred to 77 Commercial Street through the sale of the “air rights,” in which case we would have exactly the same amount of development, just without the park.  Either way, there would be no foreseeable way to ever get a park at that location funded.

Although I knew that the decision would be unpopular, I decided that a new and long-fought for park and 200 units of very desperately needed affordable housing was worth the additional height that would be added to 77 Commercial Street’s already existing development rights.

In both Greenpoint Landing and 77 Commercial Street, I did not have the authority to decide whether or not large-scale residential development would happen.  Unfortunately, that train left the station over 8 years ago, long before I got to the City Council.  As a result of the 2005 rezoning, there can be approximately 28 towers built on the Greenpoint waterfront from Quay Street to Commercial Street.  Although I shudder at the thought, I could not stop that in the recent zoning actions.  What I could do was ensure that the community gets the parks, affordable housing, and a school that the Bloomberg Administration promised in 2005.  Voting against these zoning actions would have felt great, and it would have sent a strong message that the Greenpoint community and I have had it with over-development, but it would have been a pyrrhic victory.  The developments would still come, we just wouldn’t get the benefits we were promised.  And that’s why I voted to approve these zoning actions.

About Jen G

After living in NYC my entire life, I found the strongest sense of community in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Running this blog is truly an honor and the best part is meeting its readers in real life. Everyday I am energized by smiles and inspiring conversations with fellow Greenpointers who tirelessly do and create incredible things that are good for our community and share the same love I have for life here. If you see me walking with my little dog "D" - please say hi!